- Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz
- The Scarecrow Press, 288 pp.
A couple of years ago I passed through Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While walking down Franklin Street, its principal downtown thoroughfare, I heard music coming out of a bar, and decided to go inside and listen. A combo was playing jazz. My expectations were not high, and the experience was pleasant enough, until the lead guitarist – a man in his fifties with whitening hair and reading glasses balanced on his nose, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt – began to sing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
It was appalling. Suddenly he transformed himself from a mediocre musician to that nightmare uncle at the wedding who has had too much to drink and won’t give up the microphone. He was almost as ridiculous as this version of Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
I remember asking myself, “Who told that guy he was allowed to sing that song? Who gave him permission?” Implicit in my questions, of course, was the assumption that he was not allowed to sing an Al Green song because he was white. (And particularly because he was white, over fifty, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt.)
I remembered that man last month while in Jackson, Mississippi, where some friends took me out to a bar to listen to music. A young, slender and handsome black man similarly botched not only an Al Green song, but various other melodies from the standard catalogue of soul music, while backed up by a strikingly lackluster combo of African-American musicians. It occurred to me that race is no guarantee of talent, charm or charisma.
Both experiences came to mind while reading Randall Sandke’s diligent, scholarly and studiously researched, if ultimately curious, book, Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. On the first page, Sandke, who (as Randy Sandke) is a professional jazz musician as well as a writer, asks two questions that form the foundation of his research:
Does jazz represent the expression of a distinct and independent African-American culture, isolated by its long history of slavery, segregation and discrimination? Or, even when produced by African-Americans (or anyone else for that matter), is it more properly understood as the juncture of a wide variety of influences under the broader umbrella of American and indeed world culture?
It is perhaps unsurprising that Sandke, who is white, believes the latter inclusive theory to be the truth, rather than the former, exclusionary speculation. And in much of the book he backs up his belief with unimpeachable research. Still, there are other passages where he seems (pardon the expression) color blind to some of the realities that black musicians – and blacks who don’t play music at all – suffer as Americans.
Sandke demonstrates that people who write about jazz have been politicized, often benightedly, from as far back as the late 1920s. At the time, Louis Armstrong was encouraged to record some of the most popular tunes of the day, and the results – his big band sides from New York – are today considered among his finest. Sandke points out that at the time they were dismissed by one critic as “the white man’s notion of Harlem jazz.” Not long after, in Metronome magazine, John Hammond – who became an influential producer, critic, talent scout and musician – put down Duke Ellington because “he has added slick, un-Negroid musicians to his band and because he himself is aping Tin Pan Alley composers for commercial reasons … He consciously keeps himself from thinking about such problems as those of the Southern share croppers, the Scottsboro boys, intolerable working and relief conditions in the North and South.” Today, the critique seems astonishingly beside the point.
Whether or not they had good intentions, according to Sandke, more recent and influential jazz critics such as Gary Giddins, Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch did not have the scholarship to back up their Afrocentric assumptions. For example, it is commonly said that the roots of jazz are in West African drumming. Sandke is convincing when he argues that jazz’s structures have more to do with the time signatures of European music with which it shares instruments.
Sandke also points out the destructive notion that black jazz musicians are largely unschooled and self-taught. This is belied by how many of them played or admired classical music: from the composers Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson, to the musicians Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, among many others. He believes that the autodidactic myth has kept blacks from jobs in symphony orchestras and in studios, although I would tend to believe that plain-and-simple racism would be more often the culprit.
He also demolishes the myth – espoused by many who write about jazz – that blacks are possessed of some kind of intrinsic rhythm that allows them (and only them) to play the music. Citing instance after instance of the white musicians who have shared jazz’s bandstands with blacks, Sandke suggests that in addition to whatever innate talent a musician – black or white – may have, hard work and long hours playing and practicing are more likely to make them into what they are.
As convincing as Sandke is sometimes, the author seems to have certain resentments that show up as dissonant notes in his book. In a chapter largely devoted to Wynton Marsalis, Sandke seems to think it improbable that the musician would claim to have been the victim of racism. How could this be so when Marsalis has been given million-dollar record contracts, the stewardship of Jazz at Lincoln Center, nine Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize?
Can Sandke be unaware that none of those accomplishments make it any easier for Marsalis to get a cab in midtown Manhattan at night? Did he not read the reports of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates’s arrest last year for “breaking and entering” into his own Cambridge home? Or of the fifty-two bullets that New York policemen fired at African-American Sean Bell and two of his buddies on the morning after his bachelor party four years ago?
Sandke consistently appears to downplay all of the documentation of racism that he uncovers in the history of jazz. For example, he writes about Irving Mills and Joe Glaser, who managed Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong respectively. While each of them was instrumental in turning the musicians into stars and maintaining their popularity, they took fifty per cent of the publishing rights and their clients’ earnings in the bargain (when the standard at the time for a white artist was ten to fifteen per cent).
Sandke seems to think Ellington and Armstrong were better off than white bandleaders Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, each of whom had nervous breakdowns at the height of their careers. Does he believe Shaw and Goodman would have remained healthier if they’d had managers who helped themselves to so much of their earnings? Ellington and Armstrong were doubtless better off than Ella Fitzgerald, whose manager Moe Gale neglected her tax obligations for eighteen years, and Earl Hines, whose manager Ed Fox had him sign a contract that froze the bandleader’s salary at $150 a week in perpetuity.
Of course all that happened in another era. Nevertheless, Sandke offers no critical commentary about this piece of advice that was given Armstrong after he left New Orleans: “When you go up north, be sure and get yourself a white man that will put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘This is my nigger.’” Nor does he state that there was anything objectionable about black musicians being allowed to play in Storyville brothels and cabarets, but never to be customers. The same went for “black and tan” nightspots like New York’s Cotton Club, where blacks made music and waited tables, while “tan, tall and terrific” showgirls entertained the exclusively white clientele.
There is an admirable abundance of information about the history and the business of jazz in Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet (whose title comes from the lyrics to “Basin Street Blues”). As thoroughly investigated as it is, though, it’s hardly a page turner. It’s slow going, and would have been enhanced if the author evidenced any sense of humor at all.
Throughout the book, I asked myself where Sandke was going with all his exploration. What is he trying to prove? While he may be correct about the universality of jazz, at the same time, it cannot be denied that throughout its history, most of its greatest practitioners have been black. Reading between the lines, I wondered whether he was trying to settle some grand scores that he may have felt from being a white in a field predominated by blacks. (The issue of “Crow Jim” – reverse racism in jazz – is dealt with much more movingly and frankly in Straight Life, the autobiography white sax player Art Pepper published in 1979, co-written with his wife Laurie.)
In his conclusion, Sandke refers to his “guarded” optimism about the future, which strikes me as almost thoroughly naïve. He writes:
As a musician I travel across the U.S. and I see more and more African-Americans everywhere welcomed and treated with friendship and respect, enjoying the fruits of their labor. I see African-Americans flying all over the world, carrying out the nation’s business. And I see a relaxing of the stranglehold of racial consciousness. Notions of black cultural or intellectual inferiority seem to have gone the way of the divine right of kings as relics of a bygone, and much less enlightened, era.
The United States may have a black president, but I would like to invite Sandke to New Orleans, where I have rented an apartment since last November. Time and again, I have heard white people who I would have hoped to be progressive if not precisely enlightened express racist views about the crime problem here, or about women they believe get pregnant to collect welfare. Some comments I have heard have been so repugnant that I wouldn’t repeat them in this review. Sandke must know that in contemporary America, blacks are overwhelmingly more likely to be impoverished, imprisoned or victims of violence than whites.
Early in the book, Sandke points out that jazz musicians have often been miles ahead of the rest of the population in terms of integration. Indeed, the only truly integrated spaces I have seen in New Orleans are the bandstands, where whites and blacks play music without any visible (or audible) disharmony. I have been to a few restaurants and bars in this city where blacks and whites may be under the same roof, but sadly they are not sharing the same tables, much less dancing together. As I read Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, I sometimes wondered in what America Sandke believes he lives in.
David Lida is the author of several books, including First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century. As a mitigation specialist, he conducts investigations for defense attorneys on death-penalty cases. His website can be found at www.davidlida.com.