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In With The In Crowd: Popular Jazz in 1960s Black America

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In With The In Crowd
Mike Smith
232 Pages
ISBN: 978-1496851154
University Press of Mississippi/Jackson
2024

There is a legal adage that hard cases make bad law. Extreme circumstances make it difficult to accommodate less fraught or complex situations. Histories of jazz in the United States can be a bit like that. Controversial subjects, players or recordings can obscure the importance of less extreme ones. Lord knows, jazz in America has had more than its share of extreme, divisive, or just plain difficult players and performances.

Mike Smith's valuable book provokes an acute perspective of thinking. While his subject is the long-standing tension between art and commerce: "How can something commercially successful also be high art?"—Smith goes well beyond that. He deals with a cultural expression of race and follows it through some of the most complex political times in modern American history. Who decides what is important in the history of jazz? What is the role of mass markets and especially, of popular black taste in establishing what music succeeds, much less matters? How does a white power structure distort the resulting narrative? Is a balanced view even possible? Good questions.

Take singer Nancy Wilson. Smith thinks she is neglected by standard histories of jazz (whatever they are) because Wilson was successful, commercial, long-lived, talented, and well adjusted. She does not present the obvious psychological complexities of a Nina Simone, or even the less sensational ones of a Carmen McRae, much less those of Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday. No matter. Smith objects that people in the black community listened to Nancy Wilson, just as they listened to Ramsey Lewis, another figure he regards as marginalized. So why act as if they somehow counted for less? Well, one must deal with narratives where you find them.

A reader can go back to the early 1960s when Wilson, new on the national scene, had begun to make a splash recording with Cannonball Adderley. In the jazz press, and according to some of its doyennes, like Leonard Feather, Wilson was a very promising jazz singer. Same with Adderley as an instrumentalist. Smith implies that controversial figures like Ornette Coleman got too much attention, leading to the neglect of Wilson or Adderley, or dozens more, to whom the black community regularly listened. Yet that is not completely so.

When magazines like Downbeat asked important players what they thought of Coleman, they went to...Cannonball Adderley. And Adderley was tentative about Coleman. Why do you think people like Coleman (or Albert Ayler) were controversial? Black players like Roy Eldridge were not sold on Coleman either. Certainly, the entire ecosystem that created stars was basically white, but consider the distribution of wealth in America then. It was not the black people had no purchasing power or owned nothing. They just had a lot less. In 1950, black slavery had been gone for less than a century. That is easy to forget now. It was, unfortunately, all too relevant back then. You cannot accumulate much property when you legally belong to someone else.

Chicago's Vee Jay Records was a black label but dwarfed in size by the majors like Capitol that helped put them under. It was not exactly a level playing field, although many enlightened musicians wanted it to be.

That does not mean that Smith is wrong. Far from it. One can find plenty of critical reviews characterizing Nancy Wilson as a "good enough" pop singer. One well known (white) critic dismissed Adderley as a Charlie Parker "soundalike," but then, the same one memorably called Harry James a trumpet player with "good technique." So much for critical opinion shaping the narrative.

As for Nancy Wilson, when she sang "It's Over," she was the radio soundtrack to more than a few lives. In Philadelphia, Nancy was a star. Thanks to the efforts of radio people like Sid Mark on WHAT-FM, we soon got to know who Nina Simone was. Sid, and his mentor, Harvey Husten (of then WKDN in Camden NJ) were tireless advocates for jazz musicians. Complicated histories make for hard generalizations, just like hard cases sometimes do not make for good law.

Since Smith is both a drummer and an educator, he is very, very strong in discussing rhythm sections. After reading Smith, some listeners are going to hear drummer Billy Higgins (and Lee Morgan) very differently, recognizing, finally, why Higgins was every bit as gifted as he seemed. He is also good on the rise of the Hammond B3 organ. Smith's insights are scattered plentifully throughout his narrative, embedded in a nuanced discussion of why commercial is not always bad, or jarringly avant-garde is not always good. The reasonable approach, and Smith is reasonable, is that it all depends. Sometimes it will not even be immediately obvious what is good. Perspectives change, and one generation's star turns into another's forgotten sensation.

This is one of the very great virtues of Smith's book. He repeatedly forces you to think about music you may have taken far too lightly, simply because you may have heard Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, or even Charles Earland on a local station, thrown in with less estimable talents. Have you listened to guitarist Jimmy Ponder lately? As Smith observes, a lot of "everyday people" did: the wisdom of crowds unseen is every bit as worth pursuing as those with which someone hung out. Smith will open a lot of eyes to an entire subgenre of "soul jazz" that just got lost in the shuffle, especially when Motown was king. But no matter how much jazz a listener has lived with over a lifetime long or short, every reader can learn a lot from In With The In Crowd.

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