Institutional Racism Redux

One of DTM's most controversial posts was from a little more than a year ago. "From the Ground Up" was a long response to a  Nicholas Payton tweet.  I thought Payton was intellectually lazy and rather provincial for going after Ben Ratliff and NY Times jazz coverage for being racist. I maintain that if you are a talented young black artist in New York, Ratliff and Nate Chinen will cover you: Indeed, they know the pitfalls of race history as much as any non-African American jazz writers I've ever read. 

However, while I thought he had the wrong target, Payton (who's also an excellent musician) certainly has a larger point about historical critical practice -- and even current critical practice! Some wounds seem to be perpetually refreshed. Shortly after writing "From the Ground Up" I regretted my Ghostbusters lead, I surely could have found something institutionally racist in a recent jazz magazine.

Drums and drummers are a good topic to look for that kind of thing.


I'm a Ginger Baker fan. Of course. The power, the projection, the articulation of the classic songs. I really only know and appreciate Cream and a bit of Blind Faith, though; a lot of his later work seems weak in comparison. We see that so often with those who achieve superstardom young: money and fame seem to solve everything, so they quit paying dues and think all of their future music is invincible. (Baker's trio with Frisell and Haden was listenable, but almost anyone who really cares about jazz would want a different drummer to spar with those masters. That trio is for "Sunshine Of Your Love" air-drummers who now want to relax with a little light "jazz.")

 Yesterday A.O. Scott  wrote an amusing NY Times review of the new documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. I like A. O. Scott a lot, but one sentence gave me pause: 

An earlier videotaped interview shows him choking up with emotion when he speaks of [Max] Roach, [Elvin] Jones, Art Blakey and Phil Seamen, jazz idols who came to recognize him as a peer.

Roach, Blakey, or Jones might have taken the bread and done a few drum battles with Baker, but there's no way they thought Baker was a peer. Are you fucking kidding me? 

Baker was annointed a rock god; he had everything that society had to offer. The foundation of his success, classic jazz drumming, was an almost exclusively African-American invention. Those innovators paid dues in a racist society, and those dues informed their genius. Look at the video of Blakey and Baker together. Of course, Blakey plays much better (I hope I don't need to say that) but even with the sound turned down, Blakey's superior moral authority is obvious. 

Again, I dig white English rock from the late 60's and early 70's. Who doesn't? It's awesome. Cream is immortal. But be careful where you tread when you start bringing up black jazz innovators.  If our society has decided Ginger Baker is the equal of Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones, that's not giving the real credit where it is due.


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