Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jazz and Discrimination

Jazz and Discrimination

Anyone even distantly familiar with the history of jazz knows that African-Americans suffered indignities, insults, exclusions because of their race—they played for people who would not let them stay in the same hotels, prohibited them from entering by the front door, and would not sit with them on a bus. Paul Whiteman couldn’t get a person of color on the same stage as his all-white orchestra. Overall, it was an ugly period, and persists, perhaps less overtly, into more recent times.

There has been a kind of reverse discrimination at times as well—the idea that only African Americans can play jazz authentically, or have the true, soulful spirit required for the deepest expression of jazz. At a concert by the Clark Terry band once, I heard a very fine white trombonist’s solo get a mild reaction, while a black trombonist’s much less technical but more blues-inflected solo drew enthusiastic response. Acknowledging, for the record, that technique by itself does not a fine solo make, it seemed to me that the audience was responding to the second soloist’s racial background as much as to his ideas, which were pretty shopworn.

Jazz is for all players, and there are many kinds of jazz. The Japanese have adopted it enthusiastically, and one of the finest bands in the world is fronted by a Swiss pianist/composer/arranger, George Gruntz. His musicians play like forest fires, and they come from everywhere; over the years, they have included many of the most notable American jazz soloists, black and white. For probably unpleasant reasons, jazz has been more widely accepted and admired in Europe than in America. Americans who hadn’t been able to get a career started here were able to do so in Europe. Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight depicts the experience of many African Americans in Europe.

But then, America has often been behind the curve when it comes to the arts and international politics.

I give thanks for jazz. It isn’t that African Americans forged from their grim experiences something that others have been able to rip off without going through the suffering; it’s that African Americans brought to the surface a dimension of universal humanness that others recognized and responded to, then discovered in themselves. The reservoir of the inner was enlarged with the creation of jazz, and it transcends race and culture.

Racism is shameful, a nasty, small-minded impulse with devastating consequences. To the extent that The Other represents something universal, discrimination is ultimately a rejection of part of the self, a fear of acknowledging that you might be something you haven’t realized. It is a terror of the self. I remember a powerful statement by Ishmael Reed from one of the essays in his book Airing Dirty Laundry. He realized, after years of collecting stories about racism, that white people’s accusations and fears— that black people represented savagery, lust, violence—were really projections of their own nature, fears of their own impulses. Ralph Ellison hits the nail on the head in his depiction of a black family where the father has had an incestual relationship with his daughter. The man is an innocent, good-hearted father who didn’t intend harm (as he relates the incident). White men drool over this story: in their conscious minds, it confirms their stereotype of the unbridled lust of the black man; Ellison makes it evident, however, that white men relish the story because this black man has done something they wish they could do. The character Emerson, in fact, has had an incestual relationship with his daughter. As a wealthy New Englander, though, he is able to keep his shameful act a secret and send his daughter to a European boarding school to cover up her shame. He recognizes in the black man’s situation a mirror of his own.

I am certainly not advocating incest, nor was Ellison. His point was, that as humans, regardless of color, we share a great deal. By coincidence, one man’s secret shame is another’s public shame. In all this mix, hypocritical self-righteousness is the greatest shame. We see that in leaders of the Church who have been found out to have mistresses, or who fulminate against homosexuality but are caught soliciting gay sex.

True terrorism is the rage against aspects of our own nature. It results in the suppression of women; it results in the repression of sexuality, it results in brutal treatment of homosexuals, male and female.

Western religion is one institutional manifestation of that terror—its deepest principles—hostile to joy in daily life—were formulated for everyone by men who rejected fullness in their own lives and recommended that choice as the right one for all. St. Paul and St. Augustine, to name only two, lived single lives (St. Augustine, after he had fully accepted the Christian faith—he had a mistress and child prior to accepting the faith). St. Paul was explicit: he wished all could be like himself—celibate, not distracted by the vicissitudes and demands of daily life. Paul’s allowances for married life were just that: concessions to the “weakness of the flesh.”

We’ve had our heads on backwards about that idea for centuries. What terrified many in America about both black people and “their” music (blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll) was the insistence on strong feeling, its tendency to be like a hurricane, or a flood, or a tidal wave, leaving the listener helpless. The European composers were much safer (until the modern era)—their music stayed safely within the bounds of decorum, or had an acceptably romantic tinge (Beethovan and his successors could be pretty dangerous, too). Performances are “correct”—whatever happened to improvisation in “legit” music? Bach and Mozart were both superhuman improvisers; now classical musicians study how to produce the most accurate and sensitive rendition of stable musical texts.

It isn’t an accident that the Seven Deadly Sins refer to acts like overeating, overindulging in sex, wanting too much, getting too angry. At extremes, these can be destructive. But these impulses bubble up from the same well as jazz, or Beethovan’s 9th Symphony. This may be one reason why so many artists’ and musicians’ strong impulses spill over from their art into their personal lives. The problem is fearing strong emotion and impulse in any form (like jazz, which, well-played, has the fury of unbridled greed, lust, anger, appetite, or envy). People seem to have trouble distinguishing between the acceptable, the unacceptable. In order to avoid the destruction they fear, they reject everything.

Everyone is everything. Whites have the savagery and lust in their nature, as well as the humanity, the joy, the sense of intensity. Jazz is a gift to the world at large, a gift of self-realization, and a key to the inner nature of its source. Ostracizing it is cutting yourself off at the pass, as my grandmother did: for her jazz was Gene Krupa, and Gene Krupa was the Devil: a heroine addict, He Who Must Be Shunned, along with his music and everything about him and his associates.

My grandmother—the one portrait she had done of herself (pictures taken by others are less severe) shows her in her rocking chair with her Bible. If we misbehaved, she was Armageddon herself, storming the house with a strap. No wonder someone wrote a tune called "Ain't Misbehavin'." The archetypal grandmother with her strap threatens us all and makes us fear music that "misbehaves."


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