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Jazz vs Racism

Jazz vs Racism
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Jazz saved me from becoming a racist.

Back in the early to mid-1980s, while attending Hamilton College in central New York, I learned details about the transatlantic slave trade that sickened and angered me. I read about the history of the abolitionist movement in the 1800s, and the civil rights movements of last century, as well as the apartheid-like Jim Crow system that arose in between those movements. "Jim Crow," particularly in the U.S. South, maintained the economic, social and institutional power of whites over blacks and others with darker pigmentation, based on the legal doctrine "separate but equal" and a damnable myth: white supremacy.

As leader of the Academic Chamber of the Student Assembly at Hamilton, I even came across documents by the Curriculum Committee that explained away the lack of an African Studies concentration—mind you, they had Asian, Latin American and Middle East Studies at the time—by writing that Africans were not heir to the "great traditions."

Yet it was the great tradition of jazz that rendered me immune to leaping from anger to hatred of white people. My upbringing as a Christian also gave me a moral grounding, but it was my adoration, as a teen in Staten Island, NY, of the jazz styling of so-called "white" saxophonists such as Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
1924 - 1977
sax, alto
, Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
1925 - 1985
sax, tenor
, Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
b.1931
sax, alto
, and my private sax teacher Caesar DiMauro, that really did the trick. Among other things, moral precepts and a belief system are guides for behavior and one's conscience; the music, rather, gets into your body, stirs your emotions and resonates with your memory.

I didn't segregate who I listened to based on race, so as a 15-year old beginner alto saxophonist I enjoyed a plethora of alto saxophonists across time, from Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
and Benny Carter
Benny Carter
Benny Carter
1907 - 2003
sax, alto
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and James Moody
James Moody
James Moody
1925 - 2010
reeds
, Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
b.1927
sax, alto
and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
Eddie
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
1917 - 1988
sax, alto
, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
saxophone
and Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan
1908 - 1975
sax, alto
, Frank Strozier
Frank Strozier
b.1937
sax, alto
and Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
1924 - 1982
saxophone
to Hank Crawford
Hank Crawford
Hank Crawford
1934 - 2009
sax, alto
, Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe
b.1933
sax, alto
, David Sanborn
David Sanborn
David Sanborn
b.1945
saxophone
and Grover Washington, Jr.
Grover Washington, Jr.
Grover Washington, Jr.
1943 - 1999
saxophone


And while attending Tottenville High School, where I played in the concert, symphonic, and stage bands, I also took sax lessons with a local legend, Caesar DiMauro. He performed European classical music on oboe and alto sax, and played jazz saxophone (alto and tenor) too. DiMauro was a gentle soul who loved to make and drink wine. He'd play with other local legends such as guitarist Chuck Wayne
Chuck Wayne
Chuck Wayne
b.1923
guitar, electric
and trumpeters Don Joseph and Mike Morreale, who taught me at Tottenville. (In fact, DiMauro played on Wayne's 1957 album String Fever (Euphoria), and they both were featured on Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
b.1926
vocalist
's rare recording, Cloud 7 (Columbia) in 1955. Check out this You Tube clip of Caesar and Wayne performing "Stella By Starlight," from a documentary I produced and directed after Caesar died, called Memories of Caesar.) He loved Zoot Sims' playing, and his friends loved to tell the tale of the time DiMauro headed to hear Sims at the Blue Note and sat in. That night, reportedly, Sims liked DiMauro's riff-style too, and shouted, "Go, Caesar, go!" DiMauro's expressive approach on tenor was derived from Prez, Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
, but toward the end of his life his muscularity reminded me of Hawk, Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
.

I'd meet him at his woodshed way on the South Shore of Staten Island, off Arthur Kill Road, and he'd take me through the fundamentals. He even taught me the art of trimming off tiny amounts of excess wood from the edges of Rico or Vandoren saxophone reeds until you could see a smooth bell curve shape when you held the reed up to the light. We'd later meet at the Jewish Community Center on Victory Boulevard and Bay Street to play etudes from jazz duet collections and passages from the Universal Method for Saxophone (Carl Fischer, 1908), by Paul DeVille.

I'll never forget the time he told me that: "Greg, you learn all of the scales, chords, arpeggios, and patterns, but after you have them down, and you begin to improvise, let that stuff go and just play."

One of his band buddies was black American bassist Morris Edwards, a very proud "race man," born in 1925, who had played with Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
1928 - 2006
trumpet
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
1922 - 2004
sax, tenor
as well as Prez and Hawk. Sometimes Edwards would get his head right and start speaking about black folks and the injustice we endured. If DiMauro had drunk a few, he'd say: "Aww, Morris, don't get started with that black shit again!" All the cats would laugh, and they'd resume drinking, signifyin,' selling wolf tickets, or swingin' on the bandstand like it wasn't no thang.

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