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8/30/09

Old Talk, as it were...

The other day when I was rummaging through a stack of old magazines, I came across the October 30, 1971 issue of Saturday Review. Remember that magazine? Its editor back then was Norman Cousins and it had a proud history going back to the 1920s, when it was The Saturday Review of Literature. I had read much that was memorable in its pages, so I felt honored and somewhat humbled when Associate Editor Irving Kolodin asked me for a piece on Lil Armstrong, who had just passed away. He liked what I wrote, so he asked for more. The aforementioned issue, the one I just stumbled upon, contains my review of Ben Sidran's book, Black Talk. I had forgotten all about that—the book as well as my review of it—but curiosity made me take a look. Much changes in the course of 38 years, and my review is obviously as outdated as Sidran's book has become, given that, and the fact that the latter is still available (in an unaltered DaCapo reissue), I don't think I am being unfair when I now dust off my old words. I should add that my opinion did not sit well with Sidran, who wrote me a not-so-friendly letter, which I have not found.


One more thing, I must confess that I am not quite sure what I meant when I alluded to a partial demise of jazz, in the opening sentence. I think "as we have known it" saves me—at least I hope so.



Now that jazz, as we know it, seems well on its way to becoming a thing of the past, white America is finally beginning to take a serious look at Black America's cultural heritage.


Jazz being an important part of that heritage, it was inevitable that someone would devote a book to its socio-cultural aspects. So far, this has been done only tangentially—most notably by LeRoi Jones—and although this music, or rather its offspring (perhaps best referred to as black music), has in recent years moved into such "respectable" quarters as Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art without the stigma of novelty that was attached to Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 and subsequent all-star jazz events at the Metropolitan Opera House, a majority of white Americans still fail to regard the music of black Americans as anything more than entertainment


In the past, most books on the subject of black music have been written by white authors and critics who had little or no social contact with the jazz makers, outside of the semi-business chats that go with the profession. Consequently, the fair amount of jazz literature published over the past three decades has dealt only lightly with the social significance of black music—except in the writings of Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and a few newcomers—failing to look beyond its musical impact to the attitudes that fostered its growth and development. Contrary to common belief, racial barriers do exist within the jazz community—they are perhaps more subtle, but they are there. Black performers are often reluctant to reveal their inner feelings to a white interviewer, fearing reprisals in the form of closed doors. Such fears are not unfounded, but we rarely hear of the record sessions or engagements that didn't take place because of personal biases within the power structure.


Caution exercised by performers—particularly of the older generation—combined with much conjecture on the part of writers, has resulted in serious distortion of black music history. Scholarly approaches sometimes yield ludicrous results: Several years ago, a noted French jazz critic devoted three or four paragraphs were very technical explanation of Louis Armstrong's decision to switch from the cornet to the trumpet. When I read the article to Armstrong, he shook his head. "I switched because Erskine Tate didn't like one short horn in his trumpet section," he said. "It didn't look good on the bandstand."


Mr. Sidran has obviously devoted a great deal of time to the study of black Americans and their music, but he has been misled too many times by gaining his knowledge from books. He refers to Louis Jordan as "one of the 'honking' tenor players," but had he listened to Jordan he would have discovered that he neither honked nor played tenor. "The T.O.B.A. circuit," he writes, "was known among black musicians as the 'tough on black artist' circuit. This is perhaps the earliest time the phrase black artists was used by Negro musicians to describe themselves." Actually, the interpretation had been altered by inhibited writers of the past—any black performer who was around at that time will tell you that the real interpretation of those initials was "Tough On Black Asses," a significant difference.


Such avoidable errors—avoidable because performers today speak more freely—mar the book throughout, but he author makes other mistakes, too, such as omitting the influence of Charlie Christian on bop music, almost totally neglecting the highly influential force of gospel music, and overemphasizing the role of "jazz" in black politics. He tends to attach deep social significance to what were strictly musical decisions, as in his description of Miles Davis's 1949 Capitol recordings: "The lack of rhythmic propulsion indicates the guarded nature of the black community, inasmuch as rhythmic assertion had always characterized black cultural assertion." This becomes particularly meaningless in view of the fact of the recordings in question were highly atypical of black music, and the arranger (Gil Evans) as well as half the players were white.


Rife with quotes, many of which come from unidentified sources and reflect opinions that are personal, but which the author nevertheless treats as general, Black Talk rambles on to its conclusion, undoubtedly leaving the uninitiated white reader—for whom this book is surely intended—with the belief that he has gained an insight into the world of black communication. Unfortunately, Black Talk reads more like a term paper, assembled in the school library, and the result is mainly a rehash of a lot of white talk.

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