Jazz, Race, Politics: Randy Sandke Replies to Howard Mandel
[Editor’s note: This piece is in reply to Howard Mandel’s book review, posted December 20, 2010.]
Let’s start with what my book is about. It recounts how several jazz writers from the late 1930s (the dawn of jazz writing) to the present day have attempted to impose extra-musical agendas on the music. The book meticulously documents the many ways jazz history and criticism have been distorted to serve ideological ends. The book is neither pro-white nor pro-black; rather it is pro-musician and pro-music.
Among the issues I raise (and Mandel’s review doesn’t address) are: What are the dangers of combining history with social activism? How have both black and white musicians been negatively impacted by stereotypes? Are the rhythmic approaches of African music and jazz fundamentally the same? Was the notion that music performed in Congo Square decisively influenced early jazz a sham? How, if at all, did Jim Crow laws affect the creation of jazz? What was Buddy Bolden’s real contribution to the music? When did white musicians begin playing jazz in New Orleans and why? How did pop tunes of the ’30s influence the emergence of bebop? How does avant-garde jazz relate to the modernist movement? How did the riots of the ’60s shape race relations in America? Why did the ideals of separatism win out over integration? How did jazz go from a self-proclaimed art form to an icon of black achievement? How have jazz writers been complicit in devaluing the importance of innovation in jazz? Is Wynton Marsalis the equal of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong given the fact they were innovators and he is not? Has an emphasis on group identity over individualism contributed to a lack of overall creativity within the jazz scene? How did big business dominate the jazz world for twenty years starting in the 1980s? And I’m just up to chapter 7 (out of 12).
Mandel accuses me of creating a “false binary” by asking whether jazz “represents the expression of a distinct and independent African-American culture, isolated by its long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. 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?” He attempts to correct me by saying, “it’s not too difficult to entertain both depictions.” But my very next paragraph states: “This is a question that ultimately doesn’t require an either/or answer, as there is truth in both positions.”
According to Mandel, my book “insists that white jazz composers, players, bandleaders and business men — even the famous ones who have made fortunes — have consistently been denied appropriate status in the music.” I defy Mandel to find a single quote in the book that supports this thesis. I’m not even sure what he means by “appropriate status”: money, recognition, work opportunities? I never made any such claim, nor would I.
I can only touch on a few examples of Mandel’s complete misinterpretation of my book in the 500 words granted me by the JJA. Please click this link to see my full response.
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