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Race and Jazz

Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers

By Published: July 11, 2011
AAJ: Look at Ellison and Murray in Trading Twelves (Modern Library, 2000), their letter correspondence in the 1950s; that's a real revelation of what they thought of bebop back then. But by the 1970s Murray, in Stomping the Blues, had placed Bird and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
firmly within the whole context of his aesthetic.

GG: Right. I used to argue about Bird with Stanley Dance. He was sort of Ellington's Boswell, and he was notoriously anti-bop. I said to him, "Man, your wife just wrote this great book on T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
1910 - 1975
guitar, electric
, you love the blues, as few white writers do. How can you not concede that Charlie Parker is one of the greatest blues players that ever lived?" And he'd just nod his head, and shake it off. He'd come up with some reason, like "I don't like his intonation." But we're getting too far afield.

People talk about it being a virtue to be color-blind. I don't know if, in this world, that's as great a virtue as being conscious of inequities that arise when you're only thinking in terms of the people you know, who are your friends.

The reason why the Woody Herman
Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band stayed mostly white and the Basie band stayed mostly black is because every time someone leaves the band, it's his job to find a replacement. They almost always recommend someone they've roomed with, went to school with. So if it's a white guy, it's a white guy, it's a white friend. If it's a black guy, it's a black friend. It's not a racial thing per se, it's just who you know. And that, I think, is what animates a lot of what goes on in this category.

And, you know, Stanley Crouch is controversial. So what?

AAJ: Baraka is controversial, but so what? I have serious differences with Baraka, some of which I detailed in a 2002 feature story at Salon on the 50th anniversary of Ellison's Invisible Man (Random House, 1952), but I do understand his significance, especially in the 1960s. Some of my friends in the academy, who still use Blues People in their curricula, might disagree with me on this, but I wouldn't argue for him as strongly as I would for Stanley getting the Lifetime Achievement Award. Baraka has been involved with the music since the '60s, peripherally, it seems to me, but his jazz-related productivity over the last 40 years pales in comparison to Stanley's.

I happen to know Stanley Crouch personally, but I'm trying to be objective. He and I have a good rapport, we've had substantive disagreements as well. My review of his book of jazz essays, Considering Genius (Basic Civitas, 2007), published right here at All About Jazz, was laudatory yet critical.

Albert Murray was a deep influence on Crouch's conversion to an aesthetic construct that became the basis for Jazz at Lincoln Center. I think that the depth of Murray's influence and importance to the era supersede both Crouch's and Baraka's. He's not nearly as well known as Ellison, Baraka or Crouch, but I think my judgment will be validated in the long-run. But I most certainly recognize the importance of Stanley Crouch's body of writings about jazz over the past generation, and I don't deny that he influenced me quite a bit earlier in my career. His work was an intellectual space shuttle through which I traveled to get to Murray's cosmos.

GG: People forget that this guy came out of California, arrives in New York in the '70s, and within a very brief time, is booking The Tin Palace, and writing about people that those of us who came from New York never heard of. Stanley and I used to talk every day on the phone; he'd say "Oh, there's this band you've gotta hear from Chicago called Air. Same with David Murray
David Murray
David Murray
sax, tenor
. Stanley was like Kit Carson, he was like the scout who knew everybody coming to town before anybody else did. And he wrote about it beautifully, but then he turned against a lot of that music and people held it against him, both that and the fact that he loves playing the gadfly, and is very good at it. But, by god, his contribution is immense.

AAJ: Turning against the music he liked earlier may have been, in part, an ideological move. But let's get back to what Crouch, in The All-American Skin Game (Pantheon Books, 1995) aptly calls "the decoy of race."

GG: Racial sensitivity is not going to go away in our lifetimes. It's just there—it's part of America. As I said before, I'm not sure if the idea of color-blindness is the best virtue when we know there is an inequity in how people get hired. The inequity has to do with racism. But I don't think that the JJA guys are racist. I don't believe that. I believe they vote for people they know, and they vote for people they agree with.

But my point is: we need to honor Stanley, period. And it's outrageous not to acknowledge Baraka. I mean there's a major American writer who's devoted a good part of his life to jazz. And we should be very proud of that. [end of interview]

Points well taken, Mr. Giddins. Yet one possible irony is that Stanley Crouch, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship winner and a recent inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, likely could care less about recognition from the JJA. And considering his rhetorical battles with Baraka over the years, Crouch probably doesn't want to be mentioned in the same sentence with the former Leroi Jones. But it'll be quite interesting to see how long it takes the members of Jazz Journalists Association to do the right thing and duly recognize the path-breaking contributions of black jazz writers and critics, whether Baraka, Crouch, Murray, Willard Jenkins, or others, in an art form founded and innovated by black Americans, from within the bosom of black American culture.

I shouldn't have to say that many others (i.e., women, whites, Latinos) already have and still do contribute to the legacy of jazz past and present, because anyone with a 101 level of knowledge of jazz history knows that. But I will say it for those who are overly sensitive to the specter of double standards in racial discourse. What turned out to be a defense and recognition of the worth and value of black American male writers across a few generations as you've read above shouldn't be a problem, especially when viewed by criteria literary and compositional, when seen within the crosshairs of cultural politics, and when grasped in terms of social and historical influence. And since those are the criterion in which I actually do view this subject, and certainly not solely in terms of race, we'll take the liberty of leaving the discourse right here, for now.

Up Next: Race and Jazz Criticism: A Conversation with John Gennari

Photo Credits
Page 1, Gary Giddins: Courtesy of Gary Giddins

Page 2: Courtesy of JMU Media Services
Page 3, Stanley Crouch: Courtesy of Stanley Crouch

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