Colorblind Music

No matter how insistently racism tries to insert itself into our social interactions, a few transcendent arenas remain where the truth is immune to strenuously repeated stereotypes and preconceived notions. One of these rare places is music. Either you swing or you don’t; you’ve got soul or not. There’s no faking it.

Jazz and blues is allegedly the provenance of Negroes. Caucasians, the thinking goes, don’t possess the necessary something or other to make the music real. (Never mind the historic contributions of Bix Biederbecke, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Kurt Elling, etc. Whiteys, according to conventional wisdom, don’t own the internal special sauce that makes this music sing.) Pale faces can play along, but they can’t bring it.

Because of this received wisdom, white people who play jazz encounter what is mistakenly called “reverse racism.” There’s nothing reverse about it; it’s just plain racism. What’s different about this form of prejudice is that white folks, who are accustomed to appending stereotypes to everyone darker than they, have the displeasure of experiencing what blacks and other minorities live with daily. White men dominate the world. When it comes to jazz, they don’t.

This is why it can be a thrill for a white musician to wander into a jam session populated exclusively by blacks. For white players who really have it — “it” being indubitable chops, forceful musical ideas, and the equanimity to let the inchoate creation be born in public — defying the latent (and sometimes not so latent) racism that swirls around the situation like a toxic wind is sometimes as rewarding as the music itself. The stakes are high; the expectations intense. Will the cracker crumble or will he step up?

In Los Angeles, near the notorious south-central region of the city, there’s an arts district called Leimert Park. More than 90% of the residents are black, and the area is generally considered a black Greenwich Village, with a flourishing jazz and blues scene augmented by soul food restaurants and black-owned coffeehouses. Strolling on Degnan Boulevard’s sidewalks, you can hear improvised music emanating from the storefront clubs. We know several white musicians who like to go to Leimert Park on the weekends, when there’s usually a jam session or two in full swing. These white cats dig the music, which is often worth a hard listen. They like even more to sit-in. We’ve seen first hand what happens: when the white boy gets up to blow (or sing, or whatever he does), there’s a moment of exquisite tension, a collective holding of breath. The crowd trades skeptical glances; some suppress a sneer. No one is hostile, or even rude. But the prevailing attitude is: “show me what you got.”

Then, invariably — invariably because no Caucasian cat wanders into this scene unless he’s got game — within 10 seconds (or less) the congregation experiences a great rush of relief and joy: this dude is serious!

During these divine moments, skin color disappears. Everyone is transparent.

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