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Race and Jazz

BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!

By Published: February 6, 2012

John Gennari Interview: Part 2

Let's pick up the conversation with John Gennari and see how cultural politics manifested in earlier periods of the jazz discourse.

All About Jazz: We left off our conversation in the 1950s, which, in the United States, was a period driven by Jim Crow. There's a group of critics, mainly white American critics publishing in the jazz journals of the time, championing a music founded and innovated by black Americans. How does that play into the development of jazz criticism? In the 1930s, for instance, John Hammond's criticism, combined with his PR efforts and political activism vis-à-vis a Popular Front sensibility, was an early example. Riff on how jazz complicates the thrust toward canonization you mentioned in a previous Race and Jazz column.

John Gennari: Here's a way to frame this efficiently. With a couple of exceptions, almost all of the important white jazz critics are either liberal or left-liberal or radical. Starting with Hammond, who's famously a man of the left in the 1930s and 1940s down to Nat Hentoff in the '50s, a very important figure not just in jazz criticism but in the Civil Rights movement and his support for not only the integrationist movement, but someone who knew Malcolm X from his Boston days and lent him support and intellectual credibility. There are exceptions, however.

One of the most important critics of the 1930s, early 1940s, is an interesting guy named Ralph de Toledano, who becomes a quite important postwar archconservative. He was a colleague and supporter of Whitaker Chambers and a sympathetic biographer of Richard Nixon. He died just a few years back at a very advanced age. In his last years, he was writing in online publications from a self-consciously reactionary point of view. Back before all of this, he was part of a cabal of Columbia University jazz aficionados in the 1930s, which included Ralph Gleason, who went the other way politically. When Gleason settled in San Francisco, he was sort of the West Coast Nat Hentoff, if you will.

Martin Williams, later in his life, was a political and cultural conservative but he never completely lost his 1950s-style racial liberalism. There's been so much (probably too much) attention paid to the so-called "New York Intellectuals" who in the 1950s and 1960s renounced their earlier radicalism or liberalism. Most of those narratives are about Communism and anti-Communism, but some (probably most famously Norman Podhoretz's) are also about a fear—literally—of black people, not to mention a willful ignorance of black culture. I find Martin intriguing in the way his conservatism (traditionalism might be a better term in terms of his cultural leanings) not only was not tied to anti-black racial politics, but in a certain way was intrinsic to his commitment to the black freedom struggle. (In this respect, incidentally, he was a very important influence on Stanley Crouch.)

One of the things I try to do in this book is to suggest that the jazz world—I'm speaking now to historians, the people who are interested in trying to tell the story of 20th century American liberalism—continues to be an understudied space for the development of racial liberalism. Someone like Hammond is incredibly important, not just in the jazz world, but in how he tried to combat Jim Crow in the military during World War II, his work in the NAACP, etc. There's this long tradition of these jazz critics, white, middle-class, many of them Jewish, but some like Hammond, from the waspiest WASP family in New York; his mother was a Vanderbilt. Martin Williams, who comes from a Richmond, Virginia, [had a] Southern gentry family on his mother's side.

Hammond was putting his politics up front all the time, Williams was not. With Williams, the mission was to elevate the status of jazz as an art, which for him was part and parcel of the mission to elevate the status of African Americans. It was that kind of liberalism.

Some folks, most notably James Lincoln Collier, in a monograph called The Reception of Jazz in America: A New View (Institute for Studies in American Music, 1988), make the argument that the whole history of jazz criticism has been tainted by its left-leaning ideology, and that we have to understand someone like Hammond as someone who was operating out of this ideology and hence brought a heavy- handed agenda to his jazz work. I think that there are a lot of problems with that analysis. But this raises the question of the extent to which the jazz critical tradition ends up actually being a kind of liberal, affirmative action agenda to elevate black musicians over white musicians. There's no question that liberalism is part of the story, but even a conservative like Martin Williams recognized that the agenda involved in venerating black musicians was not to per se push an anti-white ideology but to tell the anti-racist truth.

One of the things I do in the book is look at what's going on at Metronome and DownBeat magazines in the late '30s and early '40s in the Reader's Polls. Everyone knows that Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
and Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw
1910 - 2004
clarinet
and Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
1904 - 1944
trombone
were more popular than black musicians. But it simply astonished me, looking at those Reader's Polls, just how much more popular they were than Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
and Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
and Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
1902 - 1947
composer/conductor
and Chick Webb
Chick Webb
Chick Webb
1905 - 1939
drums
. This is what the critics were responding to.

A guy like Marshall Stearns, writing for DownBeat magazine in the late '30s, sees that there's something wrong with a jazz picture in which most black musicians are practically marginal, shadowy figures, and even the most venerated black musicians like Ellington and Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
don't get as much mass adulation as the best white musicians.

He'll give his due to the great white musicians, and he knows that interracial contact and energy is central to the music and its culture, but he senses that the fan magazine popularity contests are obscuring some deep historical patterns. So he serializes in DownBeat a history of jazz that in effect becomes the template for the book he publishes in the early '50s called The Story of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1956).

The point is the argument had to be made that African Americans are the progenitors of this music. Not that there haven't been important and superb white musicians, but that we need to locate the center of the culture of jazz in the African- American community and in that community's experience of negotiating its relationship with the dominant white culture. That was a debatable proposition at that time. And so anyone calling him/herself a jazz critic then would have to position oneself in relation to that issue.

The critics that I think emerged as the most important ones are the ones who come down on the side of this being an American music, multiracial or interracial, but that it's really centered first and foremost in the black experience of the American racial order.

AAJ: When you say "black experience," you mean the black American experience primarily?

JG: Yes. Most of these critics didn't know too much about any other black experience. And they didn't necessarily know too much about the black American experience. What they knew about was their own liberal impulse around the question of dismantling Jim Crow. They may or may not have had close personal relationships with black musicians or black people generally. But hardly any of them knew anything about the Caribbean or Africa. One who did, eventually, was Marshall Stearns. When he takes a first crack at a history of jazz, he gets really interested in Caribbean music. He later becomes very interested in Africa.

Before he dies in the mid-1960s, he's actually going to Africa and developing what we today would call a Transatlantic, African diasporic view of the history of jazz. But he was an outlier. There's still a lot to reckon with that direction he was taking. And the person to talk to about that would be Robert Farris Thompson, the art and music historian at Yale. He's someone who thinks of Stearns as his mentor. He worked for Stearns at the original Institute of Jazz Studies which was actually in Stearns' apartment in Greenwich Village in the early '50s, before it relocated to Rutgers-Newark.

So, where does the black critic fit into this is one of the next questions.

AAJ: That's my next question, but I wanted to mention that point about what "black" experience you were referring to, for clarification's sake.

JG: There's still a lot to be written. Let's take, for example, New Orleans in the early 20th century. We continue to tell the story of jazz as the "New Orleans up the river to Chicago" narrative, but just in the past few years there's been scholarship on the complexity of New Orleans when it comes to racial identity. And there's much more to be written.

AAJ: I've been persuaded by the work of Ned Sublette, who in his 2010 essay "The Latin and the Jazz," and other works such as Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press, 2007), has shown the powerful influence of Latin American music, especially of the Cuban cultural and musical influence, on early jazz. And it's not often mentioned that James Reese Europe traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico to get well-schooled musicians join his orchestra in 1917 when he worked with the 369th regiment, the Harlem Hell Fighters. Going beyond the founding of jazz, however, when we look at the trajectory of the development of the music, and the identity of the main innovators, we can point to black Americans predominately. And speaking of black Americans, how do black critics play into this process?

JG: For the period of the early '30s and early '40s, the only person I deal with in my book at any length is Frank Marshall Davis. He was a poet and newspaper man for a time at the Chicago Defender, and something called the Associated Negro Press. He had at least one piece in DownBeat in the late '30s. I focus on him partly because I could find some information about him. A memoir of his was published around the time I was starting this work. I was able to track down some of those pieces from the black press and DownBeat. When he writes a piece for DownBeat, the magazine itself calls attention to the fact that the piece has been written by a black man— that's how singular and unusual an event it is.

What I remember about the piece is that it marks itself as an effort to offer a different perspective than the one that dominates not just DownBeat but the whole discourse. So there's Davis, and the question of how jazz is being written about, if at all, in the black press during this period. I take a close look at some of the publications, and more or less confirm what had been said by people like John Hammond and Leonard Feather at the time, which was that there was not as much coverage of jazz [in the black press] as there should have been. Feather himself, before he left England, was the London correspondent for the Amsterdam News in New York. He was, interestingly enough, reporting on the West Indian scene in London.

If you look at the Amsterdam News in the late 1930s and early 1940s, you see advertisements for jazz events, you see articles that are clearly press releases that are adopted by the paper. What you don't see is a jazz critic. Someone like Davis talks about the difficulty of pushing for such a role in that period in this way: that the paper is trying to sell ads, and you want to spotlight jazz as a part of the commerce of the city, but because that commerce is so important to the economic wherewithal of the black community, there's no editorial encouragement to criticize the music. There was little incentive to write anything that would get the club owners or the musicians upset, out of a sense of the frailty of the economy. Let's not forget that we're talking about the Depression and the early war years.

I'm not totally convinced that's the only reason you're not getting a jazz critic's column in the black press in this period. I think it also has to do with how this whole concept of criticism that we talked about in our last conversation: criticism as a form of literature, etc. There's very little of that anywhere. There was very little of that, even in DownBeat and Metronome.

AAJ: The first place I met you was the Jazz Study Group at Columbia University in the mid- to late-1990s. One of the things that I remember most distinctly from the readings was this notion of moving away from a fan-perspective to one that is somewhat more detached, and therefore a more scholarly point of view. Would it be fair to say that much of the criticism of the time was an extension of the fan perspective?

JG: Absolutely. That's what DownBeat was all about: it was a kind of fanzine. And Metronome, which had been a Neo-Victorian, concert-world music publication up until the late 1930s, when it makes the move to featuring jazz, becomes the same kind of publication. You'd have somebody writing a review, say, of Goodman or Basie, and these vitriolic letters would come in from fans, and a lot of space given over to them. In the next issue the author responds to it.

I'm not aware that there was anything like that in the black community: a published fan- centered musical discourse. There were short-lived efforts, very important historically, to establish journals that were by and for black musicians themselves. For instance, The Music Dial, where the pianist Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
1919 - 1963
piano
wrote one of the very first pieces about Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
. It's in Robin Kelley's book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), and Eric Porter also writes about this in his excellent book, What Is This Thing Called Jazz: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (University of California Press, 2002). And Ellington starts getting a byline, at a certain point, in DownBeat, and criticizes people like John Hammond.

AAJ: A prelude, or harbinger, to the role that Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
would later play in terms of responding to critics.

JG: That's a good way to put a historical frame on it. What's interesting is when you start looking at Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray in Trading Twelves (Vintage, 2001), what you're getting there is a contemporaneous commentary about their lives in the '50s. And, to move the story of jazz criticism ahead a little bit, it was always striking to me that even though Ellison, by the late '50s, is publishing the pieces in Saturday Review that became part of Shadow and Act (Vintage, 1995), and the collection that Robert G. O'Meally put together, Living With the Music (Modern Library, 2001), which was Ralph Ellison's jazz writing, as well as in informal conversations with Murray during that period, they don't call themselves jazz critics.

For them, the term critic seemed to go along with the signifier "white" jazz critic. It seems to me that they saw the field of jazz criticism as one in which white commentators (a few of which they admired, especially Martin Williams) were gazing on the music from across the race line. They were going to write about the music too, but from their perspective on the other side of that line. There's no reason why such an approach shouldn't also be considered valuable criticism, as it is now. But at that time I think that term—jazz criticism— carried for them the connotation that the writer was positioning himself above the music and the musicians. And they wanted to tell the story of how deeply their own personal experience was enmeshed with the music and the musicians. In those Ellison pieces, on Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
1903 - 1972
vocalist
for instance, he's telling you something about his own experience growing up in Oklahoma City.

AAJ: The same with his essay on Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
.

JG: Yes. That's, generically, almost a different kind of jazz literature than what Martin Williams is doing during that period.

AAJ: Let stop here, and next time go right into the tumultuous 1960s and deal with Baraka, and the variety of activities going on at the time in jazz criticism.

And for this next discussion, let's bring another voice into our conversation: Columbia University scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin. The three of us should speak about the current #BAM issue too.

JG: There you go.


Photo Credit
Page 1: "Out Chorus," (1979-80, etching, aquatint and serigraph) painting by Romare Bearden © Romare Bearden Foundation/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Page 2: Courtesy of John Gennari


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