A review by JJA President Howard Mandel.
Randy Sandke’s polemic on jazz criticism and race
Review by Howard Mandel
Randall Sandke, known to jazz aficionados as a trumpeter and composer, has written a provocative, exhaustively researched and ambitiously analytical book about a significant and endlessly complicated topic: race and jazz. A third-rail issue if ever there was one, the integration of America’s 20th and now 21st century culture with our continuing sociological and ethnographic history involves compelling material, presenting many highly sensitive issues to participants of any and all U.S. arts.
Unfortunately, Sandke’s entire book seems aimed to support an agenda rather than explore a thesis or celebrate the achievements jazz musicians of every stripe have made to overcome social prejudice. His argument is with history and myth – implacable adversaries — and his perspective nowhere near as comprehensive or unclouded by personal bias as he believes it to be.
As a musician, Sandke is thoroughly informed and inspired by tradition, with bracingly original ideas about modernity and creativity. Though regarded as a specialist in early repertoire, he has performed in every jazz sub-style, and recorded examples of his own “metatonal” harmonic theory. Presumably he’s had many experiences working with black and white, yellow and brown musicians worldwide. However, here he writes less about the triumphs, collaborations and spaces shared by African-, Hispanic-, Caribbean- and Euro-American individuals so much as detail what he considers to be the romanticization and politicization of black musicians’ contributions in comparison to what he thinks is the slighting of Caucasians’ deep involvement since the beginning in the creation and dissemination of the bluesy, swinging, hot and cool music.
While acknowledging that the most inspired, innovative and influential jazz musicians have overwhelmingly been black, Sandke insists that white jazz composers, players, bandleaders and businessmen – even the famous ones who made fortunes — have consistently been denied appropriate status in the music. He shrugs off the obvious: that white popularizers from Paul Whiteman through Kenny G have been rewarded with promotion, acceptance and wealth disproportionate to the value of many other musicians’ creativity.
Sandke nods to but doesn’t factor into his discussion the reality that for most of the past hundred years and maybe still, black musicians in America have operated at a considerable disadvantage, and that the work by everyone from the authors of Jazzmen and Marshall Stearns through Gary Giddins (and perhaps – due self-recognition – myself) has been intended at least in part as a corrective. Without the efforts of white writers who Sandke accuses of having been overly laudatory to black musicians – and also the enthusiasm of listeners of all stripes – the music of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the other greats may never have been heard by the majority of white America at all.
“Does jazz represent the expression of a distinct and independent African-American culture, isolated by its long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination?” Sandke asks at his book’s outset. “Or, even when produced by African-Americans (or anyone else for that matter) is it more properly understood as the juncture of a wide variety of influences under the broader umbrella of American and indeed world culture?” Typifying the first notion as “exclusionary” and the second as “inclusionary,” the author launches himself into a false binary. In the vast sphere of contemporary musical activity that should all fall under the umbrella term “jazz” it’s not too difficult to entertain both depictions: jazz as derived from specifically African-American culture, but a sponge for every type of influence, processed through myriad unique and personal lenses, some of them belonging to white practitioners (and also brown, red, yellow, female as well as male and gltb ones). That is a perspective jazz commentators from Amiri Baraka through Wynton Marsalis and maybe including Sandke himself might agree on.
“Through the dark days of legalized segregation and on into the civil rights era, jazz shone as a beacon for achieving interracial respect and understanding.” Sandke poses this as an image of a departed Golden Age, though a closer look at evidence brought to light by other tomes makes the claim dubious. “It seemed as if the dream of a color-blind society was within reach in the jazz world, where musicians were judged on merit and not on skin color. Status in the jazz world was conferred on the basis of real achievement and not some artificial standard of rank or pedigree, and the music itself was infused with honesty and integrity.” A little later, he adds: “I want to see music judged on its own terms free of external considerations.” Well, isn’t that a nice thought. Dream on, pilgrim, dream on.
But rather than consider that the status of musicians in the jazz world may not be free of external circumstances, and that those circumstances during at least the first half-century of jazz explicitly favored musicians with white skins who appealed often exclusively to white audiences, Sandke cites as villains who demonized white jazzers the jazz press and people he presents as self-serving, two-faced producer-propagandists (Alan Lomax, John Hammond) and parties he identifies with the Depression Era left-leaning “Popular Front”: Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Langston Hughes, Milt Gabler, Norman Granz, Barney Josephson and Max Gordon among them. He sees the culmination of this distorted view in the rise of Wynton Marsalis and establishment of Jazz At Lincoln Center. According to the author, these jazz supporters were “activists,” upholding the primacy and purity of African-American jazz to advance the social imperative of civil rights regardless of aesthetic realities of “merit.”
Sandke’s contention is that a vast, powerful cadre of commentators spread the view that being black was essential to being a jazz musician. He’s right that this belief was often expressed, and I’d say right that it has often been exaggerated, perhaps even to the detriment of white musicians of merit. But he is severely mistaken to think the press or any other clique has had the power to force such a debatable notion on the greater public. The press and “activists” Sandke deplores have never been able to limit the success of white popularizers or genuinely artistic white musicians. Seldom have they tried.
Have Bix, Eddie Condon and the Austin High Gang, white swing band stars and soloists, jazz singers starting with black-faced Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson (later Crosby, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney), Lennie Tristano and his acolytes, Stan Kenton and his sidemen, guitarists from Les Paul through Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow to Joe Pass and Jim Hall, vibist Red Norvo, pianists George Shearing, Marian McPartland (the rare woman to maintain a lengthy jazz career) and Bill Evans, bassists Scott LaFaro, Red Mitchell, Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and Jaco Pastorius, saxophonists from Bud Freeman through Steve Lacy and Michael Brecker, trumpeters such as Harry James, Chet Baker and Maynard Ferguson, trombonists including Bill Watrous, Frank Rosalino and Roswell Rudd, drummers as different as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Paul Motian, composer-arrangers Claude Thornhill, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, Bob Brookmeyer and Bill Holman been overlooked or underrated? In favor of whom? Have Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Herb Alpert, Harry Connick and Jamie Cullum not prospered? Yes, so have Oscar Peterson, Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. Have unworthy musicians “of color” been forced on the larger culture? Are their reputations sustained by hype? Compare and contrast.
Since the triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and rise of fusion circa 1970 (which Sandke ignores) the place where light and dark folks, or at least their ideas, genuinely meet has greatly changed. Jazz journalists, scholars and listeners who’ve emerged over the past 40 years seem to generally have more nuanced views of who’s black, who’s white, who’s great, who’s not than previous generations did. Marsalis does get a lion’s share of press attention and public funding – he’s also lived up to the responsibilities of all that.
Today’s biggest jazz stars and/or most respected improvising artists include Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau, Mike Mainieri, Joey Defrancesco, Pat Metheny, John Pizzarelli, John McLaughlin and John Scofield, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, John Patitucci and Gary Peacock, Chris Botti and Dave Douglas, Jay (Spyro Gyra) Beckenstein, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl and Matt Wilson, Medeski, Martin and Wood, the Bad Plus, composer/bandleaders Carla Bley, Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue – need I go on? Up and coming there’s a generation of jazz stars with highly diverse ethnic/racial backgrounds — Joshua Redman, Esperanza Spalding, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Norah Jones, Miguel Zenon, Dave Fiuczynski . . .Where do they fit on a color line? Who cares? Why does it matter?
For an in-depth study of the complicated realities regarding jazz and race, there is a worthy bookshelf. On it, find Cats of Every Color by Gene Lees; Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans by Charles Hersch; The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture by Jon Panish; Come In and Hear the Truth: Jazz and Race on 52nd Street by Patrick Burke and Lost Chords by Richard Sudhalter. Each of these, and other books with similar focus, contribute to a richer understanding of a multi-faceted topic. Sandke’s volume may belong on that shelf, too, representing the yearnings of a man who is primarily a musician seeking attention for musicians he admires who he feels have been thwarted due to unfair perspectives on their chosen field. I find little in his selective evidence and muddled analysis to convince me that past perspectives have been overwhelmingly unfair. But Where The Dark and Light Folks Meet has accomplished one of its author’s possibly unintended, certainly unstated goals. Reading it has compelled me to return to Randall Sandke’s recordings to listen.
• • •