Writing as a white musician… jazz, Black music, and the tradition of honored guests
There is something special about being a guest. To be welcomed into someone’s home is to receive an act of giving, to accept an act of kindness. Hosting is a form of love. Being welcomed on any level means that someone is willing to make space in their lives for you, to share something that is theirs to give. When one receives a guest, the giver makes her or himself larger to make space for others. And that too is a gift. As Buckminster Fuller used to say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (a phenomenon he referred to as “synergy”).
Do forms of music have their own culturally specific homes? I have written on this topic in the past, and my answer continues to be yes they do. By this I do not mean that participation and even innovation is not open to everybody. Certainly these days, people have unprecedented access to all sorts of music, as listeners and as players. Just as there are (Indonesian) gamelan ensembles consisting of Euro-American musicians so too are there (Jewish) klezmer bands whose members are all Polish Christians. In both cases, the participants are surely aware that they perform music whose cultural homes are, respectively, Indonesian and Jewish.
So why is there such contention when the question arises about whether jazz has a culturally specific home?
Indeed, counted within the history of jazz are Black and white musicians. It is beyond contest that Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny and Matt Wilson are among the significant, original players of jazz history. All of them are white. They stand in the same room as the great Black jazz musicians Count Basie and Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. Each has been welcomed with honor by Black musical colleagues; yet does this change what most players know: that at its core, the musical roots and musical values of jazz are culturally formed and rooted within the history of Black America? *
In 2014, trumpeter Nicholas Payton urged that a distinction be made between the term “jazz” and the umbrella he refers to as “Black American Music” (aka BAM) **. To be clear, Payton is not using the word “jazz” to describe a musical heritage and genealogy (as most historians and many but not all musicians do) but to point to the use of the term as pejorative. He refers to “[all that serves] to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.” This is achieved by “the forces that control the system under which it’s sold.” Payton is not really criticizing musicians but, rather, institutions, periodicals and other commercial enterprises that he understands as functioning as musical agents of white supremacy. Payton is not saying that the music we have come to call jazz is the exclusive province of Black people. His contention is in fact that unlike the product called “jazz,” “Black music” is simply all music that is “informed by the Black tradition.” Certainly there is much music associated with “jazz” that Payton would likely identify as “Black music.”
I resonate with Payton’s understanding that the term “jazz” operates within the context of white supremacy. This helps us interpret the oft assertion that “music has no color” as similar to the provocative response to “Black lives matter”: “all lives matter.” Surely every life matters, yet the emphasis on “Black” is corrective, reflecting the importance of shining a spotlight on how little Black lives are valued within the United States. Often, the universalized word “all” refers not to everyone and everything, but to just that which this society actually values. White supremacy masks how racism operates: white becomes the universal and Black the exception. Thus, privileging “Black” in the “lives matter” declaration finds a parallel in the term “Black music” in that it points to the falsity of the level playing field.
Here is what I’m suggesting: to assert that jazz was raised within and depends upon the cultural values of “everyone’s” home is not constructive. It is, of course, partially true. But within a society where “everyone” who is valued actually means “white”, why not simply turn the table and treat “Black” as normative and inclusive? Just as people increasingly recognize that the male pronoun is not gender inclusive and thus correctively use “she” to mean “we”, why not refer to this music that we—Black, white and other—musicians play as, in its essence, “Black music”? ***
When I refer to jazz as “Black music” I place myself, a white musician, as an honored guest in a home that is not mine. Doing so takes the energy out of the defensive posture assumed by some white musicians and critics; one does not have to own something to belong within it. One can be welcomed, hosted, treated with the love that results from the expansive act of being an invited guest. Yes, there will be times where one is not welcomed or simply not selected. Yet to refer to this as “reverse racism” is inaccurate; there is no systematic, societal infrastructure that privileges Black people for choosing a fellow Black musician for a gig. ****
At the same time, most musicians know the sting of not finding the support we desire and need to do our work. Music in general and, in particular, music that lives outside “music industry”-sponsored commerce is highly undervalued. Most musicians take a hit as they struggle to create given a lack of essential support and resources, places to play, and public exposure.
No doubt, some may resist my suggestion that white musicians (like myself) embrace the idea of being guests and affirm that we play music whose historical home is in Black America. Surely, this may mean experiencing a sense of dislocation that is part of the daily Black experience. But why should the present not be a good moment for, at very least, a musicians’ thought experiment? Naming what we call “our” music is always an inherently political act. Maybe letting go of the “feeling” that white musicians lose something by enthusiastically affirming Black music is a concrete step to disengage ourselves from white supremacy. And doing so lifts all boats.
One further thought, and maybe the most crucial: let’s talk about priorities. Musicians, irrespective of what they play, and particularly if they play music informed by Black culture, must first care deeply about Black America. Cherishing African American society, showing concern about its welfare, knowing its history, acting with commitment in response to its struggles… in short, showing devotion to Black people, that must be the strongest priority. The idea that affirming the humanity of any person could be viewed as revolutionary (rather than ordinary) is sad, but such is the nature of a society that devalues Black lives. Devotion to people comes first and engagement in music second.
* To some degree, any discussion on this topic is a response to the assertion that jazz is either “America’s Music” or, as Billy Taylor posited, “America’s Classical Music” (or even “Black America’s Classical Music”). There is truth to the first contention, for indeed it was on American soil that this music was nurtured (despite the racial violence staining that soil). And there is a positive intention within the second and third contentions, reflecting the desire to legitimate the music as equal in cultural capital to European classical music. But at the same time, there is no value in offering equations between music that is different in kind; why compare music that thrives on improvisation with music that is grounded in repertory performance? Is it not better to simply assert that each is inherently valuable in of itself?
*** In fact, most American musicians today engage, in some manner, traditions of Black music. American music, after all, is substantially influenced by Black music. What, for instance, is rock music without The Blues or R&B? What popular music today is not in some way impacted by hip hop?
**** I am referencing Randy Sandke’s 2010 book Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz, that includes the contention that white jazz musicians are victimized by racially-driven exclusion.