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The Other JQ
The Jazz Question

6,581 words

When defenders of multiracialism, most often referred to euphemistically as multiculturalism, bring up the benefits of diversity, one of the things that tops the list is music. And within that category, jazz is most often mentioned because it is unquestionably an art form that would not have developed without the mingling of races in America. It cannot be contested by any objective historian that white, black, and Jewish musicians (and, to a far lesser extent, musicians of other races) made important contributions to the music. The problem is that, as with most other fields of history, objective jazz historians are few and far between. Jazz history, both in academia and especially in the popular imagination, has come to be seen as just a category of black history.[1] This is a terrible distortion of reality that involves the deliberate memory-holing of countless brilliant white musicians who were active and influential in the earliest days of jazz as well as the marginalization of many who came later. It is a racially-motivated crime against music history, against American history, and against white history. This piece will seek to resuscitate in some very small way the crucial role of whites within this truly multiracial and distinctly American art form.

First though, let’s very briefly deal with jazz as an argument for multiracialism. It is true that had blacks not been captured by Africans and transported to the American South as slaves, jazz as we know it would not have developed. It is also true that individuals of different races have made meaningful contributions to this art form. But few would suggest that jazz is reason enough for blacks to have undergone the perils of the Atlantic voyage in slave ships. Nor would many of these people be inclined to suggest that life in “white supremacist” America has been good for blacks (despite this being empirically true in comparison to black life in black countries). And no one has demonstrated that whites have benefitted from multiracialism in any important way whatever. On the contrary, all evidence indicates that it eventually destroys the physical and psychological bonds of every community in touches. Thus, behind all arguments for multiracialism is an implicit understanding that it is a colossal mess. So their argument, really, is that multiracialism happened, there is nothing we can do about it, and we should make the best of it (assuming they are arguing in good faith and not engaging in a covert racial power grab). Well, jazz is the best of it, and so we should understand it rather than dismiss it. It is, then, up to the reader to decide if one particular art form, which already exists and will undoubtedly continue to exist, can and should be used to justify the maintenance of a state of sociopolitical organization that harms to varying degrees and in different ways all races which happen to find themselves living under it.

Second, let’s also very briefly deal with the implications of the treatment of jazz by critics and historians as black music. It is very common to hear jazz fans make statements such as “for a white boy, he sure can swing” or “that white boy got soul” or similar sentiments. But most really don’t mean anything malicious by it and probably couldn’t even explain exactly what they are actually suggesting. They are merely regurgitating what has been drilled into their heads by the jazz intelligentsia, which is often Jewish, or what they have heard spouted by angry black jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, whose attitudes were the exception rather than the rule for black artists, at least in the early days of jazz. But implicit in the idea that blacks are inherently better at playing jazz is the acceptance of the reality of race. One cannot fault them for this. One can, however, fault them for misusing it to justify a false history in which the contributions of others are effectively silenced and the actual musical origins of jazz are distorted in order to further a specific racial agenda, which, among other things, includes the brainwashing of innocent lovers of music into thinking that white excellence is an anomaly within a genre whites were instrumental in forming.

The origins of jazz are fairly murky. It developed prior to recording technology and was not composition-based and documented in written form like classical music and so historians rely heavily on the recollections of people who were there. These stories are always fascinating (jazz musicians are almost without exception a colorful bunch), but no one’s memory is perfect and the facts one can dredge up are often shaded by bitterness, arrogance, jealousy, or hero worship. But with enough information, even when not entirely reliable, historians can get a pretty good sense of what was happening. And what was happening was a diverse array of peoples with different musical traditions existing in one place at the same time: New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, New Orleans, despite its reputation as being a world of its own, obviously existed within the United States and was subject to a larger American musical tradition which derived from Europe.

It has become commonplace to credit the blues as the most important musical foundation of jazz, but as the Jewish jazz musician and historian Richard Sudhalter points out:

. . . the blues has indeed been a rich ingredient in what came to be called jazz–but not the entirety, and certainly not equally indispensable to all styles, Other formative components include ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, late nineteenth-century European concert and dance music, grand opera, vaudeville and the minstrel traditions of both races, the white folk music of Appalachia, and–perhaps most of all–the concert bands so ubiquitous on village greens and in town dance halls in turn-of-the-century America.[2]

Sudhalter also quotes the French pianist and critic, André Hodeir, who argued that because there was not a trace of blues in one of the most famous jazz improvisations of all time (Coleman Hawkins’ tenor saxophone solo in his 1939 version of “Body and Soul”) “either Hawkins’ work is not really jazz or else the melodic language of the blues is not an essential part of such music.”[3] As jazz has continued to develop, its relationship to blues has continued to diminish, even–perhaps especially–among black jazz musicians. And it is certainly true that much of what would be considered jazz has little to no connection to the blues. It also needs to be mentioned that jazz music has, from its earliest days, been performed almost exclusively on musical instruments invented and manufactured by whites and within the parameters of European tonality, of which the blues scale is but a variation, although a powerfully emotive one.[4]

Another common misconception about jazz is that it was always fraught with racial tension. There is actually little evidence of this if one ignores the critics and historians and listens instead to the musicians themselves. The more one studies the subject, the more one realizes that the racial tensions that make up the established jazz history narrative have largely been superimposed retroactively. This is especially true of early jazz musicians, for whom race was very real but just an accepted aspect of one’s legal and casual social existence to which certain rules applied and certain rules could be bent at times for the sake of the music. The mixed-race (black and Amerindian) trumpeter, Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, remarked that “most musicians I knew and worked with just accepted that society was that way. If musicians were good, we learned from them, and they learned from us.”[5] There was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization between black and white musicians. Many of the blacks who ended up becoming famous freely acknowledged now all-but-forgotten white musicians as their favorite players or major influences: for example, Lester Young, one of the most important black jazz saxophonists and a major influence on legions of primarily white jazz musicians (more on this later), always acknowledged the white (possibly part Amerindian)[6] saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer as his main influence; Louis Armstrong greatly admired “my boy Bunny Berigan” who “can’t do no wrong in music.”[7] There are many such examples. And certainly the reverse is true as well.

The idea that “racism,” or segregation prevented any good will or artistic exchange between blacks and whites is simply not defensible. I would argue that it likely contributed to it, insofar as whatever intermingling occurred was done freely and voluntarily with purpose. And even in places without legal segregation, blacks and whites generally had their own bands and parts of town. But this too probably helped rather than hurt the music. Commenting on the jazz scene on Central Avenue in Los Angeles in the 1940s, Lee Young (Lester’s younger brother and a bandleader and drummer) observed:

It wasn’t about ‘whitey’ this and ‘whitey’ that. It was about good musicianship and people respecting one another for the talents that they had. I don’t know of a single incident that occurred. We never thought in the terms that they seem to now; maybe white people can’t go now on Central Avenue for some reason or other, and that reason I don’t know.[8]

This comment was made in response to a question about his hiring of Art Pepper, a white musician, into his otherwise all-black band. Interestingly, Pepper later recalls that the black bandleader, Benny Carter, for whom he worked after his time with Young made him leave the band before a tour of the American South because “it would be too dangerous from the blacks and the whites both for me to go along.”[9] As recompense, Carter got him a job with Stan Kenton, perhaps the most musically significant white big band leader of all time and Pepper became one of the greatest of all jazz saxophonists. Perhaps this was another win for segregation? Regardless, it would be far too complicated to delve into all the details of how race and jazz intersected in the musicians’ social lives. It is sufficient to say that, by most accounts, race mattered less to jazz musicians than it did to average whites and blacks and a case can be made that this was at least partially a result of the voluntary nature of their interactions and their shared love for a particular art form. Jazz musicians from the very beginning have acknowledged musicians of other races as equals in talent and, if not for the critics and historians, this would be well-known. The “jazz as racial struggle” narrative is mostly a myth concocted by Jews in accordance with their tribal interest in framing whites as evil and using blacks as pawns. Jazz is a part of American history for which blacks can rightly be very proud to have played a major role even without the needlessly condescending distortions, and whites should know that jazz is also part of their history and not have it denied to them to suit the political and cultural agendas of liars.[10]

One contribution whites made that is never overlooked, because it simply cannot be, is the fact that the first jazz recording ever made was by a white jazz band: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 recording of “Livery Stable Blues.” This recording is a source of great controversy, in part due to bandleader/cornetist Nick LaRocca’s frequent claims to have invented jazz and his insistence that blacks stole his music. These bitter assertions, repeated until his death in 1961, did not win him many friends and thus the musical importance of his work has been often either overlooked or attacked. The band is often dismissed as novelty music but it is far from that. It is real jazz, exciting, energetic, and innovative, and the band members were talented though untrained musicians (very common throughout jazz history). Their dismissal has been largely political. Consider the fact that Jelly Roll Morton, a black musician, whose ego at least rivaled LaRocca’s (whom he disliked very much) also claimed to have invented jazz but has been treated very kindly by history. People generally dismiss his claims as merely eccentric whereas LaRocca has been painted as a nasty “racist” and his reputation generally confined to an answer to a single trivia question.[11]

A related matter is the idea that race played a part in the fact that white jazz musicians were recorded first and subsequently, for a while, more frequently than blacks. First, it must be noted that blacks had been recorded before, just not black jazz musicians. Second, it must be remembered that in 1917 (and for decades to come) the United States was still vastly white and so the market would naturally tend to favor the musical tastes of whites, or at least court this demographic. But even more mundane explanations might apply for why white jazz musicians were possibly overrepresented in the earliest jazz recordings. For example, jazz gained popularity in the 1920s and record companies began to invest resources in finding and recording new artists and so, in 1924, OKeh Records sent a recording crew to New Orleans:

Given America’s present end-of-century vogue for viewing history through the prism of racial politics, it would be easy to read meaning into the fact that four of the five bands recorded on this visit were white. Clear-eyed assessment yields a simpler conclusion: OKeh was looking for organized bands, either well known or at least regularly employed, bands that could be counted on to play well together instantly and enjoyed enough of a popular following to assure the company of selling some records. Many of the city’s best black bands were absent: Joe Oliver was in Chicago, as were Armstrong, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, the Dodds brothers, Jimmie Noone, and others.[12]

All things considered, one black band out of five is more than fair, except to those who view white jazz musicians as art thieves of some sort, which is simply not the case. And anyway this same company came back and recorded plenty of black bands that they had missed on their first visit and probably not because they had hired a diversity officer who scolded the owner and fired the talent scout for racism in the interim.

As jazz moved out of New Orleans both through the performances of traveling musicians and the sales of recordings, exposure to the music and opportunities within the genre for whites increased. Young white men who were fascinated by what they heard began playing their own versions of the music with their friends and other locals and new styles were created.[13] The first of the primarily white styles of jazz to develop in such a manner is what is now known as Chicago jazz, of which the most famous representative is Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke, a true innovator and, sadly, the template for the tragic, self-destructive jazz casualty.[14] As indisputably great as he was, many who were associated with him have been forgotten by most people, partially because their personal stories never inspired screenplays, including the above-mentioned Frankie Trumbauer, but above all because of the developing notion of white jazz as inauthentic and generally dismissible from the canon. No jazz history is complete without Beiderbecke but Louis Panico, George Brunies, and even bigger names such as Muggsy Spanier and Dave Tough are lucky to get mentions. Many other white musicians came out of Chicago and later contributed to the Dixieland revival of the late 1940s and 1950s, which will be discussed below, but some of them became involved with the large dance bands of the day as well which served to bridge the gap between popular music and jazz and set the stage for the big band era of the 1930s, also known as Swing.

With the wealth of natural talent in the jazz world, the dance bands, which had begun to gain prominence in the 1910s and whose biggest names were often Jewish,[15] began to snatch up the musicians. Though small groups continued to flourish and many white musicians contributed greatly to jazz in this setting, the public was eager for the big band experience, conducive as it was to more respectable evenings in ballrooms and theaters rather than nightclubs in questionable neighborhoods. It was also musically more connected to what they had grown accustomed to hearing from the popular dance bands earlier in the century. I believe that it is this transitional period between dance bands and big band jazz that is partially responsible for the perception that whites could not “swing.” Then as now, it was incredibly hard to make a living as a jazz musician and many were forced to perform with popular (as in “pop”) bands which only teetered on the edge of jazz or straddled both worlds, like Isham Jones and Paul Whiteman. If one compares, for example, the 1920s work of Whiteman to his black contemporary, Bennie Moten, it is clear who swings harder, who sounds more like what we think of now as jazz. But Whiteman’s band was filled with musicians who were as good or better jazz musicians than anyone Moten employed and this can be demonstrated by their recordings outside the confines of the Whiteman band. But in any case, jazz in the late 1920s was still in its infancy and its language was still developing. There was less of a distinction between what we would categorize as jazz now and what we would not. By the time Swing arrived in the 1930s, the basic feel of jazz had been established and, though there was still a market for non-jazz dance bands or “sweet bands,” the white jazz bands were equal to any black bands in terms of legitimate jazz style no matter whether one wanted to credit whites with being instrumental in the origination of the music of not.

The Swing music of the big band era is probably the most familiar style of jazz to those not well-acquainted with the music. Most people know various Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey tunes even if they cannot name the band itself. They tend to be overlooked by jazz fans due to their tremendous popular success, but this is a mistake of their part. Both were talented musicians with top-notch bands whose catalog is worth revisiting with fresh ears and as many dropped preconceptions as possible. There are others, however, who are even more deserving of attention but who are mostly forgotten, some because they simply did not have the luck of the bigger names at the time or were too musically advanced for the general public. But quite often they have been neglected because they were white and, even though they were in fact quite well-known then, suffer now for not fitting the new jazz historical narrative. A few popular musicians of the time who get little attention now are Jimmy Dorsey (Tommy’s brother and a fantastic saxophonist/clarinetist who Charlie Parker, universally acknowledged as one of the most important figures in jazz, claimed was one of his influences), Glen Gray, Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), and Claude Thornhill. The quintessential example of a white band that was just too advanced for the public and has been almost completely forgotten by history is that of Boyd Raeburn, a saxophonist from South Dakota who managed to combine modern classical music with jazz and had a knack for finding musically progressive musicians and arrangers to work for him. His music is fascinatingly ahead of its time and rivals only that of Stan Kenton for originality.[16]

As for Stan Kenton, both his music and influence are hard to restrict to a paragraph. Based in Los Angeles, he started out as a somewhat typical purveyor of Swing but by the late 1940s was showing signs of experimentation. He began what would be a life-long pattern of hiring the best and brightest young talent and utilizing their skills to push his almost Wagnerian vision of jazz (he even made a recording of Wagner’s music, which is certainly not his best work but worth hearing). He maintained his faith in the big band format long after it had declined because, I believe, smaller groups simply could not fulfill the musical ideas he imagined. His work is one of constant movement, new sounds, and dramatically new arrangements of old tunes as well as unique original compositions. He famously hired one of the jazz world’s most odd and mysterious men, Bob Graettinger (described as “frightening” and “weird” by more than a few who knew him),[17] as an arranger and recorded what has become known as one of jazz’s most odd and mysterious albums, City of Glass (1951) based on the composition of the same name, which was scored with color codes and shapes for individual musicians (for example, the alto saxophone part was written with Art Pepper in mind as opposed to a generic alto saxophonist).[18] But not all of his music was so densely cerebral. It is all intelligent and thoughtful but usually accessible and always exciting. He is famous for his powerful brass sections, and as anyone who has experienced a really good big band concert can attest, a skilled and enthusiastic brass section makes for an invigorating jazz experience.[19] He has become something of a cult figure and is sort of the jazz version of the Grateful Dead, with fans eagerly seeking out obscure live recordings and exhibiting a similar devotion to his vision. But his role as a talent scout on the lookout for white musicians was ultimately just as important as his own music. Out of his band developed what is the most white and thus the most derided and/or overlooked form of jazz in history, West Coast jazz.

Needless to say, West Coast jazz was generally a Californian phenomenon (mostly Southern Californian).[20] Those involved were mostly white, although a fair number of Jews and some blacks made significant contributions to this style as well.[21] It was seen as a reaction to the harder music of the East Coast, especially of bebop which had come to prominence in the mid-1940s with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie but this has never seemed quite fair to me. These young white musicians all admired Charlie Parker but theirs was a very different world and it was bound to create a different sound. And, of course, there were racial differences. West Coast jazz tended to be cooler, more relaxed, more experimental (the use of flutes, oboes, English horns, and even cellos was not uncommon), and more interested in composition than the practitioners of bebop and the burgeoning hard bop scene back east. It was generally more intellectual and ordered than the heated, intensely emotional jazz being played by blacks at the time. It must be said though that Lester Young was a huge influence on these musicians, having a laid-back, cooler style than most of his contemporaries, especially the other major jazz tenor saxophonist of the day, Coleman Hawkins. One white musician who was briefly associated with West Coast jazz before moving permanently to Europe, Brew Moore, is said to have remarked: “if you don’t play like Lester, you’re wrong.” One of the classic comparisons is of the album covers of West Coast labels with east coast labels: Contemporary Records, based in Los Angeles, often featured pretty white women or the musicians in sunny, relaxed nature scenes while Blue Note Records, home of the best of east coast black jazz, usually had images of black men with cigarettes surrounded by sharp angles and shades of red, blue, purple, and black. The images really do rather accurately summarize the stylistic differences. Of course, history now looks upon West Coast jazz album covers as kitschy and Blue Note covers as high art, but that is to be expected given the cultural climate.[22]

There were many brilliant musicians to play this style: the most famous being Chet Baker, but also Art Pepper, Bud Shank (the man who really deserves credit for introducing bossa nova to the United States instead of the Jew, Stan Getz), Jimmy Giuffre, Howard Rumsey, Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Frank Rosolino,[23] and others too numerous to list. These musicians were incredibly talented, popular for a time, and made unique contributions to jazz history but, with the possible exception of Chet Baker, will rarely turn up in any introductory jazz history book or get mentioned in any PBS special on jazz. They are being deliberately marginalized due to their race. Frankly, this is not even fair to black jazz fans because due to this they are no longer aware of the great black West Coast jazz musicians such as Hampton Hawes, Buddy Collette, and Chico Hamilton and are thus being denied part of their history just to spite whites.

In Northern California other things were happening. Although there were musicians who could comfortably fit into the West Coast category, such as Vince Guaraldi and Cal Tjader, the most famous white jazz musician from the San Francisco Bay Area was Dave Brubeck who really was in a category all to himself despite sharing some qualities with the West Coast style. Along with his band mates, notably Paul Desmond, he developed a manner of cool jazz[24] that was rhythmically complex and perhaps even more committed to intellectualism than his compatriots in the Southland. He had studied at Mills College in Oakland under the Jewish composer Darius Milhaud and, especially in his early work, incorporated 20th century classical modernism into his jazz compositions, arrangements, and playing. He also became hugely popular across the country with the classic album Time Out (1959).

Oddly enough, San Francisco in the 1950s was also a center of the Dixieland revival and groups led by Turk Murphy and Lu Watters were local favorites.[25] But this was happening elsewhere as well. Careers were resurrected and new life was breathed into what had previously been considered stale and antiquated. Much of this newfound interest in early jazz was a result of the work of Eddie Condon, a guitarist and club owner whose real specialty was organizing excellent groups of musicians to play the old style of jazz for new audiences. He started out playing Chicago jazz in the 1920s and just kept at it with a famously good sense of humor until the masses found him again. He ran a club on 52nd street in New York and in the 1950s began recording again with a number of great white Dixieland musicians, including Pee Wee Russell, Will Bill Davison, and Bobby Hackett. Another beneficiary of this revival was the brilliantly soulful trombonist and world-weary vocalist, Jack Teagarden, another man who had been around since the early days.

It is fascinating how “hot” and almost anarchic this music actually can seem. Unlike most styles of jazz, Dixieland involves group improvisation, with each band member weaving lines around the others in a frenzy of musical activity. I happen to understand better the negative reactions to early jazz among “respectable” society better when listening to the 1950s versions than I do the originals, which are psychologically compartmentalized as historical and thus removed a few degrees from reality whereas the later recordings seem more actual, more alive. At the same time, there is often present such moments of pure, raw emotion that it can be quite moving, almost to the point of discomfort, especially in slower numbers.[26] I think all arguments about the social effects of jazz as an art form, pro or con, can take place entirely within the realm of Dixieland jazz. Is it individualistic or collectivist? Is it an attempt to harness extant chaos or unleash it? Is it a form of male bonding, almost like a sport? Is it a coincidence that the language of violence is used in jazz, as in “tenor sax battles” and “cutting contests?” More questions could be asked and innumerable answers given but, make no mistake, Dixieland is art and does take considerable skill and sensitivity. And it, in its later form, is a genre completely dominated by whites.

Jazz in the 1960s, like most everything else during that decade, became less linearly progressive and much more complicated to summarize succinctly. The older genres persisted but newer styles arose on top of each other and many individual voices became more independent of easy categorization altogether. It was also at this time that jazz critics and historians really began to prioritize the black role in jazz over the white role. A “black power” consciousness grasped many in the jazz world, including some whites, and much of the music became overtly political. It also became increasingly influenced by the dissonance and experimentation of the avant-garde music happening in Europe which served to alienate it from the public at a time when rock was making headway into the market, especially among white youth.  But jazz merely reflected what was happening in the society at large. There was still a lot of great jazz being produced by whites and this continued through the 1970s and has never stopped. But a discussion of the white role in jazz from the 1960s and beyond would require at least one more piece; fitting the first half of white jazz history into one short piece was challenging enough.

In closing, I will offer a bullet-point summary of the main points any pro-white needs to know about jazz:

  • No one can claim credit for “inventing” jazz because it developed organically in New Orleans from a mixture of musical styles, of which the blues was only a part. Most jazz has little to do with the blues anyway, including black jazz. Weighed objectively, European music had a far greater influence than African music, which, while probably but not certainly influential, was almost exclusively rhythmic in nature.
  • Of the early jazz musicians in New Orleans, there was a very high percentage of Italians (specifically Sicilians) and other whites whose presence within this music goes as far back as can be traced.
  • The first jazz recording was by a white band (The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Livery Stable Blues,” rec. 1917).
  • Whites might have been overrepresented in early jazz recordings but there are reasons for this which are not necessarily “racist.” Record companies sought to make money and their target demographic would have been the vastly white American majority. Whites would naturally relate more to white bands than to blacks and vice versa. Additionally, recording sessions were more informal affairs at the time and who was in town and available mattered when it came time to record. And, furthermore, lots of blacks were recorded. We know this because we can listen to the recordings.
  • Many black musicians who are now idolized acknowledged whites as major influences and/or their favorite musicians/bands, including Louis Armstrong (Bunny Berigan, Jack Teagarden), Lester Young (Frankie Trumbauer), Coleman Hawkins (Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra), Charlie Parker (Jimmy Dorsey). More examples are easy to come by with only a cursory search.
  • The first primarily white style of jazz is what is known as the Chicago style and is best represented by Bix Beiderbecke, universally acknowledged as a figure of major importance in jazz history and an influence on much of the music that came afterwards. His cohort, Frankie Trumbauer, was Lester Young’s main influence on saxophone. Young was to become wildly influential and enter into the ranks of jazz greats himself. In a way, he played a black version of white jazz, which might explain why he became a hero to many white saxophonists and less so to black saxophonists.
  • During the Swing era, a great many of the best big bands were white, including Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Woody Herman. There can be no doubt that by the 1930s jazz as a whole was dominated by no one race. Towards the end of this era (mid-1940s), some of the white bands that managed to survive were among the most innovative in jazz, including Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton.
  • West Coast jazz was a primarily white style developed in California and undeservedly ignored by most jazz historians. Many of the musicians who played this style rightly deserve to be considered jazz greats, including Art Pepper, Chet Baker, and Jimmy Guiffre. Its general absence from popular consciousness and marginalization by critics and historians is proof of anti-white bias in the jazz world.
  • It was whites during the Dixieland revival of the 1950s (and to the present) who almost exclusively kept the spirit of early New Orleans jazz alive. Without men such as Eddie Condon, Jack Teagarden, Turk Murphy, and Pee Wee Russell, the sounds that both whites and blacks had developed four decades earlier would probably have been forgotten by the public entirely.

There is much more that could be said about every single thing mentioned here and much that has been left out for the sake of concision but I hope this has been an adequate introduction to the white contributions to jazz history. For those who want to pursue this subject further I will end with two book recommendations: Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945 and Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945–1960. Both are indispensible and offer a much more nuanced and accurate portrait of whites in jazz than what one would find in most other scholarly or introductory works.


[1] I went to my book shelf and grabbed an introductory jazz history book at random: published by the well-known Jewish-owned and Jewish-founded Phaidon Press, Jazz Greats contains not a single chapter devoted to a white musician. See: David Perry, Jazz Greats (London: Phaidon, 1996).

[2] Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution To Jazz, 1915-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): xix.

[3] Ibid., xix.

[4] One of the most important white jazz pianists of the 1940s and 1950s, Lennie Tristano, was quite frank about his belief that jazz owed far more to Europe than to Africa. He ended up becoming an important teacher whose students (or, more accurately, disciples) included the Jewish saxophonist Lee Konitz and the white saxophonist Warne Marsh. The distinctly non-blues-influenced black “free jazz” saxophonist Anthony Braxton has always maintained that Warne Marsh was one of his greatest influences. The well-known jazz critic, Barry Ulanov, a Catholic Jew and Tristano aficionado, maintained this position as well.

[5] Sudhalter, 23.

[6] I’ve heard this mentioned for years but apart from a slight physical resemblance to a type of Amerindian facial structure, I have seen no hard evidence of its veracity. However, it is certainly possible that I have simply missed something. In some photos it seems very possible, in others not. Regardless, in the jazz world he is definitely considered white. Or, to repurpose a common jazz musicians’ expression, “it’s close enough for jazz.”

[7] Sudhalter, 488.

[8] Art and Laurie Pepper, Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper (New York: Da Capo, 1994): 45-45.

[9] Ibid., 49.

[10] It should be briefly mentioned that one common theory about the development of jazz is that it was a black response to being denied access to the world of classical music due to racism. This is unlikely: first, this does not explain white (or Jewish) participation in the development of jazz, which is well-established; second, it does not explain the rarity of contemporary black classical artists who, unless the music world has been entirely untouched by the radical shifts in society that have characterized other industries, institutions, and fields, should be well-represented, even if by artificial assistance such as affirmative action; third, it completely ignores black music traditions in America prior to jazz, including ragtime and concert bands and successful black musicians such as Scott Joplin and James Reese Europe.

[11] As Richard Sudhalter notes, it might not be a coincidence that Morton, who hated LaRocca, was a New Orleans Creole and LaRocca a New Orleans Sicilian and that these two communities were often at odds. It is appropriate to add here that, among early New Orleans jazz musicians, many Sicilians were to be found among the ranks of the best and made up a significant percentage of this musical community. See: Sudhalter, 22, 28-47.

[12] Sudhalter, 66.

[13] The Jewish saxophonist, Bud Freeman, had this to say about his fellow Chicago style jazz musicians: “[They] were not copyists. They were influenced by what they heard from the [Joe “King”] Oliver band and others, and inspired to create a new style. Really, they weren’t trying to copy New Orleans jazz or anything.”

Max Jones, Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews, and Other Riffs on Jazz Musicians (New York: Da Capo, 2000): 35.

[14] I’d recommend listening to “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming, Virginia” (both recorded in 1927) by Trumbauer and Beiderbecke. Also listen to Beiderbecke’s solo piano piece “In a Mist” (1927) to hear very clearly how his idea of jazz foreshadows later developments such as an increased emphasis on “cool” rather than “hot,” particularly among white musicians.

[15] For example: Ted Lewis, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, and Ben Bernie.

[16] Though I hesitate to use it as an example of Raeburn’s music because there is much better stuff out there, the fact that he managed to turn one of the world’s most dreadful songs, “Over The Rainbow,” into something not only listenable but interesting indicates the level of skill he and his band possessed. I’d recommend listening to his 1945 studio recordings of “Tonsilectomy,” “Boyd Meets Stravinsky,” and “Man With a Horn” to get a better idea of his sound.

[17] Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998): 154.

[18] To hear part of the work and see pictures of the charts, see:

[19] For a very good introduction, I’d recommend the album Kenton In Hi-Fi (1956).

[20] To be clear, by “West Coast jazz” I am referring to a particular style of jazz, not to the entirety of jazz on the west coast. There was plenty of jazz happening on the coast that would not fall into this stylistic category. Many of these musicians, white and black, however, left for New York or other points east, although some stayed and simply did their own thing.

[21] Keep in mind that whites were also contributing high quality musicianship to forms of jazz dominated by blacks too.

[22] As a young jazz fan, I was always drawn to Contemporary albums and always put off by Blue Note albums (regardless of how much I liked the individual artists). It was not until many years later that I realized why: an innate understanding of their racial implications.

[23] Frank Rosolino, one of the greatest of all jazz trombonists, ended up being a monster: he shot both his sons, killing one and blinding the other, before killing himself for reasons which remain unclear to this day. But he must be included on this list due to his truly amazing musicianship.

[24] Cool jazz is a style of jazz that followed bebop and arose out of a collaboration between Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and Gerry Mulligan entitled Birth of the Cool . Cool jazz was also influenced by Claude Thornhill and Lennie Tristano and was generally equally white and black although whites stuck with it longer than did blacks. Davis maintained that the Birth of the Cool sessions were intended to help white people understand jazz without working too hard. See: Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles Davis: The Autobiography, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989): 119.

[25] It is interesting to note that the word “jazz” or “jass” seems to have originated in San Francisco in the late 19th century and not New Orleans or elsewhere in the South as one might expect. See: Sudhalter, 8.

[26] I recommend listening to Jack Teagarden’s Jazz Great (1956), in particular the song “Misery and the Blues.”

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  1. Peter Quint
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Why don’t you do an article on a truly interesting white musical genre–heavy metal?

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Why don’t you?

      • Peter Quint
        Posted August 18, 2018 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        You’re the man!

  2. Spencer J. Quinn
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    One nice tidbit is how the great black pianist Art Tatum adored the music of forgotten white composer Lee Sims. I don’t think anyone has released a compilation of Sims’ work. He was mostly classically tinted pop from the 1920s and 1930s but was very highly regarded in his day, sort of like an American answer to Debussy or Ravel. You can find some recordings of his on Youtube. He’s really great.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      I have never once come across his name. Thanks. I’ll look into him.

  3. Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Wonderful essay.

    As a big jazz fan myself (especially the harder East Coast style), I found this to be a very good orientation of the contours of jazz from a white identitarian perspective. Jazz is perhaps the one area of black culture where impressive accomplishments have genuinely been made, which explains why jazz audiences today are overwhelmingly white.

    Generally speaking, in jazz we have the fusion of western technique with primal Dionysian emotion, a blending of various pre-existing genres (gospel, blues, Tin Pan Alley, etc.) With respect to Bop, which I subjectively consider the high point of jazz, the immediacy of the music pulls you in. The intragroup dynamics of skilled ensemble playing (especially in an improvisational context) reveals the level of commitment involved, the years of practice, the mastery of instrument, material, and modes.

    IMO, the heights of jazz greatness come in the form of improvisation, which, eschewing staid formality (which is fine and appropriate in other musical contexts), artfully circles around a basic musical structure and/or melodic core, allowing us to witness (in real time) the spark and surprise of skillful musical imagination. This is true even when listening to jazz recordings, which usually involve some degree of improvisation.

    In the field of philosophical aesthetics, there’s a whole subgenre in philosophy of music, and a good entry point (for conservatives in general) is the work of the prolific Roger Scruton. In his book The Aesthetics of Music, he examines the role of spatial metaphors in musical experience; in shorter essays such as “Why Musicians Need Philosophy” and “Musica and Morality”, he delves into the underlying philosophical dimensions of music in general. (Scruton also has a short, 7-page essay written in 1987 on “Jazz in Central Europe”, which looks at the role the Czechoslovakian jazz scene played in embodying a form of protest against the Communist regime.)

    In any domain of the arts, the Greats have more than their fair share of tempestuous and narcissistic personalities. Jazz is no exception; in fact, given the prevalence of Negroes in the genre, self-destructiveness will be that much higher. Removing whatever political leanings and anti-white sentiment individual black jazz musicians may have had, along with the rampant drug use throughout jazz’s history, and the overall awful personalities many of the jazz giants appear to have been, the musical legacies and realities of jazz’s evolution is something blacks can genuinely be proud of.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Thank you very much and great comment. I love the harder stuff too for very similar reasons.

    • Steve-O
      Posted August 18, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
      • Posted August 18, 2018 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Great SWPL article. So true.

        “Every few a months, a white person will put on some Jazz and pour themselves a glass of wine or scotch and tell themselves how nice it is. Then they will get bored and watch television or write emails to other white people about how nice it was to listen to Jazz at home…

        “Along with Jazz, white people have also taken quite a shine to The Blues, an art form that captured the pain of the black experience in America. Then, in the 1960s, a bunch of British bands started to play their own version of the music and white people have been loving it ever since. It makes sense considering that the British were the ones who created The Blues in the 17th Century.

        “Today, white people keep The Blues going strong by taking vacations to Memphis, forming awkward bands, making documentaries, and organizing folk festivals.”


  4. James O'Meara
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Excellent article, really covers all the needed ground. Like the bullet points for summation.

    If I could add a few cents worth:

    Kingsley Amis said that no white man could play jazz without a feeling of shame. He & his pal Larkin loved Dixieland stuff because it gave them an excuse to put off the burden of whiteness and dance around like fools. Conversely, they hated post-Parker jazz mainly because it was openly anti-White and “serious,” like modern art that needed to be “explained” by “experts.” Personally, I find myself to have the exact opposite tastes: I can’t stand that old Dixieland crap (which sounds like the soundtrack to old cartoons), just become interested with Parker, find the real stuff with the 50s-60s (Davis, MJQ, West Coast, etc.). Even Coltrane and Sanders, until they get too raucous. As a contrarian, I think the high point was Davis’s fusion period, which jazz “experts” loathe. This may be a function of the well known phenomenon of liking whatever music was around when a teenager.

    I actually hate the sound of the horns, which is the most darky-exhibitionist quality of jazz (like those zazuelas things they toot during football matches), other than Davis, but I will eagerly listen to any kind of vibraphone – Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Garry Burton.

    Your remarks on album aesthetics are right on. Don’t forget Impulse, with its “vibrant” black and orange assaults, part of the F-Whitey mystique. Personally I like the 60s A&M covers and the 50s Pacific Jazz series.

    The question of whether “swing” is genetic was answered, I think, by the fact that Louis Armstrong was brought to NYC to teach Fletcher Henderson’s Harlem band how to do it. Not genetic, and can be taught.

    Oddly enough, heard an LP this morning on the radio, Milt Jackson in fact, with a title that epitomizes white/black swing: It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Can’t Tap Your Foot To It.

    You write:

    “Jazz music has, from its earliest days, been performed … within the parameters of European tonality, of which the blues scale is but a variation, although a powerfully emotive one.”

    Alain Danielou wrote that the famous “blue” notes etc. were attempts to achieve the expressive effects of traditional music within the shackles of Western equal temperament. The appeal of jazz
    to Whites demonstrated what had been lost in the Western obsession with harmonics.

    “And even in places without legal segregation, blacks and whites generally had their own bands and parts of town. But this too probably helped rather than hurt the music.”

    Again, Danielou, who condemned racism but approved of segregation (like the Hindu caste system) pointed out that jazz demonstrated the value of segregation; if blacks had assimilated into white society, they would not have had their own musical traditions to contribute to the development of jazz. Diversity!

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you very much and another great comment.

      It took me a long time to appreciate Dixieland, to be perfectly honest, but I kept at it and just focused on individual players until it made sense to me. Now I really quite enjoy it, although it is not what I listen to the most. I love Coltrane until he became, as you put it, “too raucous.” I think Sanders managed to do “raucous” much better, more musically than Coltrane ever did and I still enjoy a lot of his stuff. I am not a big Miles fan and never have been in any of his various phases. Some things are solid though, including In A Silent Way, but that is about as much of his fusion period as I can handle.

      I’ll throw a wrench into both your hatred of Dixieland and absolutely shocking hornophobia by challenging you to check out Adrian Rollini, a vibraphonist as well as a bass saxophonist, who played “cartoon music” with many of the early jazz musicians, including Bix and the California Ramblers. Take that!

      Yes, the Impulse covers. I always kind of liked those. They seemed spiritual and mysterious (like the Sanders records for instance) rather than dark and off-putting like Blue Note.

      Interesting Danielou observations…

  5. Dale Gribble
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Iterestig. I dug up a review of Ken burns documetary series in 2001 from Entertainmet Weekly. The reviewer called Burns efforr the “Starbucks-ing” of Jazz. Inthe article the reviewer says “Jazz purists, in particular, are cheesed at the way the 10 part, 19 hour series downplays certain key figures at the expense of others — you’ll learns loads about Miles Davis, for instance, but precious little about Bill Evans, Miles’ piano player on ”Kind of Blue” and one of the great classicists of the jazz keyboard. ”

    Wouldnt have anything to do with being white would it?

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that was a big deal in the jazz world. Everyone I knew was appalled except the “NPR tote bad crowd,” as Max Blumenthal calls them. Whites were ignored and just about everyone had a favorite and deserving musician of some race who Wynton in his arrogance overlooked. And we were all furious that he had ignored Free Jazz, Fusion and all the other styles that Wynton didn’t like. That documentary sucks and we are in need of a new one that at least tries to objective. I never liked the guy to begin with and that sealed the deal. He is a boring musician and a boring man. “Starbucks-ing” is the perfect term for it.

  6. Posted August 17, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article, thank you very much Mr. Allen!

    As a jazz fan for the past 30 years, I am so happy to read something positive about the genre that tells the truth about the origins of “America’s native art form–jazz!” (Dizzy Gillespie). I am truly bothered by the claims of racism and the politicization of this music, which I always thought has the possibility to bring Americans together rather than divide them.

    A few years ago, I wrote an an article in a similar vein in which I lament that it’s only a matter of time before whites aren’t allowed to listen to jazz anymore. I humbly offer a link to it here for any readers interested in reading a bit more on this subject.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      Thank you very much and I will definitely check out your piece.

  7. Moonman
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Quick question: who invented the main musical instruments by which jazz is played? I know that the saxophone, a major component in jazz, was invented by a white Frenchman. That said, weren’t most, if not all, of the major musical instruments commonly heard in most jazz pieces invented by whites – musical instrument inventions by which jazz as we know it would not exist? If so, it is whites who made jazz possible, and not blacks.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 17, 2018 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      Adolphe Sax, a Belgian, invented the saxophone. And you are correct. Until the late 60s when some of the more pro-black consciousness jazz musicians (like Pharoah Sanders, the guy James O’Meara references in his comment) began incorporating African instruments into their music (sometimes to great effect) it was all played on white instruments. And that was mostly just a fad and is very rare these days.

  8. Keith Relf
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    My favorite jazz anecdote is one that anyone who read Miles Davis’ autobio knows. He was visiting or temporarily staying with Charlie Parker in Harlem. One winter night they shared a cab down to 52nd St. Before they got in the cab, Parker shot some heroin, bought some whiskey and fried chicken, and procured a white prostitute. In the cab, he chowed down on the chicken and guzzled the whiskey while receiving gratification from the hooker, who was kneeling on the floor of the big Checker cab. Parker could tell from Davis’s expression that he was disgusted, so he said “If you don’t like it, stick your head out the window.” And Davis did, in the teeth of a blizzard.

  9. Norman
    Posted August 17, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Kenny G did nothing wrong!

  10. Stronza
    Posted August 18, 2018 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Jazz (black, white, early, recent) is pure degeneracy – aimless, directionless, without purpose. It is not real music, it makes 12-tone sound almost sane. It’s no accident that during the Weimar Republic (the interwar period in Germany) jazz really took off, going nicely hand in hand with the debauchery and decadence of that era. The NSDAP had no trouble recognizing this.

  11. Matthias
    Posted August 18, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Seconding the last comments – a similar essay needs to be written on THE archetypical modern white musical r genre, (Heavy) Metal.

    • Bill Haley
      Posted August 18, 2018 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      It’s not an essay, but if you read Joe Carducci’s Rock and the Pop Narcotic, a long book first published in 1990 and then extensively revised in 1994 and reprinted at least once in this century, you can extract a long essay’s worth of writing on metal. Carducci knows his subject too. He worked at SST Records in the 70s and 80s and was involved with the careers of bands like Black Flag and Husker Du. Not sure if you consider those bands metal, but they’re close enough for me. His chapter on rock critics is the strongest thing in the book. He points out that most of them are incompetent and hate music and western civilization, and provides numerous extracts to back that up. He doesn’t address the JQ, but he doesn’t have to–just because he gives the names of the critics at the end of the extracts, even the dullest reader will notice something.

      • Matthias
        Posted August 20, 2018 at 2:01 am | Permalink

        Excellent recommendation, thank you very much.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 18, 2018 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I just don’t think it should be me. I like a lot of it but probably don’t know enough to write anything very interesting about it.

  12. Free Will
    Posted August 18, 2018 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for an article that needed to be written and should be read by any jazz fan.

    When I was first developing an interest in this wonderful musical form, and completely innocent of any sociological background (other than the usual subtle put-downs of white jazz players in the media), I wondered what was wrong with me because I didn’t like recordings by the sainteuse Billie Holiday.

    Okay, she could at times create an atmospheric intensity; and above all she introduced or popularized some very fine songs that are now part of the standard repertory (e.g. “Lover Man”). But what I heard was mostly a metallic voice of limited dynamic range with a few standard vocal tics. Maybe her rise from a tough Harlem childhood and drug addiction to stardom is to her credit, but that is not in itself an artistic achievement.

    Compare her to some of her contemporaries, such as the white June Christy or the black Ella Fitzgerald, and it seems to me that Holiday was the beneficiary of a “narrative” that put critical jet skis on her largely because of her race.

    I hope you’ll do a sequel about the jazz scene from the ’60s onward. For instance, your take on why the genuinely brilliant John Coltrane devolved into a screechy, abrasive sax player.

    Oh, sorry but I can’t agree with you that “Over the Rainbow” is “one of the world’s most dreadful songs.” Sure, it suffers from overexposure and the Judy Garland cult but it’s lovely nonetheless.

    • Frank Allen
      Posted August 18, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the nice comment. I completely agree with you about Billie Holiday. I have never liked her. Interestingly, Richard Sudhalter seems to be on our side as well:

      “…[critic and promoter] John Hammond complained that [Louis] Prima ‘persists in playing identical solos night after night’–this from a man who never complained when Billie Holiday sang the same predictable embellishments for three decades” (p. 81).

      And June Christy happens to be my favorite girl singer of all time. Something Cool is one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded. We can, as I’m sure you know, thank Stan Kenton for her too.

      I just might do another piece about the later period of jazz. It seems like people have found this one interesting which is nice. We’ll see.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on “Over The Rainbow” though. I can’t stand it. But do check out the Raeburn version if you get a chance. I’m sure it is on Youtube.

      • Free Will
        Posted August 29, 2018 at 8:26 pm | Permalink


        There is nobody within my personal orbit who digs jazz. If you’d like to talk via email, I’d enjoy hearing more of your views. You have my email address.

  13. Blake
    Posted August 23, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Great piece. I would love to read a Part II too. Would be interested to read what you have to say about the likes of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Mats Gustafsson etc. And even tackling Caucasian Smooth Jazz greats like Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Bob James etc. There’s a lot there

  14. Brassil
    Posted September 2, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I hope to see a part two. Free jazz is interesting, even if only from anthropological perspective. If one observes the ‘best of list’ each year – even from sanctioned cultural critics – one often finds white musicians.

  15. HamburgerToday
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic article. I am now relieved of my guilt of liking (some) jazz. Probably the only worthwhile to come out of Black History Month, at least for myself.

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