Jazz: For Whites Only?

A look at co-opted jazz after the death of Max Roach.

By Leslie Simon Jan 07, 2008

On the morning of August 17, the papers arrived with jazz drummer Max Roach’s obituary. MacArthur Foundation “genius,” Roach had played with Charlie Parker as a teen-ager, and, according to one of those obituaries, told a Down Beat magazine interviewer in 1960, after the release of his and Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite”: “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance.” Radio stations played his music throughout the day. And that night we would celebrate my husband’s birthday at a Kim Nalley tribute to Nina Simone at a San Francisco jazz club. Planned in advance of Roach’s passing, it seemed a perfect way to mourn his loss. Little did I know how much mourning I would do that night.

A white girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I fell in love with jazz and enjoyed the mixed audiences at concerts and clubs. Sadly, I’ve gotten used to jazz venues serving far more white customers now than black ones. And I read with dismay of the recent Bay Area twin scandals: Yoshi’s CD, celebrating ten years of the premier Oakland jazz venue, included not one African American musician; then, Susan Muscarella, when confronted by the paucity of African American musicians she booked for the Berkeley jazz festival, responded “…I do choose quality and not ethnicity alone.” (“Jazz Fans Decry Exclusion,” Leslie Fulbright, June 1, 2007) Anyone who knows jazz knows it is an invention of African Americans and that they’ve made the innovations that continue to keep jazz the U.S.’s premier contribution to world arts.

Anyway, in line outside the club, I could hear myself: All these white people again. But I let up; after all, anyone who’s attending a tribute to Nina Simone, of “Mississippi Goddam” fame must have a social conscience, right? And with my husband, daughter, son, and son’s girlfriend, I was a party of five almost all white people, so who am I to talk? Well, I’m talking.

My son’s girlfriend is black and as we stood in line, it seemed the people around us kept looking at us. I told myself it couldn’t be what I thought; maybe those people just noticed the glowing beauty of the two young women beside me. But after what happened inside, I knew my first instincts, that the stares came from old-fashioned racism, were on target.

Nalley, of course, was sensational, and at a particular high moment when everyone made some noise, my son’s girlfriend shouted, “Take these people to church, girl!” One of only two or three black people in the audience, she offered the kind of call and response that reminded me of the days when jazz audiences were black. But this audience shifted in their seats, laughed uncomfortably. I felt like we were in church and not the kind Blossom was talking about. Soon, our waiter told us we needed to quiet down because one table was complaining. Blossom had already left her seat, not surprisingly, catching the unfriendliness sooner than the rest of us. My husband spoke to the waiter, who apologized, having seen no reason himself to give us a warning. My daughter confronted the people at the complaining table, and when she told me what the man next to them said, I really started to mourn. His exact words: “The Negro movement is over, sweetie.”

What drove Simone, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison to France and what drives so many others, who cannot flee this madness, crazy remains alive and sick. But I have to believe we can turn this around somehow so that my daughter’s ironic “San Francisco Goddam!” will lose its power.

As I was writing all this, word came in that Grace Paley died. Roach, at 83, and Paley, at 84, were contemporaries. Both recognized greats in their fields¬¬–Paley had been nominated for a Pulitzer for her collection of short stories. Both activist artists¬–one a black man; the other, a white Jewish woman. Bookend memorials. Radio tributes to Paley. The New York Times obituary. Can I make something of this? Let me try.

I think about Paley’s story “The Long-Distance Runner.” In it Paley’s alter ego, Faith, confronts her well-meaning liberalism as she jogs, Forrest Gump-like, long before it was trendy, into her old neighborhood, formerly white and now black. She visits the apartment where she grew up and then lives for three weeks with its current residents, a Mrs. Luddy and her children. “Runner” tells the story of two border people. Faith and Mrs. Luddy break open the boundaries of a segregated society. Despite the obvious surreal element to Faith’s visit in the apartment, the story demonstrates the positive effects of opening up borders. That’s what jazz did and still can do. It takes the dwelling place–America, that mirage of a land more properly and legally designated the United States–and invents a new music out of the experience of diaspora, slavery, and liberation. A music that has traveled around the world, carrying story, grief, protest, and celebration. Jazz opens up borders. Please, oh please, don’t close them down. In the name of Max and Grace, may we all keep talking.