The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music

by Amiri Baraka
(University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles + London)

Chapter 22
"Jazz and the White Critic" Thirty Years Later

The second article I published about the music, in Metronome, was “Jazz and the White Critic.” The theme was, broadly, that a fundamental contradiction, sharp, at times antagonistic, existed between American Classical Music, its creators, mainly Black, and the majority of commentators, critics, critical opinion about that music, which historically are not.

The cause of this is obvious, whatever the slaves created was owned by the slave owners. The fundamental social philosophy characterizing American Capitalism (and feudalism before that) has always been shaped by white supremacy, whether it was slavery or the national oppression and chauvinism that still exist today.

The fact that an oppressor nation could judge the creations of the people they oppress is not strange but “natural” in the context of the relationship between ruler and ruled. Just as the slave was part of the “Means of Production” (and, when feudal slavery changed to capitalist slavery, variable capital), so whatever was produced by the slaves was, by definition, part of what the owner of the slave owned.

As “art,” the music was useful as entertainment, social control, pedagogy, commerce. “Blind Tom,” the amazing 19th-century slave pianist who knew 10,000 pieces of music and became a touring novelty, known throughout the South, even during slavery, is said to have “made” a million dollars for his owners!

In contrast, there were thousands of slave “entertainers” confined to a single plantation. At first despised in a utilitarian way, but ironically, as democracy made its tortured way toward Afro-Americans, their cultural product was more and more co-opted, commercialized, and, nowadays, even claimed.

To read Lincoln Collier or Richard Sudhalter and their bizarre Ubermenschlichkeit is to be annoyed with a tinge of melancholy that our oppressors are, to quote poet Robert Creeley, such “uncertain egotists.” Like a poem I wrote, “MTV”: “We can have your life, without being poor, etc.”

The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, after the first years of the music’s emergence, claimed that the Black musicians were white. The context of a white racist superstructure, i.e., institutions, organizations, and the curricula, ideas, and philosophies those are meant to maintain and forward. They are a reflection of the Monopoly Capitalist imperialist economic base, almost completely defining, “evaluating,” advancing dubious or ingenuously chauvinist theories, explanations, about Black Music, at this point through writing, other media, reaching incredible proportions. Each year floods of such mainly superficial materials (from books, TV, and radio series, even calendars, T-shirts, postcards) defining and classifying Black Music are produced.

It is this superstructure, with its various critics, scholars, journalists, that has even succeeded in naming Afro-American Music “Rag Time,” “Jass” and “Jazz” (in their musical and nonmusical definitions), “Swing,” “BeBop,” “Rock and Roll,” all coined as media-driven generic titles by this collective entity. Since the creators of the music did not have the same access to publishing, writing, etc.

Max Roach tells how Duke Ellington first told him that when we accept and forward this essential commercial nomenclature, foisted on the music by others, same presence can then identify any thing commerce want as that.

So that Paul Whiteman became “the King of Jazz,” Benny Goodman “the King of Swing,” the Rolling Stones “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Then dig the grand larcenous essence of commercial Copperheads inducting Black Musicians into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when, Naw, Jimmy, them dudes was playing Rhythm and Blues BEFORE THERE WAS A ROCK OR A ROLL!

There is no general commercial label for the works of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. That music is called, more precisely, “the Music of Ludwig Beethoven,” “the Music of Bela Bartok.” Then why not, says Roach, “the Music of Duke Ellington,” “the Music of Thelonius Monk,” etc. But then that would confer a station and dignity on the Music that the racist superstructure has never wanted to allow. To this day, there is not a single Afro-American writer heading up the Jazz Section of a major newspaper! (Imagine if there were only Afro-American or other nonwhite writers who entirely monopolized writing about European Concert music!) During the hot sixties there were black writers about the music on the Village Voice, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, but dig this, when the hot times passed, the most fortunate of these were made sports writers! Get to that! (Now what that mean, Jimmy?)

Stanley Crouch was the last surviving name bylining writing about the music. And I told him at a forum at the Village Gate that the VV was going to sic him off in another direction, e.g., politics, novels, the former about which he is completely off the wall, the latter . . . well, ax his boys, Bellow or Updike! I told Stanley, Gary Giddins was going to get that main VV gig. And while the editorial Iblis is working his number, Stanley has still not put out a single book on the music, though he is more knowledgeable about the straight-up history of American Classical Music than most of the chosen at the Times, Voice, etc.

Why? (A good question, bu . . . oy!) Is it, in this case, because Stanley could say some heavy stuff that perhaps dem udder guise wouldn’t dig? It seems Die Ubermenschen hate for the darkies to sound knowledgeable about anything, even their own lives. But tell me this glaring ugliness of arbitrary (racial?) exclusion from access to professional position in a subject which must bear some relationship to Afro-America is not dagger-sharp proof of the continuing national oppression of the Afro-American people, right now!

The ownership relationship of Big America to the Music has meant denigration, marginalization, “covers,” and dismissal. While European concert music is produced in major U.S. concert halls, theaters, played by permanent resident orchestras in cities across the country, the authentic Classical Music of the U.S. has historically been marginalized, performed in the worst venues available. The conductor of the New York Philharmonic is paid 1.5 million dollars a year. This music is called “Legit,” i.e., “Legitimate”; historically Afro-American music, by inference, is “Illegitimate.” In the New York Times and New Jersey Star Ledger, there is a category called “Music,” another called “Jazz”!

What is even more disingenuous, as it is dishonest, is that within the last decade or so there has been a distinct movement issuing crab-like across the chauvinist U.S. superstructure to systematically distort the history and development of the Music, but also its class origins in the marginalization of this only recently recognized by Congress “American National Treasure.” One main distortion made essentially by positing a simultaneous development in the white and black communities. Obviously chauvinist commentators, like Sudhalter, Collier, sickening with their disinformational denigration of Black creativity, seek to construct, at the same time, a completely ersatz metahistory for its actual evolution.

Collier’s idiotic and bluntly racist attacks on Duke Ellington, claiming, as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, that Ellington’s music is just an imitation of European concert music, flies in the face of astute European commentators like Ernest Ansermet, Ravel, Stravinsky, Horowitz. Likewise, the testimonials of even American popular artists like Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etc.

Obscenities like Collier’s racism confirm and pipsqueak some continued legitimization of the general historic American chauvinism toward Black Music, including an earlier travesty such as the American Pulitzer Prize committee’s refusal to award Duke Ellington that prize in 1967, even though their own group of judges named Duke to receive the Pulitzer! The bitter absurdity of all this white supremacy is that Afro-American music is in its total possession by the American people, American Classical Music!

People like George Gershwin, who literally learned at the feet and elbows of Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, could be named Great Composers and live sumptuously, while his teachers always struggled for recognition, even survival! Gershwin’s internationally acclaimed masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue is clearly a skillful recombining of essential elements of James P.’s “Yamekraw Rhapsody,” orchestrated by William Grant Still, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1927, with Fats Waller as soloist!

Johnson himself was an awesome composer of extended works, at least two symphonies, Harlem Symphony (1934) and Symphony in Brown (1935). Operas, one of which, The Organizer (1940, with libretto by Langston Hughes), was performed, like “Yamekraw,” exactly once, at Carnegie Hall! Duke’s extended work Jump for Joy was performed, to my knowledge, about the same number of times. While Gershwin’s estimable “adaptation” of these composers’ works is given grand presence as an American Classic! Or consider for a split-second, in contrast to any of the great Afro-American composers, the awesome tribute and major repertory status given to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a work derived directly from and shaped by Afro-American life and culture.

The arrogant cultural and musical “autonomy” that American critics bestowed upon Gershwin and the work was so aggressively and subjectively chauvinist that it even caused Ellington, usually a consummate diplomat about these things, to express his irritation openly at such haughty white nationalism.

Yet, to be bluntly precise, just as the history of European “Classical” music would not be essentially changed by the exclusion of the many non-European artists who have contributed to it, by the same measure Afro-American music, which is the Soul of what must be regarded as American Classical music, would not be changed if not a single white artist’s contributions were included. And, face it, this analysis is not black chauvinism but, like they say, hard fact!

One important development and change in the U.S. since my earlier article is that where I saw, as principal, the contradictory relationship between Black Music, its creators, on one hand and the White Critical establishment on the other, today it should be more and more obvious that that contradiction, still at times antagonistic, is, at base, the contradiction of class and class “stance,” distance and alienation, which exist generally in bourgeois society and are no less clearly perceivable in the context of this relationship between “critic” and creator. Even though this contradiction is still most obviously visible as “Black versus White.”

That is, there has been, since the late ’50s, a very visible and impacting increase in the size and influence of the Black petty bourgeois (middle class). This has been caused directly by the political-social upsurge of the period, of the Civil Rights–Black Liberation Movement or more precisely what substantive changes occurred because of the interlocking force of the twined Afro-American national movements for Democracy and Self-Determination, one aspect loosely labeled “integrationist,” the other “separatist.” (The essentially anti-imperialist antiwar movement should also be factored into this analysis.)

Ironically, but predictable scientifically, this development has created a much larger “gap” between the burgeoning, but still mustard seed sized, recently emerging Black petty bourgeoisie and the great majority of Afro-Americans with considerably more distance between the black majority and the so-called “neocon” (neoconservative) Negroes, now hoisted into profitable visibility with attendant official “Hoorahs” as a fallacious display of American “democracy.”

This has meant that more and more we see “well-placed” Negroes co-signing the most backward ideas of the U.S. rulers. The most bizarre for instances, the “three blind mice,” the Colon, the Skeeza, and Tom Ass, at the top of Bush-2’s junta. They have been made seemingly ubiquitous by the power of relentless duplicity. At American Express, Newsweek, across the media, as film stars, etc.

In the field of Jazz commentary, we have Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, who have taken up many of the reactionary, even white-chauvinist, ideas of the racist U.S. superstructure and its critical establishment. A few years ago, at a midwestern seminar headed by Dave Baker, Crouch, in a discussion on intellectual contributions to the Music, and in response to this writer’s statement that it should obvious that it has been Black people who have contributed the fundamental and essential intellectual innovations to the music, spontaneously ejaculated, that “Black people have not contributed . . . ” Breaking the statement off in mid-ugly, apparently shocking even himself, at the ignorance of his intended comment. Especially, I would imagine, in the face of several scowling “Bloods,” most of them prominent musicians, including Muhal Abrams, who commented immediately on the tail of my repeated requests for Stanley to finish his thought!

Crouch also wrote more recently in the New York Times that Black musicians didn’t like George Gershwin because he was a better composer than all of them (except Duke). It should be clear to most folks with any clarity that both statements are false and reek of the national (racial) foolishness that characterizes white supremacy. And this from a “Negro” (as Crouch, with objective accuracy, prefers to be called)!

What it means is that the creators and artist-guardians of American Classical music must create, as part of a revolutionary democratic movement, an alternative superstructure, i.e., institutions, organizations, venues, critical journals, in order to rescue its history, socioeconomic productiveness and potential, and even artistic strength and free them and themselves from dependence on the socially exploitative and artistically diluting mechanisms of corporate commercialism and its attendant racism.

There is a howling need for more independent journals, performance circuits, educational institutions, whose form and content relate directly to the artists, the history, and the socio-economic and political needs of the masses of Afro-American people and to the whole of the U.S. majority itself.

The title Ken Burns Jazz is disheartening up front. Whether there is an apostrophe or not! It’s always gratifying to see tapes and cuts of the musicians and hear some of the music. But it is maddening, in the extreme, not to hear them speak for themselves!

For all the petty jealousy that Wynton Marsalis elicits behind his Lincoln Center visibility, even from otherwise knowledgeable people, Wynton was the single saving element to the series. Without him it would have consisted of almost random images and largely superficial injections by Burns’s obligatory clutch of “ultimate” critics, “scholars,” “Gee Whiz”-ologists and now a smaller group of Negro autodidacts, Crouch the most prominent, but also a Negro “Gee Whiz”-ologist, Gerald Early, who was an embarrassing tourist of very limited relevance to any serious discussion!

At one point, Crouch referred to the musicians in Ellington’s great orchestra as “knuckleheads”! You mean Hodges, Gonsalves, Webster, Carney, Tizol, Cootie, Tricky Sam, Blanton, Strayhorn . . . etc.? What kind of thoughtful analysis could come from such contempt? But such is one of the seamier products of the vaunted “social equality” of the fake “post–civil rights era.” But in addition to this direct class-deformed commentary, a more subtly obvious ignorance and dismissal characterized the series as “white critic, black musician apartheid.”

From the top, Burns said he knew nothing about the music! Then how did he get to do a series? I wonder if the producers would allow some similarly self-described “Non” to do such a series on European classical music? Please!

But this similar “Gee Whiz!” essentially nonintellectual attitude and method has always been allowed in what passes as serious commentary on the music because of the predominance of Afro-American artists. It is a ruthless paternalism! This is one reason I support Marsalis’s work of, to some extent, archiving the music at Lincoln Center. By re-presenting the music’s classics in repertory, a consolidating stability and status is accorded to it, not seen before. Just as Lincoln Center does its annual “Mostly Mozart,” we should be gratified to see something like a “Mostly Monk” repertory established. Even if Marsalis’s orchestra is sometimes not fully up to the task of, say, reincarnating Duke Ellington, but could Bernstein improvise like Herr Beethoven?

The essence of Burns’s piece is the implied ideological dictum that the collective “brain trust” Burns gathered, largely white, mainly “unhip,” is the paradigm for the intellectual source for any lasting analysis and measure of this music and that is the deepest content of its vulgar chauvinist presumptions.

This accounts for the general absence of any impressive philosophical analysis of the music itself and, except for Marsalis, scant discussion of its changing genres as music as art or social expression!

What the music means, at a given period, as aesthetic, social, and philosophical expression. Why it moved from one genre or style to another. Why the abiding classical elements of its constantly reconfigured continuum?

Often specific musicians were characterized by raconteurish gossip or cliched retellings of flaws in their personal lives. Sidney Bechet de - scribed as “a thug.” The drawn-out docudrama of Bird’s drug addiction, likewise Billie Holiday, without a similar depth of musical, aesthetic, and philosophical analysis of their music. Nor was there a historical overview of these constantly developing factors intrinsic to the music.

Just serious interviews with a representative group of the great musicians still around would have offered a much more profound composite and intellectual and social access to this still unplumbed cultural treasure chest of American culture and art. Far from opposing the interviewing of critics, scholars, writers, club owners, the greater and more informed inclusion of the artists themselves (not just contemporarily but from existing archives) would have provided a much more incisive, scholarly, and entertaining document to inform the ages.

Before saying “Later!” I would add that like Fred Douglass, after he whipped on the “white church” in his majestic “Fourth of July” speech and so had to make some slight qualification, if my analysis of “white critics” seems inaccurately sweeping, I should point out that at root it is aimed at “the establishment” of what passes and has passed, for over a century, as “Jazz Criticism.”

I say this because of some of the young critics I met when I first came to New York, Dick Hadlock (whom I worked for at the Record Changer), the always penetrating Martin Williams (though we had a running argument about whether Billie Holiday sang the Blues or not). Others, like Larry Gushee, Dan Morgenstern (once he began to dig that the music did not stop after Duke Ellington, if he ever really believed that), my man John Sinclair, the mixed-up Frank Kofsky, I have always had respect for, whether we totally agreed or not.

Still other “white critics” like the great Sidney Finklestein were immense contributors to what storehouse of scientific discourse there is about this music. I could add the redoubtable Stanley Dance, Ellington’s shadow, not a deep thinker (but European analysis of the music for a long time was always more objective and scientific), the anthropologist Herskovits. There were even some dudes we will always jump on we learned something from (I won’t even mention Nat Hentoff till he returns from the land of liberal social-equilibrium). Suffice it to say, there is That and there is Them. I know the difference.

But just to add some reminder of the kind of stilted hollowness most commentary on the music resembles, recently there was an article in the New Jersey Star Ledger, which some of us call the Star Liar, by writer George Kanzler (How are you spelling that?). In claiming to list the musicians coming out of and associated with Newark and environs, he left out the following:

SALOME BEY, lead singer with Andy (Bey) and the Bey Sisters; JACKIE BLAND, leader of the legendary teenage BeBop orchestra out of which came Wayne Shorter, Grachan Moncur III, Harold Van Pelt, Hugh Brodey, Walter Davis, “Humphrey” the BeBopper’s BeBopper, Blakey’s pianist for years; EDDIE GLADDEN, Dexter Gordon’s regular drummer; VICTOR JONES, Getz’s regular drummer, the last years; HAROLD MITCHELL, who played with Willie the Lion, Basie, Lionel Hampton, Gillespie’s Big Band; NAT PHIPPS, leader of the other wonderful ’50s teenage orchestra, which featured Nat and Billy Phipps, Moncur III, Ed Station, Wayne (and Alan) Shorter, Ed Lightsey; DANNY QUEBEC, one of the earliest Bop saxists, also with Babs Gonzalez, Tadd Dameron, J. J. Johnson in Babs’s classic 3 BIPS & A BOP; Lawrence Killian, longtime hand drum master; SCOTT LAFARO, Ornette Coleman’s bassist; LARUE, an unsung master piano teacher to Newark musicians, ask Moncur, Gladden, Morgan, etc.; FREDDIE ROACH, one of Newark’s organ funk-masters, along with Larry Young, etc.; CHRIS WHITE, one of Cecil Taylor’s early stalwarts. Also absent: the entire Newark Phipps family—Harold, Ernie, drums; Gene, Nat, piano; Billy, Gene Jr., and the rest well-known saxophonists; Robert Banks, piano; Herbie Morgan, tenor and reeds; Jimmy Anderson, tenor; Ed Lightsey, bass; Bradford Hays, tenor; Steve Colson, piano; Ronnell Bey, vocal; Chink Wing, drums; Chops Jones, bass; Rudy Walker, drums; Pancho Diggs, orchestra leader, piano; Rasheema, vocal; Eddie Crawford, drums, piano, orchestra leader; Santi DiBriano, drums; Pat Tandy, vocal; Charyn Moffett, trumpet; Hugh Brodey, saxophone; Eli Yamin, piano; Gloria Coleman, vocal; Bernie James, sax; Ed Station, trumpet; Art Williams, bass, club owner, “The Cellar”; Shad Royful, orchestra leader, piano; Harold Van Pelt, tenor; Geri Allen, piano; Wilber Morris, bass; Connie Pitts Speed, piano, vocal; Gene Goldston, vocal; Everett Laws, vocals; Warren Smith, drums.


Recent Residents: David Murray, tenor; Reggie Workman, bass; Oliver Lake, alto, reeds; Andrew Cyrille, drums; Steve Turre, trombone.

So thirty years later . . . you dig?


©University of California Press 2009

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka

> back to The Book Cooks

> back to contents