Blowhard, Esq. writes:
In a dialogue with fellow New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis criticized the continuing white-centric nature of most Hollywood films:
“Sully” is about professionalism and expertise, specifically those of a white hero, which is true of many Clint Eastwood movies and, for that matter, those of Howard Hawks. Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is about a working-class white man’s tragedy, and his whiteness is as crucial to his identity as class. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has several black characters, but it also, exasperatingly, positions a white pianist as the savior of jazz and a black musician as its corrupter. Whatever their genres and stories, these movies are all also about race, because race defines our world.
Over at New York magazine, Anna Silman, in the midst of an article about how much she hates it when white men mansplain music, says that “positioning Ryan Gosling as jazz’s white savior while relegating black musicians to the background left a sour taste in [her] mouth.” Culture critic Ira Madison is likewise bothered that white Canadian Ryan Gosling plays a jazz torchbearer:
The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.
With all due respect to Dargis, Silman, and Madison — and excuse me for phrasing this so delicately, for being so overly polite — but they’re fucking morons who don’t know shit about shit. Or, to be more precise, their “It’s the current year!” racial pandering has virtually no basis in reality. First, I’ll note at the outset that at no point in the movie does Gosling position himself the “savior” of anything nor does the movie argue that anything or anyone will “cease to exist” should he fail in his task of opening a jazz club. These critics are creating strawmen.
But let’s grant their faulty premise and assume that’s exactly what Gosling’s character thinks of himself. Writer/director Damien Chazelle was exactly correct in choosing a white jazz savior because, as anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time in the jazz or blues worlds notices, it’s an interest that’s overwhelmingly dominated by white people. Not the performers — I’m talking about the fans, collectors, concertgoers, label moguls, club owners, impresarios, and other supporters. To the extent that jazz and blues still exist as something other than museum curiosities, it’s because of white saviors.
Traditional jazz and blues, like classical music, are niche pursuits with relatively tiny audiences compared to hip-hop and pop, but there are still a number of record labels that cater to the faithful and they’re largely run by honkeys:
- JSP Records, a budget label that specializes in jazz, blues, and American roots music box sets, was founded in Britain by John Stedman.
- Document Records, publisher of comprehensive blues, gospel, and jazz discographies, was founded in Austria by Johnny Parth but is now located in Scotland and owned by Gary and Gillian Atkinson.
- Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi-based label that began by “focus[ing] almost entirely on recording previously unknown Mississippi blues artists” like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, was founded by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee.
- Tompkins Square Records, publisher of Cajun and Zydeco pioneer Amede Ardoin’s complete works, as well as numerous gospel anthologies, was founded by Josh Rosenthal.
- Yazoo Records, a highly respected label and key institution in rescuing names like Charley Patton, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson from obscurity, was founded in 1967 by Nick Perls and Bernie Klatzko.
- Arhoolie Records, the label that popularized Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb that was later purchased by Smithsonian Folkways, was founded in 1960 by Chris Stachwitz.
- And that’s without even mentioning other historical antecedents like Harry Smith’s Anthology, Moses Asch’s Folkways Records, Leonard and Phil Chess’s Chess Records, John and Alan Lomax, or the fact that Sun Records was originally founded by Sam Phillips to record black musicians.
But for the efforts of these privileged crackers, some of the greatest American music would’ve dissipated into the ether a long time ago. When legendary bluesman Son House was rediscovered in 1964 during the folk revival, it wasn’t Berry Gordy, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, or LeRoi Jones who drove down to Mississippi on their own dimes to knock on doors. House was found by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro, guys who look like the dictionary definition of “white male nerds.”
In her book Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, music journalist and frequent New Yorker contributor Amanda Petrusich delves into the subculture of American roots music record collecting. She profiles a number of the major figures who have made careers out of (or at least dedicated all of their free time to) preserving pre-War American blues, jazz, and folk music. People like John Heneghan, John Fahey (who wrote his UCLA masters dissertation on Charley Patton), Pete Whelan, John Tefteller, Marshall Wyatt, James McKune, Harry Smith, Nathan Salsburg, Jonathan Ward, Christopher King, and Joe Bussard.
Here’s a picture of Christopher King, a 78 collector and Grammy-award-winning engineer who has produced a number of acclaimed collections for JSP Records and Tompkins Square Records.
To be fair, Jay Z and Dr. Dre founded Third Man Records to release beautiful deluxe collections of old Paramount sides — legendary songs recorded by Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Patton, Jefferson, House, Skip James, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters, among many other legends — so credit where credit is due. Whoops, wait, did I say Jay Z and Dr. Dre? I meant Jack White.
“But,” you might say, “you’re talking about record labels that primarily release blues and folk music. Dargis and Madison were talking specifically about jazz clubs.” Fair enough, you hair-splitting pedant. Let’s look at some of the most famous jazz clubs in NYC:
- The original Birdland was founded by Irving Levy, Morris Levy, and Oscar Goodstein in 1949 while the current incarnation was founded by John R. Valenti in 1985.
- The Village Vanguard was founded in 1935 by Max Gordon and is still run by his wife, Lorraine Gordon.
- The Blue Note, opened in 1981, is still owned and operated by its original founder, Steven Bensusan.
- Smalls, opened in 1994, is still owned and operated by its original founder, Mitchell Borden.
In other words, there’s plenty of precedent for the white jazz impresario stereotype. “But,” you might say, “the only reason whites are so overrepresented in jazz club ownership, trad American musical label ownership, and vintage 78 record collecting is white privilege! It costs a lot of money to do all that! Not to mention they’re racist cultural appropriators!” Yes, perhaps. But that’s not the issue, is it? Dargis and the others were objecting to the notion that there was something unrealistic or “wrong” about a white man saving/preserving/exploiting (feel free to use the word of your choice) black music but that’s entirely contrary to reality. Perhaps in some theoretical-ideal-normative-gosh-golly-wouldn’t-it-be-nice sense blacks “should” be supporting this music, but the plain fact is that they’re not. It’s mainly whites.
None of this is to say that there are no blacks championing jazz. Wynton Marsalis tours the world as a jazz ambassador. Marsalis’s friend and mentor Stanley Crouch was a tireless jazz critic and promoter for decades. And hey, nice to see that the Library of America is bringing the great Albert Murray back into print. But despite the efforts of these luminaries, is it that controversial to say that hip-hop has captured the musical imagination of blacks — for decades now at this point — in a way that’s shunted older forms of black music to the sidelines? Remember when Bill Cosby used to drag Dizzy Gillespie and other aging jazz musicians onto The Cosby Show? Didn’t really make much of an impression on 80s black youth, did it? I doubt many ran to their father’s record collections to play Diz and Getz, although surely some were influenced. Sampling in rap songs is nice, but I don’t think that’s enough.
A couple of anecdotes. Paleo Retiree once went to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in the Mississippi Delta. He told me that while the blues performers were about half black and half white, the audience was about 90% white and 10% black. When he went to the local black-owned restaurants to eat, they were all blaring hip-hop, not blues. As for myself, I go to Academy Records, the Jazz Record Center, and Westsider Records every couple of months and I always take stock of who’s shopping. I rarely see black faces browsing the jazz and blues bins but when I do, it’s always an older gentleman who looks 60+ — I’ve yet to see a black dude my age or younger. When I was in Harlem on 125th about a year ago, I came across a guy selling bootleg CDs on the street. He had a huge album that you browsed and if you wanted something, he went to a computer in his van and burned the CD for you on the spot. The album contained tons of hip-hop, dance music, funk, and soul from the 60s until now. I didn’t see a single pre-Civil Rights era record and certainly no blues or jazz.
If arts critics want to decry jazz’s lack of popularity and brainstorm ideas on how to revive interest, I’d gladly join their chorus. But criticizing the color of a self-proclaimed savior of the country’s least popular music because his race doesn’t comport with the politics of the moment is proof they love political correctness more than art. They should be ecstatic that anyone cares at all.