Randy Sandke and the critics, continued

Soon after my first post on Randy Sandke’s book Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, Ethan Iverson posted a far more detailed two-part critique (here and here) at Do the Math. As always with Ethan, it’s a must-read. He’s also announced that he’ll be publishing a guest post by Sandke in reply.

At the risk of spending too much time on this, I want to note another instance of misleading quotation from Sandke, because it’s indicative of his bias throughout. Once again the subject is Bix Beiderbecke, on page 101:

Beiderbecke’s reputation has indeed suffered during the current era of political correctness. Stanley Crouch feels that “Bix is not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon.” Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times, stated that Beiderbecke “could swing a bit,” but “there is little funk in Bix’s style.” Also in the New York Times, Rob Gibson, then the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, wrote: “The great white historians can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman aren’t in there [JALC concert programs]. My point is, what did they write?”

The Crouch quote is footnoted “Conversation between Stanley Crouch and the author, 1994,” so we can only take Sandke’s word for it. The Ratliff quotes are from Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002) — and the book title already makes clear that Ratliff seeks to include Beiderbecke in the pantheon, not banish him as Sandke implies.

Here is a fuller look at the Ratliff passage:

Why was Beiderbecke so much more important [than Frank Trumbauer]? Because the 1920s were an age for trumpets, not saxophones; because he was a multi-instrumental (piano as well as cornet) talent; because he could swing a bit, whereas Trumbauer’s notes didn’t have that rhythmic orientation….

And toward the end of the next paragraph, after Ratliff has praised Bix’s “pure, consistent beauty”:

There is little funk in Bix’s style (listen to his long solo in “I’m Coming, Virginia” and imagine how differently, with how much more vigor, Armstrong would have phrased it), but there is a coherent lyricism.

Some points to argue with, perhaps. But is this evidence of “political correctness,” of Ratliff’s desire to write Bix out of the canon? The charge is utterly without foundation. What’s more, “little funk in Bix’s style” is meant solely as a contrast with Armstrong, and one that many would agree is well-founded.

Earlier in his Beiderbecke section, Ratliff gives examples of black musicians (Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, others) who unashamedly claimed white musicians — specifically Bix and Trumbauer — as influences. Then Ratliff observes:

In fact, Trumbauer was actually part Indian. But that’s the least of the issue’s complexities. Jazz is primarily a black American music. Yet all jazz musicians, especially in the early days, were hungry to use anything at their disposal. [...] Black and white were not always in conflict in America at the time — and especially not in jazz….

Whoa, hold on. “Black and white were not always in conflict” — this is one of the main arguments of Sandke’s book. Yet here we have Ben Ratliff, chided by Sandke as just another politically correct, ideology-driven jazz critic, making precisely Sandke’s point — the very point that critics supposedly go out of their way to obscure. Better, Ratliff says this in the very section of his book from which Sandke is quoting. Of course, Sandke doesn’t quote that part.

As for Rob Gibson’s comment, no, he didn’t write it in The New York Times — as Sandke’s footnote makes clear, he was quoted in the Times by Theodore Rosengarten back in 1997:

“The great white historians of jazz can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman can’t be in there,” [Gibson] said. “My point is, what did they write? Bix Beiderbecke was great, but he wasn’t greater than Louis Armstrong. Benny Goodman was a great clarinetist, and if he was alive he would be playing clarinet in our orchestra. The fact is, he didn’t write any music….”

Beiderbecke did write music, and it was sloppy of Gibson to omit that fact. However, this quote occurs right below Rosengarten’s claim “that commissions to write new works have not gone to whites since [Jazz at Lincoln Center] began in 1987.” Note the correction appended at the bottom, stating that Rosengarten “referred incorrectly to commissions by the Jazz at Lincoln Center program since its beginning in 1987. Eight works — not none — have been commissioned from white musicians.” Oops. So Gibson’s quote might have been sloppy, but Rosengarten’s framing of the quote was even sloppier. Once again, you wouldn’t know any of this from Sandke’s account.

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5 Responses to “Randy Sandke and the critics, continued”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NPR's A Blog Supreme, David Adler. David Adler said: How Randy Sandke misconstrues Ben Ratliff: http://blog.adlermusic.com/?p=1678 [...]

  2. Feldie says:

    I’ve been appreciating your thoughtful discussion of these issues. Keep up the good work, David.

  3. allen lowe says:

    wow, 8 commissions in 10 years. Thats…. 8 tenths of a commission per year; using 32 bars as an average theme lenth, that’s 25 and three-fifths measures written by white folks per year. Probably not enough for an AA B A form, so maybe just AA B and a little bit of A.

  4. Randy Sandke says:

    I’ll stand by what I wrote. Again, why the need to slight Beiderbecke even as he is being praised? It’s as if he can only be accepted with qualifications. Why? You tell me. In my opinion, and I’ve been listening to him since I was 10 years old, Beiderbecke can swing like crazy, and there is plenty of funk in his style. His use of blue notes is as expressive as anyone’s. This is plainly evident to anyone who can listen to his music objectively without the scrim of politics.

    David, you gave my album Cliffhanger a positive review. Based on that would you classify me as a “repertory” musician? Why keep sticking up for the biases of others and not admit the obvious? I think you’re smarter than that.

  5. [...] writers have gone into great detail addressing Sandke’s various positions and research.In this installment in the Sandke saga, critic David Adler pointed out how Sandke apparently misconstrued critic Ben Ratliff regarding Bix [...]

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