Jazz history

My report for JazzTimes here — I’m told it’ll reappear later in a print issue of the magazineas a sidebar to a Jack DeJohnette feature.

My feature article on Michael Feinstein, in the December 2011 print issue of JazzTimes, is now online.

Inevitably, a firestorm erupted on Twitter and Facebook after trumpeter Nicholas Payton published this post, titled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” And then this follow-up, “An Open Letter To My Dissenters.”

In the second post Payton writes, “‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts [sic] of it.” This sounds similar to Fred Ho’s assessment: “I don’t use the term ‘jazz’ because I consider it a racial slur. Professor Archie Shepp from UMass Amherst asserts and I agree with him, that the word jazz comes from the French verb jaser, which means to chatter nonsensically or gibberish. So from the very beginning, its classification was a form of debasement.”

And yet the etymology of “jazz” is far more ambiguous than these statements suggest. Historian Lewis Porter has a helpful blog post here, and his book Jazz: A Century of Change contains a chapter on the topic, from which I quote:

“None of the linguistic theories about jazz has been proven — not the theories that relate it to African words, or the one that relates it to the French word jaser (to chatter), or the one that relates it to the slang word gism, which meant ‘enthusiasm’ but also may have meant ‘semen.’ All of the derivations from foreign languages are speculative because they are purely based on the sound of the word, and etymologies based on sound alone are notoriously unreliable.”

Fred Ho, following Archie Shepp, puts forward the jaser argument as if it were established fact. It is anything but. The truth is that no one knows precisely how the word “jazz” came to be applied to music.

The musical term “jazz” was widely in use by 1918. Needless to say, many years have passed. Whatever negative or possibly racist connotations that came with the word have surely been overtaken and decisively buried. Meanings change. As Lewis Porter observes in his book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the surname “Coltrane” is actually an inheritance from slaveholders. And yet now, the word “Coltrane” could not be more African-American.

I won’t get into Payton’s many other assertions, some of which have to do with jazz cutting itself off from popular music — a very complex and valid subject to explore. I would, however, like to print another comment from Payton, which was on the record but did not make it into my recent JazzTimes feature [pdf]. It was back in July that Payton told me:

My issue has become that a lot of jazz today doesn’t swing, doesn’t feel good, doesn’t have a blues sensibility, it’s just become this word that has been bastardized and able to be used for things to me that don’t represent the best of what this music is. So I’ve just sort of distanced myself from the word because it’s come to carry a negative connotation. People say jazz, that music where cats stand up onstage and play solo after solo of self-indulgent, self-important stuff – that’s really not what I feel the music is supposed to be about.

Also it’s become acceptable in jazz, if there aren’t too many people in the club it’s cool, if the music alienates listeners it’s cool, if it’s above their heads — this whole elitist attitude that has served to the music’s detriment.


The music has gotten far too much away from itself – so to me, if that is jazz, then you guys can have it. I want to do something else.

That, it seems to me, is very different from the “oppressive colonialist slave term” argument. The latter strikes me as purely ideological, while what I’ve quoted above doesn’t seem far off from Jason Marsalis’s much-discussed “Jazz Nerds International” argument.

To close, I will quote the epigraph to Horace Silver’s website: “I have been blessed to walk among and perform with some of the great geniuses of this music we so lovingly call jazz [my emphasis]. I hope that I may inspire some of the youth of today, as these musicians inspired and still do inspire me.”

If Horace Silver is using the word “jazz,” and even doing so “lovingly,” then I really have nothing to add.

In my inbox is a notice from World Village-Harmonia Mundi: Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon “makes a rare appearance in New York City beginning May 5th and is available for interviews.” Oddly I see no gig schedule listed.

In any case I won’t be interviewing Atzmon during his visit, because I’m too busy interviewing musicians who don’t claim that the Jews provoked Hitler. And don’t hail Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And don’t garner praise from neo-Nazi David Duke, or write things that end up cross-posted at racist sites that proclaim “No Jews. Just Right.”

My point, and one I’ve made many times before, is that Gilad Atzmon is a Jew-hater — and far from the only one in the UK and elsewhere who’s found it helpful to drape himself in the Palestinian cause, or the fashionable rhetoric of anti-imperialism.

But of course there’s something different about Atzmon: He’s a musician, and a strong one at that. He insists that his music is intrinsically political. And this is therefore something that every New York music journalist planning to cover Atzmon needs to weigh carefully:

How does a man of such views claim the mantle of “cultural resistance” that is so bound up with the history of jazz? How can an apologist for the Iranian regime — an apologist for Nazi Germany — claim to be “fighting oppression of every kind”?

He gets away with it only if compliant journalists allow him.

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.

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.

Blogging these days is slow for many reasons, one being that I’ve accepted a position as adjunct lecturer in jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College. My course begins August 30, and I’ve been hard at work preparing. Very hard at work. One consequence is the growing stack of new and unlistened-to CD releases near my desk. Sorry, but I’m spending much more time in the 1920s than the 2010s right now. Forget “mossy stone” — I think I might be a moldy fig.


Teaching jazz history is a heavy responsibility, made even heavier by the fact that Queens College administers the Louis Armstrong House Museum (pictured, in earlier days) and the Armstrong archives. I’m thus all the more honored to be involved with the school and its fine jazz faculty.

My textbook for the course will be Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux. “Jazz history is in the making,” the authors write, and I can’t think of a better motto to guide us through the coming semester.