All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Race and Jazz

Dear All About Jazz Readers,

If you're familiar with All About Jazz, you know that we've dedicated over two decades to supporting jazz as an art form, and more importantly, the creative musicians who make it. Our enduring commitment has made All About Jazz one of the most culturally important websites of its kind in the world reaching hundreds of thousands of readers every month. However, to expand our offerings and develop new means to foster jazz discovery we need your help.

You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky Google ads PLUS deliver exclusive content and provide access to future articles for a full year! This combination will not only improve your AAJ experience, it will allow us to continue to rigorously build on the great work we first started in 1995. Read on to view our project ideas...


Jazz vs Racism

Jazz vs Racism
Greg Thomas By

Sign in to view read count
Jazz saved me from becoming a racist.

Back in the early to mid-1980s, while attending Hamilton College in central New York, I learned details about the transatlantic slave trade that sickened and angered me. I read about the history of the abolitionist movement in the 1800s, and the civil rights movements of last century, as well as the apartheid-like Jim Crow system that arose in between those movements. "Jim Crow," particularly in the U.S. South, maintained the economic, social and institutional power of whites over blacks and others with darker pigmentation, based on the legal doctrine "separate but equal" and a damnable myth: white supremacy.

As leader of the Academic Chamber of the Student Assembly at Hamilton, I even came across documents by the Curriculum Committee that explained away the lack of an African Studies concentration—mind you, they had Asian, Latin American and Middle East Studies at the time—by writing that Africans were not heir to the "great traditions."

Yet it was the great tradition of jazz that rendered me immune to leaping from anger to hatred of white people. My upbringing as a Christian also gave me a moral grounding, but it was my adoration, as a teen in Staten Island, NY, of the jazz styling of so-called "white" saxophonists such as Paul Desmond, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, and my private sax teacher Caesar DiMauro, that really did the trick. Among other things, moral precepts and a belief system are guides for behavior and one's conscience; the music, rather, gets into your body, stirs your emotions and resonates with your memory.

I didn't segregate who I listened to based on race, so as a 15-year old beginner alto saxophonist I enjoyed a plethora of alto saxophonists across time, from Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and James Moody, Lee Konitz and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Louis Jordan, Frank Strozier and Sonny Stitt to Hank Crawford, Sadao Watanabe, David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr.

And while attending Tottenville High School, where I played in the concert, symphonic, and stage bands, I also took sax lessons with a local legend, Caesar DiMauro. He performed European classical music on oboe and alto sax, and played jazz saxophone (alto and tenor) too. DiMauro was a gentle soul who loved to make and drink wine. He'd play with other local legends such as guitarist Chuck Wayne and trumpeters Don Joseph and Mike Morreale, who taught me at Tottenville. (In fact, DiMauro played on Wayne's 1957 album String Fever (Euphoria), and they both were featured on Tony Bennett's rare recording, Cloud 7 (Columbia) in 1955. Check out this You Tube clip of Caesar and Wayne performing "Stella By Starlight," from a documentary I produced and directed after Caesar died, called Memories of Caesar.) He loved Zoot Sims' playing, and his friends loved to tell the tale of the time DiMauro headed to hear Sims at the Blue Note and sat in. That night, reportedly, Sims liked DiMauro's riff-style too, and shouted, "Go, Caesar, go!" DiMauro's expressive approach on tenor was derived from Prez, Lester Young, but toward the end of his life his muscularity reminded me of Hawk, Coleman Hawkins.

I'd meet him at his woodshed way on the South Shore of Staten Island, off Arthur Kill Road, and he'd take me through the fundamentals. He even taught me the art of trimming off tiny amounts of excess wood from the edges of Rico or Vandoren saxophone reeds until you could see a smooth bell curve shape when you held the reed up to the light. We'd later meet at the Jewish Community Center on Victory Boulevard and Bay Street to play etudes from jazz duet collections and passages from the Universal Method for Saxophone (Carl Fischer, 1908), by Paul DeVille.

I'll never forget the time he told me that: "Greg, you learn all of the scales, chords, arpeggios, and patterns, but after you have them down, and you begin to improvise, let that stuff go and just play."

One of his band buddies was black American bassist Morris Edwards, a very proud "race man," born in 1925, who had played with Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet as well as Prez and Hawk. Sometimes Edwards would get his head right and start speaking about black folks and the injustice we endured. If DiMauro had drunk a few, he'd say: "Aww, Morris, don't get started with that black shit again!" All the cats would laugh, and they'd resume drinking, signifyin,' selling wolf tickets, or swingin' on the bandstand like it wasn't no thang.


Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

Related Articles

Read Wynton Marsalis and Confederate Monuments: How a Jazz Musician Started a Political Movement Race and Jazz
Wynton Marsalis and Confederate Monuments: How a Jazz...
by Dustin Mallory
Published: August 23, 2017
Read BAM or JAZZ: Part Two! Race and Jazz
BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!
by Greg Thomas
Published: February 6, 2012
Read BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters Race and Jazz
BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters
by Greg Thomas
Published: January 12, 2012
Read Race and Jazz Criticism Race and Jazz
Race and Jazz Criticism
by Greg Thomas
Published: October 3, 2011
Read Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers Race and Jazz
Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers
by Greg Thomas
Published: July 11, 2011
Read Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas Race and Jazz
Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas
by Greg Thomas
Published: May 9, 2011
Read "Full House" Reassessing Full House
by C. Michael Bailey
Published: January 12, 2018
Read "Sean Noonan: Not Simply Beating a Dead Horse Drum" Catching Up With Sean Noonan: Not Simply Beating a Dead Horse Drum
by Phillip Woolever
Published: January 12, 2018
Read "Lauren Lee: On Being Uncool" Catching Up With Lauren Lee: On Being Uncool
by Suzanne Lorge
Published: May 10, 2018
Read "Ron Carter: A Clew of Worms" SoCal Jazz Ron Carter: A Clew of Worms
by Jim Worsley
Published: October 23, 2017
Read "Diane Schuur at Birdland" Live Reviews Diane Schuur at Birdland
by Tyran Grillo
Published: November 20, 2017
Read "Detroit Jazz Festival 2018" Live Reviews Detroit Jazz Festival 2018
by C. Andrew Hovan
Published: September 19, 2018