Randy Sandke’s book and its critics (including me)

There’s been some heated discussion since Howard Mandel published his thumbs-down review of Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz by Randy Sandke. I’ve remained mum, largely because I edited the review. It appeared in December in JJA News.

Sandke is a talented trumpeter and composer as well as an opinionated author. I granted him a 500-word reply to Mandel in JJA News, and he published a fuller reply at Chris Kelsey’s blog. Chris had posted two earlier favorable reactions to the book, here and here, in which he tore into Mandel for alleged inaccuracies and ulterior motives.

At this point, having already defended Mandel’s integrity in the comments thread, I feel the need to leave my editor’s role and point out some of the substantial flaws in Sandke’s book, as interesting as much of it is.

Sandke covers a number of topics, but his main thesis is that jazz critics, for decades, have taken on the role of liberal or radical activists, putting ideology above clear and honest evaluation of the music. One result: a tendency to define jazz narrowly as “black music” and ignore or devalue white jazz musicians.

Chris Kelsey rightly notes a similarity to the late Richard Sudhalter’s 2001 book Lost Chords, although Sudhalter focused in depth on white musicians, while Sandke aims his polemic at critics, white and black.

For the sake of space I’ll cite only a few telling instances where Sandke marshals evidence in misleading ways.

“In [Martin Williams’s] influential book The Jazz Tradition,” Sandke asserts, “only one chapter of twenty devoted to individual musicians profiles a white player, Bix Beiderbecke.” This is incorrect: Williams devotes a chapter to Bill Evans. Leaving that aside, the goal of The Jazz Tradition, as Williams wrote in his introduction, was to present “fitting tributes” to the very greatest jazz musicians. It is not a reference work or a comprehensive study by any stretch. My copy of the second edition runs to just 267 pages.

As Sandke himself admits, “[T]he overwhelming majority of [jazz’s] greatest exponents have been African-American.” So what is the problem with Williams limiting The Jazz Tradition to King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie (and Lester Young), Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and just a few others (including Bix and Bill Evans)? If this is evidence of Williams’s political-ideological bias, the evidence couldn’t be thinner.

Sandke also takes issue with Williams’s opinion that “Beiderbecke had rhythmic problems.” (“I strongly believe there are none to be found,” Sandke retorts.) But this comment of Williams’s appears during an assessment of Bix’s early work with the Wolverines. Williams goes on to describe Bix’s improvement over time and ultimately declares: “I think that Beiderbecke’s work has affected the whole of jazz.” Certainly not faint praise.

Turning his attention to Gary Giddins, Sandke gives an even more partial and inaccurate account: “[T]hroughout Giddins’s books, one is struck by the sheer number of prominent white players from all over the jazz spectrum who are merely mentioned in passing, if not omitted entirely.” (Full disclosure: Giddins serves with me on the JJA board of directors.)

For his prime example, Sandke chooses the late saxophone master Michael Brecker. “In his 1981 book Riding On a Blue Note,” Sandke objects, “Giddins describes Brecker as a ‘journeyman musician.’”

Now consider the relevant passage from Riding On a Blue Note, about Charles Mingus and his various sidemen:

Still, the evidence adds up in Mingus’s favor — many journeyman musicians, including Jerome Richardson, Richard Williams, Dick Hafer, J. R. Montrose, Wade Legge, Bobby Jones, Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, and Michael Brecker, achieved their best playing with him. [Riding On a Blue Note, p. 173]

As you can see, Brecker’s name appears among a long list of others. And yet Sandke gives the impression that Giddins singled out Brecker for a casual put-down. Also, take care to note that Giddins published the above words in 1981. Brecker did not release his debut as a leader until 1987. Before rising to become (arguably) the most influential tenor player of modern times, he played lots of great jazz but also pop sessions with Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and others. In 1981, “journeyman” was a perfectly reasonable description.

Sandke goes on: “Brecker is nowhere to be found in Giddins’s Visions of Jazz: The First Century from 1998, nor is his highly acclaimed brother, the trumpeter and composer Randy Brecker.” Not true: Michael Brecker appears on page 448, and lo and behold, it’s an updated version of that old 1981 essay. Brecker is no longer a “journeyman” — in Visions of Jazz he’s a “major personality.” Giddins, in short, has revised his earlier assessment to reflect the times. Sandke fails to take note of it. (Randy Brecker, too, appears on page 455, hailed as part of a “stellar cast” of trumpeters on a 1988 Mingus tribute album.)

Of course, no book can weigh in substantively on every musician, and books that try are seldom useful. As Giddins offers in his introduction to Visions of Jazz: “George Russell is not in this book. He’s in good company.” And then we’re given a long list of important names, “glaring absences” Giddins calls them, “major figures in jazz and personal favorites of mine” that are also not in the book. From the outset, Giddins concedes that his book is deliberately and unavoidably incomplete. And yet Sandke cherry-picks in order to hang the charge of anti-white bias and lefty ideology around Giddins’s neck.

It’s worth noting that one of the white players Giddins has taken the time to praise is Randy Sandke. In Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century, Giddins lists Sandke’s The Music of Bob Haggart (Arbors) as one of the top 20 jazz albums of 2002. There are other mentions of Sandke as well; check the index.

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In his follow-up blog post, Sandke lays into “Mandel and his ilk: those beholden not to the music, but the industry surrounding it through selling books, articles, liner notes, and pandering to the dinosaurs of the jazz print and recording business.” As someone who sells articles and liner notes and depends on the jazz print and recording business, I can tell you that I sleep pretty well at night. I tend not to care when I read critic-bashing from various quarters, because it’s old hat, although in the best instances it can certainly prompt useful reflection. We should all be our own worst critics.

To contrarian anti-critics like Chris Kelsey, however, we jazz writers are simply “defending our turf” whenever we open our mouths. I can’t do much to change Chris’s view and I don’t see a need to try. But I will go out of my way to defend the likes of Williams and Giddins from misrepresentation, after all their enormous and valuable effort on behalf of this music.

If the response to all this is that I too am politically biased, readers of Lerterland already know the score: I am a staunch liberal and an arch critic of the Chomskyite wing of the left. I have absolutely no aversion to pointed critiques of “my” side, and I’ve written a fair number of them myself. That said, I do not share Sandke’s opinions on racism and liberalism in the U.S., and I’ll do my best to comment soon on this aspect of Sandke’s book, in a separate post.

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17 Responses to “Randy Sandke’s book and its critics (including me)”

  1. Randy Sandke says:

    Dear David,

    I thank you for posting this, and especially for reading my book. What I really appreciate is that you talk of specifics. Right now all my books are in storage so I can’t respond as I’d like to, but let me say this. You may have a later expanded edition of the Williams book (and I still can’t detect any rhythmic problems in Bix’s playing with the Wolverines–none). What I was objecting to was Williams using Beiderbecke to attack the rhythmic abilites of white players in general.

    As far as Giddins, the problem is that I can’t think of any black musicians the stature of a Brecker, and he’s just one example, that are similarly ignored, or damned with such faint praise. It’s true that Brecker recorded his first solo record after 1981, but he was already a major force and had appeared on tons of recordings. You have to remember that this was around the time that Giddins was obsessed with promoting the genius of David Murray, making his judgments seem all the more suspect.

    By the way, my senior editor took it upon himself to delete my final line about Giddins (unbeknownst to me), which renders the entire paragraph meaningless. My point was that Giddins can write and profit from his Armstrong book (which is fine–and it’s a good book), but at the same time he’ll criticize me for playing the music of Armstrong.

    Specifically the situation was this: I was paid to do a retrospective concert and recording of LA in Germany around the same time that Nicholas Payton did his tribute. I agree with Giddins that Payton’s was much more creative (I’m a big fan of Nicholas)–but the point is we were paid (or given the opportunity) to do different things. In his review (which was reprinted in his book) Giddins–in a very Williamseque move-uses these recordings to compare me with Payton and classify me pejoratively as a “repertory trumpeter.” Considering the fact that he has declined to attend my concerts of original music, ignored every album (including one for orchestra) of my own music, this was an extremely cheap and irresponsible shot. I admit that, in the case of Giddins, it does get personal with me.

    One thing these blog posts have helped me do is refine what I would say my book is about. I would phrase it this way: there has been an overwhelming tendency to ignore jazz as it relates to wider American culture. What I attempt to show is how many writers have wanted to cast it in a narrower black culture. As I say in the book, this view is not wrong; just incomplete. I show many ways that writers have manufactured untruths to support this belief, and many significant issues they’ve ignored.
    There was no conspiracy; just ideas going viral that fit into the spirit of the times.

    So far, you are the first to object to anything factual in the book. If the examples you list are what you consider to be my gravest errors I think I’m doing pretty well.

    If you, or anyone else, finds other concrete errors in the book, I’d be glad to hear about them. As I said elsewhere, the fact that people are thinking and talking about these issues pleases me. They’ve been ignored for too long. And I’m of the opinion that the more politics interferes with music, the more stagnant it becomes.

    Thanks again, David, and keep doing what you’re doing.

    Randy

  2. I get a little bored with the whole black and white thing in jazz I must admit. The music was largely created by black people, and the vast majority of the major stylists were black, and then there were some white people, too, that were also important.

    One of them was Michael Brecker. And I find it offensive that anybody would describe a musician of his caliber as a “journeyman”. That means someone who is “reliable but not outstanding”. I fail to see how anybody that would have heard the Brecker Brothers or Michael on Hal Galper’s “Reach Out” or Pat Metheny’s 80/81 (!!) or Michael with Joni Mitchell, or any number of other incredible moments with Michael that was produced prior to 1981, and who would still describe him as a “journeyman”.

    This guy was an absolute monster musician from the first time he was heard of, and furthermore created a sound on the instrument that became so influential that he’s probably the single-most imitated tenor saxophone player in history. I am not saying many or even most of his imitators did him much justice, nor am I saying that this influence seems to as present today (it seems like it’s waned but that doesn’t mean it can’t come back), but for a good 20 years Michael was THE influence on tenor sax. Other than Bird & Coltrane did anybody else achieve that?

    So by all OBJECTIVE measures, in 1981, Michael Brecker had established himself as far more than a “journeyman” in jazz, pop, R&B, funk and probably other genres too. So there’s just no excuse to use such a word about such a musician – then or now!

  3. admin says:

    “Journeyman” can be construed a couple of ways – one of them is the way you cite, while another is “apprentice,” or “a trained worker who is employed by someone else.” In 1981 Brecker had done a ton of very distinguished sideman work, in addition to co-leading the Brecker Brothers. Giddins is citing him in this quote for his “journeyman” work with Charles Mingus, which transpired in 1978, I believe.

    Nothing about any of this is “objective” – Giddins has the latitude as a critic to make judgment calls about Brecker’s playing. And yet I don’t believe he was being pejorative toward Brecker here, nor toward any of the other eight musicians mentioned in the passage.

    And that’s my point – Sandke takes up the cudgel only on behalf of Brecker and mischaracterizes the passage in question by citing only Brecker’s name out of the list of nine. And he’s doing so in order to charge Giddins of anti-white bias, thus mischaracterizing the whole of Giddins’s work. It is Sandke, I would argue, who is indulging in racial reasoning here.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NPR's A Blog Supreme, David Adler. David Adler said: Stepping away from editor's role, I assess Randy Sandke's book: http://blog.adlermusic.com/?p=1662 […]

  5. I see your point David and it’s a good one. Perhaps it wasn’t meant as a put-down, although, to me, it sounds that way. I am a little hyper-sensitive to this stuff, I’ve seen too many great musicians viciously attacked by critics whose own work in their field totally pales next to the musician they are reviewing.

    I remember how a Danish critic reviewing a Joe Henderson concert we had in 1995, and said: “Joe Henderson really isn’t a very important saxophonist. He doesn’t have a unique language, his tone is woolly, his rhythmic sense is nothing special, so why is it that I still like him”? Just amazing stuff, and I see this kind of thing all of the time. Even about the giants. Jaco Pastorious “Word of Mouth” album got 2 1/2 stars in Downbeat back then.

    Perhaps it’s because music is such an emotional thing, but I really do wish generally that critics would try to be more clear about what’s objective (Michael Brecker is a big influence) and what’s totally subjective (I am not touched) in their reviews.

    As a funny sidenote: Here’s an interview with Chet Baker from 1979. He’s being asked what music he likes to listen to, and he mentions both Michael Brecker and Weather Report in there. Check it out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_jiA9hK24U

    As for the black/white thing in jazz. It would be ridiculous to suggest this isn’t first and foremost a black music. Can’t believe that’s still being debated.

    But certain critics and commentators decide to play politics with that too, and then people go into dissecting whether this beat on that record was documented first time in South-Western Mali in 1787, or if it was actually inadvertently invented by an Austrian Hausfrau because she couldn’t play Eine Kleine Nachtmusic without skipping a beat. And that’s supposed to be the proof of the genealogy of jazz right there.

    Then they take that and use that to define what jazz ISN’T. And thus the jazz police was born. The REAL audience, in the meantime, has totally moved on and couldn’t give a hoot whether a certain beat originally belongs to the Hausfrau or in Mali, or whether E.S.T studied Armstrong enough. They like to listen to something fresh, new.

    They did however make at least ONE informed choice back in the early nineties: Which was that when the jazz police got what they wanted, and had people record music that sounded very much like what it sounded like back in the 50ties, then the audience left the music wholesale.

    Now, in the last 10-15 years since the wane of the “young lions”, artists have been less confined by the industry (or what’s left of it) to do a “certain” thing, and the young lions approach has been totally discredited and invalidated, so to a degree I feel that we live in a certain golden age of new music again. And for that I am thankful.

    (Hope I am not taking too much space up on your blog!?) ;-)

  6. Allen Lowe says:

    everyone knows that Giddins slept through the whole flowering of the Downtown/Knitting Factory scene of the 1980s and 1990s, a scene that was (NOT coincidentally) largely a white manifestation of New Music. Beyond this Giddins, the most thin skinned of human beings, has completely ignored Randy’s work, which is brilliant and consistent – and likely he has felt the (justifiable) heat of Randy’s annoyance. There is a lot more that can be said for all this kind of racial double standard, but more later.

  7. admin says:

    Quite amazing. In spite of what I mention in my post – that Giddins chose Sandke’s 2002 album as a top-20 of the year – you simply reassert that Giddins has “ignored” Randy’s work. That is flatly untrue, and it renders the charge of a racial double standard all the more dubious.

  8. Allen Lowe says:

    nice of him to put Randy in a top 20 list – 9 years ago -but Giddins has a huge body of written work in which he utters almost nothing else – and Randy is one of the greatest trumpeters the jazz world has seen, and in this I do not exaggerate. Few people have heard him in all of the many contexts that he is capable of (revivialist, post-bop, free jazz, post modernist, to coin a few imprecise terms)but I have, and I know what Randy is capable of. He just does not fit the profile for critical response in his most visibile role, Dick Hyman sideman (which he does, btw, brilliantly). And I reiterate, that as a PLAYER, I would put Randy up against any trumpeter I have heard in the last 40 years.

  9. Allen Lowe says:

    let me add something, also, about Albert Murray, whom Ethan discusses on his blog; I interviewed Murray maybe 20-25 years ago about race and jazz, and this is what he said: “White musicians can never play as well as black musicians; sure, they can learn to play jazz, but it’s like learning a second language, you can never be as good at it as you would be if it were your first.” Truthfully, I think this is an unwritten code that many critics, black and white, live by, if many times unconsciously.

  10. admin says:

    And yet Stanley Crouch finds that we critics live by the completely opposite unwritten code, elevating white musicians above black ones. Both of these accusations can’t be correct.

  11. Randy Sandke says:

    I must say that Allen is a bigger fan of my trumpet playing than I am, but bless him all the same. As far as Giddins (again), admin (whoever you are) is simply uninformed. Yes, that 2002 album (The Music of Bob Haggart) was on his top ten list. And the very first line Giddins wrote about it was “score one for repertory.” Fine. But nowhere has he said word one about my original music, which would include albums such as the Mystic Trumpeter, the Subway Ballet, the two Inside Out albums, and several others going back to 1985. My very first album, which included 8 original compositions, I personally handed to Giddins at an American Jazz Orchestra rehearsal. I also asked him to give a copy to Stanley Crouch (at that time they were both working for the Village Voice). Giddins’ only comment was, “I’ll give it to Stanley, but you’re white.” And I’m accused of bad manners in bringing up racial issues.

  12. Allen Lowe says:

    “And yet Stanley Crouch finds that we critics live by the completely opposite unwritten code, elevating white musicians above black ones. Both of these accusations can’t be correct.”

    well, that’s right – and judging by Crouch’s prior record of accuracy (he once said OJ was innocent) we can assume the opposite is correct.

  13. admin says:

    No, that’s not what I assume at all. Both charges are overblown and based on selective evidence. (By the way, “admin” is me, David Adler, administrator of this blog.)

  14. Allen Lowe says:

    I agree – and what’s wrong with ‘selective’ evidence? All evidence is selective, and is selected based on accuracy, how compelling it is, context, meaning, etc. The problem is that the kind of prejudice Randy talks about is unreal until it happens to you – and when it does (and these questions of authenticity, promotion, and employment are a large subtext for many white jazz musicians, really) it is disturbing and frustrating, to say the least. So one selects the evidence that is most accurately apparent and that conforms with one’s own sense of reality.

  15. Allen Lowe says:

    part of the problem may be that Randy’s book may seem to be an attack on all critics – but it’s not; it primarily a question of whether the shoe fits. And truthfully, I think, personally, that things are much better than they were 20 years ago – but those 20 years are part of the lives of musicians like Randy, and they cannot (and should not) be erased.

  16. Allen Lowe says:

    sorry to filibuster, but ultimately age may be an issue here, too – because musicians of Randy’s generation had a much different experience than musicians of Ethan’s generation.

  17. […] pro-Sandke, anti-Mandel postsThe lengthiest of Randy Sandke’s responses to Mandel Critic David Adler’s critique of SandkeEthan Iverson’s epic critique of Sandke: Part 1 Part 2  Sandke responds quite graciously […]

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