Jazz: White People Music?

“Everything I’ve lived, I am. I am not afraid of European influences. The point is to use them—as Ellington did—as part of my life as an American Negro” - Cecil Taylor 
I'd known for a while how certain streams of avant-garde jazz in the '60s were attacked by critics as being too "abstract" or too "European" in sensibility, but I hadn't realized that
John Coltrane (Wikimedia Commons)
another attack made upon this music was that it wasn't "black enough." Barack Obama's election to the Presidency brought the conversation about essentiality and blackness onto the national stage, but it's fascinating to read about how this conversation was being had in the '60s about, of all people, African-American artists like John Coltrane who, in some ways, are seen as icons of blackness today. From Ingrid Monson's Freedom Sounds (2007):

...the Muhammad Speaks [Nation of Islam publication] reviewer saw Coltrane’s popularity as a white phenomenon: “The fact that Coltrane has a large white following is a clue to the conclusion that his music, in the main, hits only that portion of the American populace that does not really know and understand jazz, but follows the fingers of the white critics.” Since Coltrane’s playing in early 1963 was generally quite “accessible” by later standards, one can only imagine what Muammad Speaks would have written about Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. 
Although I've had only minimal exposure to the literature in contemporary African American studies (via a course I took with Monson this past semester about the history of black popular American music, plus some of my thesis research), I think Monson does a great job of treating the relationship between race and jazz in a way that's sensitive not only to the historic frustrations and tensions that inform dissenting perspectives, but also to the historicity of this ongoing discussion as a whole. That is, she's interested in seeing not what, but why people believed or said what they believed or said based on the historical moment of the '60s compared to today—why artists like Max Roach would feel compelled to draw racial lines in the sand in certain contexts, but be more flexible in others, which could easily be misinterpreted as philosophical inconsistency but is better understood as a historically-constructed strategy or even necessity. Monson on aesthetic pluralism in jazz:

If jazz—and African American music more generally—has always been the result of a complex synthesizing of multiple aesthetics (African, European, Caribbean, folk music, blues, popular music), why should the existence of the European elements in avant-garde (its vanguardism, its bohemianism, its investment in a concept of art that is above and beyond the popular, its anticommercialism) necessarily undermine its claim to blackness?
I think the short answer is that the '60s were such a politically and socially tumultuous period that jazz artists felt like they needed to stand their ground in some way—even if exaggerated—to assert the racially complex history of the music and African-Americans' centrality in that history, even if that meant alienating some artists on the outer edges of the community. A source of this alienation, which Monson touches on toward the end of her book, is the interesting and often misunderstood convergence between aspects of certain European and African American aesthetic theories that was seen most easily in artists like Ornette Coleman. 
But Coleman’s emphasis on unmediated intuitive emotional expression also had its links to Sartre’s existentialism (with its emphasis on trusting the instincts as a guide to existentialist action) and German romantic ideas of genius—the intuitive originality for which no rational rule can be given…Ambivalence about the intellect as a path to artistic creation, in other words, is shared by the Western and African American aesthetic traditions. 
What's important is not that aspects of Ornette's approach seem to converge with post-Enlightenment and Romantic theories of the artist and the role of the intellect in art—Monson's not saying that this convergence validates Ornette or anything like that, because Ornette can stand on his own without comparison to existing European traditions. What's important is how this convergence was historically misunderstood—even weaponized—to perpetuate essentialist arguments in jazz and to deny artists like Ornette their rightful place in African-American musical history. 

Similarly, the association of the musical and the spiritual has a long tradition in German, as well as African, diasporic aesthetic thinking…These convergences between the abstract music of jazz’s experimental wing and the aesthetic perspectives of contemporary Western art music have caused some observers, most famously Wynton Marsalis, to dismiss the musical outpourings of experimentalists such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago as too imitative of white aesthetics. 
Monson's argument about how to appreciate avant-gardists and their contributions is subtle, but precise—it manages to sidestep many of the land mines and traps that come with talking about the racialized territories of jazz. Her words on the symbolic significance of Coltrane's playing on "Wise One" from Crescent hit the nail on the head:
This is jazz meets Afro-Cuba meets India meets the blues while simultaneously moving beyond them all. Yet this is not another call to enshrine John Coltrane as the ultimate universal musician [emphasis added] —for so often that discursive move becomes just another revival of the discourse of colorblindness, which tends to erase cultural differences and the systemic power imbalances that continue to underlie it. This is rather a call to celebrate Coltrane’s deeply personal musical synthesis, which simultaneously embraced his cultural identity as an African American and refused to be contained by it. For this is one of the deepest lessons of Afro-Modernism—that it is possible both to be honest about one’s origins and to cultivate the knowledge and expressive means to become something more than the sum of one’s social categories. [emphasis added]
It's obviously problematic that jazz's elevation to the status of "America's classical music" and as a modern strain of art music has led to dwindling audiences and a demographic shift away from the constituency of African-Americans who made this music. Jimmy Heath, for one, is aware of this, which he points out by saying:
And, one thing for you to do as a young Afro-American is to study something about the history and then, they wouldn’t say like they say to me sometimes, ‘Jazz is white people’s music.’ And that hurts. It hurts! Now, I grant you: you see the white artist and you see the audience is white and Japanese. When I was coming up, 60% was Afro-Americans, and you may get 40 or 30% white. How that has turned around has changed the image so that the Afro-American youth doesn’t know that this is a great achievement that people suffered for. Louis Armstrong, one of our first ambassadors, he suffered to be what he was, and he made it. 
Back to the topic of aesthetic convergence, what struck me when reading these passages was seeing how distinct aesthetic traditions, emerging from very different social, historical, and cultural circumstances, could come to agree or at least overlap with one another. It seems like a coincidence, but maybe it's not: there's an element of a universal humanism here that's really appealing, albeit maybe a little reductive, but still inspiring to think about. It's unclear whether Ornette ever studied Kant or the German Romantics (I'm guessing not), but the fact that there is some overlap seems to reflect some deeper, intuitive impulse on the part of these artists from wildly different backgrounds. This is also seen in how contemporary artists like Brad Mehldau have openly embraced the rhetoric of Romanticism in ways that feel natural and organic to the jazz tradition. 

Earlier this semester, I was studying with the great bassist Cecil McBee and asked him about the blues, and what the blues meant to him. It mystified me to hear him say that everyone, regardless of culture or ethnic origin, has some connection to the blues, e.g., that there's blues in Beethoven as there is in Bird. That transnational, transracial concept of blues as some sort of weird, metaphysical thing didn't make too much sense to me at the time, but seeing how these convergences between cultures exist as a historical phenomenon have made it more clear to me what he meant.

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Of the books I've read thus far for my thesis research, I'd say that Freedom Sounds by Monson and John Gennari's history of jazz criticism, Blowin' Hot and Cool (2010), have been my favorites by far for their erudition, readability, and general perspicacity on the intersection between history, culture, and the music. I think every jazz conservatory should at least put a couple of these scholarly works on the core reading syllabus; the first step, I think, is that there should be a core reading syllabus in the first place, but that's another discussion.