WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET

Unfortunately, the history that seems to stick in the mind is oversimplified beyond belief.  Although jazz is a reasonably young phenomenon, it has attracted too many watery half-truths.  When enthusiasts began to write about the music and its performers in the Thirties, they were so in love with what they heard that they created and embellished myths appropriate to its magical, transporting nature.  Perhaps we have come some distance from Buddy Bolden’s cornet being heard miles away and Bix Beiderbecke carrying his horn in a paper sack, but the myths have been maintained tenderly for decades.  Closely examined, these cherished bits of apocrypha turn out to be dangerous rather than dreamlike. 

In his new book, musician, harmonic theorist, and writer Randall Sandke (we know him as Randy) has done a magnificent job of spring cleaning jazz’s mythic house, writing truths others wouldn’t.  It might be the only book of its kind; it needed to be written.  More to the point, it needs to be read.

Sandke’s WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET: RACE AND THE MYTHOLOGY, POLITICS, AND BUSINESS OF JAZZ (Scarecrow Press: 2010, 275 pages) takes its title from the verse to “Basin Street Blues,” but it is neither an exercise in jazz nostalgicizing (“Oh, the glories of the past . . . all gone now . . . how those boys could play . . . who remembers them?”) nor is it a spattering of irascibility (“Those damned hip-hop musicians . . . those promoters . . . Oprah . . . those record labels . . . the end of beauty as we know it.” 

Sandke is angry, but his is a righteous indignation.  The book isn’t his story of how badly he’s been treated, but a wide-ranging evidence-based study of the distortions that pass for received wisdom.  His goal is to point out the fallacies, inconsistencies, and contradictions that have become jazz history (and by extension, the curricular truths on which jazz education has been built).  He can be sharp-tongued, especially about biased statements made by people who don’t play instruments — but the book is not a vindictive jamboree.

What Sandke is particularly unhappy about are attempts to portray jazz as a racially divided music, where African-Americans took their inspiration directly from Africa (where else?) and brought it to America only to have it stolen by greedy, ignorant Caucasians who copied their innovations, ran record labels and jazz clubs. 

Jazz, to Sandke, isn’t Black music popularized by White men: it is a musical continuum where Ornette Coleman can speak sadly about young “Scotty” LaFaro, his favorite bassist, where Louis Armstrong and Doc Cheatham can speak reverently of Bix Beiderbecke.  The musicians know that the notes are not connected to skin pigment. 

The critics, Black and White, have not gotten that point. 

And the writers who have, intentionally or through ignorance, nurtured alsehoods are famous — Rudi Blesh, John Hammond, Hugues Panassie, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Marshall Stearns, Amiri Baraka, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins. 

If this ideological slant had only been condescension to Benny Goodman and Bix because as, Rob Gibson (the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center) told someone, Benny and Bix didn’t write any jazz compositions of significance, it would be foolish and sad.  If this racial perspective had only ignored the creative White improvisers, Sandke’s work could have been seen as a continuation of Richard Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS — but Sandke has larger aims in mind than simply saying, “You know, when Louis and Bunk were playing jazz in New Orleans, the Prima brothers, the Brunies brothers, Tony Parenti, Johnny Wiggs, and fifty more people whose names aren’t caled, were also playing.”

What Sandke wants is fairness, not music being distorted to serve anyone’s ideology.  He wants readers to know the reality of the music business — something he’s learned from experience on the bandstand and off — and to examine how race applies to jazz, which it certainly does.  He wants us to know what musicians were paid in different contexts from New Orleans gigs to current festivals.  He would like us to think deeply about the problems of “authorship” — when a composition was re-copyrighted under a different title, when such august figures as Clarence Williams made money off more credulous younger players, one being Louis Armstrong. 

And he poses philosophical questions without being didactic, merely by positioning first-hand narratives side-by-side, so that we are asked to think about Duke Ellington’s taking the ideas his musicians brought to him and making hit songs out of them, adding his name . . . and the same process done to those compositions by Ellington’s White manager Irving Mills. 

Many readers will be drawn to Sandke’s careful yet impassioned examination of what he calls “the Wynton Marsalis phenomenon,” giving Marsalis credit as a player and influential figure but taking issue with the social and poitical implications of his elevation to a primary role as jazz’s sole figurehead.  But Sandke is not out to win notoriety by attacking Marsalis, as will become obvious even to the most Marsalistic of readers.

Sandke also works hard to remove the mythic accretions of decades in favor of first-hand narratives: the racial balance in the recording studios; the complex and sometimes painful relations between musicians and record companies, managers, and promoters, and the role of White listeners as essential to the survival and continuation of jazz.  For jazz, he sees a hopeful future — that is, I think, if much could be left in the hands of the musicians rather than the ideologues.

This book will be greeted with some dispeasure.  Sandke is Caucasian; he will be seen by some who do not read his book closely as writing as a jealous, disgruntled outsider.  He does portray some musicians and writers, living and dead, as unfair, hardly objective.  But five pages of his book will easily dispel any sense that he is acting out of acrimony.  Those tempted to call him racist will have to ignore the evenhandedness on every page. 

And — to back away from disputation for a moment — Sandke is a fine literate plain-spoken writer.  The book is heroically researched without being dull or stodgy.  And it comes to seem a series of brief interconnected essays on the larger theme, essays that can successfully stand on their own.  I dream of an upper-level jazz course for musicians as well as educators that would take each essay as a seminar text: perhaps some perceptive university will offer Professor Sandke a steady Tuesday-afternoon gig. 

Ultimately, it all comes back to the book’s title.  Jam sessions and jazz clubs have long been places where dark and light folks met in joyous exploration, creative harmony.  Eddie Condon was arranging “mixed” record sessions long before this country could accustom itself to the possibility of Barack Obama.  Jazz, rather than having been the reactionary, nearly moribund phenomenon some of its critics see it as, could still be the vision of a loving collective world.  Now, that’s hopeful!

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16 responses to “WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET

  1. Pingback: WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET

  2. After reading the article about the book Where Dark and the Light Folks Meet, I was intrigued by the book itself. I don’t play an instrument, but I do sing, though not professionally yet, I also happen to love jazz and its history. There is always more than one side to every story and because of this I am willing to read this book to get a different perspective on Jazz itself. Thanks for the insight and I look forward to making my own discoveries within the book.

  3. Thank you, Michael, from your review, I conclude that this is a book without which my shelves would be incomplete.

    It is imperative that we strip off and discard the many myths that writers either consciously or innocently have fused into jazz history.

    I recall how the late attorney/activist Flo Kennedy (who used to represent the Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker estates) stopped talking to me. We had been friends for over ten years—was it something I said? Well, it turned out to be something I wrote! When I finally cornered Flo, she told me that I had no business shattering the myth surrounding Bessie Smith’s death.

    I told her that I only told the truth. “I know that,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have.”

    That has been the problem all along. Myths were created to sell books or—as in Bessie’s case—further an agenda. Myths also appeal to a part of our brain that is, shall we say, tabloid ready—hence they have legs.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your blog.

  4. What a telling story, Chris — and how sad! I remember that Yeats is quoted as saying that “the lies of history” stick in the collective memory. And your last sentence expresses my feelings perfectly. By the way, I was talking to our mutual friend Matt Rosenberg about you just this evening: do you know the folk-notion that praise makes the other person’s ears burn? You might have needed a fire extinguisher. Cheers, Michael

  5. Amen, Brother, To this day, I still get a lot of comments from our good friends and black listeners as to how, we, as a couple or three white honky guys, can sound so much as equal or even more black than the black jazz and blues musicians from fifty to ninety years ago. How I can I get copies of this book (Randy Sandke being one of my favorite trumpet players of all time, besides Louis of course, well close, but an author of note to boot?) I actually would like to order a few, for my aforementioned friends, mostly tennis players, but a few musican types, who would learn a thing or two about racism or the lack of it in music in general. How do I order? Thanks and regards and hope the heart is hoppin.’ Lee Childs

  6. Check the Scarecrow Press website — on the blogroll — for their distinguished line of jazz books; maybe you can call them about a quantity discount! Doing fine and thanks! Michael

  7. Stompy Jones

    Just what the doctor ordered! If any field needs demythologizing, it’s jazz. I ordered my copy from Amazon within seconds of reading your post.

  8. Great commentary–although a quick proofread would make it even better. I quibble only with your statement, “Sandke … will be seen by some who do not read his book closely as writing as a jealous, disgruntled outsider. ” These non-readers must also be non-listeners, because Sandke’s recordings (which include “Inside Out” and “Outside In”!) and performances are the work of a musician who understands his art inside out and outside in.

  9. Dear Nancy, if you spotted any typos, I would be glad to correct: my email is swingyoucats@gmail.com. I agree with your praise of Randy: but the jazz world, like other spheres, is indeed shot through with incomprehension, bigotries, and injustice. If these things are new to you, then you have been exceedingly fortunate not to encounter them. Cheers, Michael

  10. I see that the book is available on Amazon in the UK – about $35

  11. I was outraged when Sudhalter’s “Lost Chords” was denounced (in some quaters) as “racist”: it was quite the opposite.

    No doubt Sandke’s work will recieve the sane ignorant, bigoted response from some quarters: but it sounds to me like a great book and I look forward to reading (and maybe reviewing) it.

  12. Stompy Jones

    My early jazz education consisted of a few records plus heaping portions of Goffin, Stearns, Blesh, Hentoff, Hammond and all the other well-intentioned mythmakers. I swallowed their narrative whole. Only in later years did I begin to doubt, when the evidence of my ears told me that something was wrong with the old ethnocentric theories of jazz. Now Randy Sandke, along with Dick Sudhalter, have begun the much-needed work of clearing out the cobwebs in the jazz attic. This is a book that must be read, because it says things that must be said.

  13. Nice article, but what about the women? Louis Armstrong lauded the talents of trumpeter Valaida Snow. What about Irma Young, Lester Young’s saxophone playing sister, held in high esteem by her male contemporaries? I’m sure many white male pianists wished they could come close to the playing and compositional talent of Mary Lou Williams.

    Linda Dahl writes about these and a wealth of other outstanding jazz women in her book, Stormy Weather.

  14. Dear Susan,

    Sandke deals with women in his book. You should read it.

  15. Overall, this is an excellent book. The chapter on the Marsalis phenomenon alone is worth the price. I came up in the ‘60s and read most of the writers that Mr. Sandke mentions, and I naturally accepted most of the oft-repeated myths that he dissects. As the years went by, I questioned some of them, but there was little in print that I encountered to challenge them. All jazz lovers owe Mr. Sandke a debt of gratitude for his hard work and scholarship, as well as for posing the questions that needed to be asked.

    But there are some flaws in the book that must be addressed.

    One is the identification of radicals with Marxism. The fundamental category for Marxists is class, not race, gender, orientation etc. It always annoys me when black nationalists, guerrilaists and other radicals are called “Marxists.” In reality, Marxists have quite extensively criticized the identity politics that Sandke talks about from the start. Radicalism is a different story altogether, a grab bag of identity politics, indigenism, guerrillaism and adulation of any number of “revolutionaries” (Guevara, Castro, Chavez, Mao etc.) that has nothing to do with a Marxist perspective except in the most superficial slinging around of terminology.

    This incomplete understanding of class dynamics can be seen in the analysis of the civil rights movement and its aftermath. The uncritical attitude Sandke has about MLK blinds him to the limitations of the movement and of reformism in general. Moreover, he does not make the connection between the class interests served by identity politics, specifically affirmative action, which was a brilliant ruling class response to the challenge of increasing the militancy of civil rights acitivsts, student and the working class. Affirmative action not only served to separate black intellectuals, professionals and political activists from the black working class, but it drove a wedge between the black working class and the white working class. It was one of the most potent tools in the ruling class’s bag of tricks, not just the result of well-intentioned liberals snookered by an opportunist “grievance elite.”

    If any of you are interested in real Marxist analyses of identity politics, reformism and affirmative action, you can find them at the World Socialist Website, http://www.wsws.org.

    The last chapter, though it contains much useful information, is weak. First Sandke refers to America’s “goodwill” toward the 9/11 terrorists, completely oblivious to the fact that most of them were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, i.e., a repressive monarchy and an authoritarian regime, which do their dirty work with plenty of support from the US ruling class. He swallows without question the notion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about defeating “sectarian tribalism” when in fact they are about a declining economic superpower gaining strategic footholds in an energy-rich region. It is disappointing that a writer who debunks so many musical and sociological myths falls for the official story about these imperialist undertakings.

    (For the record, Marxists denounce terrorism, which kills innocent people, disorients the working class and plays into the hands of imperialism and its apologists.)

    Sandke’s guarded optimism about Obama’s election at the beginning of the book more than anything reveals that he does not understand the overriding importance of class, as Obama—continuing the Bush agenda—pursues class-based policies to the detriment of the working class of all shades. Marxists were not lulled into thinking that a mixed-ethnicity president would act much differently from his predecessor, and Obama fully vindicated our view in record time.

    Sandke’s statistics on persistent poverty and incarceration rates in the black community are of interest, but of no surprise to Marxists. As the old joke goes, when encountering a beggar, the liberal says, “The system isn’t working.” The Marxist says, “The system is working.”

    The hope that race relations will improve in the midst of capitalism’s most severe crisis in decades without a working-class challenge to the system itself—uniting all “races” on a class basis—is more wishful thinking than anything else. In fact, in the current political and economic climate, we can expect more scapegoating of immigrants, people of color and poor people, as well as attempts to conflate “terrorism” with any resistance to the brutal market “adjustments” being carried out around the world to make us pay for the corporate elites’ shenanigans.

    Will the Internet bring more independence (and fair compensation) for jazz musicians? Or will it too be primarily driven by a corporate agenda? We will find out soon enough.

    With the aforementioned caveats in mind, I strongly recommend Mr. Sandke’s book as a valuable contribution to our understanding of jazz, its roots, branches and growth, and its beauty.

  16. Pingback: The Missourians Keeps It Real | Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic

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