Thursday, November 18, 2010

Race: Monk as Mediator

          Thelonious Monk came from a neighborhood in San Juan Hill that was constantly fighting to maintain its equilibrium. In Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography Thelonious Monk, he devotes most of a chapter to the history of racial violence in San Juan Hill, noting that “San Juan Hill’s reputation as a violent community was as strong as ever by the time the Monks settled there” (2009, 19). As he grew up, Monk dealt with this violent community, watching both interracial and intraracial conflicts, saying “besides fighting the ofays [whites], you had to fight each other. You go in the next block and you’re in another country” (19). In spite of his racially-charged upbringing, Monk helped to create a musical community that was one of the most ethnically diverse. In my opinion, Thelonious Monk had seen so much racial conflict that he was able to speak about this conflict through his music – an unbiased language that everyone could understand.
          In an interview with Frank London Brown, Monk was quoted as saying: “My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty of the like. I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro” (Kelley, 2009, 249). Kelley goes on to characterize this as the epitome of Monk’s worldview when it came to race, but carefully points out that this was not “a complete rejection of politics,” but rather “a defense of artistry” (249). This shows that Monk had opinions, but rather than speaking out one way or the other, he was a mediator, a balancer, through his music. As seen in the Clint Eastwood film “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” Monk was usually a calm, mellow, confident, and playful individual who expressed many different emotions and themes through his music. The jaggedness of “Bright Mississippi,” the rolling shakes of “Rhythm-a-ning,” and the frenetic “Trinkle Tinkle” contrast with his “Ugly Beauty” and “Ask Me Now,” which are more representative of his everyday demeanor. The more dissonant sounds of the former pieces sound urban – they are reflections of his rougher urban upbringing, something that his softly jocular personality rarely, if ever, expressed.
          Normally, Monk may have been low-key when it came to matters of race, but he certainly was not unconcerned. When he was a victim of racism by the Delaware police in 1958 (Kelley, 2009, 253-256), Monk physically fought the officers in order to stand up for himself. His actions during this episode are, clearly, not passive or pacifist. Some might criticize Monk’s actions, saying that he ignored race only when it suited him, but Monk’s violent reaction to the police was not hypocrisy. He did not need race to enter into his musical realm, but when race entered his world, violently, he fought back even if it meant facing dire repercussions. Monk actions were, in my opinion, completely justified.
          Rather than live in a world where race existed as a dividing factor, Monk and his colleagues created a community, a world of their own, where race was not important. Monk did not ignore racial injustices when he truly needed to address them, as seen during his encounter with the police in 1958. However, when Monk was playing his music, race did not need to exist, and so in that world, the world of the Five Spot, race did not exist. During a set, Monk was master of all dissonances and conflicts – he harnessed what he saw in the world and manifested it in his sound. Monk did not merely “try to transcend racial politics” – he transcended race itself.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Racializing Jazz in the Swing Era: Culture and Commerce

          By the mid-1930s, the United States had passed through many crucial moments in its history. It had fought a World War, gave women the right to vote, battled corruption throughout Prohibition, and was recovering from the Great Depression. Throughout the 1920s, culture and commerce had been dominated by mobsters and speakeasies, but in the 1930s that was beginning to change. Regular people of all kinds were becoming more socially and politically active, finally able to realize their potential as citizens as the nation was becoming more progressive. As it pertains to jazz, this progressive attitude allowed for race to actually begin to be discussed in a serious manner, and more publicly than ever before. However, in my opinion, it was not solely progressive culture that brought this change, but also the pressures of a changing commercial landscape, where there were larger numbers of both black and white jazz bands vying for control of the volatile entertainment market. Closer together than ever before, black and white artists were simply unable to ignore the comparisons between the abilities and styles of their respective musical icons – comparisons that many believed correlated with race.
          It is where culture and commerce intersect that we find the most interesting examples of the racial discussion of jazz. Duke Ellington’s gig at the Cotton Club in Harlem lends us insight to a tough question that Ellington had to face: culture or commerce? As Professor Stewart explained, Ellington’s playing at the Cotton Club made his band elite, but the club’s racial policy didn’t allow black patrons in, which meant only whites could watch Ellington. Ellington mastered how a black band should play for a white audience (Lecture, Oct 26). It would seem that Ellington chose commerce over culture – he chose to survive the Depression while many other musicians failed by making music that a larger white audience would listen to – music that may not have always held to the unspoken standards of black jazz culture. As highlighted in David W. Stowe’s book, Swing Changes, white jazz critic John Hammond later called out Ellington, writing that Ellington “shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and original class” (51). Hammond is a quintessential example of the aforementioned growing progressive culture in mainstream America. He was descended from the wealthy Vanderbilt family and yet was incredibly devoted to the plight of the working class and an outspoken critic of the darker side of capitalist practices – and of Duke Ellington (54-55). However, Hammond’s point of view is not necessarily the most accurate. As Stowe points out, he ignores “the fact that Ellington came form a middle-class Washington family” (51). But class aside, race was still a big issue for Hammond. He also wrote that “the best of the white folk still cannot compare to the really good Negroes in relaxed, unpretentious dance music,” a view that was actually widely accepted by many: musicians and critics, blacks and whites alike (60).
          In my opinion, there is no possible biological or even plausible social explanation for why black musicians should be better at jazz than white musicians. However, from what we have read so far in class, I believe I have decided on my own explanation for the apparent differences. It was not the quality of the black or white musician, but who his audience was. White musicians could have played improvisational, “hot” jazz just as well as a given black musician could have, but their audience – a white audience – was not looking for that. It works both ways. People started to talk about race because there was this “color line” in developing jazz. There were differences: not natural, but man-made. Whites tended to choose to play a certain style that catered to their audience, and blacks tended to choose to play for their audience. It was this choice that was the difference, not differing musical quality. Forerunners like Ellington were not betraying their race as Hammond seems to imply, but were actually bridging the gap of racism through their art and thereby highlighting the necessity of future racial discussion.