Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Where The Dark And The Light Folks Meet: Race and The Mythology, Politics, And Business of Jazz” by Randall Sandke (Scarecrow Press)

Randall Sandke’s book may have a mouthful of a title, but it very succinctly describes what the book is all about. In the space of 275 pages (counting the index), Sandke essentially tells us that everything (well, very many things) we’ve been taught about jazz history is bunk. Of course, he states it more elegantly than that, but the overall effect is that of pure revisionism.

The thing is, unlike so many revisionist histories that try to make their points by distorting the facts, “Where The Dark and The Light Folks Meet:” (the line comes from an early lyric to Spencer Williams’ 1926 song “Basin Street Blues”, generally altered in recorded versions) supplies documented evidence that many significant facets of jazz history have been constructed largely out of unwarranted assumptions, distorted half-truths, and downright, agenda-serving lies. To say this book has made many readers - particularly those with said agendas - uncomfortable would be an understatement. But his research seems to have been quite exhaustive, the only questions seeming to be whether his own subjective interpretations are as biased as the histories he has challenged.

Judging by the evidence presented herein, I would be inclined to state without fear of contradiction that this book is a very valuable corrective. If nothing else, it pokes enormous holes in long-held theories. While it cannot be said that, in the process, Sandke has definitively re-written the history of jazz, his is a very significant step in the right direction. Now that we know what the problems areas are, future historians will have to begin again or be guilty of ignoring some very harsh realities.

Sandke argues that the most significant agendas historians have tried to impress upon the music-loving public involve matters of race. While he does not deny that jazz at its very beginning came out of the African-American experience, he blows the whistle on those historians and popular observers (he is quick to name Wynton Marsalis, among others) for whom jazz is ONLY an African-American phenomenon, for whom white musicians have been treated as a sort of abomination, those awful power-mad white folks who have stolen the black man’s music and thereby profited heavily from its exploitation. Among many other exploded fallacies. Sandke shows how white musicians have been a part of the jazz scene since its earliest days in New Orleans, often in a collaborative setting. In a later chapter, he goes a very provocative step further - perhaps a bit too far for some readers - by arguing that so many contributors to early jazz were Creole (mixed French and black) that they could just easily be called “white” as well as “black” in terms of the percentage of racial heritage (bloodlines) they possessed. But America has never seen mixed-race people in that way

As for the white man profiting from the black man’s creative innovations, Sandke demonstrates through specific facts and figures that the great majority of white jazz musicians have not become rich by playing the music they love. Indeed, many black jazz musicians (again, names are named, figures are quoted) have made considerably more money than their white counterparts. I would like to think that musical contributions and their worth to our artistic well-being are not to be judged purely by who makes the most money and who has had to struggle economically. But the fact is, the accusations against white jazz musicians need to be challenged when they are incorrect. And Sandke is up to said challenge.

Sandke is not only out to correct misinterpretations, misconceptions, and (for that matter) lies regarding early jazz. He takes on the present-day ruling clique (again, read “Wynton Marsalis” and his like-minded followers), who feel it is no longer necessary for jazz to be an innovative, creative art form, that it is enough to pay homage to those artists (and their concepts) who were responsible for the jazz innovations of the past. My question is - and this is me asking, with only a partial paraphrase of what I believe to be Sandke’s intent here - If innovation is not part of the ongoing tradition of jazz, then why do we even bother to honor those innovators of the past by reproducing their music? Why do we not just listen to their records instead of spending large amounts of money to hear jazz repertory companies re-tread older music that has already been done to perfection? And if we should agree that the innovations of Armstrong, Ellington et. al. were once so important that we still pay homage to them, why is it considered somehow wrong to follow in their footsteps by continuing to expand - as they did - beyond the music which preceded them, by being innovative, fresh, exciting, and new? It is precisely because Armstrong and Ellington were innovative in their time that we honor them. Do not current-day musicians also have the right to be equally innovative, if it’s in them to do so? Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Sandke, perhaps he and I are both misinterpreting the intent of the Marsalis Mob, but there are very some skilled musicians who are cheating us of the full measure of their talents by downplaying the role of creativity on the contemporary jazz scene. And in many cases, these are the people who get the grants and the media exposure.

There’s much, much more here, chapter after chapter, sacred cow after sacred cow, butchered, dissected, left lying on the road. What we are left with is the feeling that jazz history as it has been written and as it is taught in History of Jazz courses in colleges and universities across America isn’t history after all. It is, as the subtitle declares, jazz mythology. And most of the discussion has been poisoned in the past by being diverted away from the main topic by biased discussions concerning race, politics, and business.

This is not a quick, easy read. Goodness knows, it took me several months to read it, with long breaks between chapters while I considered carefully what I read. There is much to absorb, much to ponder, much to attempt to rebut if one can. By no means have we heard the last of this debate. There will be anti-Sandke books, I don’t doubt, and books defending his stance as well. Or perhaps the Jazz History Powers That Be will simply sweep Sandke’s concepts under the carpet. But once ideas are out there, they’re difficult to suppress.

If jazz history means anything at all to you, you MUST read this book.

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