Jazz in Black and White: On Race and Jazz

“A New Minority Group, White Jazz Musicians”

Stan Kenton by William A. Gottlieb, 1947-48.


Telegram from Stan Kenton to Down Beat magazine, 1956.

Decades before Twitter, bandleader Stan Kenton torpedoed his reputation with that single heartfelt if ill-considered message. According to Kenton’s former road manager:

We were on our way from Detroit to Crystal Beach in Ontario, Canada when Stan read that particular Down Beat poll. His reaction was that there were several great [white] jazz musicians whom the critics had overlooked. He subsequently sent a wire to Down Beat voicing his dismay at this lack of recognition, and the possibility of a racist attitude on the critics’ part.”

Whatever his intentions, Kenton soon found himself at the center of a firestorm.

Kenton’s 1956 band featured Black musicians Curtis Counce (bass), Julius Watkins (French Horn) and Lucky Thompson (tenor sax). When a restaurant outside Washington DC refused to serve Counce, Kenton walked out with the entire band. But that was not enough to save Kenton from charges of racism – often combined with the claim that he refused to hire non-Whites!

Even his White colleagues were quick to distance themselves from his statement. Rebuking Kenton in a 1957 editorial, the great Polish-American drummer Gene Krupa said “Jazz is as much Negro as the spiritual and to pretend anything but that is to fly in the face of fact. What white musicians have been doing for almost half a century is to beg, borrow and even steal this racial asset from Negroes.”

The years have done little to assuage the controversy. In a response to Kenton’s 2011 centennial entitled “Remembering the Monstrous Stan Kenton,” jazz critic David Hadju sniffed Kenton was “[b]itter about being overshadowed by his African-American superiors”

John Coltrane, 1963. Photo by Hugo von Gelderen

Today nobody disputes the profound African influence on America’s most influential homegrown art form. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and many other Black American jazz musicians are rightly recognized for their genius. But while there were and are many famous White jazz musicians their placement in the jazz pantheon remains awkward.

Hearkening back to Rousseau’s noble savage, many White critics and audiences have preferred the “authenticity” and “soul” of Black jazzmen to the perceived tight-assed sterility of White players. At worst modern White jazz musicians are accused of appropriating Black culture: at best they are grudgingly accepted as talented interlopers.

Yet as an American art form, jazz also has deep roots in European traditions. Among other things, jazz is a lengthy and ongoing engagement between White and Black America. To understand that interplay we must recognize the roles each played in its development. In doing so perhaps we will gain a better understanding of both our musical heritage and our history. And that heritage and history starts in fin de siècle New Orleans.

The Birth of Jazz: New Orleans and Beyond

Charles “Buddy” Bolden, 1905

As the sun set on the Spanish-American War and everyone forgot the Maine, the Crescent City found itself flooded with decommissioned military band instruments. There had long been a local tradition of “jug bands” playing washboards, soapbox guitars and washtub bass fiddles. Now many of these musicians could afford cornets, clarinets, tubas, trumpets and trombones.

Since most played by ear they learned their instruments by rehearsing or “jamming” together. Their unconventional takes on popular tunes drew from the “ragged time” syncopations popular with local piano players like Scott Joplin.

With the help of the gramophone and the burgeoning radio industry, this New Orleans craze soon spread across America and around the world. Even before the Great War jazz was popular amongst European intellectuals: afterwards it became the soundtrack for the “Jazz Age.” American musicians found work in Weimar bordellos and French Riviera cafes.

Debussy’s 1908 “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Milhaud’s 1923 La Création du Monde and Ravel’s 1931 Concerto in G were just a few of the many early 20th-century European classical compositions which feature jazz rhythms and idioms. Milhaud would later go on to become famous for tutoring Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach.

As Europe looked to jazz for inspiration, jazz musicians drew liberally from European traditions. One of the defining hallmarks of jazz is its emphasis on improvisation. There are other musical forms which allow for creative solos. In the symphonic tradition cadenzas – passages where an individual performer or small group riff on a melodic or rhythmic phrase – often mark the end of a movement.

But the lightning-quick engagement between players who take a melody as a starting point for freeform group explorations is unique to jazz. All this complex creativity can only hold together within a rigidly confined structure, lest it crumble into cacophony. And that framework is provided by a tradition stretching back to ancient Greece.

Jazz and Music Theory

Nobody rocked a harpsichord like Johann SB

In the 6th century BC Pythagoras noticed that taut strings of different lengths sounded different pitches when plucked: longer strings resulted in lower pitches while shorter ones were higher.  A 2:1 difference between the strings resulted in pitches an octave apart: Pythagoras also found that pleasant sounds were produced when the strings were at a ratio of 3:2 (a fifth) or 3:4 (a fourth).

These and other harmonious intervals became the basis of a “just intonation” that marked euphonic but not exactly equal divisions of the octave. But because these intonations were not equal, transposing melodies and arranging accompaniments in just intonation becomes increasingly complex with each key change.

In 1636 French monk and mathematician named Merin Mersenne published Harmonie universelle, a seminal text on musical theory and acoustics. Mersenne was the first to describe sound as a frequency of oscillation: even today orchestras tune their instruments to A4 by the sound of a tuning fork vibrating 440 times per second (440hz). He also laid out an octave divided on a logarithmic scale that allowed musicians to transpose a melody into any key.

Johann Sebastian Bach came up with a slightly different division, “Well Temperament”: later his sons Wilhelm Friedermann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would be early adopters of twelve-tone equal temperament (12-TET). 12-TET tunings allowed Beethoven to produce his symphonies also allowed jazz musicians to explore musical possibilities heretofore undreamt of – and explore they did!

Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth

When Oliver Nelson  first heard Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Hindemith’s Symphony in E flat, he recalled:

It was the first time I had really heard modern music for back in St. Louis I hadn’t even known Negroes were allowed to go to concerts. I realized everything didn’t have to sound like Beethoven or Brahms, though they were unbelievable. I lifted a book on Hindemith’s music from the library and played things from it on the piano. It was the first time I had heard progressions like that. It was then I decided to become a composer.

Nelson would go on to record many highly-regarded jazz albums like The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961): less highbrow but more lucrative was his work scoring TV dramas like Ironside and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Another famous jazz composer and educator, George Russell, learned music theory from a fellow patient while recuperating from tuberculosis: he would go on to write the seminal book on jazz theory, The Lydian Chromatic Theory of Tonal Organization (1953). Classically trained pianist Billy Strayhorn wrote and arranged Ellington classics like “Lush Life” and “Take the A-Train.” Cool cats White and Black listened to Stravinsky and Bartok alongside Charlie Parker – and quite a few sought to bridge the gaps between the symphony hall and jazz club.

Third Stream Jazz and Jazz Fusion

Jaco Pastorius, 1986

In a 1957 lecture, Gunther Schuller noted Bartok’s use of Hungarian folk music and proposed an American “Third Stream” combining jazz and classical music a la George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue. Two years before his notorious telegram the Stan Kenton Orchestra won the 1954 Down Beat poll for City of Glass, a challenging work by avant-garde composer Robert Graettinger: in 1945 Stravinsky wrote an “Ebony Concerto” for clarinetist and bandleader Woody Herman.

But in giving Third Stream a name Schuller cleared a path for a new generation of musicians to fuse jazz sensibilities with classical technique. Among the most notable Third Stream proponents was Miles Davis: his Sketches of Spain features Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and an excerpt from Manuel de Falla’s ballet El amor brujo.

John Lewis combined his love of Chopin and Bach with the swing he learned playing alongside Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie: under his leadership the Modern Jazz Quartet wowed audiences with pieces that combined freewheeling solos with tight arrangements that owed as much to chamber music as bebop. Charles Mingus, whose music frequently ranged between Dixieland and Dvorak, wrote:

I think it is time our children were raised to think they can play bassoon, oboe, English horn, French horn, lull percussion, violin, cello. The results would be-well the Philharmonic would not be the only answer for us then. If we so-called jazz musicians who are the composers, the spontaneous composers, started including these instruments in our music, it would open everything up, it would get rid of prejudice because the musicianship would be so high in caliber that the symphony couldn’t refuse us.

 In the 1960s jazz faced a new challenge with the rise of rock and roll. As the Age of the Guitar Gods dawned, jazz became distinctly unfashionable. Beatniks smoked marijuana to jazz and fancied themselves “White Negroes.” Hippies preferred Jefferson Airplane with their cannabis.

Beboppers who scorned Satchmo and Sinatra as “stale figs” found themselves looking square. But as they had drawn from classical music in Third Stream, many jazz musicians sought a Fusion between rock’s raw power and jazz’s sophistication.

English guitarist John McLaughlin recorded with Miles Davis and Carlos Santana, as well as his own highly regarded Mahavishnu Orchestra.  African-American saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš and Austrian keyboard player Joe Zawinul founded Weather Report in 1970: over the next 16 years they produced a mélange of jazz, rock, and world music that earned several Grammy awards.

Yet ultimately all this cross-pollination bore surprisingly little fruit. Third Stream was dismissed as polite music for dinner parties. Fusion bands were often lumped in with Progressive Rock. With the advent of Punk and New Wave both were panned by many critics as pretentious and overblown.

Wynton Marsalis and the Definition of Jazz

Wynton Marsalis, 2009. Photo by Eric Delmar

The 80s also saw the rise of Wynton Marsalis. A brilliant trumpeter who won simultaneous Grammys for best jazz and best classical performer at 22, Marsalis is founder and director of Lincoln Center’s Jazz program. While nobody questions his talent or his devotion, Marsalis has raised many hackles with his strict definitions of jazz. As jazz critic Philip Clark describes it:

In interview after interview, Marsalis laid it on the line: the fashion for underpinning jazz with rock backbeats robbed the music of its innate sense of swing, just as free jazz, he claimed, removed the music from its roots in the blues, producing sounds more allied to European modern composition.

Marsalis’s vision of jazz is both very narrow and very Black. As famous jazz critic and curmudgeon Harvey Pekar notes:

With the exception of Gerry Mulligan, no white jazz musician has been honored at Lincoln Center. Presumably this has something to do with European Americans’ jazz being less bluesy than that of African Americans, but African Americans who aren’t into being bluesy, like Carter, receive special dispensation from Marsalis.

Perhaps he really thinks that Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Gil Evans, Dave Tough, Woody Herman, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Jack Teagarden are insignificant. If that’s the case, and if Marsalis isn’t motivated by racism, which is possible, then he certainly has severe taste limitations.

Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and Bill Evans

Miles Davis and Bill Evans, 1959

Perhaps the best illustration of the complex interrelationship between Black and White musicians is the nine-month partnership between Black trumpeter Miles Davis and White pianist Bill Evans. The bespectacled, conservatory-trained Evans stood out amidst Davis’s group like a Columbia professor at a Harlem picnic. Black audiences were frequently sparing in their applause during Evans’ solos, while Davis was fond of telling Evans “We don’t want no white opinions.”

Yet the notoriously thorny Davis was also effusive in his praise of Evans’ musicianship, saying he played “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” While Evans (who was as notorious for his insecurity as Davis was for his sharp tongue) found the banter and hostile audiences stressful, he would later allow that his time with the Miles Davis Sextet helped him acquire a great deal more self-confidence.

After departing the band, Miles reached out to Evans for one last studio session: the end result was the legendary Kind of Blue. Davis would later say that Evans opened many musical doors for him: for his part Evans summed up their partnership by saying “The really good jazz musicians only respect musicians they feel are worth respecting. There, there are no racial barriers.”

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