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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
Furthermore, in the same manner that jazz musicians play with and against form to achieve a personal voice within and against a past tradition, Charles Black, a product of the white South, created a personal voice and moral integrity that was within and against his upbringing. This pattern is also found in literature, according to Ellison: ..."literature teaches us than mankind has always defined itself against the negatives thrown it by both society and the universe. It is human will, human hope, and human effort which make the difference. Let's not forget that the great tragedies not only treat of negative matters, of violence, brutalities, defeats, but they treat them within a context of man's will to act, to challenge reality and to snatch triumph from the teeth of destruction."

Perhaps Charles L. Black Jr. intuitively felt all of this through the profound human artistry of Louis Armstrong.

"There have been many—well, a good many—great artists in my time," wrote Black. "But it happened that the one who said the most to me—the most of gaiety, the most of sadness, the most of nervous excitement, the most of religion-in-art, the most of home, the most of that strange square-root-of-minus-one world of emotions without name—was and is Louis. The artist who has played this part in my life was black."

His reflections continue, encompassing the people from which Armstrong sprang and the culture he and they shared: "In 1957, in the early days after the Brown case, when the South was still resisting, I wrote out and published my deepest thought on the nature of the agony as it presented itself:

I'm going to close by telling of a dream that has formed itself through the years as I, a Southern white by birth and training, have pondered my relations with the many Negroes of Southern origin that I have known, both in the North and at home.

I have noted again and again how often we laugh at the same things, how often we pronounce the same words the same way to the amusement of our hearers, judge character in the same frame of reference, mist up at the same kinds of music. I have exchanged 'good evening' with a Negro stranger on a New Haven street, and then realized (from the way he said the words) that he and I derived this universal small-town custom from the same culture...

These and thousands of other such things have brought me to see the whole caste system of the South, the whole complex net of its senseless cruelties and cripplings, as no mere accidental grotesquerie of history, but rather as that most hideous of errors, that prima materia of tragedy, the failure to recognize kinship...My dream is simply that sight will one day clear and that each of the participants will recognize each other.


The question to you, dear reader, is whether or not you will recognize your own culture—a real category of human reality rather than the social construction of race—and then articulate—freely—your own conscious culture, based on human commonality, and in celebration of human variety and difference? If so, then we can shake hands with Ellison's nameless character at the end of Invisible Man, when he says: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Part 3: Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers

Photo Credit
Page 7: T. Charles Erickson


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