Jazz vs Racism

Jazz vs Racism
Greg Thomas By

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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.

In college, however, my own understanding of race relations and the history of my ethnic and cultural kinfolk—black Americans—heightened and deepened beyond the grainy black and white footage of Bull Connor ordering fire hoses to be used on Negroes in Selma, Alabama, beyond Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," beyond the annual remembrances of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth during Black History Month in February, and even beyond Alex Haley's mini-series Roots (1977), which I watched with anger and incredulity as an adolescent while going to junior high.

Phil Woods

If the devil is in the details, my increasing awareness of the extent of the treachery, cruelty and greed of those who perpetuated human enslavement and social repression tempted me to accept the Nation of Islam's assertion that white people were really devils! Plus, while attending Columbia University for the first semester of my senior year as an undergraduate, I saw the movement to force corporations to divest from investing in apartheid South Africa. The injustice of a white minority dominating and oppressing the black majority there incensed me also, and I became more politicized.

But, lo and behold, Caesar DiMauro (Italian-American), Zoot Sims (Midwestern and southern roots), Paul Desmond (German and Irish), and Phil Woods (Irish and French ancestry) had too strong a hold on my ears and feelings for me to accept such a racist claim as white folks, as a group of people, being devils. (Their sort of mixed lineage and heritage is what I'd later discover writer Albert Murray meant by his phrase, "Omni-American." Wouldn't you agree that the word "white" in fact "whites out" their cultural and ethnic background?)



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