5. Reading the Black Jazz Writers

1) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1):  Discussion of Congo Square

2) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2):  Blindfold test, “Knozz-Moe-King,” general discussion

3) The “J" Word  introduces side posts:


(Summer 2010: Since December 2008, I have read biographies on Lester Young by Douglas Henry Daniels, Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley, and Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout. All three are excellent, and all three should really be worked into the following discussion. Gene Lees' race-colored condemnation of Cotton Club-era Ellington is also prime material, but I only discovered it in the wake of Lees' passing earlier this year. There's also been Willard Jenkins's important collection of interviews at Open Sky called "Ain't But a Few of Us," a "Series of conversations with black music writers discussing their craft, including obstacles and peculiarities which may or may not be related to issues of ethnic identity." Gene Seymour, Eric Arnold, Robin James, Bill Francis, Rahsaan Clark Morris, Gregory Thomas, Greg Tate, Kelvin L. Williams, D.G. Kelley, Bridget Arnwine, Martin Johnson, Herb Boyd, Ron Scott, Janine Coveney, Ron Wynn, Eugene Holley, and A.B. Spellman have talked with Jenkins so far: not so few, really! May there be many more.

My recent interview with Gerald Early is also significant. Therefore: the following is now outdated. I am re-posting "as it was" because I stand by every word.)


That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The topic of race is under-discussed in jazz journalism as a rule – except, of course, if the writer is black.

In addition to his work as a novelist, Ralph Ellison wrote a fair amount about music, now collected by Robert O’Meally in the essential volume Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. One of the rarer items included in this book is an interview with Ron Welburn called "Ralph Ellison’s Territorial Vantage." I brought along this fascinating passage when I met with Wynton:

Ron Welburn: What kind of education did the Oklahoma school system provide?

Ralph Ellison: Thanks to Mrs.  Zelia N. Breaux, who was a very influential educator, it was quite extraordinary. The kids were taught music from the early grades, including sight-reading. There was a music appreciation course with phonographs and recordings taught city-wide in the black schools, and rare for most schools even today, we were taught four years of harmony and two years of musical form. There was a marching and concert band, which I entered at the age of eight, two glee clubs, an orchestra and chorus, and each year Mrs. Breaux produced and directed an operetta...

Interestingly enough, Mrs Breaux... did not encourage us to play jazz. And yet as one of the owners of the local theater she brought all kinds of jazz musicians before the public. King Oliver, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox were frequently on the bill, and Bessie Smith and quite a number of T.O.B.A. circuit offerings came to her at the Aldridge Theater.

I had planned to read this quote to Wynton and use it as an entry point to talk about the band programs in public schools in the pre-civil rights era: there is a theory that people like Breaux and Walter Dyett in Chicago are unsung architects of classic jazz. After celebrating the unsung, we were supposed to transition to the present, since Wynton has gone into black schools today and seen what is going on.

My plan didn’t work. Somehow our conversation got derailed into an extended, already outdated political non-sequitur, which I left off the transcript.

However, Moving to Higher Ground could not be clearer about Wynton’s feelings about race, education, and sundry issues. The book also discusses Ralph Ellison’s spiritual children, Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, two writers highly influential to Wynton's aesthetic. This must be the first time a major jazz artist has been so inspired by non-musician writers on jazz: indeed, reading Murray's Stomping the Blues (1976) is crucial to understanding most of Marsalis's recordings since The Majesty of the Blues.

I have a lot of respect for Murray's theories in Stomping the Blues, which provide a rare example of credible intellectual engagement with folklore. The first three chapters are rather heavy going, but then Murray lifts off at the start of "The Blues as Music":

The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. With all its so called blue notes and overtones of sadness, blues music of its very nature and function is nothing if not a form of diversion. With all its preoccupation with the most disturbing aspects of life, it is something contrived specifically to be performed as entertainment. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.

I didn't notice that Murray's book is slightly, offhandedly racist (in passing, he dismissively calls white musicians "the third-line" and absurdly rejects Bix Beiderbecke out of hand) until later reading Terry Teachout's article "The Color of Jazz." Teachout is right. But I just don't care. The level of poetry Murray achieves in Stomping the Blues enables me to give him a free pass, just like I give a free pass to all those black musicians who have mouthed off about whites some time or another. I mean, if I didn't, I'd have to give away 75% of my jazz record collection!

Teachout's essay is a relatively even-handed example of conventional-wisdom criticisms of Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch. I don't agree with Teachout's perspective, but his angle is fair although naturally dated (it's from 1995, the height of the firestorm raging around possible reverse-racism at JALC). It's hardly a blanket condemnation. Teachout writes:

As an educator and a presenter of Bernstein-style "young people's concerts" intended to introduce children to jazz, Marsalis is widely recognized as having done admirable work. Indeed, I would venture to say that in the long run, he will be best remembered as a middlebrow popularizer – one who in particular has done more than any other figure of his generation to revive interest in jazz among young black listeners.


Ellison, Murray, Crouch, and Marsalis is one axis of black writers. Another began with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka followed quickly by A.B. Spellman, Ron Welburn, Greg Tate, and others. However, after Baraka, only Spellman has published a well-known, full-length book on jazz, the stone classic Four Lives in the Bebop Business. This side’s lineage is surely more secure now that Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself is out.

The superficial way to look at it is that Ellison – Murray – Crouch – Marsalis are fairly conservative and Baraka – Spellman – Lewis are more radical. (Ellison’s early review of Baraka’s Blues People is negative; Lewis takes all of two pages to distance himself from Ellison in A Power Stronger Than Itself.)

Regardless of ideology, all these writers are serious and compelling. I would argue that reading them all and enjoying the dialogue is more important than determining the absolute correctness of any one of them.

I worry that not enough people know the dialogue. I come face to face with something like a weird ignorant entitlement sometimes. To elaborate on a story I told Wynton:

When teaching at Banff this past summer, ten out of ten young jazz pianists were working on their post-Brad Mehldau/post-Keith Jarrett conception. That’s cool – I am full-on post-Jarrett myself, and in fact I’m influenced by Brad, too – but the same ten pianists then didn’t recognize James P.  Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” when I played it for them in a master class.

James P.

(James P. Johnson in the Google/Life photo archive. Sadly, this remarkable portrait – one of the best of him I've seen – does not have Johnson's name on it; I found it under "jazz," described merely as "personalities F-J.")

Now, jazz piano wouldn’t exist in its current state without James P. Johnson. That piece in particular, “Carolina Shout,” taught Duke Ellington and Fats Waller how to play.

It is interesting to contrast James P. with his contemporary, George Gershwin.


(George Gershwin in the Google/Life photo archive.)

While there is no doubt that Gershwin is one of the greatest composers of melody in history, James P. was also a deep genius. His academy was not melody, but rhythm.

He showcased his academy most when playing the piano, but his reach was far greater than just the keyboard: the most famous dance of the 1920’s, “The Charleston,” was penned by Johnson. In most American pop music of the 20th century, the academy of rhythm has been just as important – if not more – than the academy of melody, and James P. is one of its most important architects.

As a pianist, Gershwin had good rhythm, too, but it wasn't like James P. Johnson's. (And I'm not sure Gershwin did music such a favor by giving classical musicians concert works they could play by "faking" jazz rhythm. I certainly prefer Marcus Roberts's swinging transfiguration of Rhapsody in Blue to any classical pianist's. Stanley Crouch's too little-known assessment of Gershwin in the New York Times is here.)

The distance – let's call it a yawning chasm – between George Gershwin’s general opportunity, fame, and funded support and James P. Johnson’s is due to institutionalized American racism.

It’s really no big deal if any given young jazz pianist isn’t interested in James P. Johnson. One’s muses needn’t include early jazz if one wants to make good improvised music. But ten out of ten pianists not recognizing “Carolina Shout” really bothered me.

Those so critical of Wynton should remember that this is the battle he’s fighting: to get respect for people like James P. Johnson. Not just respect as a fine pianist of the Jazz Era, but respect for James P. Johnson as an intellectual property vital to the American identity.


In 2008, the musical content of jazz is more accessible then ever before. The whole canon of swing, blues, improvisation, and everything else is available somewhere on the internet.

Now that the musical content is so easy to get, perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to the social issues. Understanding some of this history can only enhance the music.

The small but significant bibliography on jazz by black writers is crucial. I'm not saying that, as a collection, these are better books on jazz than the much larger collection of books by white writers. But I am saying: ignore them at your peril.

Non-musician critics

Ralph Ellison Living With Music  (Robert O. Meally, the editor of this collection, has also edited The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, which includes pieces by many of the authors below.) Amiri Baraka Blues People, Black Music and The Music (includes poetry by Amina Baraka)
A.B. Spellman Four Lives in the Bebop Business
Albert Murray Stompin’ the Blues
Gerald Early Tuxedo Junction  (Unfortunately, Early addresses jazz only occasionally, but the jazz-related pieces here are very strong, indeed.)
Stanley Crouch Considering Genius
Eileen Southern The Music of Black Americans (There actually isn't that much about jazz in this book, but it obviously can't be left off this list.)

Musicians as critics

Rex Stewart Jazz Masters of the Thirties
Art Taylor Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews
David N. Baker The Black Composer Speaks (Contains the best interview with Herbie Hancock, who is less politically correct than usual.)
Dempsey J. Travis An Autobiography of Black Jazz (Although prefaced by Studs Terkel and blurbed by George Wein, this 1983 book is virtually unknown. It's too bad, since this story of a Chicago jazz family and the venues where they played is fascinating – if admittedly non-scholarly (if not downright inaccurate) at times. The book also contains interviews with prominent musicians that are often race-focused - even the interviews with white musicians Art Hodes and Bud Freeman.)
Wynton Marsalis (with Geoffrey Ward) Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life
George E. Lewis A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music


Duke Ellington Music is My Mistress
Louis Armstrong Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans (Even better is the collection In His Own Words.)
Dizzy Gillespie (with Al Fraser) To Be or Not to Bop
Hampton Hawes (with Don Asher) Raise Up Off of Me (Surely one of the greatest books on jazz ever.)
Charles Mingus Beneath the Underdog
Count Basie (with Albert Murray) Good Morning Blues
Pops Foster (with Tom Stoddard) Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman
Sidney Bechet Treat It Gentle
Milt Hinton (with David Berger) Bass Lines
Miles Davis (with Quincy Troupe) The Autobiography
W.O. Smith Sideman (Smith was the bassist on Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul." Great book with a lot on race, including some scenes in Nashville that are just priceless.)

Recommended reading on the internet: Ron Welburn's "James Reese Europe and the Infancy of Jazz Criticism" and Greg Tate's "Black Jazz in the Digital Age."

Some of the writers on the list above wrongfully attack white jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, etc., etc.

But I don't think the day has arrived quite yet for successful white jazz critics and musicians not to shrug off static from black critics and musicians as just the kind of inevitable dues artists of any color have to pay sometime. (The Bad Plus was initially attacked in print – on what I believe was mostly racial, not musical, grounds – by contemporary black jazz critics Willard Jenkins and Stanley Crouch.)


CODA: The Other Side

When I wrote earlier that "The topic of race is under-discussed in jazz journalism as a rule – except, of course, if the writer is black," this was a bit unfair to recent authors like Scott DeVeaux, Allen Lowe, Ben Ratliff, and others who have been willing to roll up their sleeves and address racial inequality and racial musical styles when appropriate.

(But we have a ways to go. A current example of the old-school approach is John McDonough's "Six Forgotten Beats: Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett, and Dave Tough" in the November 2008 issue of DownBeat. It's a longish piece, but McDonough doesn't mention skin color once. They are all great drummers; they all deserve space; but why shrink from even a cursory mention of who was white and who was black? I just don't understand this; when I see those six names, I see the color line radiating out and positioning them almost as much as their playing does. (Admittedly, there are photos.) McDonough says that Krupa was the first ("and presumably most important") drummer inducted in the DB Hall of Fame in 1972. Jo Jones – whom my peers study more than Krupa – was inducted 36 years later, in 2008: was this discrepancy possibly race-related? Maybe it's not – Jo Jones didn't get any fancy solos with Count Basie the way Gene Krupa got with Benny Goodman – but at least it is worth discussing, not ignoring. In my opinion, not initiating the discussion makes race seem more important than it is, not less.)

Some white writers have made race a focus of book-length examinations. Of course, just like the black writers, not all the white jazz writers are in agreement. Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White by Gene Lees and Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (later expanded and revised as John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960's) by Frank Kofsky are at the opposite ends of the spectrum politically. I suspect they were sworn enemies, mostly thanks to an all-out battle Kofsky waged against white establishment jazz critics (including Lees) in the pages of Downbeat in the mid-'60's.

I have only guarded respect for both. Certainly, Lees is a better prose stylist and hears the music more accurately than Kofsky, who often rambles incoherently. But Kofsky gave us the last and best interview with John Coltrane (it's in the book), and Lees is comfortable writing sentences like:

Since 1959, I have known most of the major writers about jazz in America. I have never known a white jazz critic who was racist, excepting in the sense that a few have been anti-white. I have read perhaps three black ones who aren't.

This statement makes me cringe. Gene Lees is excellent when talking about his pals and heroes like Oscar Peterson, Johnny Mercer and Bill Evans. But to claim that no white jazz critics have boosted whites at the expense of blacks since 1959 is terribly self-righteous and inaccurate.

More in the center are Charley Gerard's Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Jazz Community (this has a nice revealing interview with Ron Welburn) and a chapter in John Gennari's Blowing Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics that lays out the JALC controversy (Murray/Crouch vs. Teachout/Lees) in a way I find sympathetic. Gennari also offers an excellent analysis of Charlie Parker as viewed by Ross Russell vs. Amiri Baraka.

However, the 800-pound gorilla is surely Richard M. Sudhalter's vast Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-45. It's an obviously valuable book, and often more accurate technically than the comparable canonical Gunther Schuller books Early Jazz and The Swing Era.

However, as a white musician who plays jazz piano, I presume Sudhalter would want his book to make me feel empowered. Instead, Sudhalter makes me feel ashamed.

Sudhalter is never racist; that's not the problem. The problem is that Sudhalter's misty, sentimental reveries about his favorite musicians (like a two-page dream sequence starring Bud Freeman) are never balanced by a correspondingly passionate rage against the basic inequities of the era.

This is Sudhalter on the word "dixieland":

The war [WWI] once over, Tin Pan Alley returned its attention to that staple of popular mythology, the antebellum American South: it was Paradise Lost, a time of simpler, clearer values, when man was better able to perceive the gentler side of his nature. A time of community, when life seemed more in balance.

...After the anxiety and jingoism of the "Great War"... here was the backlash – a desire, a need, to turn away.

What better anodyne than a resurgent preoccupation with pre-Civil War Dixie, reinvented as a time of lazy, magnolia-scented days and soft, moonlight nights, the melodious (if safely distant) singing of contented "darkies" floating on the velvet air?


The terms "Dixie" and "Dixieland," of course, had been long understood as synonyms for the South. The idea of "Dixieland"-as-paradise was central to the songs of James Bland and Stephen Collins Foster...

The enormous and ubiquitous success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band only reinforced word and concept in public consciousness... "Dixieland," in this context, was a handy shorthand for Utopia.

I'm sure all this is technically correct, and I'm equally positive that something is missing. Compare Wynton Marsalis's analysis of the same word in Moving to Higher Ground:

There were less obvious, cruelly humorous assaults on it [jazz], too, like calling New Orleans music "Dixieland," which managed to identify it with the Confederacy's battle hymn: "You play about freedom, but we'll make it an homage to your enslavement."

I try to see the positive in all sides: Sudhalter is extremely well-informed, and his magnum opus will endure. But if battle lines do need to be drawn, I will fight on Wynton Marsalis's team, not Richard M. Sudhalter's.