10 February 2009

The Racial Politics of Hard Bop

Nat Hentoff's autobiography, Speaking Freely, contains an interesting story about Horace Silver which nicely sums up the social realities which contributed to the creation of hard bop. Hentoff attended the recording session for Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers, one of the first hard bop records, in 1954. He recalled in his memoirs a comment made to him by Silver about the music he was about to record,
We’re going to be playing tunes white guys can’t play.... They won’t be comfortable with this music. We’re going to play jazz with the beat and sounds of where we grew up—in black churches, in black neighborhoods.
Hentoff contextualized Silver's remark by explaining the popularity of cool jazz, which was played mostly by white musicians.* In Hentoff's eyes,
Here were these white guys appropriating black music, stripping it of its soul, and making much more money than the deep swingers in the jazz capital of the world.
Why were these musicians so upset about the success of white musicians? Understanding this question reveals much about hard bop.

Cool jazz was perhaps the first subgenre of jazz that was dominated by white musicians. Whereas all the major figures and most of the minor figures of bebop were black, nearly all the major figures of cool jazz were white. The only major black contributors to cool jazz were John Lewis’ Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis, who only kept his Birth of the Cool band together for a few weeks and subsequently returned to playing bebop in Charlie Parker’s quintet.

Though many of the musicians mentioned in my early post did not warm to cool jazz (no pun intended), the mainstream media ate it up. In the pages of Time, Life, and Good Housekeeping(!), cool jazz was depicted as reviving jazz from the excesses of bebop and ushering in a “New Jazz Age.” Time extolled the “intimate, soft, agile” music of Chet Baker and the serious and orderly tone of Gerry Mulligan (If you would like citations for these quotes, ask me for a copy of my thesis - footnotes are not Blogger's forte). Praising cool jazz, Time appreciated the affinity to classical music present in cool jazz while criticizing the “strange chords” and chaos at the forefront of bebop. Life also commended the “promising” cool jazz of Brubeck and Mulligan at the expense of “easy to dislike” bebop, which “lacked interest.” Good Housekeeping added a new dimension to the accolades of cool jazz by embracing the clean image of the cool school. In an article titled “From the Dive to the Dean: Jazz Becomes Respectable,” Good Housekeeping music editor George Marek wrote, “The jazz musicians of today [referring to the cool jazz] are no longer murky characters with short beards or berets on their heads,” simultaneously taking a swipe at the stereotype of the bohemian bebopper with a heroin addiction and endorsing the clean-cut image of the cool school. Stars like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan appeared well-dressed in casual settings on album covers, and frequently appeared in magazine ads for cologne and other merchandise during the 1950s. To mainstream Americans who had read of the misdeeds of black jazz musicians during the preceding decade, the presentable image of cool musicians offered a respectable alternative to the shady subculture of bebop.

Dave Brubeck quickly became the chief media darling of cool jazz. In 1954, he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, one of the largest record companies in America. He became noted for his popularity on the college circuit, so much so that by 1954 he began playing more live dates at college auditoriums than at jazz clubs. In a DownBeat article, booking agent Larry Bennett raved, “Dave is the vogue among American college kids” (his emphasis). Brubeck even made the cover of Time on November 8, 1954, only the second jazz musician ever to be bestowed the honor (Louis Armstrong was the first a few years earlier). The cover story, which praised Brubeck’s use of classical influences and his good reputation among jazz critics, also noted that he was on pace to earn over $100,000 in 1954, a princely sum for any jazz musician at the time.

The media weren't the only people digging cool jazz. The readers' polls of jazz magazines were filled with white musicians. In the 1954 DownBeat Readers Poll, cool stars Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, and Dave Brubeck finished among the top two vote-getters for outstanding performance on their respective instruments. Only Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie among the beboppers could come close to the stars of cool jazz in the poll. More telling, though, were the vote tallies for Personality of the Year, in which readers voted for the most outstanding jazz musician of the year. Three white musicians from the cool school placed in the top five, with Dave Brubeck collecting the most votes. Conspicuously absent from the top five in 1954 were the black titans of bebop, Parker and Gillespie, who were still making quality music at the time. These poll results, from a magazine which catered largely to white middle-class tastes, reflect the ambivalence of DownBeat readers to bebop, despite the glowing praise heaped on bebop in every issue. Similar results occurred in the other major jazz periodical of the era, Metronome. In his autobiography, Miles Davis recounts a recording session he attended in 1950 as a member of Metronome’s All Star Band. In a band whose members were selected by the magazine’s readers,
Everybody was white... except for me and Max [Roach]. Bird didn’t even make it– they picked Lee Konitz over him, Kai Winding over J.J. Johnson [on trombone], and Stan Getz over all them great black tenor players.
Seeing a bunch of white musicians capture the hearts and minds of the mainstream media was undoubtedly frustrating. Jazz musicians had been promoting their music as an African American art form long before hard bop. In the mid-1950s, the notion of jazz as black music was widely accepted. One of the reasons musicians infused hard bop with black culture was to reinforce this idea. This was a mentality that was exclusive by nature, and had the effect of rhetorically shutting out white musicians.

It is no coincidence that the late 1950s and 1960s were also a period during which black musicians were openly questioning the authenticity of white jazz musicians. Nat Hentoff (who was among the most perspective jazz critics when it came to issues of race) wrote about this phenomenon in a 1959 article for Esquire. He mentions one musician whose friends criticized him for playing with white bandmates, telling him that his band “wouldn’t swing at all” without his contributions. Another black musician quoted by Hentoff had been living “close to starvation” for a few months while trying to establish himself in New York, but persisted because he felt that he possessed “the authenticity that many white musicians lacked.” Cannonball Adderley told DownBeat in 1961 that he could distinguish a white musician from a black musician simply by hearing both on record. His brother, Nat, said a black musician was automatically more apt to play music with “more jazz feeling” than a white musician simply because the black musician grew up in an environment where he was surrounded by black music.

This is not to say that white musicians could not play hard bop. Adderley himself would hire Joe Zawinul to play in his band - who would also go on to write "Mercy Mercy Mercy." Art Blakey hired Chuck Mangione in the mid-1960s - and there are fewer musicians whiter than Chuck Mangione. Hard bop as a style not easily copied by white musicians. You had to be well-versed in black culture to play good hard bop, otherwise you would be open to accusations of "contrived funk," to borrow a phrase from noted critic Ira Gitler.

Rather than a style designed to purge white musicians from jazz, hard bop was an effort by black musicians to reassert their ethnicity in an art form which they argued developed organically as a fusion of various African American folk roots. Black musicians used this belief to reinforce and justify their own supremacy in jazz. Thus, when Horace Silver explained that he was playing “tunes white guys can’t play,” he reflected a desire to reconnect jazz to African American culture and reestablish black musicians as the vanguard of jazz. In hard bop, blackness became a mode of performance rather than a biological distinction. Hard bop musicians were saying "I'm black and I'm proud" a full decade before James Brown used the phrase in his own music.

*Though his father was born in Cape Verde, Horace Silver identified himself as a black man.

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