Whites in Jazz

frail asked this question on 7/22/2000:

Are there any Black Americans willing to give me some opinions about white people in jazz?


Scotty Write gave this response on 7/24/2000:

Jazz has been an equal-opportunity music from the beginning. When Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, it was probably the first time America had seen whites and blacks in public as equals, outside of boxing matches.

Too many people believe that jazz belongs to African-Americans, but in fact it was originated by Americans: the blending of cultures, languages, mores and musical styles gave birth to jazz, not one particular ethnic group. If jazz was merely a black invention, wouldn’t it have risen in Africa, where entire nations and tribes existed with little or no white intervention?

No, jazz was born out of the marriage (or at least the steady company-keeping) of the emotional, raw oral tradition (blues, gospel, spirituals and work songs, call-and-response, rhythm-as-mother/lover) found in African-American culture, and the instruments, notation and theory concepts of European-based music. As with all children, one can see certain traits of the parents in jazz’s offspring in varied measure: Bill Evans’ classical sense of design contrasts Monk’s homemade, seemingly offhand piano approach; Modern Jazz Quartet’s ‘chamber jazz’ sound is the flip side of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with their ‘hard bop’ style, yet both groups began with all-black personnel. Wynton Marsalis has morphed jazz’s parentage with his dual career as classical and jazz recording/performing artist.

What do I think of white musicians in jazz? The same question is asked of any jazz artist: can he/she play?

I assure you, I have heard as many wonderful white players as I’ve heard jive phonies who are black…


frail asked this follow-up question on 7/24/2000:

Thanks for your opinion. It was really helpful…however..for this article I’m writing I need an opinion from an Black American in these questions:

1)Why are so many whites attending concerts and buying records of jazz?

2)Why aren’t that many black jazz fans attending concerts and buying records as before?

please answer my questions and add whatever you feel like saying..thanks


Scotty Write gave this response on 7/25/2000:

1) I don’t believe the number of whites buying jazz has increased very much in the last 20 years. What has changed is what record companies have been calling jazz.

Performers as diverse and divergent as George Winston, Sade, Anita Baker, Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Kenny G, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, have all been identified by their record labels, their fans, and the media as jazz artists. With the exception of McFerrin (no, my friends, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” does NOT qualify) and early Jarreau, none of these people have done anything on record (that I have heard) that resembles jazz.

Jazz and blues have been the touchstone for all of pop music in America for the past 75 years, so there are elements of instrumentation, harmony, rhythm that have been borrowed or, in the area of sampling, outright stolen from jazz. Alto sax player Phil Woods made ends meet in the jazz wasteland known as the 1970s by doing cameo appearances on records by Billy Joel and Paul Simon. Branford Marsalis toured with Sting. This did not, however, magically transform the music Joel, Sting and Simon played into jazz.

So I repeat, much of what people are buying is called jazz, is charted as jazz, is tabulated as jazz sales, but simply isn’t.

2) Many black people equate jazz with a bygone era – old, passe. The way many people play it, I’d agree. I hear so many players using the same intros to songs that Parker and Gillespie recorded almost 60 years ago, thinking they are so hip for having copped something off of a record. Jazz is a music of the stage, not the page, so it is important to listen to recordings to understand how the music feels. I doubt, however, that Diz, Bird, Prez or Trane would be very thrilled to see how many players have become slavish imitators of their work, having missed the point.

Jazz has always been about freedom. Armstrong’s bravura solo style broke the preconception of jazz as only an ensemble music, making personal style as important in playing as it is in composition. The swing era of jazz loosened up the marching band style rhythms of the so-called ‘Dixieland’ sound. Duke Ellington took the big band out of the dancehall mentality with his tone poems and extended works. Bebop evolved from musicians who didn’t want to be stuck in big bands, playing an 8 measure solo twice a night, creating instead the quintet format to allow more blowing, more interaction, more spontanaeity. Monk forced us to rethink everything we thought we knew about jazz rhythm, harmony and piano technique (or lack thereof).

The list goes on, but one constant remains: the best in jazz, the innovations and innovators, came to the fore as a result of a need for change, a yearn for freedom.

Black people listen to jazz, believe me. But jazz is no longer the pop music among black people, and there are people of all ethnic backgrounds that have bought into the record industry’s demographic brainwashing; black Americans are no exception.

We are at a point in history where more and more children and parents are listening to the same music. Music, in America, anyway, had always been a form of benign rebellion: the kid who didn’t do drugs, stay out all night, curse at his parents, or get suspended from school could still crank up LedZep and drive his mom up the wall. Jazz is still using songs and song forms from the 1920s; where’s the rebellion in listening to that?

As a result, rap music, with its profanity, violent themes, sexually suggestive lyrics and general bad-boy/bad-girl imagery, fits the rebellion bill perfectly. I suppose there is much to be angry about as a young teen today, black or white, and although a lot of rap music does not usually address these concerns in a positive way, it is loud and boisterous and, just as importantly, making a pile of money.

It is a sad thing to see that, with all the progress that has been made in civil rights and opportunities, many young black Americans still look to entertainment and sports as the get-rich-quick dream vocations. But, as I said before, this is not merely black people.

We have become a complacent, almost anesthetized society. Whatever is easiest is best. I’m almost embarrassed to use a remote for the TV. Imagine: news, information, movies from around the world in an instant, and we can’t even walk across the room to change a channel!

What kind of music to listen to? What does MTV tell me to buy? What’s Tower Records pushing the hardest this week? To search for an obscure jazz record? To try something my friends aren’t listening to? Naah, there’s a big display of So-and-So’s new one by the door, so they must be good. Let’s just get that…

So you can just hear the groans when I visit schools and tell a bunch of kids to work 2-4 hours a day on your music and in 10-15 years you will just start to get good. Why bother, they think, when you can buy a rhyming dictionary, swipe a grooove off of someone else’s record, mumble some rhymes over the top and make millions at 17?

Still, I see many young people of all colors and backgrounds drawn to this music called jazz. Its energy, the excitement of improvisation, the thrill of being in the moment, of hearing something come through you that you know couldn’t possibly have come from you.

Exposure is the key. We listen to what we hear. In some areas of the country, quality headliner jazz is heard twice a year, if at all. In New York City, the Jazzmobile has brought concerts and music lessons to thousands of kids over the years. In San Francisco, Bright Moments has done the same, though on a much smaller scale, for lack of funding. Are jazz musicians in other areas doing their part to propagate their audience? I hope so, because this is not a black/white issue; this goes deeper than that.

We need reclaim our ears from those who, in the name of money, dare to dictate the soundtrack of our lives.

They dare, because we allow it.

©2005 by Scotty Writes Music