I'll proofread it later.

It's one of the stereotypes orbiting the word "jazz", albeit one of the rarer ones nowadays, that "white jazz musician" is some sort of oxymoron, but there have been good and great white jazz musicians almost as long as the music has existed. (Yes, I've just seen part one of Ken Burns' new Jazz series.) The all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, having parlayed its good fortune of being the first jazz band to record (for Victor Talking Machines, after black trumpeter Freddie Keppard stupidly declined Victor's offer) into a brief bit of international fame, arrogantly billed themselves as "The Creators of Jazz". (And kudos to Phil Schaap of WKCR for playing all their recorded oeuvre this past Saturday -- it's always interesting to hear recordings from 1917, an era when you thought electricity wasn't invented).

Jazz may be a black music, but that's only really true in regards to its musical history; in terms of its audience, the music belongs to everyone, but you'll see few African-Americans in most jazz venues -- gone are the days when there'd be a jazz club in or near your neighborhood if you lived in the black part of town. In my North Carolina years, the local audience and musicians were mainly white; in my travels to clubs and festivals in various big cities, you might see a few more black faces onstage (arguably there is a higher percentage of living black icons than the percentage of black musicians overall), and a few more overseas tourists.

During one of my brief stints as a cab driver in NC, years ago, I remember picking up this software executive from Europe and taking him to a club in Raleigh owned by a (white) singer of some renown; I stuck around for a few minutes, at the exec's request, to advise him on what clubs to visit when he reached New York, where he was flying the next day. I was stumped with regards to his primary choice, latin and Brazilian music (I could only think of a place called S.O.B's), but for his second choice, jazz, I suggested places like Lush Life and the Village Vanguard, and gave him an idea of who might be playing at each venue, be it mainstream fare, BIG NAME STARS, or the avant-garde.

That executive demonstrates one -- actually two -- of the many other stereotypes: 1) Europeans "get it" better than Americans, largely true I'd say, almost since the first 78s reached France and later begat magazines like Jazz Hot and a large jazz subculture, from which people like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli sprung; a few generations of American musicians have ended up living and working in Europe for parts of their careers, whether long term, like Steve Lacy and Dexter Gordon, or short term, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. 2) Larger US jazz clubs (and the ones with the biggest names) exist solely for, and heavily depend on, a rich tourist audience -- probably also somewhat true. Gone are the days when jazz was "a black thing" -- even as far back as 50 years ago, it took a concerted effort, largely centered around the activities of drummer/bandleader Art Blakey, and his label Blue Note, to restore black-thing-ness to jazz, via the music later to be known as "hard bop" (or the "Blue Note sound"); it wasn't uncommon, as a result of the successes of people like Blakey, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, to have large black audiences at black venues, listening to serious jazz. Even John Coltrane played the Apollo once or twice as a leader. The was a story in the Voice recently, in which the owner of a newish Harlem venue lamented the dearth of locals (and of black faces in general) among his audience, but since the story was more or less about attracting outside (white) dollars into Harlem, the owner was just doing his job, so to speak, by using another set of stereotypes about Harlem being the Vegas of black America, once upon a time -- the various revitalizations of The Apollo over the years was based around the attempt to recreate Harlem as a theme park, trading on the memories of Billie, Duke, and insert-icon-name-here.

I'm rambling, but there was a time when jazz was in the hood, and fairly large numbers of young black kids grew up working on their diminished-licks-over-an-altered-dominant the same way that large numbers of kids nowadays work on their Iversonian crossover dribble and their rhymes. It was inevitable that the real-life iconography of jazz would become less and less black, and that was even a preferable situation for those whose interest in jazz was mainly commercial (prior to the ascendancy of hip-hop and the NBA into America's mainstream, you absolutely had to have prominent white icons if you were going to make the big bucks). The ODJB's "Creator of Jazz" example is over 80 years old now, and the self-coronation of Paul Whiteman as "King of Jazz" came about a decade later. "The Great White Hope" is a meme that applied not only to boxing over the decades, but also to jazz; the Whitemans of future eras included Benny Goodman, Harry James, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz, and none of these guys were phonies (far from it), but, with the exception of Goodman, there were plenty of black musicians who were making better music than these "kings", but few, if any, of them would have had any marketing juice in Middle America, especially in those decades when Jim Crow was the official or unofficial law of many locales. The (white) entrepreneurs (in every era) wanted a mainstream (white) audience, and eventually got what they wanted, either because of their marketing skill, or, more likely, because from Charlie Parker onward, real jazz consciously took itself out of the realm of mass-market popularity -- the black audience followed the jump blues strains of jazz into the R&B future, while jazz's cutting edge went thataway. It was appropriate that the mainstream Next One in jazz was Brubeck (in the early 50's), and that one of his hit LPs (a new and big source of revenue for record companies -- CBS in this case) was called Jazz Goes to College -- far, far away from the chitlin circuit. And most of the "daddy-o" caricatures of the jazz-loving "beatniks" in the mass media were not far removed from the modern-day depictions of slackers and such -- only the musical tastes and wardrobes had changed; mass-market jazz has pretty much been white, college-educated-folks music since the days of Brubeck making the cover of Time Magazine, a decade before Thelonious Monk (who essentially invented the conventions of the music Brubeck was playing) was accorded the honor.

Gee, I'm still rambling. /me apologizes

Just as basketball and boxing were "stolen" from the white-ethnic populations (where do you think the Boston Celtics got their name?) and came to be dominated by blacks, jazz was "stolen", but in a much-milder sense. Whites don't dominate it -- no-one does, but you're just as likely to find a great musician from "elsewhere" (e.g. Romanian saxophonist Nicolas Simion or Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo) as from some location (and melanin level) from the jazz-stereotype databank.

During December (or was it November?), I wanted to see three of my heroes playing at a Manhattan club called Iridium; I balked, because: a) I was still in the throes of apartment hunting, b) it seemed a bit pricey, and, had I known it at the time, c) No Smoking. The heroes: Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian, all white, but this gig was priced for Japanese tourists and stockbrokers-with-taste, not for me, a lowly coder and gitfiddle player, and not for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Post-Renaissance Harlem.

I should get back to work, so I can save up for the next Bley/Peacock/Motian gig :)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.