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  • Darryl Cox wrote on March 22, 2011 report

    I read your piece, Greg, and I liked it. I think you did an excellent job explaining how you balanced and assimilated the historical information you were learning about the Atlantic slave trade and America's racial history with your love of jazz and the non-black musicians who encouraged and influenced your development as a player and fan of the music. Handling this sort of tension and working through its various permutations and appearances requires a lot of vision, determination, talent and awareness of self.

    I was left wondering, however, why you didn't choose to use the exchange between your music teacher and his black friend and fellow musician as a jumping off point for exploring how whites and blacks, even white and black musicians, might view and reckon with all of this shared history. When your music teacher playfully expresses to his friend his hope that he, the friend, is not going to go off on all that black stuff again your teacher manages to reveal the yawning gap between how whites and blacks view this history. And, especially, how it has played out in the world of jazz.

    For many African Americans these anecdotes and reports about past injustices etc. invoke an atmosphere in which the past, to borrow an old Southern saying popularized by William Faulkner, isn't dead, it isn't even past. Life, as someone once observed, is bounded by pain and sorrow. It is also enclosed, to a degree, by our own personal memories of travail and grief and the stories, yarns, fables and myths handed down to us of the hardships and sufferings endured by family members, friends, acquaintances and even historical figures. These narratives play a defining role in shaping our perceptions and expectations about who we are, what we may become and the world we inhabit. African Americans live, perhaps more so than any other racial or ethnic group in this country save Native Americans, in a present that is indelibly tinted and molded by the union of personal and group history. The history of jazz, as you well know, is indelibly linked and shaped by this history, too.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 22, 2011 report

    Darryl, thanks for your comments. Since this is a monthly column, fortunately I'll have the space and time to discuss the shared history as well as the "yawning gap" in the perspectives of so-called whites and blacks about that history.

    I say "so-called" because I'd like to lessen the usage of the very terms that reinforce race. That's why in the piece I parenthetically write that using the term "white" in reference to my teacher, Paul Desmond, Zoot Sims and Phil Woods says nothing about their ethnic and cultural heritage.

    When I say "black American," I use it as a signifier of a cultural and ethnic heritage, not as a racial term. To me, "culture" is what's crucial, as the space of "we" and "us" that's the basis of that shared history, though the race meme obviously is in the "meaning" part of what we conceive of as culture. But race has been, and still is, so damaging that I'd like us to transcend it, while learning its lessons.

    I'd also say, in response to your third para, that life is certainly bounded by pain and sorrow. Yet, as you well know, it's also bounded by love, ecstasy, joy, small and large victories, and resilience. I acknowledge the injustice and the suffering, yet I believe we also need to balance those realities with narratives that accentuate those positive elements above.

    I intend to provide some of those narratives, coming from a black American viewpoint as well as American and global. That way, we can make sure to keep on swingin'!

  • Darryl Cox wrote on March 22, 2011 report

    Thanks for your response but life is not bounded by "love, ecstasy, joy, small and large victories, and resilience." As much we hope for and attempt to hold onto to these qualities their influence on our lives is much more indeterminate than pain, sorrow, loss and regret. We are born into a world older than us and not of our making and we will inevitably pass out of this world no matter how much we profess our desire and interest in life.

    I don't think it is possible to transcend race. I think it is entirely possible to set it aside and refuse to grant it the status of being the final or overarching standard for judging others and their work and art. Morris Edwards' complaints were not about or directed toward his fellow musicians sitting there with him sipping drinks etc. But to ask or expect him to cast his history and experiences aside seems odd to me. He came to the bandstand or the bar and brought himself.

  • Royal wrote on March 22, 2011 report

    Congratulations, Greg. Great piece! You've touched on a very heavy subject and at the same time marked some of the keystones that helped unlock for you, so to speak, the worlds within. Certainly not allow yourself to be blocked in. That's one of the values of a series like this. You offers insights and invite others to do the same. Gordon Parks comes to mind. "I suffered evils," he said, "but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand." That's it. For him, rescuing his humanity from the ills of racism was through photography, for you it's jazz.

    The way you framed the article though leads me to ask you something that may seem at first ironic. How much jazz do you think there'd be in this world -- without racism? (I'd say "zero.") When you look at it after all the fruit of jazz was watered by racism from its very start wasn't it? Racism is an integral part of its development.

    I'm not at all suggesting this in a limiting or reductionist way. It is however undeniable that "racism" (we may differ on definition) was dominant throughout as jazz came to be. I would argue as a way of tempering creative tension this art form was propelled forward in large measure by it.

    I enjoyed reading this installment and look forward to the next. You're off to a fine series.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 22, 2011 report


    Thanks! Your point about the irony of race/racism contributing to the development of jazz is very well taken. It is certainly ironic in the same way as the fact that black American culture, as a distinct formation, wouldn't have happened with the enslavement of Africans.

    But what it points is human resiliency and creativity of Africans and their descendants in spite of one of the atrocities of modern human history. And it points to the blues, which is full of irony, paradox, and a willful counter-statement of "the blues as such" via the mocking and laughing horns, the virtousic velocity of heroic soloists, the stomping the blues on the dance floor, the ritual manifestations of a cultural complex that views the glass as half full.

    Whether it was via the sacred beliefs and gospel music, or the need to believe in our ultimate freedom, our attitudes, for most of our history as a people, has NOT been downtrodden. Even now, as recent studies show, young black folks in the U.S. are more optimistic than older generations.

    Look at the folk manifestations--Brer Rabbit, for instance, who called the briar patch his home. Most people know that character as Bugs Bunny, and even he maintained the wit, the sly cleverness, and the improvisational verve of the original.

    I'd re-frame your statement saying that "the fruit of jazz was watered by racism" by saying that the challenge of racism was certainly the social, structural and institutional framework in which jazz developed, but would also point to the cultural realm that developed--with its values, practices, technologies, meanings, and artifacts--often in opposition to the social framework. And that at the personal level, those values allowed for the creation of an art form that accentuated personal excellence and finding one's voice, group collaboration in service of swingin', and the desire to connect to an audience of viewers, listeners and dancers.

    The personal excellence and values of jazz musicians and their cultural context are, to me, as important as the social and structural frameworks they find themselves operating within. Feel me, Royal?


    The flavor of some of my statement above was inspired by some of your points in your second comment, so I won't repeat myself.

    But I will say this: the concept of race, in its current conception, has a historical trajectory. It hasn't been around forever. So it's not necessary that it stay around for the remainder of human history. But, riffing on American philosopher Ken Wilber, I'd say that the development of a higher understanding of ourselves as Americans and even as human beings in this time and place, makes it necessary that we move beyond--transcend--the limitations of race, while including the lessons we need to learn from it.

    When we're teens, our understanding is at a certain level. As we get older, our experience and awareness should expand beyond the teen level. You don't become a completely different person, just wiser, one hopes. You move beyond the teen level, but keep the necessary learning from that stage. Transcend and include, in a spiraling, fractal manner of development.

    And perhaps your life isn't bounded by the qualities of love, joy, ecstasy, laughter, resilience, but mine is. Does that mean that I don't have sorrow, pain, agonize over loss and death. Of course not. We are speaking of the HUMAN CONDITION, aren't we?

    But the question becomes, what can we do to live life to the fullest, and swing for as many bars as we've got, even though we know we're fated to die and return to dust? And history shows us that the very best writing and artistic creations stand the test of time, beyond our lifetimes as individuals. That's the long-term value of the literary and aesthetic enterprise--to try, paraphrasing Andre Malraux, to achieve secular immortality.

    As for Morris Edwards, he and I spoke privately many times about our social condition and about injustice. But we also admired the genius of the culture and the persons who best exemplified it on their instruments or their compositional or arranging pen. The point of that anecdote isn't to frame Morris as some victim whose legitimate hurts weren't given a hearing. The fact that he and Caesar were able to laugh about it and remain friends and musical mates speaks loudest for me. There's a time and a place; Caesar didn't want to go there, he wanted to have a good time, not get his buzz killed.

    But who knows: since I was a teen, who kept my mouth shut around elders in order to listen and learn, perhaps I wasn't present on other occasions where he and Caesar did in fact speak about injustice. But I can tell you this for sure: Caesar himself didn't harbor racist sentiments. I'm glad he felt free enough to express himself and not be cowed by what we now call political correctness. And if Morris wanted to press the point, he was man enough to do so. But, in that instance that I witnessed, he didn't.

    They just kept swingin', together, and I respect them for that.

  • Dom Minasi wrote on March 23, 2011 report

    Excellent article Greg. I never experienced racism when playing with black musicians. All that mattered was could you play and hold your own and if there was something I didn't know, they taught me. I have wonderful memories and new memories working with great musicians no matter what their color is.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 23, 2011 report

    Hi Dom,

    Yes: "can you play?" has long been the operative question among jazz musicians. I interviewed Bill Charlap two weeks ago for a NY Daily News feature on his jazz trio. He said he's never encountered racism from black musicians either. That's cool.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • Carol Bash wrote on March 23, 2011 report

    Hi Greg,

    Congratulations! Wonderful article and I can't wait for the next installment. And, of course, thank you for the plug about my upcoming documentary, "Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band." I found your article to be one of your most personal and moving that I have read. And being a part of the "Diaspora," I understand completely your point-of-view on how jazz has saved you from becoming a racist. I hope you will explore that theme more closely in your following articles, not just from your POV but the inverse as well--how has jazz served to bring people from other cultures to an understanding and appreciation of African American culture, which is the originator of this great art form.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 23, 2011 report

    Thanks Carol, my good friend.

    One of my objectives is to look at Race and Jazz from many angles and dimensions, so I'll most certainly have stories of folks outside of African American culture who were not only drawn to it, but also transformed by it--both here in the U.S. and globally.

    Notice that you focus on culture, not race. But there's such a confusion about the distinctions between race and culture, that I think I'll need to cross that bridge of understanding in the next essay or two.

    Can't wait to see the Mary Lou documentary come to completion!

  • Darryl Cox wrote on March 24, 2011 report

    @Greg -

    "There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief." -


  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 24, 2011 report

    @ Darryl -

    “One joy shatters a hundred griefs”

    Chinese proverb

    “The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world's joy.”

    Henry Ward Beecher

    “Illusory joy is often worth more than genuine sorrow.”

    Rene Descarte

    "The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism"

    Ralph Ellison, from "Richard Wright's Blues"

    "Thus, despite the bland assertions of sociologists, 'high visibility' actually rendered one un-visible--whether at high noon in Macy's window or illuminated by flaming torches and flashbulbs while undergoing the ritual sacrifice that was dedicated to the ideal of of white supremacy. After such knowledge, and given the persistence of racial violence and the unavailability of legal protection, I asked myself, what else was there to sustain our will to persevere but laughter? And could it be that there was a subtle triumph hidden in such laughter that I had missed, but one which still was more affirmative than raw anger? A secret, hard-earned wisdom that might, perhaps, offer a more effective strategy through which a floundering Afro-American novelist could convey his vision?"

    Ralph Ellison, from "Introduction to Invisible Man"

    "I started with the primary assumption that men with black skins, having retained their humanity before all of the conscious efforts made to dehumanize them, especially following the Reconstruction, are unquestionably human. Thus they have the obligation of freeing themselves--whoever their allies might be--by depending upon the validity of their own experience for an accurate picture of the reality which they seek to change, and for a gauge of the values they would see manifest. Crucial to this view is the belief that their resistance to provocation, their coolness under pressure, their sense of timing and their tenacious hold on the ideal of their ultimate freedom are indispensable values in the struggle, and are at least as characteristic of American Negroes as the hatred, fear and vindictiveness which [Richard] Wright chose to emphasize."

    Ralph Ellison, from "The World and the Jug"

  • Jessica Roemischer wrote on March 24, 2011 report

    Greg, this article is of real significance for several reasons. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, you show that music exists at a depth more fundamental than division--which is why it is arguably our most potent tool as we endeavor to heal, beyond history, culture, politics, ethnicity. How else will we move into the future?!

    As well, you give a rare perspective--showing how WHITE artists have influenced YOU, an African American man. Many of us white musicians have been pulled closer to African American culture by the great gift of black music, which has healed US. You're sharing the complimentary view as you bring to life the pantheon of musical geniuses, white and black, whom you love. Wonderful job!

  • Anders Chan-Tidemann wrote on March 25, 2011 report

    Hey Greg - it was interesting to read your essay. Just like you were inspired by a lot of white musicians, I, as a youngster in Denmark, was inspired by a lot of black people...the usual suspects, Miles, Coltrane etc. But also by Jaco, Metheny, Scofield, Stan Getz etc. Like I mentioned to you Afro-Americans are kinda considered cultural heroes in Denmark, and the main reason for that is probably jazz even more so than their actual suffering as slaves. I, too, saw Roots when it was first aired...and dug Kunta Kinte, Chicken George and all the rest of them. I think that's where I first learned about Mandingo's. A lot of Africans were/are perpetrators of slavery, it couldn't have existed without partners on the ground. So in the final analysis I believe that Duke's words about music - that there's only 2 kinds, good and bad, also applies to people to some degree. It goes beyond race is what I am saying.

  • Eric Ringwood wrote on March 25, 2011 report

    Greg: This artitcle is beyond brilliant, and should serve as the entrance to any class on jazz or racism. You capture America, jazz, racism, world history and the human experience. Your article is a motif of mentor and mentee, uncle and nephew, and teacher and pupil.

    Racism is an evil condition that can rip our hearts out, asi it almost ripped mine out, bringing me to the edge of hatred and negativity. It can propel black boys and men from around the globe to tumble into a sea of dispair, degradation, and downright personal and professional turbulence. However, men and women like Wes Montgomery, Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Bob James, Ella Fitzgerald, and ordinary men like Mr. DiMauro and Mr. Woods have given me and others great hope and great triumph. This thing called jazz is a spiritual, unifying and redemptive force. It can turn hate into love!

    Jazz by its very nature brings colors, hues and the world together. If we keep listening to it, we will be all right.

    Thanks so much for your spirit and wonderful article.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 25, 2011 report


    There are some typos in my comment to you above. The second sentence of the first para should read: "It is certainly ironic in the same way as the fact that black American culture, as a distinct formation, wouldn't have happened without the enslavement of Africans."

    The first sentence of the second para should read: "But what it points to is the human resiliency and creativity of Africans and their descendants . . ."

    I also have another thought about your riff on irony. You mention the irony of racism being an ironic pre-condition to the actual creation of jazz; I mention the irony of slavery being a (horrific) pre-condition to jazz.

    On further reflection, there's another aspect of irony I'd like to mention. In the essay, its the aesthetic dimension that influences my moral/ethical dimension. Kierkegaard, the European father of existentialism, in Postscript, contends that there are three spheres of human existence closely related to human freedom: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

    Between these spheres are what he called "boundary zones"; between the aesthetic and the ethical lies irony, according to Kierkegaard.

    I find that an intriguing connection worth further pursuit. Knowing you, Royal, you'll dig deep into the depths. I sure plan to. Thanks again.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 25, 2011 report

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for sharing your insights above. I hoped my story would be compelling, in part, because it does turn upside down how we musical influence in jazz is often depicted. Since jazz was created and mostly innovated by black Americans (with tributary influences from Africa, Europe and Cuba) springing from that specific cultural dynamic, the influence usually is "black on white," we might say.

    Considering the history of this country, that's a rare narrative, indeed, though reading Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, among others, shows how deep that trajectory has actually been.

    Yet since culture isn't closed, and rather is an open, expressive medium of exchange, the influences are never one way. By the late '70s, when the music, as Stevie Wonder once wrote, "made me weak, and knocked me off my feet," there were so many people from all over the world making their mark on jazz.

    Since Phil Woods was and is one of the all-time virtuosos of alto saxophone, as a beginner I gravitated to his artistry and was inspired by his prowess. That's just the reality of what happened to me. Frankly, at the time, his "whiteness" per se meant nothing. It was only in college when dealing with some dark nights of the soul, that I reflected on who I was about to put into a racial box of "white people"--to whom I began to feel derision and distrust were warranted--that his racial status became important.

    Another irony, I guess.

    But Jessica, I'm glad you reached out because I so respect the work you do, the "piano duets" with the elderly, with developmentally slow people, and with just regular folks too, where they sit down and improvise with you, tapping into creative depths that heal. Keep on keepin' on: you're doing God's work.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 25, 2011 report

    Hi Anders,

    I agree: it goes way beyond race. You're also right about Africans (specifically rulers) being complicit in the transatlantic slave trade. Back in 1996, the Village Voice published a cover story by me called "The Black Studies War." I spoke to dozens of scholars during the research and interview phase.

    They confirmed, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that African collaboration was the case. As does excellent works of history such as The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (no relation).

    I have one disagreement with your good/bad music analogy via Duke, however. The behavior of people can be bad (and some people may in fact be rotten to the core), but I hold out hope that people can evolve and become better.

    Thanks again for weighing in.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 26, 2011 report

    Eric: I'm moved by your eloquent statement. You get to the very heart of the matter: "This thing called jazz is a spiritual, unifying and redemptive force. It can turn hate into love!"

    Yes, yes, yes! As my dear late friend, Michael James, nephew of Duke Ellington, used to say: "Confirmation, Affirmation!"

    I affirm, confirm, and co-sign your sentiments and vision, Eric. Keep swingin''!

  • Barry Clark wrote on March 31, 2011 report


    Wonderful article. Very few issues will get my hackles up like this one. Change some details in this article, and it almost read like you were writing about me.

    There is just so much I have to say on this issue and none of it would as clearly worded as you put it.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on March 31, 2011 report


    Thanks. How race and jazz intersect is a microcosm of how race functions in the larger culture and society. But the music so clearly points the way to resolutions to the challenge of race, that I'm willing to risk going through Brer Rabbit's briar patch, as think and thorny as it might be, to come out with more clarity, understanding, and healing.

    Notice that above I say "challenge" as opposed to "problem," and "resolutions" rather than "solutions." This is the way I framed it in the essay above also. As I'm sure you know, Barry, in Western music the harmonic resolution is when dissonance becomes consonant.

    Race is a dissonant subject. My intention is to bring some consonance via this column. Perhaps this is a fool's errand, but I'm hoping that the jazz gods will guide this odyssey so we can find our way back home.

  • MICHEL MALKA wrote on March 31, 2011 report

    Hello Greg, my name is Michel born in Morocco in 1943. When I was 15 years i meet Mrs Wilbur de Paris in Casablanca and I fall in love with Dixieland music. I always find to ear this music but it is really difficult. At least I find the San Diego Dixieland festival and go to San Diego. Music was OK, but I was very disillusioned because I cannot see any Black musician and no one in the public. I am Jewish and cannot understand this, do you have an explantion, I am afraid that USA is still racist. Thank you for your answer and excuse my English.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 01, 2011 report

    @ Barry: I meant to write "thick and thorny" in the last line of the first para of my response.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 01, 2011 report

    Dear Michel,

    Racism most certainly still exists in the USA, and elsewhere across the globe. But I'm not sure if racism, per se, had much to do with the lack of black folks in the audience or on stage.

    Dixieland music, a New Orleans-style from early in jazz history, isn't one that many black Americans, whether musicians or listeners, gravitate to very much. Some perceive it as outdated, others may identify the term "dixie" with a period in history associated with the Jim Crow era. Such associations cause some to be repelled from the Dixieland style.

    Some musicians called the early style of jazz from New Orleans "traditional jazz" as opposed to the "modern" style that became known as bebop. Dixieland music migrated to Chicago in the 20s and 30s, and there was a revival in the 1940s (some say in opposition to bebop).

    But I'm glad that you gravitated to this early style of jazz; perhaps some of the styles that developed later in jazz history might be worth checking out if you think of them as what Albert Murray called "extensions, elaborations, and refinements" of the earlier styles.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Steven Charles wrote on April 04, 2011 report

    Hi Greg, You’re going to be speaking to that elephant in the room most people would rather ignore, & it will be interesting to stay abreast with the conversation. I have been playing for over 30 years, and have played with men & women from a wide-range of races & nationalities, whether in the islands of Hawaii, or the clubs of Atlanta, Oakland, LA, or wherever. I personally thrive & relish having both the music & the musicians be a kind of "musical gumbo”, as I find the music stays fresh, & each player’s personal flavour makes it that much tastier.....

    I was quite idealistic at the beginning of my musical life, being inspired by devouring interviews of so many great musicians in DownBeat Mag, & believing I’d find all, or most, players having the same authenticity, depth of spirit, & devotion to the freedom of expression Jazz offers. However, as I got out into the world, I found that wasn’t quite the case. And I was especially puzzled that many musicians still retained a “segregationist” mindset, if not overtly, it was there nevertheless. When I lived in LA, and gigged regularly at a popular club, I began to see, and many of the brothers that worked with me told me, that there were definitely various “circles” of players, & race was a factor in defining them. I also found that to be true in Atlanta, where in the 80s I found myself unknowingly hiring many black players to play their very first gigs on the “northside” of town.

    And yes, there was even some of that going on in Hawaii, which is a very diverse place, & music scene, but still, that “racial thing” is still a factor. Now, I grew up on the southside of Chicago, and so I was not a sheltered kid, believing all the world was flowers & love, but I did expect musicians, especially those who love, & play the music born of black America, would be the last ones to have any racial prejudices...

    Finally, I don’t believe that just because someone greatly respects someone’s artistry or skill, whether it’s music or sports or acting, etc., that it necessarily removes someone’s mindset towards that person’s race. I’ve come across plenty of racists, or just prejudiced people, who have no problem being big fans of black singers, players, athletes, etc, or even people they interact with in their daily lives, as they simply believe “those are the exceptions”. Or people who “love” having them around, as long as their number remains small, or they don’t want to move in next door.... I don’t want to sound like I’m a pessimist, I’m not, but I have seen a lot, from many varied perspectives, & am also very aware of the complexity of this issue, one that, IMHO, has done more to keep our nation from being all that we can be, than pretty much any other factor... As Dr. KIng said, "If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive." . . . - Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • David Berger wrote on April 06, 2011 report


    I just spent 2 hours writing a post and when I hit post reply, I got a message that I couldn't post so soon after my last post. This was my first post. And I feel like I just wasted the last 2 hours. So much for the internet. I'm going back to writing music.

  • John Kelman wrote on April 06, 2011 report

    David, just for future ref, if that happens, hit the back key on your browser, wait 5 mins and hit submit again, you should not have lost the post.
    Sorry, but this is required to help prevent spambots from posting all over the place.

  • Michael Ricci wrote on April 07, 2011 report

    David, Sorry to hear that. It's always safe practice to compose a lengthy post in a text editor like MS Word before pasting it into the comments box.

  • Jonathan Jeter wrote on April 08, 2011 report

    Great Article. Definitely identify. Music and tennis saved me. Music is universal and Jazz transcends borders and time. Tennis is an international sport. Arthur was of course my favorite but the other players I followed were from all over the world. I'd read about and follow them in Tennis magazine. Looking at the globe to find their country, reading encyclopedia to find out about their country. This gave me a sense of (and interest in) the larger world beyond White & Black.

    There was no jazz to speak of in the South, in fact the attitude towards jazz was quite odd? Didn't stop me though I knew I liked what I had heard so far. At 16 Grover came to B'ham. Couldn't find anyone to go so I went alone. A year later Grover returned and this time a friend (fellow tennis player and sax in the high school band) wanted to go. We joked that he'd be the only White face in the crowd and to his surprise he was one of many. A few months later a different teammate and another high school classmate were going to see G.

    Benson-(we thought this was Jazz)-told them I'd love to go, the picked me up and off we went. Here we were 18, 17 & 16- 3 White kids and one Black from small town in Alabama trying to discover Jazz. After high school tennis brought me to Southern Cal. I live close to a village with a great music store and if you asked they'd open an album and play it. I spent hours in that store and every bit of my little college boy money on albums-Earl Klugh, David Sandborn, Bob James, H & R Laws, etc. Later on I'd transition to Duke, Mingus, Miles, etc. The odd thing is there were no Black adults around me as a teenager who had any appreciation or collection who could transfer this to me AND to this day there seems to be very little interest.

    It's not like Jazz is as readily available (in SF Bay) as NYC, we just don't have. But I will be anything that when I go see Mingus Big band, I'll be able to count the Black faces on one hand. I just don't get it. My only guess is that our music was so good from the 60's until mid 80's that it put Jazz on the shelf?

  • Dawn Norfleet, Ph.D. wrote on April 09, 2011 report

    Hey Greg, thanks for re-sending me your article. I'm reminded of the glory days of IAJE when, in order to see fireworks in January, you'd go to a panel on jazz journalism and racism! Your article makes me think of my own experience with jazz. In my case, other than the jazz framers, I really had no idea that African Americans "still" played jazz until I lived in NYC!! Until I entered that scene in the mid-1990's, there were more women of various ethnicities in jazz ensembles than African Americans (and still, not a whole lot). In high school and college (Wellesley and Wesleyan U), I was one of a very few African Americans in the jazz classes and ensembles. So what a surprise to find that I wasn't alone, when I'd met folks in what I consider to be a NYC "Jazz Renaissance," including the Lincoln Center jazz folks & Betty Carter alumni. I was also happy to discover organizations that promoted jazzwomen, like International Women in Jazz and the Lady Jazz project, where I'd interacted with musicians like Miriam Sullivan, Nedra Wheeler, and many others. It's exciting to see the true diversity represented in the movement: Helen Sung, Vijay Iyer, Mahesh Balasooriya, etc. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful, personal experiences and I look forward to reading your articles.

  • Joan Cartwright wrote on April 09, 2011 report

    Dear Greg,

    I applaud your courage, valor and eloquence on this subject of Jazz and Racism that is the thesis of my book A HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ AND BLUES. I’ve been engrossed in this subject since 1993, when I interviewed Quincy Jones for my master thesis, “The Cultural Politics of Commercial Jazz”, the third and final essay in my book available at for purchase and download.

    I agree with your ideas on transcendence. I agree with your idea that jazz unites people of all ethnicities. However, I would like to see what would be the result, if you substitute “European” for “white” and “African” for “black”, as these terms more clearly describe people of differing cultures.

    The problem I see is that you are not addressing the real problem, which, in my mind is cultural politics that translate into economics in the real world. Is jazz just another product planted and harvested by Africans in America, much like cotton and beans by a sharecropper to be marketed by the owners of the means of production and promotion: record companies, PR companies, advertising companies, jazz magazine publishers and critics?

    When I learned that the City of Montreux, Switzerland, with a population of 150,000 made its entire annual income from a 2-week jazz festival, I had an epiphany. The only musician that you’ve named in your dissertation that reached millionaire status from the performance of jazz music is Benny Carter. Perhaps, Quincy Jones reached that status but it was more from scoring film music and that may also be the vehicle that Benny reaped such high economic harvests from, as well.

    But your everyday man (or woman, and the rub lies there) rarely made or makes a decent annual income from their cultural production. It is pleasant for us to discuss the uniting force of the music but, when you align it with the economics of jazz, it leaves a lot to be desired.

    In Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Marylou Williams by Dr. Tammy Kernodle, the economic disparity suffered by Williams, who opened a thrift store to raise money to help save musicians addicted to drugs, is exceptionally evident. Likewise, Frank Kofsky speaks to the inconsistencies in economic gains by African Americans from jazz production in his book Black Nationalism and The Revolution in Music.

    As a singer that lived and toured in Europe for nearly eight years and China for five months, I recognize that female instrumentalists rarely reap the financial benefits from their music, particularly, women of African descent who compose and perform jazz music. This is what led me to found Women in Jazz South Florida, Inc., a 501©(3) non-profit that promotes women musicians, globally.

    There’s a handful of women that do benefit financially from jazz performance – Regina Carter, Geri Allen, and most recently, Esperanza Spaulding. Female geniuses like Dorothy Donegan, Alice Coltrane and Melba Liston are all but unknown in circles outside of jazz. Their legacy remains a secret to most music lovers. But a youngster like Diana Krall holds the status of royalty in jazz, mainly because of good marketing, which leads to my point. The packaging, promoting and commercialization of jazz left multitudes of well-deserving jazz musicians of African descent and of the feminine gender out in the cold, along with the African American community that could rarely afford expensive concert and festival tickets.

    My questions to you are:

    1. Are the economic implications of jazz production reflective of fairness when it comes to who is making the money in jazz?

    2. Does your essay open a discussion of Jazz and Sexism?

    Joan Cartwright
    Women in Jazz South Florida, Inc.

  • Jamie Rhind wrote on April 10, 2011 report

    Greg -thanks for your deep thoughts, and others as well. When I was studying jazz back in the late 1980s with Emily Remler, I remember an early morning lesson when she spoke to me about how hard it was to be a woman in the male dominated world of jazz. That listeners would approach her (and other women's) playing from a different angle, listening for mistakes, instead of how they would listen to men play. Though she was touring with Larry Coryell and recording and playing with other superb male musicians on a regular basis, she felt most listeners had a far more critical ear toward her playing-- as a woman.

    Only a handful of female musicians like Mary Lou Williams, Joanne Brackeen, Gerri Allen, and Jane Ira Bloom have been able to join Emily in the ranks of the male dominated field of Jazz. I would submit that the prejudices of sex in jazz may be even deeper felt and experienced than the disturbing racism that continues as an undercurrent across America and the rest of the world.

  • Steven Charles wrote on April 10, 2011 report

    Jamie, I wonder if she felt that same thing outside of the US, such as in Europe or Asia, or if this was peculiar to this country. It's easy to see how behind we are when it comes to electing a female head of state. Even some very traditional, patriarchal nations, Pakistan, India, Israel, Germany, etc., have had one or more women leading their nations, & while we've come close, it's still thought of as a "man's job".....

  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 11, 2011 report

    Dear Joan and Jamie,

    Gender and sexism in jazz are important to discuss, no doubt. As are economic, social, and even class issues. If I didn't discuss those too, along with race, no full or at least rounded picture could be presented. In a similar manner as rounded characters are important in dramatic narrative, I'd like a rounded story that reflects full dimensions of feeling and form, from the first person, to the second and third person, grammatically speaking.

    I'm sure if I don't show "all that"--a vernacular phrase au courant in the 90s--somebody will let me know. And that's cool. This is just the first essay of 12. Eleven more to go.

    I'd also say that there could and should be columns that others could spearhead, on Jazz and any number of topics. I've chosen my central subject not in denial of the others, but to shed, hopefully, some light on how the music can help up face and work through some issues involving race and culture, shining a light--we'd like to think--on important themes that riff on identity and identification, as they intersect with cultural, social, moral, political, economic, spiritual, sexual, and other lines of development.

    Speaking of journeys to the light, I've written on Geri Allen on this site, and I'm fortunate to know the filmmaker developing a documentary on Mary Lou Williams, who, as Duke would say, is beyond category. I'm well aware of how male-dominated the field of jazz is, and conscious of how forms of masculinity play out in the representations of jazz artists. As a member of the study group at Columbia U., I also became acutely aware of a feminist/womanist critiques within the jazz discourse.

    I'll draw upon some of that work over the course of this column, so please stay tuned.

  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 11, 2011 report

    Rather, "a feminist/womanist critique."

  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 15, 2011 report

    Dear Charles,

    As I feel about all who have commented above, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and experience.

    Re: your statement, "Finally, I don’t believe that just because someone greatly respects someone’s artistry or skill, whether it’s music or sports or acting, etc., that it necessarily removes someone’s mindset towards that person’s race. I’ve come across plenty of racists, or just prejudiced people, who have no problem being big fans of black singers, players, athletes, etc, or even people they interact with in their daily lives, as they simply believe “those are the exceptions”. Or people who “love” having them around, as long as their number remains small, or they don’t want to move in next door...."

    I know what you mean.

    Remember Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing? The John Turturro character, who worked in the pizza shop, was fond of the word "nigger." So when Spike's character asked him if he thought Michael Jordan was a nigger, he was bewildered. He had to wrestle with--if only momentarily--the stereotypes he had about "niggers" and his admiration of Michael Jordan. The result?

    Michael Jordan wasn't a nigger to him. So he could love the performance and on-the-court achievements of Michael Jordan, a dark-skinned black American, but still harbor racists sentiments and beliefs and express them verbally. He didn't have enough class to keep that shit to himself.

    So, no doubt, there are musicians that harbor all sorts of biases, based on any number of identity, ethnic or cultural markers, but, one hopes, when they play together with folks of a different whatever, that should dissolve in the enterprise and art of creating music.

    As Christopher Smalls, the author of Music of the Common Tongue and Music-Society-Education, has asserted, the music created by black Americans in particular (and not just jazz) has often created a ritual environment akin to a utopia. The interaction among the musicians and the audience, brought together by sounds and grooves that touch all from body to soul, creates this ideal environment, if only momentarily.

    Those moments of fraternity, swing, rapprochement, and self-expression within a group context of shared goals and values, all point to ways we can strive for the same off the bandstand and in our everyday lives.

  • Joan Cartwright wrote on April 15, 2011 report

    Dear Greg,

    I appreciate your getting right to the sexism clause of my statement. I look forward to more reaction here about that. However, you didn't address the economics of jazz that I referred to and I would like your thoughts on that issue, as well.


  • Greg Thomas wrote on April 23, 2011 report

    Dear Joan,

    You asked: Are the economic implications of jazz production reflective of fairness when it comes to who is making the money in jazz?

    Hell no, Joan, it's not. This is true for most jazz musicians, regardless of race or gender. And considering the small portion of the music industry market--itself dissolving due to digital downloads--that is jazz, not many make a lot of money anyway.

    Take the situation in NY, where club owners refuse to put money into the pension funds of jazz musicians. That's a travesty that should be a criminal offense, in my estimation.

    Musicians who have hits and/or become celebrities can make real dough. Most jazz musicians are neither.

    Jazz has been called a "national treasure" in Congress, yet the idea that jazz musicians, who carry forth the tradition of this national treasure, should be subsidized by the government, to soften the blow of a capitalist marketplace, is not even on the table. That's a travesty too.

    These days, jazz musicians have to wear many hats to survive. One of those hats is that of entrepreneur. Another is instructor/teacher. I think all jazz musicians should incorporate the idea of a "master mind group," from the classic self-help book, "Think and Grow Rich." Build a team around yourself that includes not just other musicians, but PR, social media, accounting, legal, etc. But that's on the individual level.

    The larger issue if the techno-economic base, which ironically is slowly tipping back to the artist from the record companies. Now artists can reach their audience without the intermediary taking all of the profit, and giving musicians pennies on the dollar. But the artists must become savvy, know how the game is played today, and swing with it.

    Hope that answers your question, Joan.

    Best regards,


  • Killer Joe wrote on December 15, 2011 report

    Intelligent communication here. Love it. Now look what has happened though since Nicholas Payton has jumped in and hijacked this topic and used it to become a fight against racism altogether instead of a deeper focus on rich and caring talk between humans for a better future as ONE.

  • Killer Joe wrote on December 15, 2011 report

    Now we have anger and fights brewing instead of intelligent discussion anytime someone asks him to explain his vulgar posts directed to his jazz loving audience that already loves the black culture and music that used to bind races.