In the mix

Phil Ford

I really meant to make myself scarce for a few weeks and get out of the way of our guest bloggers. (Good lookin', Brent.) But Ralph Locke is joining DIal M later (after May  25), so I figure I might just poke my head up from my Secret Undisclosed Location and do you all a favor and point out that one of the best blog posts in the history of the music blogosphere is up at Do the Math, the blog of the jazz trio The Bad Plus. I've never mentioned the Bad Plus here before, despite the fact that they're teh cop show. Their drummer, Dave King, was a mainstay of the Twin Cities music scene back when I lived there. His other big group, Happy Apple, played everywhere in town, including a festival I helped organize at the Weisman Art Museum, and it pleased me when I picked up Give a few years ago and heard King's immediately recognizable (BIG) drum sound. I like how unaffectedly sweet The Bad Plus can play (like on "Frog and Toad," which pays homage to a lovely series of books I've read to my kids since they were small), and I like their Ornette moods, but I also like the fact that every now and then they just want to kick you in the nuts. How does an acoustic jazz trio play a cover of "Iron Man" that's almost as heavy as the original? Like this:

Download Iron_Man.mp3

Anyway, Ethan Iverson, the Bad Plus pianist, wrote an 18000-word post on Lennie Tristano at Do the Math, along with a constellation of side posts, including an email from Stanley Crouch that's more thoughtful on the subject of Tristano than you might expect. As Matthew Guerrieri has commented, these posts on Tristano comprise about as good a use of the blog medium for music as can be imagined: "A lot of the promise of the Internet circles around hyperlinked and
non-linear texts, but this illustrates what is, to me, an even greater
virtue—a platform to stretch out and explore a subject without having
to worry about restrictions on length or scope or focus." (Although the fact that Iverson has linked to so many wonderful pieces of music and video clips is also not to be sneezed at.) This sort of thing just makes me realize how little I care about major newspapers cutting back on their arts reporting. Folks have been saying, yeah, I don't like Bernard Holland, but at least the NYT had someone covering classical music, and they won't now that Holland's retiring. But who cares? The arts pages of the NYT (to say nothing of lesser dailies) suck, and they suck in the same way as the comics pages: everything that ends up there is deformed by the pressure of having to fit some abstract notion of consensus culture.* The people who have particular cultural interests — for example, an interest in classical music — are going to find it, and a better version of it, on the internet. If I want to read something interesting about music I can click through by blogroll and I know that I'll find something good. The only thing I'm only sorry about in Holland's imminent departure is that the Detritus Review won't have him to kick around anymore.

Anyway, back to my point. This glorious wide-screen Technicolor appreciation of Tristano is entertaining reading even if you don't care about Tristano (though I do). But more than that, it's a meditation on race in jazz that has the particular virtue of not seeking to apportion blame or take sides, but simply to understand. Of course we're all thinking a lot about race just now, with Barack Obama the almost-certain Democratic presidential nominee and some pretty ugly racial dynamics floating up from those dark places that a lot of Americans pretend don't exist.

It's been infuriating to watch obvious racial double-standards come into play over Obama's candidacy, and how whenever someone points them out (and of course there are always Americans who will point them out) people act shocked, shocked, that anyone could possibly impugn the good will of Americans, who are TOTALLY NOT RACISTS anymore. We've worked through it! What's up with you, anyway? Think you're better than us?

The thing I can't let go of is the whole Jeremiah Wright stupidity, even though it seems to have died down lately. (Though you can bet your bottom dollar it won't stay down.) The 24/7 media saturation of Wright's diatribes demands some comment, because it's so obvious that the real problem wasn't that a radical pastor was saying crazy stuff: it was that it was a black radical cleric was saying crazy stuff. A post from Washington Monthly the other day makes this point: John Hagee, a white pastor associated with Republican politics, was caught on tape saying that the Holocaust was God's punishment for Jews.** Kevin Drum writes "of course, this whole thing is just garden variety white crazy," so don't expect to see this clip in heavy rotation on cable news. But this is maybe a bit blunt, and this is where the social-commentary dimension of Iverson's post might come in handy.

It's true that there is a garden variety of white crazy, and Americans are used to hearing it from this or that radical pastor. And every time there's a dust-up, some people do get a bit mad about it, like they did when Pat Robertson said that hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on an impious city, but the thing is, I think a lot of Americans don't get mad about it because they understand that this is crazy talk and filter it out. A lot of Americans understand that seeking approval from fire-breathing pastors is a political ritual, that every serious American political candidate is expected to make a "statement of faith," (i.e. kiss the ring of conservative religious ideologues), and they're not really going to hold it against a politician for currying favor with pastors who say crazy stuff, because they assume that those politicians are in on the game, just as they themselves are. The majority extends a charitable interpretation to politicians and assumes that they, like us, are just kind of acting out a script. (An very American script.)

What seems very clear is that this charitable assumption was suddenly withdrawn when the radical pastor in question was black. The (white) majority can hear Hagee's sermon and say, well, yeah, he's nuts, but I don't believe that John McCain really believes anything he's saying. But Obama and Wright . . . well, who knows what black people believe!

Now, my first impulse is to say that this is straight racism, though a lot of people who might have been inclined to care about the Wright affair would object. You could say, there is a difference between saying you won't vote for someone because he's black and saying you're not sure that black American culture has the same complicated, compartmentalized way of interpreting the statements of radical preachers that white American culture does. The one is a straight statement of prejudice, while the other is simply a product of the limits of cultural understanding. But I don't think that settles anything. Appeals to "culture" and cultural difference can become a blind for racism: I remember shortly after 9/11 James Lileks saying he wasn't an anti-Muslim racist because he though Muslim culture was inferior, not that Muslims themselves were inferior. But when everyone subscribes to a kind of cultural maximalism where "culture" determines everything about a person, this becomes a distinction without a difference. In other words, if the tacit distinction people are making between a crazy black pastor and a crazy white pastor is not racism, it's not not racism either. You see how this gets complicated.

This is why I like Iverson's coinage: "in the mix." Writing about racial tensions in the jazz world (and impolitic statements from white and black jazz musicians and critics), he acknowledges that those tensions have always existed and are fundamental to understanding critical debates within the jazz world. You won't really understand what's going on with an artist like Tristano if you don't start from the fact that he was a white guy in a mostly black music. Iverson also acknowledges that calling people "racist" or "crow-jim" or whatever doesn't get the conversation moving. So he dials down the tone a bit and comes up with a new expression for racial tsuris: "In the mix." I like this because it acknowledges the shades between racialized discourse and racist discourse, and acknowledges the impossibility of always telling them apart: it's all in the mix. Quoth Iverson:

Racial stereotyping is best avoided in elevated dialogue, but
nonetheless racial stereotyping will occur in any serious discourse
about jazz eventually.  At that point valuable discussion is often
suddenly halted when one side or the other perceives racism or is
worried about being racist. 

I actually don’t mind racial stereotyping too much.  America is the
melting pot of diverse cultures, and all good American art has race “in
the mix” somehow.  Hopefully my earnest and underdone phrase “All in
the Mix” doesn’t shut the door to further discussion the way “racist”


*Achewood is a particularly good example of the kind of honest-to-god funny strip that could never, ever, in a million years, appear in a major daily comics page, despite the fact that not one of those strips — NOT ONE — is funny. Chris Onstad talks about online vs. print comics here and points out that the only funny strip in memory was the Far Side. Well, I liked Calvin and Hobbes too, and Doonesbury was funny in the 1970s. But that's pretty much it.

**Audio here,
framed in such a way as to play the same guilt-by-association game with
John McCain as has been played with Obama. My own feeling is, two
wrongs don't make a right. This soft McCarthyism of
are-you-now-or-have-you-ever, this game of
six-degrees-of-separation-from-Hitler, etc., can't end soon enough for me.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to In the mix

  1. Race definitely plays a large role in the Wright issue, but I don’t think it’s as simple as a difference between white crazy versus black crazy or the idea that black people as a group believe crazy things. I think it’s really part of the narrative being constructed by the conservative media that Barack Obama is somewhere on the scale between insufficiently patriotic to be president. There’s the secret-muslim/manchurian candidate issue, the lapel pin issue, the pledge of allegiance issue, statements by Michelle Obama, etc. And the Reverend Wright money quote was the “God Damn America” line. The horrible thins that Haggee says and believes are directed at outgroups, but Wright is attacking the ingroup. Race comes into play largely because of the unstated premise that America is a white nation, and so anger with white people equals anger with america. It advances the ideas that Obama is allied with people who are antiamerican, and that as a black man he himself isn’t really American.
    I’m not disagreeing with anything you’ve said, I just think this is a critical element, and possibly the dominant element, of the issue.

  2. Greg says:

    Get Fuzzy is pretty funny.
    The NYT still has plenty of classical music critics even after Holland’s departure. (I know that wasn’t your statement, but it still should be corrected.)

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    I left a comment at Matthew Guerrieri’s blog to the effect that I think–on the basis of limited but first-hand experience, long ago–that Iverson cuts Tristano and his school too much slack on their racism. No responses, I’m sorry to say, and I hesitate to cross-post here, though I will if there’s any interest.

  4. charles says:

    I agree with Galen and I think we can push this further…First off, I wouldn’t call Wright crazy at all, particularly not in saying God damn America anyway…it is not exactly radical theology to suggest that God is opposed to racially based slavery and hence the political nation of the USA was acting, and continues to sometimes act in an evil way. Which is one of the points Rev. Wright is making in that sermon…but points and context aren’t really important when you are after a sound bite are they? This caused a stir because it resonated with a bitter truth, the damage caused by slavery is hardly over or resolved and we are clearly not beyond racism. We can dismiss Pat Robertson or any of the truly crazy folks (whatever their color) because they are crazy. Could have Obama just said, “hey, listen, he was condemning slavery, which is something we as Americans could also do”? Apparently he could not.
    This runs into or parallel with rootlesscosmo comment over Guerrieri’s blog…perhaps we should impugn Tristano for his racism. I don’t think Iverson was being too soft on Tristano personally…that would be to merely ignore racism and say that it is not an issue when *I* listen to him. The problem is understanding how Tristano fits into the tradition of jazz. I think there is no question that his racism kept him on the outside of the tradition: aesthetically he was in a different universe, which Iverson brilliantly draws out. The thing is that Tristano seemed to want to be in that jazz universe, or perhaps even in control of that universe, at which point, yeah, let the impugning begin.
    I wonder how this might relate back to classical music. Not many brothers or sisters have tried to rule the universe of the Great White Composers, have they?

  5. Phil Ford says:

    I want to be clear that it is not the specific content of Wright’s sermons that’s at issue for me. I say “crazy” in a generic, heuristic sense: in order to leave aside the question of what Wright really meant, is he as bad as all that, how justifiable are his remarks, etc. (questions that have been going around and around for weeks and still no end in sight), I will stipulate for the sake of the argument that he really is as bad as Fox News makes him out to be. In other words, even if he’s completely crazy (an argument I’m far from allowing in real life, but this is an argument, not real life), the double standard to which Obama is being held is *still* unfair, and says something about the degree to which the majority will extend the same charitable assumptions to a black candidate that they will to a white one. It’s not the same kind of blunt expression of racial prejudice as someone saying “I won’t vote for the black guy” — it’s a bit more abstract — but still it’s not as if you can just say that racism is a thing of the past. (And one hears a bit of that from time to time.)

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