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Race and Jazz

Jazz vs Racism

By Published: March 22, 2011
In college, however, my own understanding of race relations and the history of my ethnic and cultural kinfolk—black Americans—heightened and deepened beyond the grainy black and white footage of Bull Connor ordering fire hoses to be used on Negroes in Selma, Alabama, beyond Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," beyond the annual remembrances of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth during Black History Month in February, and even beyond Alex Haley's mini-series Roots (1977), which I watched with anger and incredulity as an adolescent while going to junior high.

Phil Woods

If the devil is in the details, my increasing awareness of the extent of the treachery, cruelty and greed of those who perpetuated human enslavement and social repression tempted me to accept the Nation of Islam's assertion that white people were really devils! Plus, while attending Columbia University for the first semester of my senior year as an undergraduate, I saw the movement to force corporations to divest from investing in apartheid South Africa. The injustice of a white minority dominating and oppressing the black majority there incensed me also, and I became more politicized.

But, lo and behold, Caesar DiMauro (Italian-American), Zoot Sims (Midwestern and southern roots), Paul Desmond (German and Irish), and Phil Woods (Irish and French ancestry) had too strong a hold on my ears and feelings for me to accept such a racist claim as white folks, as a group of people, being devils. (Their sort of mixed lineage and heritage is what I'd later discover writer Albert Murray meant by his phrase, "Omni-American." Wouldn't you agree that the word "white" in fact "whites out" their cultural and ethnic background?)

Listening to Sims and Desmond led me back to Prez too—though Sims had some Hawk and Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
in his swagger—but I liked them for their own individual qualities. Sims' plangent passion and poised yet explosive swing on If I'm Lucky: Zoot Sims Meets Jimmy Rowles
Jimmy Rowles
Jimmy Rowles
1918 - 1996
piano
(Pablo, 1977) is one of the recordings that deepened my sonic romance, and the wry dry martini quality of Desmond's gentle tone on his dates with Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
and Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
seeped into my young foolish heart.

Yet, at 17, it was Phil Woods' combination of technical mastery in service of emotional expression that totally blew me away. He joined a pantheon of artists—Bird, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Cannonball, Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
and Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
—in which I immersed myself, each of whom baptized me in the improvisational fires of musical greatness. Even more than his sideman work with Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, Clark Terry
Clark Terry
Clark Terry
b.1920
trumpet
, Billy Joel, and Steely Dan
Steely Dan
Steely Dan
b.1972
band/orchestra
, I remember Woods' early records that I would borrow, over and over, from the New York Public Library—Altology (Prestige, 1957), Sugan (Prestige, 1957) Phil & Quill With Prestige (RCA, 1957)—as well as his transcendent performance of the title track to Quincy Jones' The Quintessence (Impulse!, 1962), and his awe-inspiring sax prowess on Live From the Showboat (RCA, 1976). Like Cannonball, Woods synthesized Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and Bird in his own unique way, creating a sound and style all his own.

In 1979 or 1980, while still in high school, I snuck into a performance Woods gave at a high-class hotel in Manhattan to hear his mastery live and direct. I remember admiring the way he seemed to barely move his fingers over the keys of his glistening Selmer sax while producing such incredible lines, some richly melodic and lyrical, others flaming with the exciting velocity of bebop. I wore out the vinyl LP grooves of I Remember (DCC, 1978), and Woods' original compositions and arrangements in tribute to Cannonball, Desmond, Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
1922 - 1960
bass
, Oliver Nelson
Oliver Nelson
Oliver Nelson
1932 - 1975
arranger
, Bird, Willie Rodriguez, Willie Dennis
Willie Dennis
b.1926
and Gary McFarland
Gary McFarland
Gary McFarland
1933 - 1971
vibraphone
became part of my high school soundtrack. His tribute to Desmond, "Paul," cast such a spell that I bought the sheet music of Woods' improvisation—to try to learn to play it, yes; but more so to read the music along with the record, as my mouth lay agape in astonishment.

My teacher DiMauro, Sims, Desmond and Woods all became a part of my soul, so my love of them transferred to my moral center and conscience, which ultimately made me recoil from the temptation of racism during college. The beauty of their jazz performances and the wisdom of DiMauro's instruction, in an art form created and innovated by my cultural ancestors, made them, for me, aesthetic heroes whose "race," in relation to appreciating the music, was an insignificant consideration.


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