Jazz in Black and White:
Race Culture, and Identity
in the Jazz Community
by Charley Gerard
Praeger Publishers, 224 pages, $39.95
Reviewed by Jim Linduff
At first glance, another book discussing the issues of racial animosity within the jazz community would seem to be unnecessary, the subject has been argued and written to death in recent years. Jazz critics and artists have bombarded our senses with positions concerning jazz as "black music," exclusively belonging to African Americans vs. a universal idiom, open to all who can be creative and perform it. Do we really need more of this?
Charley Gerard, a white jazz saxophonist presents balanced arguments from both sides of the issue, allowing the reader to draw conclusions with only the most subtle help from the author and thus, making this book of value to those of us who care about jazz and its future.
Gerard, in addition to being a musician and composer has authored several books on jazz and Latin music including Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music (1989) and Improvising Jazz Sax (1979). He has also transcribed and edited Thelonious Monk, Originals and Standards (1991), Sonny Rollins (1981) and Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook (1993).
In nine loosely connected chapters written as separate essays, Gerard examines the formulation of musical identity in the face of racial difference. He surveys the previous literature dealing with race and jazz and, while forming no strong conclusions, frames themes that can be studied further by the reader.
In early chapters, he concludes that African-Americans do comprise an ethnic group and a culture that fostered the development of jazz and from which the masters emerged—from Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane—the list goes on and on. Given these premises, Gerard tackles the issue of recognizing jazz as "black music", exclusive to the African-American culture or open to all artists capable of creating the music.
The proponents of the black music theology are headed by Amiri Baraka, who argued in his book Blues People (1963), that jazz is exclusively the music of African Americans—born and created by people living the black experience—and while whites could learn how to copy the jazz sound, they could not be considered creators since they are not part of the culture. Stanley Crouch is also given consideration, but his criticism is so full of rhetoric and racial stereotyping that few—with the notable exception of Wynton Marsalis—give him credence. Gerard does not.
Both James Lincoln Collier, author of Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), and Gene Lees, author of Cats of Any Color (1994), are represented as writers who have studied the issues of race and jazz and who have argued against the "black only" proponents, but from different perspectives.
Collier presents a position that the Creole influence in the early birth of jazz discounts any black cultural origin—even disputes the existence of a black culture at all—thoughts thoroughly discounted by most serious cultural theorists. Gerard considers the Collier viewpoints narrow and lacking an understanding of the diversity evident in any culture's history.
Gene Lees is better treated in the book, best describing the development of jazz as a continuous stream where artists learn and build on each other's performance regardless of race. In addition, Lees describes the anger that both black and white musicians experience when having to deal with racial discrimination instead of being valued for the music they create. In this context, Gerard argues that creativity and innovation are human characteristics going beyond race and culture, not a product of any given people.
Through chapters on religious and racial identity, the makeup of jazz communities and culture, and through interviews discussing the lives of three musicians, Gerard deftly presents the "data" on the issues of race, adding subtle conclusions of his own.
As I read the book, I found myself researching the books of many of the authors quoted and formulating different perspectives using Gerard as a guide. Because "Jazz in Black & White" is a survey of a wide range of ideas, no one thought is developed with much depth, but this is a valuable book allowing the reader to develop perspective and to research further rather than being blasted with the rhetoric common in previous works.
Again, do we need any more of this? In my opinion , the answer is, "You bet we do."
As jazz resources continue to get smaller, turf wars escalate and people tend to band together by race and culture. Just as in conflicts among nations and with religious strife, people turn to their own kind, suspicious of outsiders. Thus, we get the kind of criticism lodged against Wynton Marsalis, of how he runs the Lincoln Center program using few white players and honoring no white pioneers, and the kind of utterances by Keith Jarrett, who counters that Marsalis has no voice and no presence in jazz.
The more we learn about the causes of these feelings and actions, the more likely they can be brought to a viable compromise. Gerard doesn't try to provide the answers but does an excellent job of outlining the issues and a framework to proceed. A valuable book, given those objectives.
Jim Linduff teaches jazz history in the Continuing Education Department of the University of Cincinnati. He reviews the novel BlueBossa and comments on Blue: The Murder of Jazz elsewhere on this website.