Racism in Jazz: Writing and Reporting

Nick Catalano By

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For obvious reasons, writing about racism is a painful experience. Jazz is a complex art form and I have always felt that the primary responsibilities of a critic/writer are to educate the public by reporting on performances, recordings and artists, to promulgate an objective critical response to the musical evolution and to guard against the errors, misconceptions and mythology that inevitably creep into the many “historical” accounts. “History lies,” said George Bernard Shaw, and it has been ever thus.

Unfortunately, the American media has, in recent years, given itself over to excessive sensationalism and tabloid hyperbole; jazz writers have not exempted themselves from this terrible phenomenon. The biggest problem is a singular preoccupation with racism, in all too many cases, as a way to sell publications and service writers’ reputations at the expense of sober and responsible journalism. Hordes of writers are sold on the idea that controversy is the easiest road to fame and to hell with the antediluvian moral codes.

That racism still exists in the jazz world as it does in many pockets of the adolescent American cultural scene is a given. But an overindulgence in prejudicial rhetoric simply to sell magazines or to promote self-interest is disgraceful. A while back, the front cover of the Jazz Times advertised the “racism” content of its pages by displaying a black, white and red layout (an ugly but tried and true method of getting attention). The rehashing of worn out but controversial material on black vs. white issues in the issue apotheosized the new trend of tabloid reporting.

Perhaps the best-known instance of this new hue and cry approach to jazz writing has been the postured angry rhetoric of white writers objecting to what they perceived as an unfair preoccupation with black jazz on the part of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Writers as far away as California (not one of whom I have ever seen reviewing even one Lincoln center performance) began a tirade of accusations and arguments about race, which did absolutely nothing to further the cause of the music or educate the public – their aforementioned primary responsibilities. Dozens of articles in various publications appeared chastising Marsalis and caviling over his hiring choices and repertorial decisions. Despite this bloodletting, Jazz at Lincoln Center has instituted a multi-dimensional exposure for jazz that is unparalleled in the history of the music. But the aesthetic accomplishments have not been given proper critical attention. Again, careful analysis at the editorial desk is too often eschewed in favor of spurious controversial gossip.

Too often, in recent years, jazz scribes have resurrected the racist issue not in an attempt to correct inequities (given the long racist history of our country many problems in this area continue) but to create controversy and capitalize on the notoriety it inevitably brings.

In the early 19th century, critics like Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb and DeQuincey made Shakespeare into the giant he was by ingeniously reexamining his skills and coercing the public to abandon the narrow neo-classical “rules” which had always been used to evaluate his work. They succeeded in changing an intransigence that had lasted 250 years and unveiled, through their careful critical writing, the greatest playwright in the world’s history.

Among other tasks, jazz writers and critics need to free the public from its antiquated adulation of European music and convince it that the descendents of slaves have indeed created a music that rivals the legacy of Mozart while elevating the once lowly musician to a new pedestal alongside the master composers.

Sucker punch infighting in the tabloid arena for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver will not serve the needs of a public that still doesn’t know the truth about jazz art.

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