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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
The late anthropologist Clifford Geertz once defined culture as "an ensemble of stories we tell about ourselves." The economy of that definition is elegant; relating a fundamental human practice such as story-telling with "ensemble," a word wonderfully allusive to music, appeals to an aesthetic sensibility. Yet let's continue with other definitions so our description of culture can become thick and textured.

American philosopher Ken Wilber places culture in the Lower Left of his Integral four-quadrant map of human reality. (Click image on the right to enlarge.) In his work A Brief History of Everything, Wilber writes that cultural "refers to all of the interior meanings and values and identities that we share with those of similar communities, whether it is a tribal community or a national community or a world community. And 'social' [Lower Right quadrant] refers to all of the exterior, material, institutional forms of the community, from its techno-economic base to its architectural styles to its written codes to its population size, to name a few."

The insights of post-modernism fit neatly within the cultural quadrant also, according to Wilber. In Appendix I of Integral Spirituality (p. 224) he says that "Postmodernism...is known for focusing on those interior or cultural aspects of an individual's being-in-the-world, where it emphasizes that much of what any society takes to be 'given,' 'true,' and 'absolute' is in fact culturally molded, conditioned, and often relative."

Albert Murray, author of Stomping the Blues, The Hero and the Blues, South to a Very Old Place, among other works, is one of the most significant writers on blues and jazz of the late-20th century. In his first book, The Omni-Americans (1970), Albert Murray asserts: "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants do in fact dominate the power mechanisms of the United States. Nevertheless, no American whose involvement with the question of identity goes beyond the sterile category of race can afford to overlook another fact that is no less essential to his fundamental sense of nationality no matter how much white folklore is concocted to obscure it: Identity is best defined in terms of culture ...American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other. And what is more, even their most extreme and violent polarities represent nothing so much as the natural history of pluralism in an open society."

In 1994, novelist Louis Edwards interviewed Murray in his Harlem apartment, where he lived with his wife Mozelle and daughter Michelle. Murray clarified both the term Omni-American and the race vs. culture debate in this exchange:

Albert Murray: 'Omni-Americans' means 'all-Americans.' America is interwoven with all these different strains. The subtitle of that section of the book is 'E Pluribus Unum'—one out of many...It just means that people...represent what Constance Rourke calls a composite. Then you can start defining individuals in their variations, but they're in that context and they can only define themselves in that context. They're in a position where they're the heirs of all the culture of all the ages. Because of innovations in communications and transportation, the ideas of people all over the world and people of different epochs impinge upon us, on part of our consciousness.

Louis Edwards: Then the term 'omni-Americans' applies not just to African-Americans, but to all Americans, and to—well, maybe not to all people, but perhaps we're discussing 'omni-humanity.'


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