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15 May 2008



Wow. Ethans's essay wore me out( in a good way!), but I have been accused of the same myself, and so it's nice to see someone else doing it to others! But really, I thought it was a pretty interesting analysis of Tristano's work as well as a constructive way to drag back out into the atmosphere jazz music's dirty laundry centered around race.

Being from Chicago, honestly I can bet I know why Tristano had, as Ethan said, "so little consideration for the African diaspora." I think the answers have to be drawn in context to the history of one of our nations most segregated cities-- especially between the years of 1925 and 1965. Not to mention the race divisions that still existed when i as growing up there in the 90's and still exist today in some regard.

I also know, from experience, how perception on race can be skewed and overprojected when one is not part of a majority. Personally, I struggle with this often. And I wonder if Tristano's perceptions and projections were also affected by deep grudges surrounding mistreatment he felt by Black musicians. At the same time I also feel that even though Black musicians at one time were the majority of folks playing jazz, they still had to do so ( sometimes almost as rule) within the construct of some pretty bigoted and racist stereotypes that were further pushed along by some pretty insensitive, and uneducated critics, industry folk and buying public.

I read Art Taylor's Notes and Tones probably 4 times and when Miles Davis said that one of the things he liked to do in his spare time was watchting t.v. so he could make fun of white people, inside , for me as a budding black womanchild I felt a certain sense of cultural vindication in that, the same way a super small part of me roots for Naomi Campbell whenever she gets charged with slapping someone around, only cause i know 200 years ago it would not have been her doing the slapping. And yes, I know thats puuuuuuuuuuuure ignorance on my part, and a baaaaaaaaaaaad comparison, but i point it out to show that we all have bits of that and its important to acknowledge them and try to foster a better understanding of where they come from so that we can be rid of them.
(I should also mention that in the same book tho, I was embarrased, as a black american, by the Hampton Hawes interview.)

Though i think Ethan is right in saying Miles would probably say Tristano had his own thing, I also think Miles would also point out that without the black musicians that came before him there would be no Tristano. And though I am a Tristano fan
( really anything Chicago I love obviously)
I find slight offense in Tristano's light treading on the subject of race, as I'm sure he would have found offense in Blakey's swinging joke.

What I think is at the crux of this discussion in 21st century time is really this though-- bitterness from non black musicians at being beat upon for something they didn't personally sanction
( enslavement of africans) and bitterness from black musicians for something they didn't sanction either ( the enslavement of africans).
Atleast there is a commonality there.
But along with that comes so much historical baggage. The american tradition of cultural appropriation, particularly within music;happening without acknowledgement of where the art was lifted from probably added to the perceptions of Tristano by Black musicians from what I can tell.

At the same time, I think it's also interesting to note that I didn't hear about Lennie Tristano until I got to college and only in college I might add... and even then my interest wasn't completely there purely based on the visual, I'll admit. I left the classical world because I got tired of learning about music of white identified composers from white identified teachers within in the realms of white identified midwestern classrooms. Digging into Jazz music gave me some salvation because I was looking at a music cannonized by black folks, and there were still remnants of that cannonization running around Chicago outside of the Jazz educational conundrum, that allowed me to supplement in real life rather than just in cultural nostalgia.

And lastly, as I have spoken of before, I found it rather odd, almost absurd, or maybe a better word is alarming, that IAJE had to have a Black Caucus at a conference whose subject's roots began in black american communities.
That to me, combined with the fact that in my dealings in "jazz education" at the collegiate level I only had one Black teacher ( Cecil Mcbee) speaks volumes to this whole discussion on the history of race within the context of jazz.

I still admire Lennie Tristano though and always will. Perhaps sometimes in order to hear the humaness of the music it's important not to hear, or atleast turn down the humaness of the man? As a woman, I had to do the same thing with Miles when i read his autobiography...

I don't know. lots of of questions. Maybe I'll expand on this somewhere else.
whew. sorry so long. back to work....


Wow, thanks for commenting at such length and with such insight!

I read Notes and Tones for the first time when I was 18. Needless to say, having grown up in suburban Vancouver, with only one black student in my entire high school, the interviews in that book made a big impression, especially that Blakey quote.

I wasn't angry or hurt, but I was extremely confused -- I knew Blakey had hired Keith Jarrett and Chuck Mangione, years before he was interviewed for the book. And of course, he later went on to hire Benny Green and others. So it was clear to me Blakey didn't literally mean what he said... but it took me a while to begin to figure out where he was actually coming from.

A few weeks after I picked up Notes and Tones, I attended a workshop with Ronnie Matthews. This was the first time I'd ever had the chance to ask questions of a master jazz musician. I asked him one of the questions Art Taylor asks everyone in the book: did he think jazz was political music? He asked me what I meant by that. I tried to explain about some of what I'd been reading in Notes and Tones, but I was incredibly nervous and made an awkward mess of it. I'm sure he felt disrespected, which was not at all what I wanted to convey. But I was young and ignorant.

James Hirschfeld

Historically, there is a lively discussion to be had about race relations as they pertain to jazz. What a drag that there was racial animosity between the white jazz community and that black jazz community!

But I think that Barack Obama is correct to point out that the state of race in America is not static. That progress has been made and is continuing.

I started playing jazz in high school and the first CD I ever bought was Miles' Bags Groove. At Eastman, (where I went to college), I learned a lot about all different types of music ranging from jazz to chant to Gamelan to whatever! I love that shit. I can't say that I am really conscious of the African Diaspora as I compose or play any more than I am conscious of my own lineage or conscious of what I may have been listening to the night before.

Some people (Wynton, Stanley Crouch, Bill Dobbins) get really militant about the word 'jazz' and what it means. If you give a shit about that type of stuff, great. I've had that conversation a million times and I've kind of worn it out. Same with the "What is music?" and the "Is this art?" discussions.

I think that ultimately, Tristano and Bird (and everyone else) were just "doing their thing." The argument that one guy "sounded white" was really just a reference to a "style" of playing (associated with players who were white like Brubeck, Desmond, et al). Was that style influenced by racial relations? Certainly! Ethan writes about the great "fuck you" to bebop committed by white boys Konitz and Marsh when they played "Donna Lee" one beat off from the rhythm section. But if that was indeed a "fuck you," wasn't Donna Lee itself a great "fuck you" to Tin Pan Alley? Of course, I don't believe either of those are "fuck you"s. I think they are better described as innovations and that is how this music progresses forward. (And I also wanted to write "fuck you" a bunch of times!)

My own group, The Respect Sextet, has often been described paradoxically as irreverent or disrespectful to the traditions of jazz. We have fun for sure, but we are dead serious about what we do. We will release our latest album in August that features the music of Sun Ra and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The whole point of the album is that they were really not that far off from each other. The musical concepts they explored were eerily similar, and the performance practices are also similar (costumes, staging, music as a philosophy, etc).

The study of the racial influence on jazz is interesting! But, like Obama, I like to focus on how far we have come. I think it is ultimately a success story. One thing I like about Ethan's article is that he talks a lot about what all these players had in common. And they had so much in common. And I think that is what one should walk away with after having had this discussion.

That is why I really can't stand Stanley Crouch. Strangely enough, he lauds Obama's race speech, but his philosophy of the world is more like Jeremiah Wright's than Obama's. He sees everything through a racial lens.
He writes:

I once heard Tristano on the radio saying that when he was told by someone that what he was playing was not correct, he responded by saying, "Maybe it's not right but I want to improvise." There it is: he wanted to improvise and what resulted was the opening of a door to all of those people who are incapable of swinging, cannot play the blues and don't like to be told by their rhythm sections what to do. A perfect attitude for the improvised but European-derived stuff that people call jazz today. The less presence it has of the Negro, the more "advanced" it is. That doesn't matter: blues and swing will always be here.

Who are all "those people who are incapable of swinging"? "Improvised but European-derived stuff"? I don't believe I am taking Crouch's point out of context. Crouch is entitled to his beliefs, but post Obama's speech, I feel empowered to say that I totally reject that language and philosophy that continues to divide people by race. Don't get me wrong--I think there is plenty more work to be done. I think Matana's well thought out comment spells out some of that work.

Some additional thoughts that I want to mention but don't want to get into:

--Music from Africa? The continent? If we are going to cite influences, let's be specific. I am no scholar on the many musics of Africa, but I do know the difference between Western and Eastern African music. It is too easy to say "the rhythm came from Africa and the harmonies came from Europe." I am definitely not the person to ask about the origins of jazz rhythms in Africa, but I'd prefer people be more precise when they refer to "Africa."

--Lastly, in a discussion of race and Tristano, is it relevant that he was born blind and not even able to see another person's race? (I guess, depending on the way people talk, you can sometimes glean something about one's race.) I have imagined what race/racism must seem like to a blind person, unable to understand the concept of light/color. Think how crazy that would seem!


I think in regards to that Blakey qoute though, one has to look a little deeper in regards to it's cultural context. For so long black folk in this country had to shuck and jive as a way of survival. "Yes massuh and no massuh sir/ma'am" unfortunately didn't end in 1865. It became a silent language but was still a language that black folk had to pay attention too.But the one beautiful thing about art is it allows the artist to rebel in a way that he or she can not in the regular societal norm.

Though I understand how blakey's comment could be hurtful I also see it as an ironic political signifier, as we know that truly in this country the only folk swinging from rope were of the negro or negro lover variety.

I hear the political discourse in his statement more then I really hear the surface. And I believe its a practice of artistic liberation that was a natural commonality in black music of the day, something that pretty much all my heroes-- from bessie smith-- all the way down practiced.

Did they know they were adding to the political discourse? Maybe, maybe not.
But being able to make art and be defiant at the same time is one of the reasons this music developed such substance in the first place. And probably points to some clues as to the current problems that exist within the art form today.
I don't know, but obviously something's missing.

Many folk of all colors explored the act of political and social defiance as this music evolved-- some more in quiet ways than others... I believe some white jazz musicians back in the day had a better understanding and compassion for the struggles of black folk in america, but it still didn't take away from the fact that if Jimmy Dorsey decided he'd want to leave music and become a leader in almost any other field, he could,with the accesibilty of the color card as a crux of his foundation. if Count Basie decided he'd want to do the same, it would have been a bit different perhaps, because of racist double standards.

I think the history of the mistreatment of white musicians by black musicians pulls a lot from that painful legacy. Does that make it right? Not exactly, but I think it's something to think about. And it's something I think about and struggle with a lot myself...

Secondly, the problems with most jazz educational programs etc etc..has a lot to do with the fact that the political and social discourse is weak as hell.From what I have seen and experienced,it seems to be the thing, that the music is taught out of the cultural context of which it sprang forth.It's kind of glossed over. And while I don't think that's always a purposeful overgloss, Ido think the problems some musicians had with Tristano and other early white jazz pioneers is that it appeared as if some of them were trying to ignore and almost gloss over the cultural context
With the same euro- arrogance that created race oppresion and it's residuals in the first place.

And just to be clear-- for me it's not a black or white jazz music debate -- it's really about
how the details of a systematic practice of oppresion of any kind always seems to cause an interesting case of historical amnesia.
This is a global phenomena that is not unique to the United States.

Blakey's comment and the irony within it,whether he meant it or not, reminds me of toxic residuals from a discourse that still seems a bit uncomfortable in 2008 doesn't it?

Some would disagree,but I personally hold suspect any artmaker of any color who pulls from this music, without confronting some of the uncomfortable questions it brings up around the history of race, gender and class. But that's just me, and a current constant nag I have in examining cultural understanding partly because of the visual and artistic cards I have been dealt myself.

In the end the music still stands for itself despite the various ensuing mind fucks it can cause.

I promise to leave these long screeds to my own blog, but thanks for sparking the discussion.


Blindness by the way, unfortunately doesn't protect one from having to deal with issues of race in this country.Just ask my governor.


Though I understand how blakey's comment could be hurtful I also see it as an ironic political signifier, as we know that truly in this country the only folk swinging from rope were of the negro or negro lover variety.

Yes. Blakey's comment is -- literally -- gallows humor. Lynching wasn't history, it was a reality for black Americans of Blakey's generation. He was born in 1919 -- according to Tuskegee Institute stats, almost 600 people were lynched during Blakey's lifetime.

Intellectually, of course, we know that -- "Strange Fruit," and so on -- but there's just no way I could ever even begin to appreciate the full effect of having grown up in a time where lynchings were part of your day-to-day reality. I mean, it's possible that Blakey actually knew someone who had been lynched, had been threatened with lynching himself, etc. (I know that Clark Terry narrowly escaped a lynch mob at one point.) How does anyone even deal with that? Irony and dark humor are a totally understandable, totally human response. I think I get that a bit better now, even if I didn't when I first encountered that passage.

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