He was stunned to ascertain that Europe was less racist toward those like himself in comparison to his homeland;
“One study concludes that jazz served to sustain ‘anti-Americanism’ and this artistic bent also meant ‘solidarity with African Americans in opposition to white Americans.’”
The following is an excerpt from Gerald Horne’s book, Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music. It is re-printed with permission from NYU Press and Monthly Review Press.
Buck Clayton was ready to rumble.
It was about 1934 and this Negro trumpeter found himself in Shanghai, a city on the cusp of being bombarded by marauding Japanese troops. But that was not his concern. Instead, what he thought he had escaped when he began performing in China had followed him across the Pacific Ocean. “White guys [were] saying,” he wrote decades later, “there they are. Niggers, niggers, niggers!” These incendiary epithets lit the fuse and “soon fists were flying” and “when it was all over the Chinese onlookers treated us like we had done something that they had always wanted to do and followed us all the way home cheering us like a winning football team.”1
He may not have recognized it at the time of the fracas, but Clayton’s Asian encounter illustrated several themes that had ensnared Negro musicians, especially practitioners of the new art form called “jazz.” Often, they had to flee abroad, where they found more respect and an embrace of their talent. And often the sustenance found there allowed them to develop their art and sustain their loved ones. Overseas they were capable of fortifying the global trends that in the long run proved decisive in destroying slavery and eroding the Jim Crow that followed in its wake.2 The pianist Eubie Blake, born in 1883, referring to Canada and Europe, was moved to argue—extravagantly and emphatically, though understandably given the United States was his reference point—that “color don’t make any difference to them people and I can understand why a lot of Negroes stayed over there to live.”3 Back home they were forced to fight to repel racist marauders, some of whom had hired them to perform.
Furthermore, the presence of these exiled artists of African ancestry undergirded existent hostility to U.S. imperialism, shoring up the generally faltering position of African Americans back home. Thus, one study of the music in Paris concludes that jazz served to sustain “anti-Americanism” and this artistic bent also meant “solidarity with African Americans in opposition to white Americans.” A French book on the music had an “astonishing” 150 editions, indicating why, during the Cold War, says critic Andy Fry, Washington “represented a greater threat to Europe than Communism.”4 This point inferentially raises the related matter of the new music seen as an analogue to democracy in the interaction between and among musicians on the bandstand and the ineffable reality that the bulk of the artists were of African descent, leading Washington to sponsor concerts abroad of the music. Ironically, analogizing jazz to democracy, a frequent Cold War trope, belied the fact that the music was embraced by Italian fascists, among other anti-democratic miscreants.5
“Overseas they were capable of fortifying the global trends that in the long run proved decisive in destroying slavery and eroding the Jim Crow that followed in its wake.”
A glimpse of this phenomenon was exposed when the Negro composer and musician Benny Carter arrived in Copenhagen as Clayton was being pummeled in Shanghai. When he exited the train, he was recognized as a celebrity. “I was literally lifted onto the shoulders of people,” he said decades later, “and they carried me out of the station to a waiting automobile and I was taken to my hotel with this crowd behind. And I was really never so thrilled.” He was stunned to ascertain that Europe was less racist toward those like himself in comparison to his homeland; in Europe he found “acceptance of you just on the basis of you as a human being.”6
This is a book about the travails and triumphs of these talented musicians as they sought to make a living, at home and abroad, through dint of organizing—and fighting. I approach this subject with a certain humility, well aware, as someone once said, that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” that is, “using one artistic vocabulary to portray another” is inherently perilous.7 This task is made all the more complex when writing about this form of music, where the historical record is studded with various and often contrasting versions of the same episode. The co-author of the informative memoir of a well-known pianist asserted that “Dr. [Billy] Taylor has told more than [one] version of the same story. He noted the fallibility of memory and had a healthy sense of humor about the inconsistencies that can result.”8 The problem is that the historian thereby runs the risk of circulating misinformation, a prospect I will seek to evade in the pages that follow.
What is this music called jazz? Why does it carry this name and where did it develop?
“Jazz,” according to the late Euro-American pianist, Dave Brubeck, speaking in 1950, was “born in New Orleans about 1880” consisting of “an improvised musical expression based on European harmony and African rhythms.”9 (The critic Leonard Feather is among those who question the “Big Easy” birth, despite its seductively powerful appeal,10 while saxophonist Von Freeman said that “jazz is not that old,“ the bandleader Sun Ra “said it began billions of years ago.”)11 Brubeck could have added that this music presupposes mastery of musical instruments, particularly—though not exclusively—piano, strings (bass fiddle, guitar, etc.), horns (saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, trombone, etc.), and yes, percussion (especially drums). Brubeck was informed by critic Marshall Stearns, who said in 1954 that the new music is “improvised Afro-American music with strong European influences,” the instruments wielded not least.12 In accord with Brubeck was the late saxophonist Eddie Barefield, who in 1977 defined the music in which he excelled as “something with a beat” that involves “improvisation.”13 The musician Joe Rene said in 1960 that the art form in which he was distinguished was nothing but filling in a melody, a task he ascribed to the trumpet14 a musical instrument whose importance stretches back generations.15
The subversive impact of this new form has been said to “subvert racial segregation, musically enacting . . . [an] assault on white purity,” and the music was said to have “encouraged racial boundary crossings by creating racially mixed spaces and racially impure music, both of which altered the racial identities of musicians and listeners.”16
Alert readers may have noticed that I have introduced the term “jazz” with a bodyguard of quotation marks. This is meant to signify the contested employment of this term. Thus the master percussionist Max Roach did not embrace this word: “I prefer to say,” he announced in 1972, “that the music is the culture of African people who have been dispersed throughout North America.”17 Elaborating, Roach argued—in a nod to the difficult working conditions that accompanied a music associated with bordellos and Negroes—that the very term “jazz” meant “the worst kind of working conditions, the worst in cultural prejudice . . . small dingy places, the worst kind of salaries and conditions that one can imagine . . . the abuse and exploitation of black musicians.”18 Artie Shaw, the late reedman, said in 1992 that the “word ‘jazz’ is a ridiculous word.”19 Randy Weston, the celebrated pianist, also has disparaged the word “jazz.”20Revealingly, because of the negative connotations of the term, the musical group now known as The Crusaders went to court to remove “Jazz” from their name and, said one source, became “far more successful financially.”21 On the other hand, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, according to his biographer, “understood the debate about the word ‘jazz’ but he stood proud of the word.”22
“The music was said to have ‘encouraged racial boundary crossings by creating racially mixed spaces and racially impure music.’”
This music is said to have its roots in the Slave South—New Orleans more specifically. But even this, like the presence of Clayton in Shanghai, is contested. One analyst argues for a kind of “candelabra” theory of the origins of this music, arising simultaneously in various sites for similar reasons. Thus, like New Orleans, the San Francisco Bay Area had ties to a wider global community, meaning the influence of diverse musical trends and instruments, particularly opera and its Italian traditions, not to mention a bordello culture that provided opportunities to play. One of the many theories about the term “jazz” is that it originated in the early twentieth century among Negro musicians in the hilly fog-bound California metropolis.23 The drummer Zutty Singleton, born in 1898, has argued that, long before New Orleans, St. Louis had been a center of ragtime, one of the musical tributaries of “jazz,” and, as a result, musicians in the Missouri city were more technically adept and sophisticated than their Louisiana counterparts.24
Given that both St. Louis and New Orleans hugged the Mississippi River, where riverboats overflowing with performing musicians plied the muddy waters, it is possible that this new music developed simultaneously in both cities. In that regard, it would be a mistake to ignore that other Mississippi port city—Memphis.25 “Outside of New York City and Detroit,” according to one analyst, this Tennessee town “probably has given the world more outstanding jazz artists than any other city.”26 The well-informed Dempsey Travis has argued passionately that “if jazz was not born in the nightclubs and speakeasies on the South Side of Chicago, then it was certainly incubated in them.”27
This music is also an offshoot of the music known as “the blues,” a product of those of African origin in Dixie, which expressed their hopes and pains: hence, one scholar has characterized the blues as a veritable epistemology.28 Given that “jazz is an offspring of the blues” and both Memphis and New Orleans are neighbors of the state of Mississippi, the crucible of the blues, there is reason to consider the Magnolia State as a “father of jazz.” This general region also propelled W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” to fame. Both facts serve to provide reason to take Memphis into account when assessing the roots of jazz. (Contributing to the varied roots of “Negro music” is Handy’s contention that the tango—of Afro-Argentine origin—strongly influenced his own interpretation of the blues.)29Like New Orleans, Memphis too was a den of iniquity, as suggested by William Faulkner.30
”Outside of New York City and Detroit, Memphis probably has given the world more outstanding jazz artists than any other city.”
Adding to a version of the “candelabra” theory of the origins of the music are the words of the legendary journalist J. A. Rogers, who argued that the roots of the music could be found “in the Indian war dance, the highland fling, the Irish jig, the Cossack dance, the Spanish fandango, the Brazilian maxixie, the dance of the whirling dervish, the hula hula of the South Seas”—and the “ragtime of the Negro.”31
Still, New Orleans’ claim as the seedbed of this music is bulwarked by the fact that the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) and the onset of the War with Spain in 1898 with troops embarking and disembarking from the mouth of the Mississippi River, led to various musical instruments being snapped up by Africans, as military and naval bands dissolved. Moreover, by 1850 New Orleans was by some measures the bordello capital of the new Republic, leading to more cabarets, nightclubs—meaning more music—at a time when San Francisco was hardly an adolescent city.32 Reportedly, distressed soldiers dumped their instruments in pawn shops in New Orleans and Negroes then bought these battered tools of music cheaply.33
On the other hand, one analyst claimed that “Cuban natives”—and not the New Orleans keyboardist Jelly Roll Morton who claimed parentage—“started jazz in 1712.”34 Interestingly, when enslaved Africans in Barbados in 1675 were launching a revolt, the signal for launching was to be sent by trumpet.35 By 1688, authorities on this Caribbean island had declared illegal the “using or keeping of drums, horns or other loud instruments which may call together or give sign or notice to one another, for their wicked designs and purposes.”36
1. Buck Clayton, Buck Clayton’s Jazz World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 71.
2. On the global trends that served to destroy slavery see, for example, Gerald Horne, Confronting Black Jacobins: The United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015); Gerald Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation (New York: New York University Press, 2013). On the global trends that served to erode Jim Crow, see, for example, Gerald Horne, Powell v. Alabama: The Scottsboro Boys and American Justice (New York: Watts, 1997); and Gerald Horne, Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
3. Al Rose, Eubie Blake (New York: Schirmer, 1979), 64.
4. Andy Fry, Paris Blues: African American Music and French Popular Music, 1920–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 56–57, 93.
5. Anna Hartwell Celenza, Jazz Italian Style: From its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 179.
6. Benny Carter, oral history, October 13–14, 1976, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark.
7. Vanessa Gezari, “The View from Hollywood,” interview with Mark Boal, Columbia Journalism Review 55, no. 2 (2016): 42–57, 45. See also John Powell, Why You Love Music (Boston: Little, Brown, 2016).
8. Billy Taylor and Teresa L. Reed, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), iv. See also Maxine Gordon, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 169: “In jazz history, lots of stories that become accepted as facts are memories that change over the years. . . .” Unfortunately, this tendency articulated by Ms. Gordon is not unique to histories of this musical form. See, for example, G. Michael Fenner, The Hearsay Rule (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013).
9. Note, Downbeat 17, no. 2 (1950):13 [aa],Reel 4, Columbia University, New York City.
10. Leonard Feather, “The Logistics of Jazz,” n.d., Box 12, Leonard Feather Papers, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID. See also Marshal Royal and Claire Gordon, Jazz Survivor (London: Cassell, 1996): Royal’s memoir argues that the music flourished in Los Angeles, as it gained altitude in New Orleans.
11. Von Freeman, oral history, May 23–24, 2000, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
12. New York Herald Tribune, May 9, 1954, Dave Brubeck Papers, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA.
13. Eddie Barefield, oral history, February 26 1977, Missouri Historical Society, University of Missouri, Kansas City. See also Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2019: The late pianist Donald Shirley—subject of a recent award winning film—asserted that there was no improvisation in the music since musicians agreed beforehand on the harmonies. Cf. Stephen Rush, Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman (New York: Routledge, 2017).
14. Joe Rene, oral history, September 8, 1960, Tulane University.
15. Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (New York: Oneworld, 2017), 10, 11: “Trumpets have been used to mark power, status, military might and even divine power in civilizations across the world. The walls of Jericho tumbled down at the sound of trumpets. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is also known as the Feast of the Trumpets, because the Torah stipulates the day should be marked with trumpet fanfares . . . in some northern Nigeria kingdoms, the capture of the royal trumpeters effectively signaled a coup d’état . . . African musicians had been playing for European monarchs and nobility since at least the twelfth century, in a tradition that owed much to medieval Islamic courts from Spain to Syria. In 1194 turbaned black trumpeters accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI on his triumphal entry into Palermo in Sicily. . . . James IV of Scotland employed a Moorish drummer in the early years of the sixteenth century.” See also Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). I have sought to avoid mimicking the provocative and enlightening theses that are so well represented in this book.
16. Charles Hersch, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5. James Lincoln Collier avers that “the world of jazz began to integrate racially in 1908,” well before the debut of Negro baseball star in 1947, Jackie Robinson, often given credit for being the premier pioneer in desegregation. It was then that “the white violinist Emile Flindt joined the black pianist Fate Marable on a riverboat . . . by 1936 Benny Goodman was offering a racially mixed group to white audiences. . . .” Times Literary Supplement [London], November 23, 2018.
17. Pat Griffith, “The Education of Max Roach,” Downbeat 39, no. 5 (1972): 16–17. See also Kenneth Robert Janken, Rayford Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 16: The pianist and bandleader, Duke Ellington, referred to his music not as “jazz” but as “Negro Music.”
18. Philip V. Bohlman and Goffredo Plastino, eds., Jazz Worlds/World Jazz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), xiii.
19. Artie Shaw, oral history, October 7–8, 1992, National Museum of American History.
20. Interview with Randy Weston, Be-Bop and Beyond 2, no. 2 (1984): 16–22, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles. .
21. Len Lyons, “Milt Jackson: Dollars and Sense,” Downbeat 42, no. 9 (1975): 14–15, 14.
22. Maxine Gordon, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 64.
23. Tom Stoddard, Jazz on the Barbary Coast (Berkeley: Heyday, 1998), 187. On the global implications of the “candelabra,” see, for example, S. Frederick Starr, Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union (New York: Limelight, 2004); Mike Zwerin, Swing Under the Nazis: Jazz as a Metaphor of Freedom (New York: Cooper Square, 2000); Michael Kater, Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Jeffrey H. Jackson, Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); George McKay, Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Matthew F. Jordan, Le Jazz: Jazz and French Cultural Identity (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Jeremy Lane, Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism: Music, “Race,” and Intellectuals in France, 1918–1945 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014); Everett Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Andrew Jones, Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Gwen Ansell, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa (New York: Continuum, 2004); Steven Feld, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Robin D. G. Kelley, Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); Jason Borge, Tropical Riffs: Latin America and the Politics of Jazz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). The preceding notwithstanding, the book in hand focuses heavily on African American artists and their struggles.
24. Martin Williams, “Zutty,” Downbeat 30, no. 21 (1963): 18–19, 18. Cf. Marshal Royal and Claire Gordon, Jazz Survivor (London: Cassell, 1996), 67: “It’s hard for any man in his right mind to put his finger on when jazz began. To start with, nobody knows exactly what jazz is . . . knows what the word jazz stands for, nor who the person was who named that type of music.”
25. See Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli, Free Jazz/Black Power, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015) Songwriter and entrepreneur W. C. Handy, reportedly heard in Memphis as early as 1905 the kind of music that New Orleans was to claim as its own. The authors point out that the blues, work songs, spirituals, and other precursors of the new music were not the peculiar province of southern Louisiana.
26. Vertical file on Memphis music, January 24, 1985, Memphis Public Library.
27. Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1985.
28. Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (New York: Verso, 1998). See also Adam Gussow, Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
29. Press Scimitar, March 28, 1958.
30. Wayne Dowdy, Hidden History of Memphis (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010), 13. In addition to Faulkner, the author points to the film of King Vidor, Hallelujah, made in Memphis, as an example of this Faulknerian trend.
31. Kathy J. Ogren, “Performance Crossroads: The Significance of the Jazz Controversy for Twenties America” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1985), 163.
32. Jack V. Buerkle and Danny Barker, Bourbon Street Black: The New Orleans Black Jazzman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 14, 18.
33. Stephen Longstreet, Sportin’ House New Orleans and the Jazz Story: A History of the New Orleans Sinners and the Birth of Jazz (Los Angeles: Sherburne, 1965), 165.
34. George Malcolm Smith, “Cuban Natives . . .” Downbeat, 6(Number 3, March 1939): (8. 1939), Columbia University, New York City.
35. Jerome Handler, “The Barbados Slave Conspiracies of 1675 and 1692,” Journal of Barbados Museum and Historical Society, 36, no. 4 (1982): 312–33, 314.
36. Statute, August 8, 1688, in Richard Hall, ed., Acts Passed in the Island of Barbados from 1643 to 1762 (London, 1764), Barbados National Archives.
Gerald Horne is Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.
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