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Race and Jazz

Jazz vs Racism

By Published: March 22, 2011
By the way, I don't buy the political argument that black folks can't be racists because we don't have the power to oppress others. Racism, in basic terms, is an attitude toward others based on an extremely biased and bigoted view of what's perceived as their "race." If you feel and believe that individuals or groups of people are inferior or less than human because of race or skin color, then I contend that you are indeed a racist, in outlook. The practice of racism as a behavior by individuals is situational, to be sure, but an overall attitude and outlook grounds personal practice. Institutional racism is a systemic and structural matter, and displays how destructive an idea such as race can be when it habituates within the social and legal institutions of the society. Whether personal or institutional, racism relies on the deeply flawed concept of race.

Zoot Sims

I share the above as a personal prelude to a monthly essay column at All About Jazz on Race and Jazz. In our journey together, we'll see how race informs the jazz discourse historically and at present, and how jazz shines a bright light on ways to move beyond the fallacy of the race meme. I truly believe that jazz holds a key to surmount what one noted jazz critic called "the decoy of race." You've read above how, in my personal experience, the music saved me from becoming a racist. We'll pursue, over the course of the Race and Jazz series, why and how jazz has and can continue to serve a similar social and cultural function. We'll investigate cultural dynamics as opposed to the social construction of race, give examples of intercultural fraternity and conflict in jazz, and analyze how the race discourse has moved beyond "white vs. black" (which the late historian John Hope Franklin called "the two worlds of race") in the post-civil rights era, and especially in the Age of Obama.

I think it's crucial that we also peer into the views of other jazz journalists and musicians on our Race and Jazz theme, and even look at thorny questions involving white privilege and cultural theft, black nationalism, and why there are so few black people in jazz audiences today, as well as why the bylines of so few black American writers are featured in major jazz magazines. We'll also confront whether or not artists who consider themselves jazz musicians, yet play and compose improvisational music with little or no blues content or rhythmic swing, are avoiding or rejecting the black American roots of the music.

Race may be as much or more a third rail of discourse in American life than politics, religion, gender, class or sexual orientation. So addressing race at all, whether in relation to jazz or any other context, is, to say the least, fraught with peril. A combination of political correctness, finger-pointing and the blame game, fear or exhaustion about race, psychological shadows, and a malaise of discomfort around the issue has caused many of us to sweep race under the rug and just avoid the topic all together. Race is often tantamount to an invisible elephant in the room.

So I endeavor to make the invisible visible through representative anecdotes, map out challenges and envision resolutions, with the ultimate intent of transcending the many ill-effects of race-based thinking and seeing, to swing our collective journey into a more perfect union of lovers of jazz, and citizens of the USA and the world. How can we move beyond race, and live the better angels of our American nature, if we're not willing to confront and even admit the lessons we should learn from it? I believe that if approached carefully yet courageously, jazz can serve as a resource to contend with the complexities of race without getting caught in a briar patch of no return.

As for my alma mater, Hamilton College, it now has an Africana Studies department, and an admirable history regarding jazz as well. I majored in Public Policy and minored in Music there; the latter greatly enriched my understanding of European Classical music and American Jazz. I also played alto sax in small ensembles and the college's jazz big band.

Decades before my matriculation in 1981, there had been student and alumni jazz groups on campus, and professional jazz groups were—and often still are—hired to perform in the Hamilton College Chapel and other campus venues. Ten years after I graduated in 1985, tenor saxophonist Monk Rowe founded the Hamilton College Jazz Archives, which now contains interviews with 300+ jazz artists. And, in the summer of 2010, I attended my 25th class reunion and made a presentation, featuring clips from Jazz it Up!, an online jazz news and entertainment video program that I formerly hosted. My '85 classmate and friend Carol Bash, a documentarian, also presented a trailer of her work-in-progress film on jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
1910 - 1981

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