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The Cry of Jazz

[ 121 ] November 1, 2013 |

Edward Bland’s 1959 documentary The Cry of Jazz is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. An early statement of the black nationalism that would become famous in the late 60s, Bland argues in this 30 minute film that only African-Americans have the soul and history to play jazz and that whites need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their racist history. It’s an amazing film.

Shot for nearly nothing, The Cry for Jazz has bad acting, cheesy dialogue, and an awesome political point. There’s some sort of jazz club meeting. Whites and blacks are both there. They start arguing about race and jazz. The whites typically eschew any sense that blacks are better at jazz or that they have any responsibility for racial inequality or the legacy of slavery and racism. And for Bland, those two things are inseparable. The rest of the film switches from a narrator explaining the relationship between race and music (along with some quite technical information about the music, not every casual fan would get all the references) and the conversation continuing onto new points. The black characters in the room utter such lines as “The Negro is the only Human American” and “If whites had souls, they wouldn’t have tried to steal the Negro’s.” The legacy of racism creates the suffering that allows jazz to exist, thus “Jazz is the one element in American life where whites must be humble to Negroes.”

At the point of maybe convincing the whites, the lead narrator makes an even more shocking statement–Jazz is dying. Why? Because it can’t contain the black experience. New forms of music are needed, a clear reference to rock and roll. One assumes Bland saw hip hop as the extension of this late in life, but I wonder. And let’s face it, jazz is pretty white in 2013. Not exclusively so. But pretty white.

Who thus was Bland’s choice as the vanguard of the African nationalist music at the time? Why Sun Ra and his Arkestra! First, it’s of course the appropriate choice but who knows how obvious that was in 1959? Second, this is the first known footage of the Arkestra! It’s shot very darkly so most of it is of John Gilmore and you only see Ra’s back. But wow.

The film was quite controversial within the African-American intellectual community. Ralph Ellison hated it. LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, loved it. For a period where assimilationism dominated the civil rights movement, this is quite the forward thinking statement.

Certainly not the best movie I’ve ever seen but judged for its jaw-dropping message and audacity, it’s a must see.

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  1. howard says:

    you know, i’d like to claim that i’ve got something to add to this, but other than suggesting that erik read john szwed’s book on the ra, he’s pretty much said it all.

    i first learned about cry of jazz in the early ’90s from a historian of jazz on film, but of course, in those days, actually seeing it seemed like an impossibility, so let’s hear it one more time for youtube!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I am curious to hear your thoughts on the film.

      • howard says:

        my wife and the 9-year-old are waiting for me to start eating pizza and watch miyazwa’s “castle in the sky,” so in short: i think you hit it pretty well.

        it’s more a fascinating than good film, but fascinating in the very best of ways: as an insight into cultural fault lines that were going to be exposed much more dramatically in just a few years but that were clearly underway. there are hardly any examples of african-american filmmakers making films about jazz, and what bland captures is what many politically attuned african-american jazz musicians and their fellow travellers were thinking and saying in private at the time. (as a very rough analog, i would suggest reading the excellent jazz drummer art taylor’s book of interviews, “notes and tones,” in which many of his interviewees were much more forthcoming about issues like racism in the music business and the role of whites in jazz than in more standard interview settings.)

        it’s well worth seeing, as you say.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Interesting the reference to rock and roll in 1959. Because while there are Black rock and roll musicians in the 1950s like Chuck Berry the first all Black rock band in the US is generally considered to be these guys.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=LHSFsWZM1Gk

  3. MikeJake says:

    That’s all well and good, but the best jazz drummers have been white dudes, generally speaking, and jazz-influenced white drummers have kicked a lot of ass in metal and other genres.

    You wanna talk inferiority, let’s talk about the notion of needing to possess some inchoate sense of “soul” in order to be recognized for your superior technical chops.

    • Medrawt says:

      Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Andrew Cyrille, and Jack DeJohnette are raising their eyebrows.

      • Red_cted says:

        Most of these guys played in coat and tie too, yeah?

        • howard says:

          true story about max roach. i won’t go into the full details here, but once i had to meet max at the kansas city airport (where he’d flown in the morning from new york), chauffeur him to an event in downtown kansas city, and then take him back to the airport later in the afternoon for his flight home.

          max, as always, was impeccably dressed in a superbly cut suit, and when i dropped him off, i said “max, i have to tell you: here you are, you flew out in the morning, you took care of business, you’re back here at the airport in the afternoon, and your suit still looks fantastic. when i wear a suit, it’s completely rumpled in 5 minutes. how do you do it?”

          and max said, “it’s all what you’re brought up with.”

      • MikeJake says:

        Don’t make me have to type out an entire list of white drummers to trump yours. You’ll just piss me off.

        • howard says:

          i for one would love to see your list: there have been lots of fine white jazz musicians, and some truly outstanding ones – including paul motian on drums – but if you’re going to try and convince us that gene krupa was better than jo jones or that buddy rich was better than max roach don’t waste your or our time.

        • Medrawt says:

          I just named ten very famous (for jazz musicians) guys who were established before I was born. I don’t know who’s on your list, but it’s not going to convince me (nor do I expect to convince you, I’m just surprised at your vehemence).

          Which doesn’t mean I don’t think there’ve been great jazz drummers who happen to be white – there certainly are many now, and Paul Motian was one of my favorites of all time. It happens that my favorite drummer (any genre) was Elvin Jones, and the best drumming performances I’ve ever seen in person were Eric McPherson (with Fred Hersch) and Brian Blade (with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and Daniel Lanois). But I think most jazz fans and critics would find my list fairly representative of “great drumming in jazz” from the 20s through the 70s.

          Obviously, I don’t know who you’ve got. Krupa and Rich were great, I just don’t think they were *as* great. Motian was, I think, a genius. I don’t know Mel Lewis’ work well at all (hey, I don’t know drummers that well vs. piano players). Of course, you could be thinking about folks like Steve Gadd, who are monster drummers I enjoy listening to, but not necessarily who I want to hear behind Sonny Rollins.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          MikeJake actually is one of the white people in the film.

      • kth says:

        But how much ass did those guys kick in metal and other genres, hmm?

      • Adolphus says:

        You forgot Chick Webb. A personal favorite since he was also a Maryland and also quite short.

      • Dave C. says:

        And Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Hamid Drake…

      • John Fremont says:

        Don’t forget Chick Webb and Billy Cobham.

    • EH says:

      It’s the mark of the white man to reduce soul to “technical chops,” and to deny cultural history in the appraisal of a style of music. Or at least ones we didn’t invent.

    • Alan Tomlinson says:

      Stupid honky.

      Cheers,

      Alan Tomlinson

      P.S. Comparing great musicians to one another is something that non-great musicians do to make themselves feel assertive.

      • howard says:

        alan, i must say: i continue to see you write things like this and they make no sense to me. the idea that we are not allowed to make critical judgements about musicians – i just cannot understand why you would say that.

        • howard says:

          i have to go out now, but i was just an anecdote gary giddins related in an interview that emerged from his research for his bing crosby biography.

          i believe it was the night johnny mercer died, bing and his regular piano player (the source of the story) were sitting and reminiscing, and bing said “louis armstrong was the greatest singer of popular song that ever was or will be.”

          the piano player said “hey, i like pops too, but what makes you say that?”

          and bing replied “because when he sang a sad song, you felt sad, and when he sang a happy song, you felt happy, and what the hell more is there to do?”

          by alan’s rules, that conversation couldn’t have happened.

          • Ahuitzotl says:

            Howard, that’s not comparing great musicians, that’s comparing great musicians to Pops. Like comparing angels to God

            • J R in WV says:

              I actually got to see Louis perform, as a very young person. We were on vacation, in St Pete Beach over the winter solstice holidays, and I saw an ad in the local paper about his appearance in a big concert hall there.

              My folks were more into classical music, but I begged and begged, and said, “He’s a historic star, and really old, and this may be our only chance to see someone like him ever!” Which eventually got us 4 tickets in the nosebleed balcony. It was “for my birthday”.

              It was fabulous. Big band swing Dixieland combination of bliss. I will never forget it!

              I’ve also been to Preservation Hall several times, and wandered down Bourbon Street from club to club listening to the amazing variety of music you can hear there.

              I don’t have an opinion on race and talent. I have trouble even formulating the question in my mind. Think of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli…

              There’s a Youtube of Sammy Davis Jr doing a live show, and he does fabulous takes of every famous singer there was, from Mel Torme through Louis to Dean Martin. If you close your eyes, you can’t tell all those guys aren’t on stage with Sammy. Does that tell us anything? I dunno.

              Music is great, almost all of it. I think Opera is over-stylized, but I even like that live and in person. For the pomp and stage presence mostly.

              Think how many great blues performers there have been. And how many of them are, now-a-days white. Does that tell us anything? I dunno.

              But I do know that Louis Armstrong, whatever his flaws, was one of the best musicians of our times.

              As a child in the 60s, my piano teacher was a big band guy who moved back to his small home town to raise a family. He toured with Les Brown, Harry James, Glenn Gray and then spent some years running the band in a club in NYC. I wish I had been more aware of the rare opportunity that presented me, and been more able to take advantage of it. But I didn’t. Duh

    • Origami Isopod says:

      I see why you liked that Ian Welch post from the other day.

  4. Red_cted says:

    Ok, but generally speaking, you just end up speaking in generalizations. Many white drummers are famous because they’re famous, in my opinion. Not that I’m any kind of expert.

    But I once watched Max Roach carry four separate beats during a Giants of Jazz show. Watch Rufus Jones solo with Duke Ellington in “On the Fringe of the Jungle.” Wicked stuff.

    I agree with your second statement though.

  5. etv13 says:

    I think all this shows is that racism is a nearly universal human failing.

    • LeeEsq says:

      I’m going to concur. While completely understandable I’m not really sure if extreme nationalism in persecuted groups really does anything positive. I really can’t see how saying that white people don’t have the soul to understand jazz makes any more sense than saying that black people are too dumb to understand science. Both are horrendous generalizations that only lead to persecution for the minority since majorities are not likely going to react to extreme nationalism from minority groups well.

      Its also oddly cheered, I can’t imagine a world where the “damn all goyim” attitude of the more extreme Jewish nationalists receive the same amount of sympathy than “damn all white people” attitude that gets at least a nod from time to time. Considering Jewish history, the former is just as understandable as the latter.

      • DocAmazing says:

        If society were level and there were no power gradient between racial groups, if there were no history of slavery and of Jim Crow, then reducing Bland’s stance to a horrendous generalization wold be the last word. However, Bland was watching his culture being not merely appropriated, but stolen.

        For comparison, please see the previous arguments re: “feminist allies”–it’s pretty fucking presumptious for white musicians to claim to speak for black experience, and Blasnd seems to be arguing that playing jazz is exactly that, on some level.

        Finally, the “damn all goyim” attitude is what got us the modern state of Israel, for better or worse.

        • Ronan says:

          “For comparison, please see the previous arguments re: “feminist allies”–it’s pretty fucking presumptious for white musicians to claim to speak for black experience, and Blasnd seems to be arguing that playing jazz is exactly that, on some level.”

          He might make that argument, but it doesnt make much bloody sense!
          I dont buy a lot of these arguments about ‘cultural appropriation’ (except in extreme cases) ‘Culture’ is fluid and never ‘one thing’ set in stone. Different cultural groups always influence and borrow from eachother, and that (imo) is the way it should be

          • DocAmazing says:

            Yeah, as long as one group isn’t dominant and actively oppressing the other group. We’re not talking about cross-pollination between groups on equal footing, after all.

            • Ronan says:

              But it depends what you mean by appropriation. It seems to be a pretty loose term at the best of times, and I dont see how a white guy playing jazz could qualify (logically, removed from the politics – and especially given the history of jazz described by others on this thread, that it evolved as a cross polination of styles from different cultures (?) )

              • DocAmazing says:

                removed from the politics

                There’s the problem right there. Bland was an African-American man living in the US in the 1950s. What you call “politics” was the set of conditions that defined his life every day. Might as well pick up a hip-hop album and try to remove the “politics” from it.

                The notion that art transcends real life is usually put forth by people whose real life isn’t all that bad. Art is, most often, a commentary on real life, or a way to cope with it.

              • LeeEsq says:

                IMO, a white guy playing jazz is not appropriation but a white guy claiming to act as some sort of spokesperson or authority for jazz is appropriation.

            • Anderson says:

              So how’s that fit with the Romans conquering Greece? Cato the Elder was right when he told the Romans to quit reading all that fucking Greek philosophy?

              I have pretty inescapable inherited guilt as a white guy in Mississippi, but endorsing racism just because it’s black racism is a bit farther than I’m willing to go.

              I mean, God forbid that jazz, or anything else, bring people of different colors together!

              • Erik Loomis says:

                If you think this film is racist, I don’t think you understand the meaning of racism.

                • Anderson says:

                  I confess that I was relying entirely upon this description: “Bland argues in this 30 minute film that only African-Americans have the soul and history to play jazz and that whites need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their racist history.”

                  Compare: “only Germans have the soul and history to play chamber music and Jews need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their separatist history.”

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Yes, because the Germans had spent a few centuries living as second-class citizens or chattel under Jewish domination.

                  :analogy fail:

              • Anderson says:

                So, okay: is there a convenient list of which racial groups *are* musically superior by dint of their historical oppression? Because I’m just not having any luck googling that up.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        If we want to completely ignore the power dynamics and history that shape these opinions, sure both sides do it.

      • Ronan says:

        “Considering Jewish history, the former is just as understandable as the latter.”

        But ‘damn all goyim’ doesnt really make muh sense from an American Jew in the 21st century. ‘Damn all white people’ in the US in the 60s certainly did. Of course extreme nationalism is never ideal, but it is what it is
        A lot of groups/people have histories of oppression, but they dont remain static. Context is important

        • howard says:

          as i said last night, what makes this film fascinating (and as i alluded, i first saw it a few years ago) is that it provides a window into a historic reality – the rise of black nationalism in response to 100 years of post-civil war repression. a film like this would be much less likely to be made today: the cultural conditions are different.

          but it was a real phenomenon and this film captures it.

        • LeeEsq says:

          On the other hand, it did make a lot of sense in the early and mid-20th century but very few people got dewey eyed about Menachem Begin and the more extreme Jewish nationalists in the same way that they got dewey eyed about Malcolm X and Black Nationalism. And if you know anything about Menachem Begin’s life, it gives a pretty good idea about why he ended up the way he did.

          • Ronan says:

            Enough people got dewey eyed about Menachem Begin, and certainly about ‘jewish nationalism’ (in Israel – however we define extreme)
            As many, Im sure, as got dewey eyed about Malcolm X

          • DocAmazing says:

            very few people got dewey eyed about Menachem Begin and the more extreme Jewish nationalists in the same way that they got dewey eyed about Malcolm X and Black Nationalism

            Might be because the Irgun blew a bunch of people up and the Nation of Islam, y’know, didn’t.

            • LeeEsq says:

              No, somehow I don’t think its about this. Lots of people get dewey-eyed about violence committed by other groups in the name of their freedom. People got dewey-eyed about what Mao did in China or Che Guevera or FLN in Algeria.

              • Ronan says:

                How extreme a nationalist movement is (in part)exists by comaprion to other groups in the same national movements. So Begin looks worse compared to Ben-Gurion, and Malcolm X to MLK, but X’s violene never approached anything comparable to even moderate Zionist nation building
                But the context is different, so where does this omparion bring us?

    • Anderson says:

      +1. Who knew there was a black Leni Riefenstahl?

  6. While I do genuinely love the music, and have a lot of old records and tapes, and newer CD’s, I’m not exactly a jazzophile or a jazzaholic, so I’m no expert on the music – like some of the folks here – but I know what I like.

    So let me tell you about 2006, when I saw one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen, featuring the great and incomparable Wynton Marsalis.
    “CHAPEL HILL – Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will perform with special guest Yacub Addy and his 20-member drumming ensemble, Odadaa!, on April 29 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”

    Here’s the link to it:
    http://www.unc.edu/news/archives/apr06/marsalis041906.htm

    In the first half of the concert, each group took it’s turn in a kind of, non-competitive, ‘Battle of the Bands.”
    And Marsalis, genius that he is, designed it so that when his jazz orchestra’s took its turn, the music paralleled and highlighted the rhythms of the drum ensemble.

    Then, in the second half, the concert featured music from “Congo Square,” written by Marsalis and Addy.

    Even the whitest honky, like me, could hear – and see – the roots of jazz music.

    MAN, WHAT A CONCERT!!!!!!!!!!!

    Sadly, after getting the tickets, and driving up from Fayetteville for the show, I didn’t have the money to buy the CD of that concert.
    I forget the amount, but if you paid ahead of time at the concert, with cash or a credit card, you would get the CD of it sent to your home about a month later – if I remember correctly.

    And I still kick myself in the ass for not getting a copy of it!
    SCHMUCK!!!

  7. Thlayli says:

    So is all this the jazz version of “You can’t hear Jimi”?

  8. Richard says:

    As someone once said, it’s what’s in the grooves that counts. I dare anyone to take a blind test of listening to jazz bands through the ages and be able to tell who is black and who is white . (I think it was Kenny Clarke who made that claim, took a blind test for Downbeat and in the course of the test admitted he was hopelessly confused and couldn’t do it). If you think you can do I it, Erik, I’ll send you a CD of twenty cuts, half black and half white, half pre-war and half post WWII and I’ll bet you that your accuracy in judging the race of the performer isn’t better than random.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      To be clear, I’m not necessarily agreeing with the claims made in the film. I am however saying that it’s an amazing film not only within a long tradition of black nationalism but really steps ahead of what would become the height of the idea 6-10 years later.

      • Richard says:

        OK. I just think the notion that only blacks can play jazz is nonsensical and disproved by nearly a hundred years of jazz recordings and by the experience of the thousands of musicians who have played the music. If you read the many fine books on the history of jazz, you’ll find that there was a significant degree of race mixing among jazz musicians in early New Orleans, despite segregation and Jim Crow laws, and that some light skinned Creole blacks passed for white and played in both white and black bands. And you’ll also find that once societal mores loosened up a bit, white jazz musicians embraced the black musicians they looked up to. Goodman hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton to form the first integrated band to play in public and later hired, among others, Sid Catlett and the amazing Charlie Christian. Other players, ranging from the mediocre Mezz Mezzrow to the remarkable Jack Teagarden, played with black musicians in informal settings all the time.

        • howard says:

          richard, calm down! neither erik nor i is endorsing bland’s perspective. when erik says that jazz is pretty white right now, he’s making a factual description of both the musicians and the audience, not a musical critique.

          more broadly – jazz is a hybrid american music of african and european roots many of whose core technical elements – swing (in the broadest sense of the term), use of the blue note (in the broadest sense of the term), emphasis on improvisation – are clearly idiomatically rooted in african-american performance norms and the vast majority of whose definitive musicians have been african-american, but which can and is played by people of all races and backgrounds.

          indeed, at the same time that the african-american presence in jazz is receding, the global presence is increasing, and so we have today the likes of dafnis prieto and yosvanny terry (cuban), guillermo klein (argentine), miguel zenon (puerto rican), gilad hekselman (israeli), rudresh mahanthapa and vijay iyer (indian), and many more finding ways to integrate musical idioms of their own country within the jazz tradition.

          nnd tomorrow, the music will likely evolve in another way.

          it would be wrong to minimize the african-american contribution to jazz; it would be equally wrong to essentialize it.

          • Richard says:

            I’m not that riled up, Howard. Not intending in any way to minimize the African American contribution to jazz and not taking any exception to Erik’s claim that jazz is pretty white now. But I read Erik’s post as an endorsement of the “whites can’t play jazz” thesis of the movie. (I, of course, don’t disagree with the claim that most of the great innovators in jazz were African American and that the music, in many ways, arose from the black experience in America). And Erik has previously taken a position not unlike the one espoused in the movie- “Goodman didnt play jazz”.

            On another tangent, have you read the Teachout biography of Ellington? I loved it but would be interested in your opinion.

            • howard says:

              i knew terry when he was just starting out as a writer, and i’ve followed his evolution with interest, but i haven’t read the ellington bio yet.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              That’s a serious misrepresentation of my position, which I believed had to do with the use of jazz in Looney Tunes and my assertion that while it was great it was also a very white version of jazz that was being used.

              • Richard says:

                Go back to the post, Erik. I think you took the position that the music played by the Andrew Sisters and Goodman wasn’t jazz, not that it was a very white version of jazz. I would also take exception to the “white version” explanation as applied to Goodman. Many of his recordings, especially those with Christian, swing as hard as anything ever recorded

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  It would be ridiculous to argue that Benny Goodman didn’t play jazz and I didn’t make such a statement.

                • Richard says:

                  Found the post. You argued that the Looney Tunes music was a white form of jazz and was the Andrews Sisters/Benny Goodman version of jazz. So I think you’re right. You didn’t say that Goodman didn’t play jazz. But you were very wrong in claiming that the music Goodman played wasn’t real jazz or was some watered down white version of jazz. And also wrong in claiming that the Looney Tunes music, mostly arranged by Carl Stallings, had anything in common with goodman’s music other than the fact that both were white

                • Richard says:

                  Right on one count. Wrong on two others. Listen to the Goodman/Christian recordings and tell me that Goodman played white Loony Tunes music

          • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

            it would be wrong to minimize the african-american contribution to jazz; it would be equally wrong to essentialize it.

            Well said. There’s often an over-emphasis in jazz circles on the past. While studying/acknowledging the history and trying to understand the mindset of the pioneers can definitely help a person to play or even just appreciate jazz as a listener, neither are crucial.

            From a playing perspective my experience has been that: Some people just have that swing/pocket (that is often associated with real jazz) naturally. Others learn it by studying and immersing themselves in the works of the fore-fathers. Others can acquire the feel through understanding it’s technical components. And then of course, lots of people can do any/all of these and yet never really get it. I play with pretty high-level players of all colors and backgrounds who fit into each category.

    • Richard says:

      My memory failed me. It was Roy Eldredge who failed the Downbeat black/white blindfold test in 1951 eventually conceding, while listening to a Billy Taylor cut, that “I liked that. Can’t tell if its black or white. Could be Eskimo for all I know”

      From my point of view, the music is what matters. Been listening to a whole lot of early New Orleans music lately,both black and white, and the race of the performers just doesn’t matter to me. Also just finished the excellent new biography of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout and have been listening to the Duke every day. His long time valve trombonist and the composer of Caravan, Juan Tizol, was Puerto Rican, not African American, and, of course, could play jazz with the best of them.

  9. peter eisenstadt says:

    Erik, thanks for posting this; I’ve long wanted to see this film, its interesting as a historical document, but as a history of jazz its pretty nonsensical; I have no problem with its assertion of the obvious historical primacy of African Americans in the history of jazz, the necessity of seeing that history within the context of the history of oppression and racism, and in its refuting of the straw men white people in the film, but it fails to recognize that, almost from the beginning, jazz was part of American popular music, with all the compromises that entailed—Louis Armstrong post 1930 and Lester Young, Billie Holliday and dozens of others black swing era musicians basing much of their repertoire on the American songbook and tin pan alley; seeing cool jazz—whose driving force was Miles Davis—as an attempt to deracinate jazz; seeing the standard form of jazz with its choruses and changes as a form of oppression, with bar lines as a new form of the color line. What the looks to is not rock and roll or soul or rap, but the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and others in the direction of free jazz; wonderful music that was often very consciously Africanist in its ideology but had less and less to with any connection with black popular music. And without getting too much into the details, I think that every serious student of jazz, knowing the history of jazz and the history of black America, has to guard against what is sometimes called “crow jimism” systematic underevaluation of the contribution of white jazz musicians, and treating them as interlopers. The history of jazz is far more complex; with early black jazz musicians borrowing freely from European-American music traditions, and white musicians returning the favor; and trying to say only one strand of jazz is “real jazz” and other jazz is just ersatz, a common and very tiresome practice by jazz fans, white and black, throughout the history of jazz, is a fool’s errand.

    • Turkle says:

      I want to recommend (despite its awful title) the book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n Roll” by Elijah Wald.

      The title notwithstanding, the book is a fascinating history of American popular music. You really do get a great sense of the development of jazz and how both white and black musicians helped to develop it and how it borrowed from and interacted with so many other musical genres at the time. It’s really a must-read book, situating popular music in with the racial, technological, cultural, and other struggles of the times.

      The real upshot is, I think, that while the history of jazz can’t be explained with a simplistic “jazz is black music that white musicians stole,” it certainly is the case that the history and development of jazz has been irrevocably influenced by racial and cultural conflict in the US.

      • Richard says:

        I agree. Excellent book, terrible title. Wald’s other books, on Robert Johnson and narco-corridas, are very good also.

        • LeeEsq says:

          I’m a big fan of Wald’s book to but lots of people disagree about nearly anything in his book, especially Wald’s assertion that a history of popular music should kind of focus on what was actually popular rather than what the critics think is important. Wald’s Alternative History is just doubles a bit as a tirade against standard rock critics.

  10. MPAVictoria says:

    “However, Bland was watching his culture being not merely appropriated, but stolen.”

    How can you steal culture?

    • DocAmazing says:

      Ask an Indian about “authentic squash-blossom jewelry” hand-crafted by white people. Ask the slaves at Turnwold Plantation about Joel Chandler Harris’s Br’er Rabbit books.

      Play that funky music, white boy.

      • Barry Freed says:

        Thanks a lot for the earworm, Doc.

      • MPAVictoria says:

        How is that stealing?

        • LeeEsq says:

          I think you can argue thats its stealing because a lot of Native Americans and African-Americans were derived profit when white people started liking their jewelry and music.

          Its a tricky subject. The anger is understandable but I think getting the mass of white people to start feeling guilty about cultural appropriation is going to be about as successful as getting people to abstain from sex till marriage, not very. What you should really aim for is getting people to appreciate where what they like comes from and recognize that jazz originated in the African-American community and that African-Americans deserve much credit for a lot of America’s artistic and cultural heritage.

          • MPAVictoria says:

            “I think you can argue thats its stealing because a lot of Native Americans and African-Americans were derived profit when white people started liking their jewelry and music.”

            Put that isn’t what stealing is. You cannot “steal” culture/musical style. If I start playing jazz music it doesn’t stop you from playing jazz. I am not taking anything away from you.

            “What you should really aim for is getting people to appreciate where what they like comes from and recognize that jazz originated in the African-American community and that African-Americans deserve much credit for a lot of America’s artistic and cultural heritage”

            100% agree.

            • LeeEsq says:

              I think in extreme circumstances, it is possible to steal and appropriate another person’s culture. For example, I think that Jews for Jesus commit cultural appropriation of Jewish culture because they aren’t Jewish even by the standard of having a Jewish mother. Likewise, when a white artist like Miley Cyrus attempts to use certain aspects of African-American pop culture in a disrespectful manner, cultural appropriation occurs.

              Its not exactly theft because the original culture isn’t deprived of the possession or use of their culture but it isn’t a victimless crime either. I would set a fairly high bar about what constitutes cultural appropriation though, a gentile that likes Jewish humor or white man playing jazz isn’t an example, and tend to think that its impossible to do anything about it. At least anything realistic.

              • Lee Rudolph says:

                Likewise, when a white artist like Miley Cyrus attempts to use certain aspects of African-American pop culture in a disrespectful manner, cultural appropriation occurs.

                What is indisputable (because analytic) is that cultural disrespect occurs. Saying that “appropriation” occurs erects, by presupposition, an entire theory (including, I think, though the words are bitter in my mouth, an entire theory of “intellectual property”) without actually spelling it out—and the details of an appropriate such theory (even the question of what would make such a theory appropriate to the circumstances) are very much disputable. Similar comments apply to your casual use of the word “crime” (in the phrase “victimless crime”), later.

                It seems to me (but it would, no doubt, given my own circumstances) that the general program of improving human life would be most quickly, if not most completely, furthered by concentrating first on the “disrespect” behaviors, before going on (if necessary) to property and crime and suchlike.

            • DocAmazing says:

              You cannot “steal” culture/musical style.

              Yeah, Willi Ninja profited handsomely from Madonna’s entry into the Vogue scene.

              Oh, wait, no: he died broke.

              • Richard says:

                And he would have been rich had Madonna not made a hit with Voguing? She didn’t take anything from him that caused him to die broke.

                What she did, what mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield did, what the Righteous Brothers and Dr. John did , what Jack Teagarden and Charlie Haden did, what so many others did, is not stealing. It didn’t prevent black artists from making a living ( and in the case of Bloomfield and Butterfield, helped Muddy and Wolf make a better living). Just like Johnny Mathis and Leontyne Price weren’t stealing from white and European culture. The idea that white artists need to play white music and black artists need to play black music is so much bullshit.

          • KadeKo says:

            “were derived profit when white people started liking…”

            The context suggests you mean “denied”, right? If so, I agree. If not, I’m really puzzled.

  11. KadeKo says:

    My younger relative, a drummer, referred to his own “white guy overbite” and chalked it up to genetics. (We are both darned white.)

    He’s a grown-up. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the first songs I remember him bopping around to as a 1-year-old were “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Bon Jovi) and “Set On You” (George Harrison, with the patented Jeff Lynne sound).

    And that was normative. There was plenty of “classic rock” and mainstream rock radio played in the home when he was an infant and toddler.

    Pretty good case for nurture, isn’t it? Bon Jovi and Jeff Lynne.

  12. Aaron Baker says:

    You’ve reminded me of LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman. That is brilliant, and it expresses some ideas similar to the ones in this movie.

    (NB: I find racial essentialism to be appalling, regardless of who espouses it–though maybe black nationalists have more excuse in that regard than their white counterparts.)

  13. mike in dc says:

    I don’t know if this qualifies as “irony”, but most likely most of the white musicians they were arguing with in the film were 2nd or 3rd generation Americans, whose parents or grandparents came over via Ellis Island. Most of them probably weren’t residents of the Old South, either. That doesn’t absolve them completely of any responsibility for supporting the country’s racist, uh, sociocultural and economic infrastructure, but it does complicate the entire argument.

  14. Jonny Butter says:

    The problem with racial essentialism about art is that it degrades the art. If only AA people could feel, understand, and therefore contribute to jazz, then the music wouldn’t move people all over the world. Once the soul is rendered into music (i.e. invented – by African Americans, of course), it’s in a form that everyone can feel and understand – it’s a *human* cry. If it was music with a limited appeal, then …that’s what it would be.

    I don’t have the dozens of hours it would take to scratch a little surface enumerating the shame-sodden racial history of the US vis a vis culture – I don’t excuse any of that. But the idea that you have to be black to be good at soul or jazz music is just wrong. I can understand why the author would want to say so when he did, but it’s wrong. Oh, and jazz *was* dying in 1959 – he’s right about that. It died sometime in the 60s.

  15. [...] The comment thread on Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz was more contentious than I thought it wo…, since several commenters basically called this early black nationalist a racist and even compared him (shockingly unfairly) to Leni Riefenstahl. When I read this Sara Luckey piece (published several months ago) on the myth of reverse racism, I immediately thought of that thread and the need for a lot of white people to learn more about the relationship between racism and power: Racism exists when prejudice+power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties of a group of people. Racism is systemic, institutional, and far reaching. It is the prevalence of racism within social structures and institutional norms, along with implicit and explicit enforcement by members of a group, that allows racism to run rampant and unchecked. America is a country seeped in white privilege, and our social structure is built on colonization and forced slave labor that then turned into further systemic and ongoing oppression of PoC. We have a culture that presents whiteness as the norm and all else as ‘other’ or different. White is presented as the beauty ideal, the main face in the media (unless we’re talking about criminals, then PoC get unfairly misrepresented), the standard, the regular. It’s a structural problem that affects the perceptions of jurors in criminal cases, admissions to colleges, funding for public schools, welfare and food stamp programs, the redrawing of district lines that affect where we vote, who we see represented on T.V. and how, what schools people have access to, what neighborhoods people live in, an individual’s shopping experience, access to goods and services; it’s extensive and a part of the fabric that let’s whiteness remain dominant in American culture. [...]

  16. Your point of reference in how we conduct our actions most often changes how we see things. Sometimes this change is good and sometimes bad but it is our viewpoint that controls the way we feel.

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