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Yes, White Cats Can Play Jazz, So Can We Talk About Something Else?

Sometimes, the best way to figure out what an author knows about his or her subject is to find the bit of the book where the discussion is of a topic you know something about: you can usually pretty get a sense of whether the author is full of shit, or authoritative, or something else entirely.

So it’s a bit discouraging that when I picked up Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts and turned to the chapter on Louis Armstrong, that I found a tiny blurb about Armstrong’s life and contribution, followed by this quote:

Those pretty notes went right through me.

This, we are told, is what Louis Armstrong said about Bix Beiderbeck. And James follows up with a mini-essay on… Beiderbeck.

He starts out by settling the debate for us (ha!) about whether white cats could, or can, play jazz, and for him, Exhibit A is Armstrong’s nice words about Beiderbeck. (Exhibit B, underwhelmingly, is Benny Goodman.) This is a tired discussion, and the question has been answered countless times over the years, so like Ethan Iverson, a return to that dead discussion rather tires me.


Then he touches on the racism of the American music world in the time of Armstrong (and Beiderbeck), and condemns the mistreatment Armstrong suffered, for example in never collecting any royalties for his early recordings. But the chapter, advertised as one on Armstrong, is mostly about the author’s interest in, and love for, the music of Beiderbeck. Armstrong matters here almost wholly because he spoke postively about Beiderbeck… and Armstrong’s magnanimity towards the man, James takes as license to hold Beiderbeck up as Armstrong’s equal.

I have to admit, he doesn’t gain huge points in my book by admitting he had listened to tons of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, but couldn’t get into Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane; not because anyone who feels that way must have no taste, but because it rather ignores the relatively negligible importance of Whiteman and the massive cultural importance of Coltrane. I mean, this is a position that makes Ken Burns’ infamously exclusionary and conservative documentary on jazz look downright radical and inclusive. Sure, it’s fine to have idiosyncratic tastes, I suppose: but it makes me wonder what other idiosyncracies shaped the book, and what else I have to watch out for, in areas where I know less than James rather than more.

The Whiteman reference is especially troubling: I mean, the first time I ever heard of Whiteman was from a fellow saxophonist in our high school big band (she was Chinese-Canadian, and I her white prairie boy schoolmate) who explained, straightforwardly, that Whiteman had been “praised for ‘inventing’ jazz” when, as we both knew even then, as Canadian teenagers in the early 90s, jazz music was an art form primarily practiced by, and developed through the efforts of, black musicians. Perhaps James sees himself as having listened to Whiteman on the merits of his music alone, but there’s really no such thing: James encountered Whiteman’s music in the UK in the 50s precisely because Whiteman, as a white man, snagged praise and stature and celebration far beyond what was warranted by his meager musical contribution. (A contribution that some have even argued stifled the development of jazz music.)

For goodness sakes, he cites Beiderbeck’s “I’m Coming Virginia” as one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world:

… which only makes me wonder, why didn’t he just go ahead and write a chapter on Beiderbeck? Did nobody think to point this out to him? Or did he do this (while failing to praise anything by Armstrong so specifically) because he resentfully believed that he would be slammed for praising a (now-relatively) obscure white trumpeter while passing over a very famous and widely revered black one?

The misstep of focusing on Beiderbeck in Armstrong’s chapter is really a shame, because there are a few nice thoughts: how radical it was that jazz got played in mixed groups–something that was not unique to Goodman, to be sure, though James gives him an exemplary position–and the unfairness of the world in which black musicians operated, which no white musician ever faced… though, again, he borders on equivocation when he reminds us that Goodman was born “Chicago poor, meat-packing poor” and all that, even if in the same breath he hurries to admit that Goodman had white (or at least white-enough) privilege on his side.

It’s also a shame because he enunciates for me one of the major influences on my own writing, in a way I’ve never managed to put it myself… because, like James, I learned a lot of what I know about how to write from music:

Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane. To the extent that I can examine my own case of such inadvertently assimilated education, I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on his motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow. But for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities.

For me, music–explicitly studied and constantly listened-to–has informed the way I write on a deep level. I learned how to work with phrases and shape them, how to consider the sounds of words and the assonances, how to formulate themes and variations… but also, the sense of feeling, the source of power, the sanctity of both gorgeousness and anger.

Obviously, I was listening to other musicians: I pretty much pick up where James leaves off, starting from Coltrane and Rollins (and Monk and Miles and Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders and Stan Getz) and working my way backwards, sideways, inside, out. But music–and especially jazz music–has had a profound influence on the way I write, some of it conscious, and plenty of it unconscious.

But I think the biggest shame here is that James, in promising a chapter on Armstrong, but delivering one on Beiderbeck, replicates the very dynamic he criticizes: he gives the limelight, and seemingly seems to want to give a greater share of posterity, to a white musician–and at the explicit expense of a black one.  It’s a classic case of yet another white man celebrating a white musician instead, rather than alongside, a black musician… and an example, surely, of the very dynamic that would have driven whatever white-exclusion supposedly happened among black critics and fans of jazz.

(Some surely did happen, yes; Iverson discusses one example, the case of a review of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka of an album by Burton Greene, at the end of the fourth of his series of posts on the subject of Randy Sandke’s book on, ahem, the subject of anti-white racism in jazz. None of that is any justification for what James does here, and it being unwitting doesn’t help matters. And Eugene Holley’s writing helps us who need help to see more clearly why it would have, while meditating on the Sandke book and his own relationship with the music of Bill Evans.)

I didn’t toss Clive James’ book out the window, but I’ll be approaching it much more cautiously. How ought I to take his thoughts on philosophers, political figures, and the rest seriously when he makes such a clear and obvious misstep in an area where I do know enough to realize it? We’ll see… maybe he can win me back a little if he does a good job on Ellington, the other jazz musician listed in the table of contents. But I swear, if that turns out to be a chapter on Benny Goodman or Frank Sinatra (or, heaven forbid, Paul bloody Whiteman), I’m going to be less forgiving in my next rant.

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