BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!

BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!
Greg Thomas BY

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Jazz, an art form given birth in the United States by descendents of the formerly enslaved, has a complicated relationship with race. Although race, as a popular idea, has no basis in biology, many people mentally adhere to the idea of dividing groups of people based on "race" as opposed to understanding how groups of people evolve (or regress) via culture, so very real social dynamics and results exist based on the belief in race.

A key purpose of this column is to explore culture vs. race as it manifests in the discourse of jazz, historically and presently. Today's column will continue a conversation with an authority on the history of jazz criticism, John Gennari, author of Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (The University of Chicago Press, 2006). The most recent Race and Jazz column confronted a current controversy, the move by some black American musicians, prompted by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a provocateur who on his blog calls himself "The Savior of Archaic Pop," to purportedly stop using the word jazz all together (or at least for a 90-day publicity boycott) and instead to call their artistic work Black American Music (#BAM).

Chapter Index
1. #BAM: Additional Thoughts
2. John Gennari Interview: Part 2

#BAM: Additional Thoughts

Before the discussion with Gennari continues, here are a few additional thoughts on the current brouhaha. Some claim that the #BAM acronym—a tweet- friendly hashtag—is a better marketing tool for their music. That remains to be seen. However, if we take that argument at face value, branding and positioning become the issue. As a brand, jazz is well-established in the marketplace, though it isn't nearly as popular as more commercial music. Some advocating #BAM argue that the negative associations aligned with the word jazz far outweigh the positives, if they even acknowledge the positives at all. The leader of #BAM has written that the positives are an "illusion." Such a claim is obviously a matter of opinion, not fact. The supposition that jazz has and always will have mostly negative meanings is propaganda parading under the cloak of what Payton calls "the truth."

"Black American" became a term of widespread use among native-born U.S. Negroes—the common term before "black Americans," and before Malcolm X made Negro a term of derision—in the 1960s. At best, black American is an expression of ethnic, cultural and national identity, not a racial designation. Using that identification as a vehicle to market music in a global economy—and not simply as a pedagogical description of the music's origins—will be an interesting experiment to observe. Perhaps a study of the relative financial performance of U.S. films that are marketed (or thought of) as "black movies" overseas would be a fruitful exercise.

In their classic work on marketing, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (Warner Books, 1987), originally published in 1981, Al Ries and Jack Trout describe positioning as "an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances." To Ries and Trout, the example of a generation of U.S. Negroes embracing the word "black" in the 1960s was a powerful positioning move at that time and in that circumstance. The late 1950s through the 1960s was a period in which the pent-up frustrations and the desire for freedom by the victims of the Jim Crow system of white supremacy burst into the purpose, passion and perception of the Civil Rights movement.

As a word, "black" had (and still has) all sorts of negative denotations and connotations, but the embrace of "black" as a point of cultural pride was an important step, according to Ries and Trout, in communicating the reframing of the self-perception of a people. Embracing "black" a generation ago was brilliant positioning. Muhammad Ali let go of his birth name, Cassius Clay, and media and society accepted the "repositioned" name. The same thing happened with "black" over "Negro," at least until the perpetual need for group-identification brought in the term "African American."

Unfortunately, the instigator of #BAM isn't just saying that jazz fits under the umbrella of Black American Music. Based on Payton's public pronouncements, he is attempting to deposition the word "jazz" completely and reposition #BAM in its place.

Not only is that move akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water; it's also tantamount to a parent disowning their grown, mature offspring because they really believe their progeny is a "bastard orphan," as the leader of #BAM puts it. Jazz is a branch of the tree called black American music; jazz was given birth in the womb of black American culture. But now the self-professed leader of #BAM, almost 50 years after "black American" became commonly used before he was even born, wants to replace the term jazz with his own come-lately coinage because he claims that jazz has "too much of a negative history to ever be socially respected."

Really? Not only is the word jazz not going anywhere, one wonders what time warp said "leader" is living in.

As percussionist, educator and bandleader Bobby Sanabria has written:

Blaming the word "jazz" for the current sad state of the music, in terms of cultural relevance to most Americans, is ridiculous. Mr. Payton stated, in the panel discussion at Birdland, that the image the word jazz portrays is, to most people, of a drug-induced, negative stereotype of a musician (along with other negative attributes). I assume he bases this image from the reference point of the 1940s/'50s/'60s, when heroin ravaged many of our great talents.

But today? Most jazz musicians today will talk to you about being on a macrobiotic diet, how [well] their kids are doing in school, and how they're thinking about becoming vegans or Buddhists. Who in f**k's name is he talking to, hangin' with? That is a stereotype based on ignorance. And trust me, you have those stereotypes in all styles of music...Besides, jazz musicians have already done the research. Drugs like heroin don't make you play better. No one today on the scene is into hard drugs. Not to say there aren't some, but I would say it is smaller percentage than the national average.

Where I come from (the South Bronx) the image of the jazz musician was always one of a person devoted to a majestic art form. Why? Because it took years of devotion, study, and dedication to play the music. If you said you were a jazz musician it meant that you were serious, an intellectual, a person to be looked up to because you were Worldly.

Clearly, being a great instrumentalist, as Payton undoubtedly is, does not make one, ipso facto, a great writer, a social or cultural leader, a historian or a sociologist. No doubt, Payton has prompted open discussion about important issues that too often are swept under the rug. Yet, as history has shown time and time again, demagogues employ propaganda, not scholarly or critical standards, to advance political aims. History shows that such persons create nemeses and enemies to vilify—"jazz" is the key "villain" in this case—and resort to the poison of personal insult because they can't brook dissent from the party line and won't face up to other perspectives which expose the gaping holes in their so-called ideological truth.

The professed leader of #BAM, the self-proclaimed "Savior," pretends that #BAM is a movement. The controversy has most certainly brought more media attention and publicity to him, but it's premature and presumptuous to call it a movement at this early stage. A heap of hits on a blog and attention to one musician's "Internet hustle" does not a movement make. How many musicians have actually signed on, and, moreover, how many have actually stopped using the word "jazz"? Before it becomes a movement, how about achieving what Malcolm Gladwell calls a "tipping point"? To what promised land is this leader taking those few—not all, mind you—who conform to his point of view slavishly as sycophants?

The issues brought up by this controversy, which some would call a tempest in a teapot, considering how relatively small the jazz world seems to be, are, nonetheless, quite important. Yet the followers or co-signers of #BAM, or anyone who takes this young man so seriously, would be advised to reference the Greek myth of Narcissus (which happens to be the source of the Trumpet Narcissus plant). The title of Richard Pryor's third album release, in 1974, might serve as fair warning too.

In Shakespearean terms, the young said leader "doth protest too much" about the "integrity" of his stance. If he were to refuse to play in any venue or festival with the word jazz in the title, or that's associated with jazz, and stop being interviewed and reviewed in jazz publications and blogs as a matter of principle, that would show integrity, an allegiance to the "j" word stance he so vociferously trumpets at present. No charge of hypocrisy would stick. Such a cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move might be career suicide, though, unless he really believes that the hip hop and r&b communities will accept him. Don't hold your breath, but perhaps they will bow down to the self-styled "Savior" since he plays even more instruments on his latest recording, Bitches (In + Out, 2011), than Prince or even Stevie Wonder ever did, as he has declared, puffily.

One never knows, do one?

Perhaps the title of his latest recording will be an entrée into the hip hop ranks.

Yet the leader of #BAM correctly notes that "great social change has always started with a movement." With that point in mind, consider that this whole discourse fits well within the category of cultural politics. Culture, at this level, involves contestation over values and meaning. (For details about this process, see the essay "The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature.") To focus on the meaning and value of jazz, we'll need to look beyond the ruse and publicity ploy at the core of this controversy as well as the authoritarian impulse and rhetorical camouflage; the Messiah and Napoleon complexes; the "shit-talking" bravado; the regression to juvenile rant and sophomoric, puerile rave; the specious sophistry substituting for logic and reason; the conflation of the personal and political; and, in a blinding display of generational myopia, the supercilious insult to the masters of the jazz idiom by declaring, in a retrograde revision of history, that they were victims of a "colonial mindset" when actually they were some of the most free-thinking and cosmopolitan of their time.

Once we get past that morass, we can confront bona fide issues about what this music means and the values we believe and deeply feel it embodies.

With such a cultural basis for discussion as the foundation, together we can take action and fight like hell to make better the lives and careers of jazz musicians and others involved in perpetuating the music. This would not only serve individuals and their families well, but would be beneficial for American culture and the global society overall.

Ironically, the meaning and value of jazz has the potential to be a veritable saving grace for the sad state of our reality-television ethos, yet, unfortunately, a talented young musician seems to place more importance on riding a wave of publicity, feeding his ego, and gorging his id.

Now, speaking of real movements, not only did a Civil Rights movement arise in the 1960s, but also a Black Arts Movement, and black nationalist and black radical movements as well. Each had antecedents, some dating back to the 19th century. Before jumping on the #BAM bandwagon, wouldn't it be wise to comprehend and review the lessons learned from the previous movements? What are their legacies? What mistakes and missteps can generations that follow in the wake of those movements avoid?

Historical and cultural analysis can provide responses to those questions. Those interested in judicious answers can turn to a plethora of real scholars and writers. We'll continue our Race and Jazz conversation with one of them—John Gennari—in a moment.

For more, those who'd like to frame black unity in a way that avoids the trap of essentialism—something someone calling himself a "post-modern" New Orleans musician would be advised to do—peer into We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Harvard University Press, 2005), by Tommie Shelby.

As regards social movements in general, consider texts such as People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970), by Luther P. Gerlach; The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper & Rowe, 1951), by Eric Hoffer; and The Possessed (or The Devils or Demons) (Penguin Classics, 2008), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. For some crucial perspective on what Albert Murray called "the most imaginatively documented and politically sophisticated working prospective on the built-in contradictions and disjunctions of the Negro Revolution," check out the classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origins to the Present (W.H. Allen, 1969), by Harold Cruse.

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 and Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller 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 and Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb. 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 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 wrote one of the very first pieces about Thelonious Monk. 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 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 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.

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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