Author: Eugene Holley, Jr.

Beats, Record Bins, and Retail Life: A Tower Records Appreciation

Tower Records — the legendary, uber-mega record store chain — was long gone before its founder-owner Russ Solomon died recently at the age of 92. If you were born, say, after 1996, you have lived entirely in an age where you are only a digital download away from your music. No one would deny the convenience of having studio-quality sound at your fingertips, especially if you are a radio DJ. However, when brick-and-mortar record shops went the way of the analog dinosaur, some very important, humanistic interactions that advanced the music culture went with them: namely, the group experience of listening, evaluating, debating, and enjoying music face-to-face.

I knew that experience very well as the Jazz Buyer for the Towers Records store at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington D.C. from 1987 to 1989. I came there from a smaller, but distinguished local chain, Olsson’s Record & Tape on 19th and L, NW, a few blocks from the old NPR headquarters. The move from the former to the latter was akin to moving up from the minors to the big leagues. My jazz room at Tower was larger than the entire Olsson’s store I came from! We had the deepest jazz collection in the city, and what we didn’t have, we could order faster than anybody else.

There was an expectation that jazz would be profitable.

So there I was, 26 years old (but looking 16), running a jazz department for one of the world’s largest record stores. The perks were manna from music heaven: I picked the music played in my section; I got promos galore; and, most importantly, I got on the guest lists to see jazz artists who played at Blues Alley and One Step Down—two of DC’s best jazz clubs. But it was so much more than those spoils for me, because it was at that position that I got to see the business of jazz from a multitude of perspectives. In addition to working at Tower, I was also working as a freelance reporter/producer at NPR, and I was a substitute DJ at WDCU-FM, the University of the District of Columbia’s station. I got a chance to see first-hand how a record played in a record store or on the radio becomes popular, and how the record companies market and promote their product, especially if one of their artists is coming to town for a gig. More importantly, I saw all of this during the so-called Young Lions period of the ‘80s, when, much to the chagrin of veteran musicians, younger and more marketable whippersnappers enjoyed the benefit of full label support: posters, pre-recorded interviews and radio voiceovers, tickets to gigs and in-store appearances. It shouldn’t go without saying that there was an expectation that jazz would be profitable, visible, and accessible — a far cry from today.

But I wasn’t a one-man show at Tower Record – far from it! I worked with a fantastic crew of fellow jazz travelers: Herb Harris was a teenage college student and tenor saxophone colossus-in-the-making who went on to record with pianist Marcus Roberts on his critically acclaimed LP, Deep in the Shed as well as with Wynton Marsalis. Katea Stitt, the daughter of alto sax legend Sonny Stitt, is now the program director of DC’s WPFW-FM.  Bill McLaurin, a radio veteran who came to Washington from Philadelphia’s jazz powerhouse, WRTI-FM, hosted a very popular show on WDCU-FM and, would later go on to make history as the first African-American store manager in Tower’s history. He stayed with the company for nine years.

We deeply respected each other’s takes on the music. We would often get into some long convos and debates about the music, sometimes for hours at a time. This was much to the horror of our store managers but to the delight of our customers, who not only listened but would often join in on our extended verbal jam sessions and leave with more music than they intended to buy.

I marvel at the customers we had.

When I think back to that time, I marvel at the customers we had. Some were famous: Senator and ex-New York Knick Bill Bradley asked me to recommend three jazz trombonists for his nephew, and he bought albums by J.J. Johnson, Robin Eubanks, and Kai Winding. I distinctly remember the rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork sifting through the bins before heading on into the classical department in the next room. There was Fred Kaplan, a graduate of Oberlin College and MIT, who became a superb journalist, covering international relations and foreign policy for Slate, as well as the author of several books including 1959: The Year That Changed Everything and Dark Territory: The Secret History of the Cyber War. And then there was Mr. Ellis Marsalis, the pianist/patriarch of that famous Crescent City family who had just moved from New Orleans to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and who would perform in D.C., often at the One Step Down, which was about ten minutes walking distance from the store.  I remember Mr. Marsalis going through every bin from A to Z, pointing out to me which musicians and recordings were important to study. He insisted that I check out Louis Jordan, whom he considered to be a key transitional figure in jazz and R&B.

The last days of the San Francisco branch of Tower Records showing the Twoer Records logo on the storefront covered with a "Going Out of Business" banner.

Tower Records, no more (2006) by Yaniv Yaakubovich

I left Tower in 1989, to work at NPR fulltime as a production assistant. The next year, I worked for about nine months at The National Jazz Service under the direction of Willard Jenkins, then left D.C. for Atlanta and became the program director of radio station WCLK-FM. Even after I left Tower, it continued to play a significant role in my jazz life, as evidenced by the many articles I wrote for Tower Pulse! magazine, under the editorship of Marc Weidenbaum. In those days, the magazine, pound-for-pound, held its own against bigger-name periodicals and was free.

…a lost anthropology of how people listened to, loved, and bought music…

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that I saw the writing on the wall: that the days of Tower – and of the mega-record store – were coming to an end. There were rumors of something called MP3 files, where you could download digital copies of your favorite tracks to your computer. It didn’t take a genius to conclude that this would eventually make redundant the need for behemoth record stores. By the beginning of the 21st century, Tower Records stores were closing, and with them a kind of lost anthropology of how people listened to, loved, and bought music. I’ll miss the little things that went on between the record store worker and the customer that young people today would consider alien: like when somebody asked you for “the grandma song,” and you knew she meant Dianne Reeves’s love letter to her grandmother, “Better Days,” or the dude who didn’t know the name of that Al Jarreau song, but thinks you’d know it when he attempted to scat it! Sadly, track-identifying apps have all but eliminated the need of those musical detective skills.

But just as vinyl made a comeback after its supposed demise, maybe in a future time, people will want more than the digital domain can deliver, and the retail records store will reemerge, reborn and remixed to suit the day. In the words of Ornette Coleman, “Tomorrow is the Question.”

Notes from the Custerdome: A Jazz Appreciation of Steely Dan

“We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.” – Walter Becker in 1974 (Rolling Stone)

The death of Walter Becker—the bespectacled and bearded guitarist, bassist, composer, lyricist, and one-half of the legendary duo Steely Dan—on September 3, 2017, ended a fifty-year friendship and a four-decade-old partnership with his co-collaborator, pianist, vocalist, and composer Donald Fagen. They were, to borrow a phrase used by Duke Ellington, “beyond category.” Simply put, from their debut LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), to their last studio CD, Everything Must Go (2003), Becker and Fagen existed as their own genre and played by their own rules. After a less-than-satisfying touring experience early in their career, they quit the road and focused on the studio until the ’90s. They were famous (or infamous) for their penchant for retakes until they achieved perfection. They named themselves after a steam-powered marital aid from William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, and wrote cynical, and dystopian songs about L.A. drug dealers (“Glamour Profession”), prophylactics (“The Fez”), class and immigration (“The Royal Scam”), mid-life identity crisis (“Deacon Blues”), incest (“Cousin Dupree”), middle-age lust (“Hey Nineteen”),  and relationships (“Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”), along with hippie-fied, spaghetti-western ditties (“Here at the Western World”).

Steely Dan proved that pop music could be harmonically complex and quirky.

They proved that pop music could be harmonically complex and quirky in the early to mid-’70s, when the then-new FM format allowed for longer cuts, and more expansive playlists, genre-wise. In my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware—about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, where almost all of our television and radio stations broadcasted from—I heard black artists such as Howard University’s BlackByrds, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and Billy Preston on WAMS-AM, a white station, and the powerhouse black station WDAS-FM played Elton John, David Bowie, Chicago, Rare Earth, Seals and Crofts, and Steely Dan. It was on WDAS that I heard their early hits like “Rikki…” and “Do It Again.”

Then, in 1977, they dropped their masterpiece LP, Aja. I completely and utterly lost my sixteen-year-old mind when I heard the first track from that LP, “Black Cow,” on WDAS.  The track swung, with a lean, finessed funk I had never heard from them before. Who could make a song about a malt drink sound so funky? The music had “swagger,” with its perfect, in-the-pocket bassline, rock-steady drumming, laced with pithy, yet powerful horn lines, Becker’s twangy guitar chords and Fagen’s gravelly and unmistakably Brooklynesque, New Yawk/North New Jersey vocals. That station played other dynamic cuts from Aja, from the mid-tempo, Muscle Shoals-Motown-Beale Street beats of “Home at Last,” a paean to Homer’s The Odyssey, and “Josie,” a shout to a woman who “prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire,” to the cunningly lingual “I Got the News.”

In addition to the way the music sounded, thanks to Gary Katz’s excellent production, I wondered why this album spoke to me in the way that their earlier LPs did not. I got my answer on the title track: seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds of pure, musical nirvana. It wasn’t a cut or a tune, but a true composition of poetry, passion, and propulsion about some far away, Eastern exotic locale located on “a continent of the mind,” as the voice of Eartha Kitt purred on the TV commercial promoting the LP, where “angular banjos” sounded good to them.

Then, after Becker’s snaky arpeggios at four minutes and forty seconds into the song, “Galactus” a.k.a. Wayne Shorter, unfurls one of the most unforgettable tenor saxophone solos in rock history. Packed with the density of a white-hot dwarf star, Shorter writes his sonic signature on the epidermis of Becker and Fagen’s exquisite musical canvas with his concentrated, Coltranesque solo, which is powerfully pulsated by Steve Gadd’s vivid and volcanic drumming, paralleling Billy Cobham’s thunderous drumwork with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was jazz fusion in its finest form.

“We had this piece [‘Aja’], which had this long modal section,” Fagen proudly told me in my interview with him in 2013 for Wax Poetics magazine.  “And we thought, ‘who would be the ideal person for the track?’ And we said, ‘Wayne Shorter.’ On the first try, he said no. But we knew someone who knew him, and he asked him, because he didn’t know who we were. So we sent him the track, and he liked it and decided to come in. And he nailed it on the first take. That was one of the best moments for us.”

This is the same Wayne Shorter who co-founded the jazz fusion group Weather Report, and the same Wayne Shorter who played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. And there was also the keyboardist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman, who delivered a gorgeous, stop-time solo on “Black Cow.” He also played with Miles in the ’60s. And there were other jazz stars on Aja: keyboardists Don Grolnick and Joe Sample of the Crusaders; guitarists Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, and Steve Khan; drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (who hailed from nearby Elkton, Maryland), bassist Chuck Rainey, and saxophonists Tom Scott (on lyricon) and Pete Christlieb, (who delivered an impassioned, one-take, swinging solo on “Deacon Blues”) to name a select few.

This is the source of Steely Dan’s signature sound: their incorporation of the jazz aesthetic in every aspect of their already broad musical conception.

This is the source of Steely Dan’s signature sound: their incorporation of the jazz aesthetic in every aspect of their already broad musical conception, from the time they met at Bard College in 1967. With this realization, I dug into the crates of their early hits with a new divining rod that could detect their jazzy nuggets. I heard their perfect, note-for-note take on Duke Ellington’s 1927 classic “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” from Pretzel Logic (1974). I learned that the intro of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was inspired by pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father.” I dug Phil Woods’ Charlie Parker-sweetened, alto saxophone solo on “Doctor Wu” from Katy Lied (1975). I loved Khan’s aquiline guitar lines on “Glamour Profession” from their Aja follow-up, Gaucho (1980), after which they disbanded for two decades. (Becker moved to Hawaii and Fagen stayed in New York, with both releasing solo projects.)  I was also astonished by Chris Potter’s blistering, nearly four-minute tenor sax solo on “West of Hollywood” from their comeback CD, Two Against Nature (2000), which was released twenty years after Gaucho.

Covers for all 9 Steely Dan albums arranged chronologically.

Steely Dan’s nine studio albums

Their love of jazz extended far back into their childhoods, as Becker and Fagen grew up in New York and New Jersey. Again, from my Wax Poetics interview with Fagen:

Well, my mother was a professional singer when she was young, from the age of five to fifteen. She used to sing from a club in the Catskills. She was a swing singer, although she didn’t stick with it. She sang around the house. So I heard a lot of standards as a kid, which is essentially the life force, the lingua franca of jazz—aside from original jazz tunes. So I was familiar with most of those tunes. And when I started playing the piano, I picked out those tunes on the piano. And then I had a cousin named Barbara, who was older than I—she was a good-lookin’ chick! She used to go into the Village and go to clubs. She actually became friendly with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and so on. And she had a great record collection. When we’d go over her house, she’d bring us down to her basement and play those great records: Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin live, and so on. I was nine or ten. I loved it, and I listened to a lot of radio broadcasts out of New York. That’s how I got into jazz.

Through the years, jazz musicians got into them.

And through the years, jazz musicians got into them, as evidenced by Ahmad Jamal’s bumpin’ version of “Black Cow,” from his album One (1978), Woody Herman’s big band take on the song “Aja” on his LP Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow (1978), and bassist Christian McBride’s ebullient rendition of the same song for his CD Sci-Fi (2000), as well as the long out-of-print LP Hoops McCann Plays the Music of Steely Dan (1988).

Today, to paraphrase Bud Powell, the scene has changed: a generation of young musicians, some of whom weren’t even born when Aja was released, play with the same, jazz-centric fluency that made Steely Dan unique, including the sidemen who played on their live gigs, which resumed in the ’90s. I reviewed their performance in October 2016 at New York’s Beacon Theater, where they performed the entire Aja album, for DownBeat. Fagen may be the frontman, but it was Becker who turned it out, instrumentally, effortlessly blending Grant Green, T-Bone Walker, and Johnny Guitar Watson into his own silken sound. At one point in their greatest hits segment, during Becker’s banter on “Hey Nineteen,” he said, motioning toward Fagen, “Can you believe I’ve known this guy for fifty years?”

The answer is an emphatic yes. And their music is all here—just like the song says—all done up, in blueprint blue.

Profiling the Jazz Police

Jazz Police badge

From Old Skool Hooligans’ Jazz Police t-shirt; image used with permission.

The scene: Sweet Basil, New York City, 1994. The occasion: a swanky CD-release party for a young lion that burst on the scene a few years before. The remark: a Brooklyn-by-way-of-the-Midwest jazz singer introduces me to her friend. “Hey, I’d like you to meet Eugene Holley, Jr. He writes for Down Beat and JazzTimes,” she says. But after I shake her hand and turn away momentarily toward my table, I hear my vocalist friend say to her friend in a hushed voice, “Yeah, he’s one of the jazz police, but he’s cool.”

That’s when I first heard the term “jazz police.” At first, I paid it no mind. I thought it was one of the many linguistic inventions and dimensions spawned by musicians – one of many verbal turns of fancy that have weaved in and out of the jazz lingua franca from New Orleans to Manhattan.

But as the years moved on, I started hearing that phrase “jazz police” in more ominous terms. It usually refers to a belief among musicians that there is a cabal of jazz writers, reporters, and critics who influence, undermine, and control jazz musicians. They stifle the true expressions of the music by deciding who gets five-star reviews and who doesn’t, who gets the big recording contract and who’s forced to stay at the indie label, who wins the Grammy award and who gets the big non-profit grant, and who ends up playing their hearts out in the subway for next to nothing.

Really?

As someone who has had the tremendous privilege of working as a jazz writer, reporter, radio station music/program director, documentarian, and essayist for 25 years, I can honestly say that no such cabal of jazz police exists.
After all, policemen have salaries, vacations, and unions.

But, notwithstanding that admittedly feeble attempt at humor, the belief in a jazz police has become very toxic these days. So I’d like to offer the perspective of one who has been lumped in with that sordid circle. I want to add some harmony to the discord that exists between musicians and writers. I strongly feel that we need to deal with this myth of the jazz police; otherwise the future of our music will continue to dwindle in the coming years.

Now, just because I say that there is no jazz police doesn’t mean that writers haven’t exercised power to make or break careers. Of course that’s true. Jazz history is replete with writers whose whims, tastes, likes, and dislikes—for good or ill—have determined who is a star and who is not—as evidenced by the critic Martin Williams’s dismissal of the great Ahmad Jamal as a “cocktail pianist,” which other critics echoed for a very long time.

But I have some good news for musicians. While yes, a critic with an influential newspaper or magazine column might have been able to sway the public to like or dislike a jazz musician of his or her choosing back in the day, today no writer or critic has that kind of power. In the 21st century, the explosion of social media, blogs, and online listening services have irrevocably reduced the once-powerful pronouncements of writers and critics to, at best, well-informed observations and opinions.

A critic could write that a musician’s new CD is not his or her best work, but a few clicks and you can hear for yourself whether you agree with the writer’s opinion. A consumer can also share his or her opinions about any musician with other like-minded listeners in an instant. This type of democratized discourse did not exist thirty years ago, and I suspect it’s here to stay. And while sites like Facebook and Soundcloud feature fan reviews and accessible sound files, respectively, the democratic accessibility of that data does not guarantee that opinions offered by fans are any less biased than the professional critics. We are still in the Wild West stages of this phenomenon. And while writers and record companies have been taken down a notch, their digital demotion may be a pyrrhic victory, because it still rings with the spirit of “us” versus “them.”

And nobody wins that contest these days.

This digital age has also changed the power relationships between the jazz musician and the record industry to a large degree. If musicians have access to the internet, they can become their own record company. Artists can create their own websites, complete with gig updates, biographical information, audio samples, tour dates, and videos.

But for all of the aforementioned advances available to jazz in this era, there are still a significant number of musicians who speak of a jazz police.

As someone who knows and is in awe of the power and artistry of jazz musicians, I understand the frustrations, outrage, and disappointment they must feel when they have put their hearts and souls into a gig, a record, the road, and a career, only to see their careers marginalized by shrinking media coverage, unless they die and/or are featured in a PBS documentary. I particularly marvel at the young people, who become jazz musicians knowing what may befall them.

But let me get a little personal here. While I don’t claim to have met every major jazz writer in the years I’ve been on the scene, I have had the profound privilege of knowing quite a few of them: Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour, John Murph, Willard Jenkins, Kelvin Williams, Jackie Modeste, Guthrie Ramsey, Robert G. O’Meally, Greg Thomas, A.B. Spellman, and two giants who left us recently—Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. I have never seen them huddle to block anyone’s career. Musicians may not have liked everything they wrote, but I will go on record to insist that, at least with the people I mentioned, I saw no evidence of the jazz police some musicians talk about.

Yes, it is true that negative reviews—however crude, ill-informed, and distasteful they may be—do sell magazines and, in many cases, help establish the writer’s voice. Terry Teachout’s acerbic and condescending biography of Duke Ellington is one recent example. However, the notion of a jazz police that profits off of the misfortunes of musicians is downright unsupportable. I know a few known and unknown bards who are the antithesis of a jazz police; individuals who, without notoriety or fanfare, made great sacrifices for this music.

William A. “Bill” Brower of Washington, D.C., is a writer, concert producer, and former stage manager for the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and Classic Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The late Bobby Jackson was the former program director of WCLK-FM in Atlanta and jazz programmer of Cleveland’s WCPN-FM.

Skip Norris is an intrepid Detroit entrepreneur who produces swinging gigs in the Motor City.

Zoe Anglesey and Tom Terrell, who both left us far too soon, and Arnold J. Smith are three Brooklyn-based, all-around guardian angels whose writings and work in the record industry have illuminated the scene.

If musicians want to search for a jazz police, they need look no further than themselves. The same digital revolution that has diminished the power of music critics and heavy-handed record producers has also exposed how some jazz musicians undermine and sabotage each other. Without naming names, writers have heard horror stories over the years: A musician sends someone to the wrong gig for an audition for a major jazz group. A group of sidemen on a recording session don’t like one person they’re playing with, and they purposely play badly to ruin the session. And most recently, a jazz pianist won a MacArthur grant and some musicians actually posted on his Facebook page the reasons why they didn’t feel he deserved the award.

My purpose is relating these examples, is not to hurt or embarrass musicians. But, as corny as it sounds, it’s to encourage musicians to treat each other better; and to emphasize that today, in an age where all jazz artists in America are underrated, musicians should know that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of jazz scribes and other individuals in the jazz infrastructure are there to help them, and, more importantly, the music.
We’re all trying to swing.

 

***

EugeneHolley
Eugene Holley, Jr. contributes to: Publisher’s Weekly, Purejazz magazine, Philadelphia Weekly and NPR: A Blog Supreme.

My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

“I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience.”—Bill Evans
Vinyl
In the early ‘80s, I was working in a Washington, D.C. record store when I heard Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s midtempo, modal masterpiece of an album that for me, and many others, was an initiation into the colors, cadences, and complexities of jazz. Transfixed by the many aural shades of the LP’s blue moods, I made it a point to get every recording the musicians on the album had ever made. But it was the poetic and profound pianism of Bill Evans that haunted me the most. When I listened to Evans’s studio LP Explorations—with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro—my Evans-induced hypnotic trance deepened; and so did my problem.
What was the problem? Bill Evans was white. And I am black.

When I got into jazz, I was in my twenties. As a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, and, more importantly, I grew up in a period of American history when, thankfully, black pride was taken for granted. I had black history courses beginning in the first grade and continuing through middle school, and black contributions to world music were a natural extension of that education. I attended Howard University (the so-called Mecca of historically black colleges and universities). Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. I learned about the great jazz heroes – from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker – and of America’s refusal to give these Olympian musicians their proper due as the revolutionary artists the world knows them to be. I came to know something deeper: in many cases, white jazz musicians achieved more fame and were given more credit for the creation of the music.

Time Magazine Brubeck

The cover of the November 8, 1954 issue of Time magazine.

There are enough examples of this in jazz history. Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Duke Ellington knocked on Dave Brubeck’s hotel door, to show the white pianist that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before he did. (Brubeck, for the record, was hurt and embarrassed.) Then there was the 1965 Pulitzer Prize snub of Ellington. In the ’70s, President Carter presented jazz on the White House lawn, with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz as featured artists. President Carter asked Getz about how bebop was created, with Gillespie standing right there.

Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. Though I was wrong about the racial identities of the Righteous Brothers, Average White Band, and Teena Marie, I knew what black musicians “sounded like” via Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia International records. Though no one stated it specifically, there was a “black sound” and a “white sound.” To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. Without realizing it at the time, this inhibited me on many levels, especially as a clarinetist and pianist in high school. When I was studying classical music, and I allowed myself to be moved by it, I feared that some of my black peers would see me as an Uncle Tom.

It was Bill Evans’s love of, and application of, European classical styles, approaches, and motifs into jazz that was so attractive to my ears, as evidenced by the azure impressionism of “Blue in Green” on Kind of Blue, the intoxicating melodicism of “Israel” from Explorations, the lyrical logic of “Peace Piece” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and the chamber timbre of “Time Remembered” from the 1966 album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra.

So it was in that hot-house atmosphere of well-meaning—but ultimately immature and xenophobic attitudes about music and race—that my Bill Evans problem existed. The problem manifested itself in many ways. I would often hide Bill Evans albums when talking about jazz musicians with fellow black jazz fans for fear of being “outed” as a sellout, given a look of disapproval, or asked, “Why are you listening to that white boy?” The fact that Evans was lauded by white critics because he was white and his classical pedigree didn’t help.
RedKey
Slowly but surely, my perceptions about jazz and race began to evolve and change. As my jazz historical studies deepened, I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon. Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century created jazz by combining elements of European classical instruments, harmonies, and song forms with African, Afro-Caribbean, and American rhythms and melodic structures. As Ralph Ellison noted, “blood and skin don’t think.” Or to put it a different way: jazz didn’t come into existence because black people were simply black. Its creation was the result of history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value. To believe anything else plummets us into the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery that still plagues us on so many levels today.

Specifically, I asked myself, “Why would Miles Davis, a proud, strong black man, hire someone who was white like Evans?” The answer was simple: the artistry of the musician mattered more to him; not his or her color. Davis hired and collaborated with many white musicians throughout his career, from Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz in the historic Birth of the Cool sessions of the late ’40s and his extremely popular mid-1950s recordings arranged by Gil Evans to his later fusion bands which included Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and even British guitarist John McLaughlin. So Davis chose Bill Evans because (in his own words, as recounted in Peter Pettinger’s biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings): “He can play his ass off.” Davis was more specific in his autobiography (Miles: the Autobiography, co-written by Quincy Troupe): “Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.”

In addition to Davis, other black jazz superstars hired Evans. He recorded on bassist Charles Mingus’s East Coasting, a superb and elegant recording from the ’50s, and on alto saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s ’60s masterpiece Blues and the Abstract Truth, which also featured Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. Evans was the featured soloist on arranger/composer George Russell’s arrangement of “All About Rosie,” and on his third stream-meets-bop Jazz Workshop album. He also worked with bassist Ortiz Walton, the author of the book Music: Black, White and Blue. My further explorations revealed that Evans was not the lily-white suburban racial recluse I stereotyped him to be. He was heavily indebted to Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell (Evans described Powell as “the most comprehensive talent of any jazz player I have ever heard presented on the jazz scene”). So much for being the “great white devil” or the “white hope” black and white critics made him out to be.

So what does my former Bill Evans problem say about jazz and race today? For one thing, it is firmly and correctly established in music education, and in society in general, that jazz is an African-American art form: blacks have gotten their due as the art form’s primary creators. No credible critic, musician, or music curriculum would state otherwise. At the same time, it is equally true that white musicians have made and continue to make great contributions to jazz. While the role Evans and other whites have played should not be exaggerated to move the music’s black known and unknown bards to the back of the bus, giving Caucasians appropriate acknowledgment does not threaten the African-American creation of the music.

If anything, jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige; with every global musical/cultural ingredient embellishing, extending, and enriching it. This is a good thing. More importantly, youth around the world—white youth included—want to play it, despite the fact that in the United States you barely see jazz on TV, radio stations that play it are shrinking, and print coverage of it is dwindling.
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The declining significance of jazz in the media and marketplace has, in my opinion, increased the unfortunate crabs-in-a-bucket mentality that plagues the jazz infrastructure, which by default can cause the racial aspect to become more prominent. I see this in two distinctly different, but related aspects. The first is the notion of the “Crow-Jimmed” white musician who has been racially discriminated against by blacks, the record industry, and white critics who are guilt-tripped into adopting an “exclusionary” black agenda to support a kind of affirmative action for black musicians. This was the primary gist behind the 2010 publication of trumpeter Randy Sandke’s controversial book, Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. Sandke, a New York-based musician whom I first met when we shared a panel on Louis Armstrong at Hofstra University in 2001, sees today’s jazz scene as a retreat into a cult of racial exclusionism that betrays the integration of black and white musicians who played together in the same groups going back to the 1930s. It was a phenomenon which lessened in the ‘60s and which was largely forgotten during the so-called “Young Lions” era of the ‘80s when young, African-American musicians such as the Marsalis brothers rose to prominence.
“Having once been in the vanguard, jazz has fallen prey to the same racial divisions that have plagued the rest of American society,” Sandke writes. “The overwhelming racialization of jazz has not only denied outside musical influences, stifled creativity, and pitted group against group: it has also overlooked the crucial role that white audiences and presenters have played in disseminating and promoting the music.”

I think, with all due respect, Sandke overdramatizes the plight of the white jazz musician. Yes, the Young Lions phenomenon was overwhelmingly black and young, and Sandke is partially right about the market-driven motives of record executives who wanted to hype black musicians to an extent, but their actions pale in comparison to how whites have promoted musicians of a paler shade for centuries. In the end, there is a big difference between the jazz intelligentsia’s attempt to right an historical wrong and the willful promotion of a reverse apartheid for white musicians. Sandke’s views are ironic, because many black jazz musicians and writers complain that African Americans—who, according to the 2010 CENSUS, are 12% of the population—do not frequent jazz venues in sizable numbers.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Nicholas Payton: a New Orleans-born trumpet player and son of bassist Walton Payton. Payton has enjoyed a critically acclaimed career, earning a Grammy for his 1997 collaboration with the great Doc Cheatman. In the past decade, he has recorded two challenging and creative CDs: Sonic Trance and Into the Blue. Now Payton feels straight-jacketed as a jazz musician, and he has created #BAM – Black American Music—in response, a movement that is “about setting straight what has been knocked out of alignment by mislabeling and marketing strategies,” according to his website. What started out as a provocative essay from Payton entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” has degenerated in some posts and tweets into finger pointing and name calling that advances nothing. To be fair to Payton, he is not saying that you have to be black to appreciate or play #BAM. “Black American Music just acknowledges the culture from which it sprung forth. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate and play it any more than you have to be Chinese to cook and eat noodles,” he writes on his website.

While, as an African American I have some sympathy for Payton’s views, I have the same reservations about his conclusions as I do Sandke’s views. Payton suggests that black jazz musicians cannot change the status quo of their current stature if they call their music jazz. Payton also ignores or diminishes the fact that, as I stated earlier, everyone in the jazz infrastructure acknowledges blacks as the creators of jazz. Yes, jazz artists are hampered by market-driven definitions, but that is nothing special to them. Every musician regardless of genre complains about this.

Just as my Bill Evans problem obscured my early development in my appreciation of the music, adopting verbatim the thoughts and opinions of musicians like Sandke and Payton could do the same for young people just getting into the music, whether as musicians or as fans. It would be quite Pollyannaish of me to tell someone to “simply ignore race.” I (and we) live in a racialized world, and jazz is a part of that world. But if the music teaches us anything, it teaches us that we can keep racial distinctions and distortions at bay.