Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics and Business of Jazz, by Randall Sandke

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2012.52.rev.8997
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26564878

dark light-1Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics and Business of Jazz, by Randall Sandke. Scarecrow, 2010. 275 pages with index and notes. Clothbound; ISBN 978-0-8108-6652-2; $40.

Randall Sandke's Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet offers a compelling commentary on jazz history that integrates previously unknown materials, neglected materials, and fresh interviews to dispel myths that have seeped into conventional wisdom about jazz history. It also provides a fascinating peek into the U.S. music business and the varied roles that jazz has played in it. The public's perceptions of race are summarized in a clear-eyed manner by the author. His huge mass of research data refutes a belief that jazz is entirely an African American creation.

The book should become a welcome addition to the library of every jazz history teacher. The work, or at least selected chapters from it, should become a supplement in jazz history courses whose coverage includes discussion of business and social aspects of the music. It could also benefit every college course in African American history.

How the U.S. Music Business Treats Jazz

There is no question that jazz has been mistreated by U.S. commerce. Sandke's research, however, refutes the contentions of some writers, including Frank Kofsky and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), who believe that almost all the unfair treatment of jazz is due to racism. Some mistreatment of jazz has stemmed from how jazz has sounded. The plight of jazz in the American marketplace also can be traced to business practices that have mistreated creative artists of all sorts. For instance, in his chapter "It's Strictly Business," Sandke mounts evidence that "the recording industry has been an equal opportunity exploiter." (p. 168) Additionally, Sandke's data challenge the belief that salary differentials favored white musicians. He shows that at a time when early jazz and swing styles were in demand, "In many cases, African American performers earned roughly as much as their white colleagues." (pp. 170-171)

The exploitation of black musicians by white managers has long been part of the lore in jazz history. Yet, Sandke reveals that upon closer examination the situation often turns out to be more complicated than previously believed. For instance, in his chapter "Copyrights: Accounting without Accountability," Sandke gives us one particularly sad reality check: "If a publisher commissions a tune and arranges for it to be recorded, the composition may be considered a 'work for hire.' So, however distasteful it might have been for Irving Mills to attach his name to so many Duke Ellington compositions, technically Mills was within his legal rights." (p. 202)

In a far-reaching chapter about intellectual property, Sandke reveals that, "those who have reaped ill-gotten gains by way of 'copyright protection' have come in all colors. And many times the offenders have been the musicians themselves." (p. 201) For instance, though Miles Davis is listed as the composer of tunes on his albums, the composer of Tune Up and Four was actually Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Solar was written by Chuck Wayne, not Davis. Several pieces on the Kind of Blue album were conceived by Bill Evans, and some of the music on the Filles de Kilimanjaro album was conceived by Gil Evans, not by Davis. The tune that Davis made famous on his album of the same name, Walkin', was not written by the credited Richard Carpenter, but instead by Jimmy Mundy. Similarly, Louis Armstrong, not Clarence Williams, wrote I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate, and Armstrong, not his wife Lil Hardin, wrote Struttin' with Some Barbecue and Hotter than That. When Hardin prepared written copies for her husband she took copyright, which he ceded to her when they divorced.

Interactions between Black and White Sources for Jazz

The book alerts us to what has been missing from many jazz histories. It acknowledges that jazz has been mostly an African American contribution, yet it also documents aspects that drew from non-African American sources. In particular, it tallies the rich interactions among sources that have existed throughout jazz history. For example, in a chapter titled "What Gets Left Out" Sandke points out the extensive background in European classical music that pervaded jazz. James P. Johnson authority Michael Montgomery is quoted to remind us that this "dean of the Harlem stride piano school" studied with a professor named Bruto Giannini for four years as a teenager and "practiced concert effects from Giannini; effects which he later built into his blues and rags." Sandke mentions that pianist "Fats Waller studied the classical repertoire first with Carl Bohm at Julliard and later with Leopold Godowsky, a concert pianist." (p. 87) African American clarinetists Jimmie Noone and Buster Bailey both studied with Chicago classical virtuoso Franz Schoepp. African American saxophonists Benny Carter, Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Marshall Royal all acknowledged having been influenced by the improvisations of white saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. Drummer Big Sid Catlett took lessons with Chicago Symphony percussionist Roy Knapp. Bassist Milt Hinton studied with Dmitri Shmuklovsky of the Chicago Civic Opera Orchestra. "Coleman Hawkins started out on cello and later practiced cello suites on his tenor sax. This not only helped develop technique on the horn, but also provided him with valuable lessons in harmony and voice leading. He once advised aspiring jazz musicians, 'Do what I do every day. I spend at least two hours every day listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, and man, it's all there.'"

According to Sandke, John Coltrane "was fascinated with Bartok's use of quartal harmony, which he and McCoy Tyner developed along with their own improvisational language." (p. 89) Sandke also could have identified the assimilation of Ravel's and Debussy's harmonic concepts in the innovative style of white jazz pianist Bill Evans and its influence on African American pianist Herbie Hancock, who acknowledged that most of his harmonic conception was derived from Evans. Sandke could have mentioned the extensive use of twentieth-century European music by African American pianist Mary Lou Williams in her Zodiac Suite and in her presentations at the salon that she ran for primarily African American jazz musicians during the 1930s and 1940s in New York.

In reviewing oral histories for his book, Sandke noticed that the manner of conducting interviews reflected a bias that allowed the results to be missing crucial information. Sandke reports that "In 1958 the Ford Foundation provided funds to tape record interviews with all the surviving figures of the early New Orleans jazz scene, both black and white. This source brings us as close as we're likely to get to resolving the many mysteries surrounding the creation of jazz." (p. 80) But a methodological flaw pervaded the interviews. "Their questions varied significantly depending on the race of the person interviewed. White musicians were consistently asked about their early exposure to black bands, but black musicians were not similarly questioned. Thus that direction of influence was not explored, though it does occasionally surface in asides and digressions." (p. 81) Sandke's realization is groundbreaking because it suggests that the interviewers had their minds made up before they began asking about the origins of jazz, whereas he mounts other evidence that indicates considerable interaction among the musicians of the various cultures in New Orleans during the birth of jazz. (pp. 85-86, 97) Interviewers presumed that jazz had primarily African American sources and therefore neglected to ask black musicians what they had learned from white musicians. Subsequent writings about the birth of jazz that drew upon this archival data have been skewed accordingly.

In various passages throughout the book Sandke's meticulous research clears up misconceptions presented in the writings of LeRoi Jones in books such as Blues People (Morrow, 1963) and Black Music (Quill, 1967), as well as the writings of others who espouse views similar to those of Jones. Sandke summarizes a distressing trend: "By stressing the insularity of black culture, many inconvenient truths are swept under the ideological rug. White participation in jazz is viewed with suspicion, and obvious connections between jazz and mainstream American culture or the Western artistic tradition are downplayed if not simply ignored." (p. 71)

For instance, Sandke clarifies the racial situation in the earliest days of New Orleans jazz in a quote by one of its better known practitioners, trumpeter Wingy Manone: "It was all mixed up there. Buddy Petit, Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, Nick LaRocca, the Bigards...we were all in one area. The musicians listened to each other, and sometimes played together in parades....The young jazz musicians listened to everyone who came up who could play, white or colored." (p. 86) A telling summary of this situation appears in Sandke's quote from the writing of Louisiana historian Jerah Johnson: "Jazz had its origins not in segregation, but in the assimilative tradition of easy interaction of peoples that prevailed in New Orleans." (p. 54) Richard B. Allen was the last living interviewer for the Hogan Jazz Archive contacted by Sandke. In regard to the interaction among races during the birth of jazz and its earliest days in New Orleans, Allen said, "[Musicians] lived together, they worked together in bands. How are you going to separate things when people live next door to each other and play in the same bands? The more you study it the more you realize that one thing mixed with another." (p. 86)

In a chapter called "The Activist Writers," Sandke faults a number of journalists, not just Jones, when he writes "Several generations of jazz writers believed it was their duty to combat racism by depicting the music as an outgrowth of African culture; as the product of an insular black community; and as a reaction to segregation and discrimination." (p. 39) The research in the book challenges three views that Jones and others had maintained: (a) A single collective experience characterized the lives of black people; (b) regarding jazz "it comes from the collective experience of black people" (p. 30); (c) "for whites jazz was a 'learned art,' while for blacks it was an indigenous cultural expression." (p. 29) In challenging the position of Jones in particular, Sandke includes a line from a review of Jones' Blues People by the African American novelist-essayist Ralph Ellison: "The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues." (p. 29) Though not cited by Sandke, history professor Iain Anderson also identified these oversights in his book This Is Our Music. In addition to including Ellison's "give even the blues the blues" quote, Anderson recalled that Ellison had also written that Jones "ignored the cross-pollination between black and white influences." Additionally, Anderson mentioned observations of African American historian J. Saunders Redding, who pointed out that Jones's attempts to reclaim an African past "floundered on a poor historical understanding of African cultural norms. Too few champions of Afrocentric traditions appreciated the diversity of the continent's languages, religions, arts or fashions. Redding believed that scholars deceived themselves by attempting to recover a homogeneous cultural impulse where none existed." (Anderson, pp. 106-107)

Sandke's research also uncovers indications about the temperament of Jones. For instance, Jones felt that bebop was "fighting" music. Yet when asked "Was this a 'fighting music'?," bebop's co-founder Dizzy Gillespie replied, "No. It is a love music." (Sandke, p. 62) Sandke reveals that Jones had written a line for one character in his Dutchman play to address the music making motive of bebop co-founder Charlie "Bird" Parker, implying that Parker was saying through his music, "Up your ass, feeble-minded ofays! Up your ass! ....Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-Seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Note a note!" (p. 62)

Jones had accused white musicians of doing nothing to help their black colleagues find employment in broadcasting and film studio orchestras. Refuting this contention, Sandke's research details how almost every black musician who ended up working for a studio had at least one white sponsor recommending him for the job. (p. 181)  Jones considered avant-garde jazz of the 1960s to be the true expression of African- American culture, members of which he dubbed "the blues people." He felt that this music was the closest that jazz ever came to its African roots. Sandke recounts occurrences that undermine the implications of this belief. Jones' attempts to find audiences for avant-garde jazz failed in the predominantly African American community of Harlem. Particularly ironic for Jones was that the music was supported mostly by white college students, the culturally heterogeneous New York artists' communities of Soho and the East Village, and in Europe by predominantly white audiences. (p. 160)  By exposing the oversights of Jones and other writers who espouse similar views, Sandke's research findings tempt us to view the writings of Jones as personal observations and inferences rather than accurate histories of jazz. Apparently, Sandke was compelled to reiterate these problems because so few of today's most doctrinaire writers seem aware of the flaws in Jones' position.

African Retentions

In a chapter called "Good Intentions and Bad History" Sandke mentions that jazz writers "have often bent over backwards to demonstrate the African origins of jazz. At the same time many African American musicians have been quick to deny any such direct link, insisting instead that jazz was created in America by African Americans." (p. 41) For instance, Sandke points out that jazz history writers have erred in overestimating the presence and mistaking the function of polyrhythms in jazz. "In African music, opposing rhythmic groupings furnish an ongoing structure from which the entire performance derives its basic identity. In jazz, polyrhythms function by creating a feeling of momentary tension that ultimately resolves by re-emphasizing the basic meter—much like the role that dissonance plays in harmony...examples of continuous polyrhythm in jazz are practically nonexistent." (p. 40)

Sandke also points out that writers have missed Paul Oliver's observation that "Improvisation on a theme, which is fundamental to jazz, also appears to owe little to improvisation with tight rhythmic patterns on the [African] drums....Whatever the links with African drumming, conceptually jazz music is very different." (Savannah Syncopaters: African Retentions in the Blues, Stein and Day, 1970; cited in Sandke, p. 41)

Sandke shows that not even jazz musicians intimately involved with Afro-Cuban music such as drummer-bandleader Art Blakey and trumpeter-bandleader-composer Dizzy Gillespie claim jazz to be African. Eminent African American pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams said, "Afro has nothing to do with jazz. Jazz grew up on its own here in America." (p. 43) Moreover, African American New Orleans musicians have objected to the claim that jazz came from Africa. Regarding Jelly Roll Morton's jazz recording of Maple Leaf Rag, the African American guitarist from New Orleans Danny Barker said, "That's something that came out of New Orleans. It didn't come out of Africa. I've heard hundreds of records of, and from Africans. African is nothing like no New Orleans music...King Oliver, Kid Punch [Miller], Buddy Petit, [Henry] Kid Rena; they have nothing to do with Africa." (p. 44)

The author reminds us that just as American-born opera and symphonic musicians and singers once experienced prejudice merely because they were not European-born, some white American musicians experienced prejudice by jazz journalists and booking agents merely because they were not black. It reminds us that a recently popular emphasis on African traditions may cloud the reality of the rich cross-cultural tapestry that jazz represents.

Radical Ideas and Retro Music

Sandke devotes a chapter, "Radical Ideas and Retro Music," to bemoaning the neo-conservative (aka neo-classical) trends of the past thirty years, in which young players were encouraged to learn and perform earlier styles instead of inventing new ones. Prominent musicians and journalists were guilty of urging young musicians to remain imitators instead of striving to innovate. Sandke wondered, "How did jazz go from a dynamically evolving art form to a music in which the importance of blazing new trails was widely and openly discounted?" He concludes that "the issue of race has been a factor in this transformation." (p. 107); "Pressures to conform to ideological norms have had the effect of stifling individual creativity." (p. 6) "At the dawn of the eighties, another seismic shift would confer a new societal role to jazz. This new age was to see jazz enshrined as a cultural icon representing the black experience. The music itself was to be a celebration of past achievements." (p. 110) "Jazz became widely touted as a product of a hermetically sealed black environment. The importance of originality and innovation would be replaced by a new esthetic calling for a celebration of bygone heroes and a recapitulation of the jazz tradition." (p. 121)

Correcting Jazz Historians

Crucial accounts in several jazz history textbooks are undone by Sandke's research about the birth of jazz. For instance, he addresses a common misunderstanding regarding ways in which African influence depended partly upon how recently undiluted African music was regularly heard in New Orleans. This has been important in making a case for continuity between African traditions and jazz. For instance, Brian Harker's Jazz: An American Journey states, "The weekly performance rituals at Congo Square lasted through the Civil War, and then died out sometime in the 1880s." (p. 37) This was refuted when Sandke uncovered documents revealing that such musical assemblies had been outlawed there since 1829, and, ironically, the African music there had already shown assimilation with aspects of European music by the 1820s.

Some writers like to believe that music of the earliest African American jazz musicians in New Orleans constituted primarily African American culture. By contrast, Sandke's research reveals that band repertoire among the earliest African American jazz musicians, from Buddy Bolden to Joe "King" Oliver, commonly included such European dance forms as mazurkas, schottisches, polkas, quadrilles, and waltzes. Sandke explains that these African Americans were versatile musicians who made their livings playing almost any form that was demanded of them, not necessarily what today we routinely designate as jazz. "The record clearly shows that bands of all racial hues shared more or less the same repertoire before the advent of jazz." (p. 79)

Sandke also breaks with conventional wisdom by showing that the origins of jazz were not nudged along by the discriminatory racial legislation alternately known as the Black Codes or Jim Crow laws. It had been written in a number of jazz history books (including one by this reviewer) that musical aspects of two cultures in New Orleans were enhanced through the forced mixing of Creoles with Negroes, consigning Creoles to the low social and occupational status of Negroes. Sandke explains that this misunderstanding had been introduced by Alan Lomax in 1950, and the codes did not take effect until after the birth of jazz. The codes did not change the work of Creole musicians, either.

Another revelation is that Creole musicians and black musicians in New Orleans did not come together for legal reasons. They came together because "there was growing demand at all levels of society for the hot new style of dance music that was jazz," and "anyone who couldn't or wouldn't play it would be left out of a competitive and lucrative market." (p. 53) Correctives had appeared in the writings of historian Jerah Johnson: "Jazz had its origins not in segregation, but in the assimilative tradition of easy interaction of peoples that prevailed in New Orleans, undiminished by the...Jim Crow laws of the 1890s." (p. 54)

Jazz Audiences Have Been Primarily White

In his chapter "The Biggest Myth of All," Sandke demonstrates that, though jazz is more popular among African American audiences than among white audiences, the overall jazz audience always has been predominantly white. For example, the Cotton Club, the Roseland Ballroom, and the Kentucky Club were among the venues in New York that catered almost exclusively to white patrons during the early jazz and swing eras. Among a number of similar venues in Chicago at that time were the Dreamland, the Three Deuces, the Band Box, and the Preview. In Kansas City, the Reno Club and the Hey Hey catered to a largely white clientele during the 1930s. Regarding audiences today, Sandke quotes Nicholas Payton, a prominent contemporary African American jazz trumpeter, as saying, "Jazz, sad to say, probably has no social significance to most black people's lives." (p. 161) Sandke quotes similar observations by such currently prominent African American jazz musicians as trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and bassist Christian McBride. (p. 162)

Sandke's work complements the research in other recent jazz history books, all of which tend to allow data to prevail over opinion: Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz, Allen Lowe's That Devilin' Tune: Jazz History 1900-1950, and Iain Anderson's This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture. Some of Sandke's content overlaps the groundbreaking history and analysis of jazz journalism that was prepared by John Gennari: Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics.

As Sandke's data counters several long-held beliefs about emotionally-charged issues and because the book is so wide ranging, readers are cautioned to avoid becoming distracted by one or two points that may bother them, so that they miss other topics that the book tackles. It is important to keep in mind that Sandke does not disregard racism in the music business. In fact, he provides numerous examples of it. But unlike its treatment by other authors, Sandke puts it in perspective. It is essential also to recognize that he never denies that jazz is a primarily African American contribution to world culture. Sandke just reminds us that there is also a substantial contribution from white sources, and there has been continuous interaction among sources since before the music's birth. Some readers may fear that any evidence of any non-African American sources diminishes the pride that African Americans can justly feel for having contributed jazz. Such a reaction is not justified.

References

Anderson, Iain. This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2007).
Gennari, John. Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006).
Harker, Brian. Jazz: An American Journey (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2005).
Jones, Le Roi. Black Music (New York: Quill, 1967; William Morrow, 1971).
________ Blues People (New York: Morrow, 1963).
Kofsky, Frank. Black Music, White Business (New York: Pathfinder, 1998).
Lowe, Allen. That Devilin' Tune: Jazz History 1900-1950 (Berkeley, California: Music and Arts Programs of America, 2001).
Oliver, Paul. Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (New York: Stein & Day, 1969).
Shipton, Allyn. A New History of Jazz (London: Continuum, 2001).

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Last modified on Wednesday, 06/03/2019

Mark C. Gridley

Mark C. Gridley, Ph.D., is a professional jazz musician, and the author of America's most widely used introduction to jazz: Jazz Styles. His research about perception, taste, and creativity in music and art appears in numerous scientific journals. He received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America and is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America.

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