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.
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.