My Bill Evans Problem--Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. But jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige.

Written By

Eugene Holley, Jr.

“I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience.”—Bill Evans
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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.

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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.
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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.

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