Being White and Playing Black Music

Being White and Playing Black Music

A tricky one to talk about without seeming ridiculous (a great fear of mine). But since starting this blog 13 months back I’ve come upon too much good stuff not to share. I’ll take a personal approach. Hope you enjoy it!

I was thinking back over some of the most influential gigs I’ve been to in my life:
The Headhunters in the Sugar Club; Killer Joey in Liberty Hall; The Candidates at Cork Jazz; Soweto Kinch in JJ Smyth’s….

I noticed that the most magical memories from those nights were the moments when I’d shouted out in reaction to the music.

Then I noticed a similar feeling surrounding memories of mind-blowing workshops I’d seen in college. One by Frank Gratkowski (about reacting instantaneously in a free jazz context) and one by Chander Sardjoe (about picking up tempo and feel information from a very short musical cue).

And there was a similar magic about musician parties I’d been to where, at drunk o’clock in the morning, we’d end up freestyle rapping in a circle.

Okay, enough nostalgia. But did you notice the common factor in those situations?

Later, I was re-reading Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which posits a special culture of that name uniting black people in the UK, Americas, Africa and the Caribbean.

Gilroy claims that musical call and response (that was the common factor up there) creates moments of “fleetingly experienced” racial identity; “the imaginary effect of an internal racial core”, which may also be “socially reproduced by… mimesis, gesture, kinesis and costume”. “Lines between self and other are blurred and special pleasures are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete and unfinished racial self and others.”

On reading this, I immediately felt I’d discovered an explanation for my reactions at those gigs, and to recorded music. I always loved the unexpected moments of slickness in blues, hip hop, jazz or funk. Great timbre, time feel, syncopation, phrasing, etc., make the listener feel good, move their body and likely exclaim aloud. In this blog I’ve discussed such moments in the music of Monk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, The Fabulous Thunderbirds (a good example because you can hear band members making those exclamations), Muddy Waters, Big L, and so on.

(I’m being wildly subjective and general here. However a) I’m discussing big ideas in a short article, and b) the ideas themselves encourage subjective reaction because they come from a counterculture that resisted objectivity due to its association with rational scientific racial terror.)

Those moments had in common a mood or depth I found difficult to verbalise. I had to fall back on (black) slang: “bluesy, funky, hip, ill, dope, cool.”

Gilroy provided an explanation for what I’d glimpsed: within the structure of call-and-response, a listener becomes a participant, feeling part of something bigger: a style shared by evoking and tuning into body sensations and movements, spiritually and historically loaded with a consciously black identity.

…And that’s a problem. How can I be part of something black if I’m a white European?
Exploiting the identity of another less-privileged ethnicity or community is something we know to be wrong nowadays: cultural appropriation.

Which I’ve committed myself. Some merely embarrassing examples would be addressing a Nigerian taxi driver as “meng”, or giving some kind of rap hand gesture as a farewell to a girl I liked when leaving the country. (It’s best for us all if you don’t try visualise that.) A party of young white people I attended where, upon the music getting funky, someone called out “Let’s get real black in here” crosses the line to become offensive.

So how the heck can I square this? Isn’t it immoral for me to invite myself into a black communality by imitating these styles?

Let’s turn back to Gilroy’s powerful ideas for a sec.

The black Atlantic – a dispersal of consciously black culture echoing and re-echoing across the Atlantic, and also all over the New World, beginning with the slave ships. Some familiar manifestations are Afro-Cuban music and musicians in bebop, the Jamaican influences on hip hop and the US rhythm’n’blues/Jamaican reggae/UK bass lineage.

Using found objects, that is, black appropriation of white forms and reconfiguring them e.g. the English language. Blues lyrics coming from English poetry/folk music are a favourite example of mine, and tonal harmony in jazz is another basic one. By harsh necessity, black Atlantic culture was not purely African but hybridised.

As soon jazz and blues become at all widely known, they were listened to and performed by whites – more hybridisation. Many whites profited by selling black music as mainstream entertainment, obscuring its origin. This process is justifiably a massive sore point for black commentators, taking place as it did in a context of every kind of cheating of blacks. Cultural theft was committed wholesale.

Some white musicians were distinguished by unusual respect. Alan Wilson’s deep blues knowledge let him teach the aged Son House  his own repertoire from recordings so he could perform again. Wilson’s crowning achievement was a recording session with John Lee Hooker, during which the latter said, “I dig that kid’s harmonica. I don’t know how he follow me, but he do. You musta listened to my records all your life.”Note that it is skill at call and response, “how he follow me”, that Hooker praises.

db_hooker_wilson1_copy1
Hooker and Wilson

(There are still question marks, though, to be raised about the band’s profiting off traditional black material.)

Jazz provides examples such as Bill Evans and Dave Lambert. These also have their complexities: their performance with black bands promoted an integrationist ideal of anti-racism that by the 60s and 70s looked inadequate. That is, those images of mixed bands seemed to be merely papering over deep, structural injustice that Africentric and African nationalist movements took a harder line on.

Having recognised that, we can examine the technical achievements. Bill Evans caught the attention of the premier black jazz theorist, George Russell, and the most influential black bandleader, Miles Davis, of his time. He could not only hold his own with the best improvisors, but brought new sounds and dynamics to Miles’ band. (Hybridisation.) He achieved this having deeply studied black greats such as Nat King Cole and Bud Powell (who he named as his greatest influence).

Dave Lambert worked in the popular jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, performing with jazz greats such as Basie, Ron Carter and Clark Terry. This film shows him vying with Jon Hendricks in a display of swinging interplay. I see and hear joy, elegance and stylistic mastery here.

Skip to 6:10 to get straight to it – check the other singers’ reactions at 6:15, 6:24, 6:32 and the trades at 6:49.

So perhaps there’s a way forward for a musician like me: a ton of work until the traditional material is mastered and sounds and feels good, leading eventually to acceptance in musical communities, cemented and ritualised by participating in call and response with good time feel. Of course, this resembles the standard narrative of how to make it in jazz. But I have a slightly better grasp now of its racial meanings. Although, as those examples show, there are always moral, political, racial complexities.

One more wrinkle before I sign off. Gilroy talks of “fragmentary racial selves” meeting in the call and response…. How did Bill Evans and Alan Wilson act out their race? (Perhaps unintentionally) they played up stereotypes of whiteness: uptight, withdrawn, unhappy. (David Ake notes something similar about Keith Jarrett.) I think these white codings may not be a negative thing – they are simply an appropriate “fragmentary racial self” for a white boy to bring to the table. So maybe I should freely represent my own nerdy European identity while doing, as skilfully and respectfully as I can, black processes.

Again, we’ve come to a jazz trope: individuality within tradition.

I’ll wrap up now, much as I’d love to delve into some political, spiritual and historical stuff raised by Gilroy’s fantastic book. In particular, I want to talk soon about the emancipatory political power in much of the music. Also how the power of tradition can be nurturing. And I’ll post soon about a composition project for January aiming to put some of this babble into action.

Thanks for reading!

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