Field Recordings: The Caucasian Storms: On Race and Music Pt. 1

I was re-reading Norman Mailer’s The White Negro recently, and then a few essays in the Greg Tate-edited book  Everything but the Burden. Tate’s book is a very interesting collection of pieces on what whites have absorbed and taken (stolen?) from black culture. In a way weirdly complimentary to many of the ideas in Everything but the Burden, Mailer’s seminal essay posits the whitehipster as a cross-racial personification of black existential being. White hipsterism, in Mailers essential description, represents a  white way of adapting to black mores, and is driven by, among other things, a desire to challenge white (suburban?) sexual and cultural denial. Beyond this, as he gets into specific detail, Mailer theorizes that white hipsters are, in essence, consciously challenging their own imprisonment in the white race, in the process going for a thrill ride on that mystical yet viscerally effecting roller coaster we might, after the French, call Negritude.

I remember distinctly that I  found Mailer’s logic suspect even when I first read the essay in high school, at the suggestion of a classmate who thought Mailer’s depiction of hipsterism was complimentary to we suburban white boys. After all, we were just starting to understand jazz, the blues, and other African  American forms and take them to heart, both directly (through the recordings and the occasional concert in nearby New York City) and indirectly (through the emerging roots-consciousness of then-contemporary folk music and rock and roll ). Though I could not articulate it fully, even at that tender age (16) and in that year (1970) I thought Mailer’s ideas were false, that  his particular theory of white shadowing of black form was a misguided and even racist (particularly by way of its sexual stereotyping) recognition of what was an important fact: that African American culture is American culture, and part of a birthright for which one need not necessarily qualify by virtue of race but also by care and understanding: with respect, recognition, and even, to some extent, reparations of a social and intellectual nature.

I was thinking back on this recently in light of various controversies that have  raged of late in the jazz world, prompted by some of trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s proclamations and then another contemporary jazz musician’sverbal essay on YouTube. That musician tells us in this that, for whites, learning jazz is like him attempting Mariachi music;  it can be learned by rote, but never really felt (and thus played) in a fundamentally authentic way, due to cultural limitations, a lack of initiation into “the life” (my phrase, not his, but clearly his meaning) and the kind of intellectual self-deception that leads we white folks to repeat, like a sad and desperate  mantra,  that it’s all American music and it’s all one music, part of the broader spectrum of good and bad art (as in that by-now old and tired saw, “there are only two kinds of music….”) and that we are all just people, after all….(shades of Miss America).

Aside from this musician’s general problem of  self deception (if he is talking about cultural limitations, well, than, the most culturally specific music I hear these days is hip hop, for which he and almost all African American jazz musicians are as culturally disadvantaged and under-qualified as I and my fellow  white musicians), I feel he is dead wrong in most respects, especially as regards jazz and the cultural furies. The truth, as it has been for some time, is that jazz today operates on a cultural plane that is far different than that which it occupied in some of its older days. By now it is a cultural  common denominator much more than it is a folk form, and has been so for a very long time (and of course I am far from the first person to say so). But the deeper truth is that that musician and Payton are wrong for reasons that have a more complicated intellectual and emotional scope. Certainly American culture, with its constant tension of  African American innovation and technical development succeeded by white response, has informed my work as much as it has informed his. But there is a lot more to it than that. Because as with some of the attitudes expressed in that book edited by Greg Tate,  there are inherent contradictions embodied by various direct and peripheral expressions of what is, by any other name, just a new form of Afro-Centricism.

One of the prevailing theories regarding white love of African American culture is related to the alleged Caucasian glorification, eroticization, and exotification of all things black, an essential fetishization of what might have been called, years ago (and see above) Negritude. I have seen these allegations made in a thousand essays on the relationship of white and black culture and cultural practices. And there is a certain logic to this point of view, especially as reflected in traditional white racial ambivalence: a fascination with, yet fear of, black bodies, as expressed, among other ways, through the lineage of politically and socially-motivated atrocities committed against African Americans: think, just for starters, of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and myriad other forms of domestic terrorism. Not to mention the condescending arc of Euro-critical images (particular during the jazz age) of the inherent, born-to-dance grace of early African American stage performers.

And yet…there are problems with this basic theory. The first is one of basic  inner logic: while I have read more than one cultural critique by black writers of such white fetishization of black essences, the literature of African American cultural  writing is filled which just such forms of mystification, with African American literary attempts to downgrade white efforts at American cultural expression by reason of physical, cultural, and racial distance (or, really, inferiority). The same forms of  eroticization, and exotification which have been vilified as attitudes of degradation when in the hands of whites are useful clubs with which to beat white people over the head, to re-enforce certain cultural boundaries and distances (remember that Richard Prior routine in which, as a parody of Sixties political expression, he read a poem in which the only word was “Black” repeated over and over again with increasing intensity?).

Certainly there is a deep sense of cultural mystery (and mystique) in all of this white recognition(going back at least 300 years) of black accomplishment, a constant feeling of wonder, expressed by whites, at certain paradoxically and indigenously brilliant neo-Africanretentions. There is an understanding inherent in such critical response of the genius of the musical and language systems devised by African Americans in the New World. There is a recognition, as well, of the constant invention and reinvention of new forms in this essentially (but not solely) musically modernist, African American system of expression. But white recognition and high praise for such is not necessarily the same thing as fetishization and eroticization of the intellectual object. Certainly the whites whom I know and respect and who either admire or write about or perform these art forms (or who do anycombination thereof) are aware that creativity is as much a matter of instinct as direct consciousness. But conflating emotion and intellect is far different than confusing mystical gobbledygook with the concrete and core intellectual requirements of creation and performance. And truth be told, a lot of African American writing, in trying to create a poetic dimension to fill that same gap between thought and creation, dances the dance of racial exclusivity. Argue for this if you will; but then, don’t complain about whites who see this as an exotic, deeply spiritual, and therefore mystical cultural leap.

Certainly Mailer was, of course, also, guilty, of  such mystification. In a way he was ahead of his time: right for the wrong reasons? Or wrong for the right reasons?

The real truth is that I have known thousands of great musicians, black and white – and that NONE fit the cultural conditions set by so many  black AND white writers.  Not a one of them is or was, by any stretch of the imagination, a hipster(though most were “hip” by any standard) – they were serious, studious, deeply intellectual men and women, for whom jazz and its performance was as much an intellectual as emotional exercise.  Which is not to say that they had little or no understanding of  the weighty racial and cultural issues involved. I had, for example, a few long talks with the black bassist Jamil Nasser, who  worked with and had a deep personal attachment to the great white bebop pianist Al Haig, in which Jamil said he felt that Haig had very profoundly committed himself to what has been called by others ‘the jazz life,’ a way of life which, to Jamil’s way of thinking, came at no little personal expense. To him Haig had, indeed, paid the kind of dues, both life and otherwise, that jazz required. Jamil felt that Haig could have taken certain kinds of cultural and financial advantage of his whiteness, but that he had neither the temperament or desire to do so  (and of course, Bud Powell, the epitome of great African American jazz pianism, called Haig “a perfect pianist”).

Take a roll call of all of the musicians I’ve known especially well, from Haig to Barry Harris, Joe Albany, Bob Neloms, Tommy Potter, Bill Triglia, Jaki Byard, Curley Russell, Dick Katz, Dickey Meyers, Dave Schildkraut. All were truly working musicians, and each had his own deep knowledge and understanding of jazz. I won’t tell you which were black and which were white, though of course it would not be difficult to find out who was what. But Dizzy Gillespie (certainly the hippest of the hip and essentially a teacher, as each told me, to both Haig and Katz) said to me that the greatest alto saxophonist he heard after Charlie Parker was Schildkraut – and Schildkraut was a white Jew who told me he’d flown in alien space ships and who became, in his last years, more and more Orthodox in his studious and obsessive application of his native Judaism. And it was the African American Jaki Byard who told me one night, in a confiding if near-off handed manner that was meant to mask the deep seriousness of his remark, that the reason the trumpeter Don Ellis was not more widely recognized by the jazz press was “because he was white.” I was a very impressionable 22 or 23 at the time, and it took me some time to truly understand the complexity of Jaki’s belief in this particular fact. But he meant exactly what he said, and he said it in the way he said it because he was not only deeply pained by his friend’s lack of acceptance, but because he knew that acknowledging the reason for such went very much against the grain of certain and very accepted social and political tenets.

Ironically or not, I write all of the above on the same day that an article in the New York Times, on the neurological importance of reading fiction, tells us  that “the brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.” Might the same apply to the learning of music by listening to it on records as so many of we white (and, truth be told, black) folks did, at least initially? And if so, what does this tell us about certain claims of racial exclusivity? Because if the brain converts things on the written page from observation to experience, what does listening to thousands of hours of music, particularly that made by long-dead (and usually African American) musicians in the years before World War II, do? On a personal level this has made me wonder about the potential skewing of various cultural theories of both micro and macro determinism, from the big-picture questions of “realness” and authenticity of Zora Neale Hurston, to the more localized and indigenous habits of language and inflection as described by Alan Lomax. Is simply listening another form of socialization and acculturation, a means of psychological accumulation that is intellectually, emotionally, and anthropologically correct?

In all of this, by the way, I was reminded of some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the old white blues advocates who promoted and essentially instigated the 1960s blues revival.  I’ve gotten to know a few of these people, who have been subjected to these same general charges, of over-romanticizing the African American music and musicians that they helped to bring into the mainstream by, as the allegation goes, pushing artificial, racialist, romantic ideas of historicity and authenticity. I think these claims are nonsense, because once again they ignore the real and less sensational reasons these men and women admired and advocated for this music: as with my own emerging love of jazz as a teenager, the real truth is less interesting: they did not like the music because they thought it was authentic – they thought it was authentic because they liked it. A common (and very) human response. Also, I would say, a crucial and major distinction, and one which points in the opposite direction of racialized, condescending praise.