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Music: Black, White & Blue

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Music: Black, White & Blue
by Ortiz Walton
William Morrow, 1972

Music: Black, White & Blue is both a musicological and sociological treatment of African-American music. Walton, himself a musician, begins with the African roots of both the musical practices and social uses of jazz: a participatory music with "the cries, falsettos, slurs and other African expressive modes." He continues with descriptions of the content and social settings of various types of slave music, showing how the people continued to use and transmit African elements. For example, in the absence of drums, polymetric rhythms were nonetheless produced by hand-clapping and foot-stomping.

In his discussion of ragtime, Walton moves from the appropriation of persons to the appropriation of music, as mechanical reproduction via the piano roll weakened the control of ragtime practitioners over their music. This theme appears repeatedly throughout his book, as white publishers, record companies, and musicians control the distribution of the creative efforts of African-American musicians. On the other hand, his chapter on turn of the century New Orleans, where various cultural currents joined to form jazz, is especially illuminating in its clarification of that city's multifaceted racial environment.

The jazz age, as Walton documents it, continued the music industry's taking over the creative efforts of the African-American creators of this music. White performers dominated in the public's perception until the bebop era, with its demands on performers for new heights of virtuosity. Thus once again African-Americans obtained a measure of control over their music, although largely shut out of the business side of recordings, broadcasting and publishing. Walton concludes his historical treatment with a discussion of then-contemporary (1960's) jazz, with established musicians faced with career displacement as the avant-garde shook up the scene.

Music: Black White & Blue also includes a chapter on Duke Ellington, who is a hero for the author not only because of his musical excellence, but also because of his many works commemorating black history. Bassist Art Davis' unsuccessful discrimination suit against the New York Philharmonic is the subject of another chapter. Davis, still an active jazz musician, offered to vie for the open bass chair with all the competing bassists behind screens, so that they could be heard without being seen, in an attempt to blunt white prejudice. The Orchestra refused and ultimately gave the job to a white woman, and Davis, like several other outspoken musicians, was blacklisted for his troubles. Walton concludes with chapters on the need for African-American music education and control of a portion of the record industry.

The author is learned, incisive, and persuasive in his descriptions of the distortions inflicted on a music and a culture by the white disseminators of African-American music. If some of the chapters have the feel of separate essays while the majority are linked by the historic sweep of musical history, nonetheless the book is thematically enriched by these more individually focused sections. Although the polemical conclusions of this book, and its descriptions of the realities facing African-American musicians in 1972, are very much of their time, it nonetheless contains many historic insights which are the more valuable for being seldom heard.

Includes appendix and index.

This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg.


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