My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

“I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience.”—Bill Evans


In the early ‘80s, I was working in a Washington, D.C. record store when I heard Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s midtempo, modal masterpiece of an album that for me, and many others, was an initiation into the colors, cadences, and complexities of jazz. Transfixed by the many aural shades of the LP’s blue moods, I made it a point to get every recording the musicians on the album had ever made. But it was the poetic and profound pianism of Bill Evans that haunted me the most. When I listened to Evans’s studio LP Explorations—with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro—my Evans-induced hypnotic trance deepened; and so did my problem.

What was the problem? Bill Evans was white. And I am black.

When I got into jazz, I was in my twenties. As a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, and, more importantly, I grew up in a period of American history when, thankfully, black pride was taken for granted. I had black history courses beginning in the first grade and continuing through middle school, and black contributions to world music were a natural extension of that education. I attended Howard University (the so-called Mecca of historically black colleges and universities). Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. I learned about the great jazz heroes – from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker – and of America’s refusal to give these Olympian musicians their proper due as the revolutionary artists the world knows them to be. I came to know something deeper: in many cases, white jazz musicians achieved more fame and were given more credit for the creation of the music.

Time Magazine Brubeck

The cover of the November 8, 1954 issue of Time magazine.

There are enough examples of this in jazz history. Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Duke Ellington knocked on Dave Brubeck’s hotel door, to show the white pianist that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before he did. (Brubeck, for the record, was hurt and embarrassed.) Then there was the 1965 Pulitzer Prize snub of Ellington. In the ’70s, President Carter presented jazz on the White House lawn, with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz as featured artists. President Carter asked Getz about how bebop was created, with Gillespie standing right there.

Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. Though I was wrong about the racial identities of the Righteous Brothers, Average White Band, and Teena Marie, I knew what black musicians “sounded like” via Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia International records. Though no one stated it specifically, there was a “black sound” and a “white sound.” To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. Without realizing it at the time, this inhibited me on many levels, especially as a clarinetist and pianist in high school. When I was studying classical music, and I allowed myself to be moved by it, I feared that some of my black peers would see me as an Uncle Tom.

It was Bill Evans’s love of, and application of, European classical styles, approaches, and motifs into jazz that was so attractive to my ears, as evidenced by the azure impressionism of “Blue in Green” on Kind of Blue, the intoxicating melodicism of “Israel” from Explorations, the lyrical logic of “Peace Piece” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and the chamber timbre of “Time Remembered” from the 1966 album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra.

So it was in that hot-house atmosphere of well-meaning—but ultimately immature and xenophobic attitudes about music and race—that my Bill Evans problem existed. The problem manifested itself in many ways. I would often hide Bill Evans albums when talking about jazz musicians with fellow black jazz fans for fear of being “outed” as a sellout, given a look of disapproval, or asked, “Why are you listening to that white boy?” The fact that Evans was lauded by white critics because he was white and his classical pedigree didn’t help.


Slowly but surely, my perceptions about jazz and race began to evolve and change. As my jazz historical studies deepened, I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon. Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century created jazz by combining elements of European classical instruments, harmonies, and song forms with African, Afro-Caribbean, and American rhythms and melodic structures. As Ralph Ellison noted, “blood and skin don’t think.” Or to put it a different way: jazz didn’t come into existence because black people were simply black. Its creation was the result of history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value. To believe anything else plummets us into the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery that still plagues us on so many levels today.

Specifically, I asked myself, “Why would Miles Davis, a proud, strong black man, hire someone who was white like Evans?” The answer was simple: the artistry of the musician mattered more to him; not his or her color. Davis hired and collaborated with many white musicians throughout his career, from Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz in the historic Birth of the Cool sessions of the late ’40s and his extremely popular mid-1950s recordings arranged by Gil Evans to his later fusion bands which included Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and even British guitarist John McLaughlin. So Davis chose Bill Evans because (in his own words, as recounted in Peter Pettinger’s biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings): “He can play his ass off.” Davis was more specific in his autobiography (Miles: the Autobiography, co-written by Quincy Troupe): “Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.”

In addition to Davis, other black jazz superstars hired Evans. He recorded on bassist Charles Mingus’s East Coasting, a superb and elegant recording from the ’50s, and on alto saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s ’60s masterpiece Blues and the Abstract Truth, which also featured Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. Evans was the featured soloist on arranger/composer George Russell’s arrangement of “All About Rosie,” and on his third stream-meets-bop Jazz Workshop album. He also worked with bassist Ortiz Walton, the author of the book Music: Black, White and Blue. My further explorations revealed that Evans was not the lily-white suburban racial recluse I stereotyped him to be. He was heavily indebted to Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell (Evans described Powell as “the most comprehensive talent of any jazz player I have ever heard presented on the jazz scene”). So much for being the “great white devil” or the “white hope” black and white critics made him out to be.

So what does my former Bill Evans problem say about jazz and race today? For one thing, it is firmly and correctly established in music education, and in society in general, that jazz is an African-American art form: blacks have gotten their due as the art form’s primary creators. No credible critic, musician, or music curriculum would state otherwise. At the same time, it is equally true that white musicians have made and continue to make great contributions to jazz. While the role Evans and other whites have played should not be exaggerated to move the music’s black known and unknown bards to the back of the bus, giving Caucasians appropriate acknowledgment does not threaten the African-American creation of the music.

If anything, jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige; with every global musical/cultural ingredient embellishing, extending, and enriching it. This is a good thing. More importantly, youth around the world—white youth included—want to play it, despite the fact that in the United States you barely see jazz on TV, radio stations that play it are shrinking, and print coverage of it is dwindling.


The declining significance of jazz in the media and marketplace has, in my opinion, increased the unfortunate crabs-in-a-bucket mentality that plagues the jazz infrastructure, which by default can cause the racial aspect to become more prominent. I see this in two distinctly different, but related aspects. The first is the notion of the “Crow-Jimmed” white musician who has been racially discriminated against by blacks, the record industry, and white critics who are guilt-tripped into adopting an “exclusionary” black agenda to support a kind of affirmative action for black musicians. This was the primary gist behind the 2010 publication of trumpeter Randy Sandke’s controversial book, Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. Sandke, a New York-based musician whom I first met when we shared a panel on Louis Armstrong at Hofstra University in 2001, sees today’s jazz scene as a retreat into a cult of racial exclusionism that betrays the integration of black and white musicians who played together in the same groups going back to the 1930s. It was a phenomenon which lessened in the ‘60s and which was largely forgotten during the so-called “Young Lions” era of the ‘80s when young, African-American musicians such as the Marsalis brothers rose to prominence.

“Having once been in the vanguard, jazz has fallen prey to the same racial divisions that have plagued the rest of American society,” Sandke writes. “The overwhelming racialization of jazz has not only denied outside musical influences, stifled creativity, and pitted group against group: it has also overlooked the crucial role that white audiences and presenters have played in disseminating and promoting the music.”

I think, with all due respect, Sandke overdramatizes the plight of the white jazz musician. Yes, the Young Lions phenomenon was overwhelmingly black and young, and Sandke is partially right about the market-driven motives of record executives who wanted to hype black musicians to an extent, but their actions pale in comparison to how whites have promoted musicians of a paler shade for centuries. In the end, there is a big difference between the jazz intelligentsia’s attempt to right an historical wrong and the willful promotion of a reverse apartheid for white musicians. Sandke’s views are ironic, because many black jazz musicians and writers complain that African Americans—who, according to the 2010 CENSUS, are 12% of the population—do not frequent jazz venues in sizable numbers.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Nicholas Payton: a New Orleans-born trumpet player and son of bassist Walton Payton. Payton has enjoyed a critically acclaimed career, earning a Grammy for his 1997 collaboration with the great Doc Cheatman. In the past decade, he has recorded two challenging and creative CDs: Sonic Trance and Into the Blue. Now Payton feels straight-jacketed as a jazz musician, and he has created #BAM – Black American Music—in response, a movement that is “about setting straight what has been knocked out of alignment by mislabeling and marketing strategies,” according to his website. What started out as a provocative essay from Payton entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” has degenerated in some posts and tweets into finger pointing and name calling that advances nothing. To be fair to Payton, he is not saying that you have to be black to appreciate or play #BAM. “Black American Music just acknowledges the culture from which it sprung forth. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate and play it any more than you have to be Chinese to cook and eat noodles,” he writes on his website.

While, as an African American I have some sympathy for Payton’s views, I have the same reservations about his conclusions as I do Sandke’s views. Payton suggests that black jazz musicians cannot change the status quo of their current stature if they call their music jazz. Payton also ignores or diminishes the fact that, as I stated earlier, everyone in the jazz infrastructure acknowledges blacks as the creators of jazz. Yes, jazz artists are hampered by market-driven definitions, but that is nothing special to them. Every musician regardless of genre complains about this.

Just as my Bill Evans problem obscured my early development in my appreciation of the music, adopting verbatim the thoughts and opinions of musicians like Sandke and Payton could do the same for young people just getting into the music, whether as musicians or as fans. It would be quite Pollyannaish of me to tell someone to “simply ignore race.” I (and we) live in a racialized world, and jazz is a part of that world. But if the music teaches us anything, it teaches us that we can keep racial distinctions and distortions at bay.

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49 thoughts on “My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

    1. Allen Lowe

      to say “European Classical music, especially 20th century music and the European immigration to America (Jewish/Broadway composers especially) gave jazz the harmonic, emotional and melodic vehicles that made it relevant” is disingenous and tad bit racist, I would say; triadic harmony was quite relevant and already employed in African music (per John Szwed, there were band musicians in Africa well before jazz emerged); melodically I would say the same, but also that AFRICAN AMERICAN pioneers like Ernest Hogan, Tom Fletcher, Ben Harney (whose racial origins were likely African American) were just as central to the development of a harmonic/melodic language; and certainly Harold Arlen et al would have been the first to admit that their show writing was deeply indebted to the catacylsmic jhanges made by jazz and blues in American music. And in terms of ’emotional’ influence we are not even close, as African American aesthetics, in this sense, are documened back to the 18th century.

  1. John Murph

    This is one of the best recent essays I’ve read about race and jazz in a long time. Eugene successfully touches upon the many complexities regarding race relations and jazz without devolving into “Kumbaya” nonsense.

    I especially love the line: “While the role Evans and other whites have played should not be exaggerated to move the music’s black known and unknown bards to the back of the bus, giving Caucasians appropriate acknowledgment does not threaten the African-American creation of the music.”

    Again, Bravo!!!

  2. Allen Lowe

    IMPORTANT correction – that Getz/Gillespie gaffe was NOT Carter, but from Yitzhak Perleman during a Music at the White House television production at another time; in the one interview I did with Dizzy, he was still seething about this; he said “they never let you forget you’re black.”

    1. Eugene Holley, Jr.

      Dear Allen:

      Thanks for taking the time to read the essay. The Getz/Gillespie gaffe I referenced did happen when they performed at the White House lawn when Carter was president. The Perlman incident you noted was probably another event.

  3. Bill Doerrfeld

    Good job Eugene with tackling a historically sensitive issue. My favorite line is “I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon.” That is a very important conclusion and one which I think has strong basis in fact.

    One problem with exclusionary practices or beliefs based on race is they cause blowback and increase divisiveness. I do not believe said practices or beliefs represent what Jazz is all about in any way whatsoever. In fact, Jazz is completely the opposite. Jazz is about blending different cultural styles. I do not support Payton’s BAM labeling just as I would not support the idea of changing the name of baseball to “white ball game.” Payton’s attitude that he’s not disenfranchising white’s with his labeling just doesn’t look at this kind of labeling for what it is—which quite simply is an exclusionary practice. It also fails to distinguish Jazz from other primarily African American generated musical idioms such as R&B, soul/gospel and hip-hop.

    The creation of Jazz exemplifies the melting pot that is America. It was born out of cultural phenomenon where Americans of African descent took the music of the day (marches, fox-trots, songs, etc) and started ragging them up and adding a unique flavor that could have only been achieved via a blend of various cultures at that place and time in history.

    I think the racial profiling historical arguments get tired pretty fast when one allows oneself to ponder questions such as: Could Jazz have been developed in Africa without any ‘white/Western’ musical influences? Why didn’t Jazz originate first from South Africa or other areas where whites and blacks co-mingled? What was special about the Mississippi delta co-mingling of various cultural backgrounds which sparked the creation of Jazz? Even amidst a segregated, oppressive and divisive culture, what glimmer of hope for a free-and-equal society came out of the Civil War (and specifically the Emancipation Declaration) which led to the creation of an art form which clearly blended different cultural styles? I think an honest reckoning of issues behind many of these questions supports the “American cultural phenomenon” argument and frames the analysis from a cultural vs a racial perspective. To me, that seems to be a represent a more accurate historical approach to the narrative on the evolution of Jazz.

    I believe the wisest and most humble among us are those who conclude that Jazz was created out of a co-mingling of various cultural influences during a unique and special time within the maturation of America.

    Thanks again Eugene for taking on this topic. Job well done!

  4. DJ

    I often complain about my hometown of Cleveland (Ohio), but one thing that I appreciate about growing up there (1960s – 1980s)is that I was exposed to a range of music, by a variety of artists from different racial backgrounds and genres, and never once were my musical preferences questioned, nor criticized by other African American. While almost all African Americans that I knew at that time listened to WJMO, our number one African American urban radio station at that time, we also had very diverse interests and pursued them openly without any real conversation. It was just natural. WJMO was home. It brought us news and information about family, along with our cultural music and stories; it unified us. It also crossed-over from time to time to bring our community good music from other rich cultural wells, (i.e.,Carol King, Bob Dylan, Crosby and Nash, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Hall and Oats, the Average White Band, Phoebe Snow, The Beatles, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Luciano Pavatotti, Kathleen Battle, etc). The Cleveland Orchestra was also popular in many city sectors; their reach crossed racial and socio – economic lines. This had a lot to do with the fact that our schools scheduled annual visits to the symphony hall. Country and Western music seemed to have grown up in our backyard also. I can remember listening to Minnie Pearl, Johnnie Cash, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Elvis (early), Eddie Stubbs, and other country music greats. They were as familiar on weekend television and radio as any other visitors to our homes. There was such eclectic music and open expression. I am thankful that I grew up where and at the time that I did.

  5. Rudi Mwongozi

    This subject has become profoundly boring…I’m tired of it. “Jazz” came through Black people. It is the musical and cultural response of African people to European colonization. That said it came through Black people but no longer BELONGS to Black people. It belongs to the world. Everyone has contributed to it. Forget white people…EVERYONE. Just like Islam came thru Arabs but doesn’t belong to them and hasn’t belonged to them for a millennium. So “jazz” came thru Black folks but doesn’t belong to us anymore. BTW I agree with Payton. I have no emotional or sentimental connection with the word “jazz”. I don’t care about it. Musical categories exist for the convenience of promoters and PR people….NOT the musicians

    1. Allen Lowe

      I generally agree, but to describe jazz merely as a
      “cultural response to European colonization” misses the point; Zora
      Neale Hurston devoted her life to proving the point that African
      American culture was a living entity unto itself, and believed that
      describing it as merely a response to white oppression diminished
      and demeaned its own independence of spirit and creativity. I agree
      with her. The whole idea of it being merely a response to whites
      was, actually, the outdated notion of sociologists until nearly the
      1960s; it’s pretty clear by now that it is far more than that. As
      for categories of music and style, I am a musician, have been one
      almost my whole life, and those categories exist for me as much as
      for anyone else. They have meaning and a history and represent a
      lot that is lasting and good. – Allen Lowe

    2. Rich Sackett

      That’s silly. Musicians use generic labels all the time to help them navigate, understand and play different musics. Labels have been useful to musicians long before jazz. Willful ignorance of them is as foolish as ignoring the accent of the person you’re speaking to and any useful information that may convey. It’s no different than the conceit of “I don’t see race”. It’s hollow posturing no one believes. “It’s not jazz, it’s ____” is utter nonsense. The hubris needed to relabel a hundred year old musical genre is extraordinary. I’ll bet a guy like that is a pretty good musician but surely a lousy linguist and myopic cultural commentator.

  6. Walter Kolosky

    “Sandke’s views are ironic, because many black jazz
    musicians and writers complain that African Americans—who,
    according to the 2010 CENSUS, are 12% of the population—do not
    frequent jazz venues in sizable numbers.” For your next fine essay,
    could you try to explain why that is?

    1. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

      I would explain it this way… we live in a song-dominated society. Words trump imagination. People want to sing or rap along and feel like the vocalist, the subject of the media. And that’s why classical is largely in the same boat, being mostly instrumental music. Lyrics are a more direct connection to meaning and memory (lasting value) of the music. We/They don’t understand what an instrumentalist is doing… other than it sounds difficult. That’s why it’s paramount to set a personal context for our music in performance and follow it up with body expression to show the rhythms (sex, violence).

      Btw, whites have acted EMPOWERED (entitled?) to try on any culture they liked. As a black American, I worked alone to feel entitled to excel at classical if I could. People often expressed doubt or even dissappointment that I FELT I could do this, so I studied and pushed MORE. How dare ANYONE suggest I would “make a great jazzer” when I’m composing award-winning classical! The audacity has to flow past us like water off a duck’s back.

  7. Rob Palmer

    Race is an issue, it’s just not the only issue. Bill Evans made a contribution, no apologies necessary.

  8. Rick Stone

    Bravo Eugene! You managed to tackle this topic in a level headed manner that’s pretty rare, and expressed many things I’ve personally felt about the subject much better than I ever could have.

    The thing I’d like to add from a musician’s perspective is that while many jazz musicians (both black and white) feel that they are being discriminated against based on race, it’s a pretty small percent of the B.S. that we ALL endure as creative artists. It certainly happens, but is more likely a “marketing” decision based on money and numbers.

    The REAL issue is that we’re playing a music that now has a very small audience and there are so many musicians that we’ve become a “commodity.” There are not (and will not) be enough gigs, record deals, spots on the playlist, etc., etc., to go around.

    We’re not being discriminated against because of race so much as we’re being discriminated against because we’re MUSICIANS! On the one hand, none of us ever got into this thinking we’d get rich. But on the other hand, I don’t think any of us expected that in 2013 we’d be taking gigs for the same dollar amounts that we did in 1973 (not adjusted for inflation). The sad reality is that we live in a culture (is that being too generous?) that doesn’t really value creative music.

    For a really jaded (but funny) take on the whole scene check out Bill Anschell’s essay “Careers in Jazz” on his website.

  9. john mclaughlin williams

    Thank you for this excellent and timely essay. I believe there is a corollary in classical music concerning William Grant Still and George Gershwin. When the latter’s music was once characterized to me as “good Jewish music”, I fully realized that we have a long way to go.

  10. Suzanne Cloud

    Well, now I know what essay will be a companion piece to Payton’s for my senior seminar class in American Studies at Rowan University! Eugene, I’d love for you to get in touch as I’m organizing a series of discussions on jazz and race.

  11. Jack Reilly

    Mr. Holley Jr. should adopt Richard Waldo Ellison’s attitude about race. It has zero to do with art and creative jazz improvisation. It’s the quality of the artist’s message and his technique/experience and the originality of his ideas. Period!!

    Respectfully Yours,
    Jack Reilly

    1. Eugene Holley, Jr.

      Dear Mr. Reilly:

      First, thank you for your incredible editorship of the great Letter from Evans newletter. My knowledge would be incomplete withou the service you provided.

      I hope you got from the essay, that I do indeed come down on the side of Ralph Waldo Ellison on matters of race and art. My delving into racial matters regarding jazz and culture, was to deal with them to move beyond them. That’s why I choose Bill Evans – a masterful musician who still holds me in awe nearly four decades after first hearing him – to be the avatar for this piece.

      I hope one day the newsletter can be digitally available!


      Eugene Holley, Jr.

  12. Randy Sandke

    Good article, Eugene. All I would add is that the degree to
    which racial issues influence the jazz world is anyone’s guess. But
    to say that they play no part is to ignore reality. There are
    hundreds of books that deal with the effect of legally sanctioned
    segregation and discrimination on the history of jazz, but hardly
    any that examine jazz in the age of legally sanctioned racial
    redress, identity studies, and multiculturalism. My book tried to
    fill this void and in order to do so necessarily veered into
    controversial territory. But that was only in two or so out of
    twelve chapters. The focus on race in jazz in my opinion reached a
    peak in the ’80s to the mid-’90s and has leveled off significantly
    since them. I take this to be good news, though I certainly
    understand if others might not. Still my book was intended as an
    account of racial interaction in jazz, which cannot be summed up in
    a sentence or two, and, like everything else to do with race in
    this country, has had it’s share of ups and downs.

    1. Eugene Holley, Jr.

      Hi Randy!

      First, thank you for reading the essay.

      I think that the readers should that I had the pleasure of talking to you on the phone. People should know that in our long conversation, never once was an ill word said or inferred. We disagreed on many points, and surprisingly came to accord on other issues. We were both respectful of each other, and I think you raised some points about the music – especially the business side of the music – that scholars should expand on.

      Thanks again, Randy!


      Eugene Holley, Jr.

  13. Jackie Modeste

    “I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial
    phenomenon.” — Yes and yes. One of your earlier commenters noted
    this line of wisdom too. When we understand music as a cultural
    experience, expression, it liberates us from black & white
    dichotomies and avails us of a complex, multi-tonal world with rich
    hues and great depth. The work of so many of us in this field seems
    to be this — helping people muster the courage see themselves,
    honestly, and to live confidently. Keep that ink flowing…

  14. Bob Ehrlich

    Neat essay. The reank and file Afro-Americans were not strong jazz fans. The church-going population did not favor it. From the first it was White audiences that supported jazz, first as audiences and then as record buyers. So naturally jazz evolved in response to the audience. Billy Holiday was a great artist but her records show her recognition of the marketplace.

    Next, Jazz as played by Black artists who grew up in the deep south sound differently than those from northern solid middle class backgrounds like Miles Davis. Similarly white musicians from ,say, New Orleans, sound different than Bix Beiderbeck.

    So no question Jazz flowered in New Orleans but New Orleans was not the same as the racist / fascist communities in the Deep South such as Birmingham, Shreveport, or Columbia SC. It was a multicultural mixed racial community. So as you say, Jazz has a Black core but is a delightful mishmash. I can understand but do not feel that is healthy that Jazz has become a racist symbol for many Blacks.

  15. zan stewart

    Yo Eugene,
    Tough stand you took, and well done. I just think that jazz today is Black, Brown, Beige…and White. And really has been all along, given the influence of European song forms and harmonies. Clearly, the African-American gift of field hollers, the blues, and gospel gave jazz its unique sound, but that sound was often employed on top of songs created by European immigrants; Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” is just one example. And let’s not forget that Louis Armstrong was influenced by the music he heard while living in a Jewish household and that Frankie Trumbauer was Lester Young’s primary model. So to call jazz solely an African-American creation misses the mark, but it is obviously primarily so. I mean, almost all my heroes are blacks, and I’m white.
    Again, well done; took some guts to say it, and glad you did.


  16. zan stewart

    Couple of other thoughts.
    How about jazz as an African-American synthesis, following the Buddhist idea of dependent-arising, how all things are made up of a variety of parts, all dependent on the others for the appearance of the whole? Creation is such a strong word; at least it is to me.

    Funny when you talk about hiding your Bill albums when friends were over. For me, it was kind of the opposite, but not as edgy: being a white cat with all these albums with pics of black folk on the covers — I started at 15 and was hungry for LPs. Early on, my white pals save one or two wouldn’t have had a clue, but later musicians made up my circle and we were all into the cats, who were essentially black.

    So, again, thanks for getting the ball rolling with what you wrote. Let someone like me get something off his chest been there a while.

    Write on,

  17. John Blake Arnold

    When– in art of any type– conservative forces begin to corral and domesticate the exuberance in the name of preservation, culture, decency, or “remembering the founders,” rarely is it acknowledged that the founders themselves are and were reactionaries and revolutionaries– that they are Artists– not critics or historians. While honest introspection given vent in a public forum is refreshing, basically what was said was: “you were a racist, and Bill Evans gave you problems, and then you worked through it, and got better.” Humans are human, and everybody is more than a little bit gay, and more than a little bit racist. If we want to interact socially in any environment, we have to get over our own bodies to function. But what’s funny is it was Bill Evans that bothered you– not Gerry Mulligan (the white junkie who lived in Harlem, living the life). I think there is a difference between Northern and Southern musicians (though racism exists everywhere), I believe musical segregation exists more in the North than the South for one major reason: the folks in the North want their jazz recognized as a righteous world art form and it has become political. When Crouch and Marsalis (formerly of New Orleans, now decidedly a New Yorker) decide to take ownership of jazz, and describe it formally to say “what is, and isn’t, jazz,” they have that authority only because you let them have it in the interest of the politics of jazz. Let me be very specific about what that is: it is some “Half-assed Hamptons Bullshit.” Suddenly fusion and world music are verboten, because they weren’t family members. Suddenly, the root of the art– innovation– is killed off in the name of preservation. The junkies are run out of town after the hooker’s husband gets elected mayor. What we are talking about is the desire of a insecure black politik of convenient geography in the North East to embalm a corpse of the people that isn’t dead so that they can take ownership over it and control and describe it to their heart’s content. Let’s be honest, blacks weren’t really sure if they should actually dismiss jazz in the same way they immediately dismissed blues due to embarrassment and a refusal to embrace the strength of their ancestors in their youthful attempt to be different. And few of them were musicians; the blacks that argued for the ensconcing of jazz as heritage were mostly wealthy and politically connected families who did it in their own self-interest. I literally can’t say anything about Wynton’s technique or performance, only in the critical semiotic attitude necessary to define an art only by exclusion. Honestly, how much crap did Miles have to take from haters within his own jazz community for his repeated innovations over decades? None of what you wrote offends me– learning it is alright to love what should be loved despite peer pressure is a tough lesson, and thank you for sharing. To me there is no separation between Skip James, Miles Davis, Astor Piazolla, Thelonius Monk, Pat Metheny, John Lee Hooker, Keith Richards, or GrandMaster Flash. Oh wait, maybe I should add an Asian to make it right….. Jake Shimabukuro…. and some Muslims… Herbie Hancock and Shiv Kumar Sharma…. I think we all get the point: You followed directions when you heard Mingus claim that you’d “Better Get It In Yo Soul.” And let’s not forget to dismiss that very Charlie Mingus’s last work with Joni Mitchell because it doesn’t fit within the appropriate criteria for “what is jazz.”

  18. Ron Davis



    As a white Canadian jazz musician, I am acutely conscious of jazz’s origins. I revere the, in your apt words, “history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value” that gave us Tatum, Monk, Oscar Peterson and the many others who informed and inform my musical being.

    Good on you, and thank you, for focussing on the music, honouring its origins and originators, and giving us a reasoned and principled roadmap around “the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery.”

  19. Dan Tana

    European Classical music, especially 20th century music and the European immigration to America (Jewish/Broadway composers especially) gave jazz the harmonic, emotional and melodic vehicles that made it relevant. Without it, jazz would have been well on its way to becoming a mundane cliche of blues licks and predictable rhythmic and harmonic structures.

    Fortunately, jazz is a cultural sponge – in spite of the cultural elitism (sincere or insincere) and ignorance of some of its practitioners.

  20. charley gerard

    Jazz history is based on a number of faulty assumptions. Hee are just two: Jazz is not just American music and Black culture in the USA itself is not monolithic.
    Black culture: Jazz was developed by the creoles of New Orleans. Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were outsiders from this musical tradition. There are several strains of blues. The guitar-based blues tradition came from poor, musically illiterate rural blacks while the cabaret blues of Bessie Smith was performed by city people and their accompanists were often trained musicians from middle-class backgrounds. A surprising number of prominent black jazz musicians have come from middle-class backgrounds and in the early years of jazz black musicians first heard jazz the same way that whites did: through recordings rather than in their neighborhoods. A number of black musicians such as Sonny Rollins came from Caribbean backgrounds in which American music was a bit exotic.
    The history of jazz: Since its early years, jazz has been a worldwide phenomenon but brilliant non-American artists are rarely recognized. As a result, jazz histories tend to to view jazz as an American phenomenon; anyone not an American tends to be ignored. While Django Reinhardt is probably familiar to jazz historians, few if any seem to know the music of Jaroslav Jezek from Czechoslovakia or Reginald Foresythe from England, both active in the 1930s. After the war, Martial Solal came into prominence. He was perhaps the best jazz pianist in the 50s, and he still continues to play at the top of the heap. Andre Hodeir was a brilliant arranger – the equal of Gil Evans.

  21. Pam McCollough

    Not only was the article thought provoking but so too were the comments. As someone who has, as a teacher, artist and musician, often been confronted with how to best explain the subjects the article and comments touch, I find myself reaching back to the truism that you have to explain certain things in a way that is easily understood. Music, cultures, values, religions, etc. have all been planted, as if in the landscape, to emerge without easy ways to be identified or understood. That didn’t make them go away or be less valuable. Instead, their variety, beauty, usefulness and horror all combined to often take us down, convoluted paths that we fight to understand. Sometimes the word fight is about our personal effort to understand and all too often fight means physical confrontations with horrible results. It is time that we all get to know as much as we can about all of what has grown in our societal garden, both historically and in terms of human emotions. This harkens back to a comment made to me by my high school English teach. He reminded me that if I dissected my favorite food and found out that the ingredient that made it work was baking power I would probably not only be disappointed by that detail, I might even decide to be suspicious of what created a wonderful taste and emotion. It is clear that we should always remember that even a weed is valuable in certain circumstances and life and love would most certainly be less beautiful and horrible without all that comes from this mix that is humanity.

    Most of all, let’s remember that music, more than anything else we have in our society, is the sweet noise that slips through the window or through the back door with friends who love music and want to share no matter who made the sounds. As someone who had years of classical and jazz piano and loves to sit down and improvise just so no one can suddenly be a critic when no one has heard what I am playing or is likely to again, I can honestly say that there were never any barriers to any kind of music or for the people who played various types of music. Music was welcome no matter which door it knocked on or who was the performer. The only rule was “Never stop the sound coming from a sharing heart for any reason, just listen, learn and enjoy,”

    Thank you for some thoughtful time in the middle of an Ike Quebec and Little Jimmy Scott afternoon while searching for Swedish jazz. I am getting ready to walk through a different musical door as I move to Sweden.

    Take care,
    Pam McCollough

  22. marie g.

    Music is free of bias, thank god. It is art. Only us humans muck up its beauty by squabbling over ownership and race. Keep politics and hatred out of it. It is music, just listen, please!

  23. Dan

    What a brilliant essay.

    It’s interesting to consider the effect that media (TV in particular) would have on this issue. I often wonder how the great jazz artists of the golden age would have been perceived if there was a visual outlet such as ‘MTV’ etc. Would it have changed the perception of the Miles’ quintet in the 50’s – where everybody can now see a white musician in the band?

  24. Tony

    I understand the sentiment in this article…that someone needs to try to assign a ‘race’ to musical styles and forms. It’s quite stupid, though. One of the best classical organists I have ever known was a black man. It would have been quite insulting for me to try to tell him that “it is firmly and correctly established in music education, and in society in general, that” classical music is a European art form.’ An art form is an art form. There are traditions that have been promoted by one geographic or ethnic group or another, but no individual or group has 100% ownership over art forms and expression. As a matter of fact, one great characteristic of the arts in general is to make us aware that essential human qualities go beyond our outside appearances. Until we understand that, and stop trying to assign a race to art forms like music, we will be severely restricting the chances for integration of all people and artistic development in general.

  25. Tom D

    A really thought-provoking read.

    I remember on my jazz undergrad, we had a New York trumpet player/singer visit for a workshop. He was a polished performer to be sure, but he had some pretty… abrasive, shall we say, views on who “should” be playing jazz, or rather who can really pull it off. Definitely seemed like he was in with the Marsalis crowd. It elicited a certain amount of derision from a number of my lecturers.

    Anyway, not heard of that Evans & Mingus record, quite excited now, going to have to check that out!

  26. Patrick Gaffey

    Very well written and well thought-out piece. As a white listener, I, too have had a Bill Evans problem; I feel white listeners I know value him too highly, so I reacted by dropping him in my estimation, which was stupid. Put him against his replacement, Wynton Kelly. Wynton propels the band with much stronger rhythm, but Bill understands harmony in greater depth. Bill once said he believed the “horn players” (Coltrane and Adderley) were glad when he quit the band, but of course Adderley later made an album with him. Evans was not the greatest genius on the piano of all time, but he was way up there. I tend to think he was Miles’ substitute for Ahmad Jamal, who was doing well enough on his own to decline any invitation from Miles. But Evans may have known more about chords and scales and voicings than even Jamal. As you say, the color of his skin had nothing to do with it.

  27. john voysey

    Excellently put point of view. Here are a few conclusions I have come to over the decades since the viewpoint that white and black musicians might not be equal was presented to me.
    * Very little developed world popular music is purely white or purely black. Even the most “white” forms aren’t completely white. Country music stems from pioneers such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers who were both audibly influenced by the blues. Heavy metal is a descendant of the heavy rock bands of the 70’s who often used funky time signatures and had obviously listened to motown/stax/james brown etc (although the first two of those three used mixed-race ensembles). Black radicalism in jazz was fundamentally initiated by the beboppers who were inspired by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok and others (although Stravinsky was influenced by black music; so was Delius). Anyone who enjoys the Beatles/Stones/Pink Floyd/Clash/Foo Fighters etc. is listening to black music whether they realise it or not
    * “Influence” and “theft” are basically the same thing as seen through different perceptions. But any white person who either listens to or dances to jazz, soul, R&B etc. never mind letting it inform their own musical output is essentially identifying with the creators i.e. empathising thus denying the notion that black and white think along separate lines.
    * As a musician who sometimes feels undervalued due to my whiteness, I don’t like the experience; it angers me greatly but compare this to the plethora of disadvantages black people still have unjustly thrust upon them in most other walks of life even in this day and age my “suffering” becomes insignificant. All “hard done by” white musicians need to remember this at all times.
    “Kind of Blue ” was the second jazz record I bought. I got it because the first one was a Japanese import featuring the TV live broadcast of So what that I saw on a documentary and which sparked my love of jazz. That performance has Wynton Kelly on piano. When I read the sleeve of “blue” I was disappointed that Kelly only appeared on one track. The fact that his replacement was someone who I knew to be white didn’t alter my feelings. I only stopped being disappointed when I listened to the record and heard Bill Evans’ wonderful playing. They’re both giants in my book. Kelly is underrated especially his sometimes explosive contribution to the Blackhawk recordings.In the last 30 years, racial attitudes have deteriorated and there are more hangups and prejudices. there are white people who are responsible for this and there are black people who are responsible for this. A pox on the lot of them say I!

  28. John K

    Great article, and reader comments also. To which I can only add, I revere Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Sun Ra, Joe Zawinul, Jimmy Smith, and Keith Jarrett, just to name a few keyboard players. Diversity is one of the characteristics that sets Jazz aside from other genres, another is originality. Bill Evans wasn’t better or worse than anyone else, he was himself, but for his major contribution to Kind of Blue, if nothing else, he deserves respect as a master musician, and if someone has to resort to a narrow definition of Jazz in order to deny him due credit, then I reject that definition. In its own way, I regard In A Silent Way to be a masterpiece, and obviously it wouldn’t be the same without Joe Zawinul’s title composition, to give credit to another major musician, who was not only white, but European to boot.

  29. David Stevens

    Well written, sir. Bill Evans is one of my favorite jazz pianists, and, as a white guy, sometimes when I’m talking with my black friends, I won’t include him in my list of favorites, if we’re talking influences. I usually lead with Bud Powell, follow up with Oscar Peterson, and then top it off with Keith Jarrett. Truthfully, these are my biggest influences. Besides Bill.

    And, as I read your essay I found myself smiling, thinking that here was this black jazz musician who felt the same way I did at one time! The irony!

    But you really knock it out of the park when you start talking about what jazz IS: a cultural phenomenon. And when I wrote my master’s thesis on African influence on American music since the Civil War, I was fascinated by the parallels of African culture, and how consistently parallel these contributions were. Basically, if you have no African influence, there is no American music. It’s only a cheap re-hashing of European blah if you remove Scott Joplin and his culture, Jelly-Roll Morton and his crowd, Duke Ellington and his marvelous compositions and recordings, and on and on. And one very interesting thing is how consistently European-Americans (If you’ll forgive that term . . .) embraced African-American music and literature every twenty years or so. Professor Longhair and early Chuck Berry become Elvis. The Isley Brothers and Muddy Waters become The Beatles and The Stones. Sugarhill Gang and NWA become The Beastie Boys and Eminem.

    Anyway, this is stuff you’ve probably already thought of, and I didn’t want to bore you. But, I wanted you to know that there is a white guy out there who completely gets what you’re saying here, because he’s guilty of it too. Great essay. Thanks.

  30. Scott Armstrong

    Why do humans have this obsession with skin color ? I acknowledge the pain and struggles that black Americans have had to endure. ( I don’t understand or feel it fully because I’m white and Australian and can’t. ) I wish this whole race/color debate didn’t exist. It seems like a never ending back and forth argument which can never be resolved. I love the music of Charlie Parker and Bill Evans and John Coltrane and Joe Morello etc. because I just love it! My ears, mind and soul love it. I doesn’t matter to me what color their skin is. Nor do I care what critics have to say. I listen to the music and decide for myself whether I like it or not.

  31. Tom Ohlmann

    As a white 45 year old male, I very much appreciated your fine article on jazz, racial issues regarding/within it, and the appreciation of Bill Evans. I have studied the art form, it’s musicians & history since my mid teens. I have also played it back in my days of being a bass player (now I’m just a bass “collector” as they unfortunately don’t get played anymore).
    My point being, I have had, and have, many of the same thoughts & feelings that you do regarding the race/color issue that arises with regards to white vs black players, is he legit if he’s white, etc. I felt this way myself as a bass player playing jazz & blues gigs. And it’s refreshing to hear someone get that it’s about the music, the feel, & the culture that matters. Either you can swing/groove/play/blow or you can’t.
    So anyway, I could go on about this and music in general for hours, so to save you the hassle of a long read, I will end this now. But thank you for a great article & for getting it!

  32. Bill Winter

    This article is important and relevant to me. My experience is that many black musicians don’t want to waste any time or energy on worrying about the color of fellow musicians. There are enough challenges without creating new ones. One point I’d like clarification on, and I’d welcome new information. It is my understanding, from reading, that African music did not have chord progressions, not in the sense that we know them now, until after cultural interaction with Europeans and their music. That would seem to imply that jazz, even if it was created by black musicians, was profoundly influenced by European music. That would come out of church choirs singing european style harmonizations in hymns, among other ways, which could have started very early after the European invasion and takeover of the Americas. Recently a fine musician, a friend who identifies as white, asked me whether I thought it was cultural appropriation for him to use klezmer music (asking me because I am jewish). I said, because he is a good musician, if he plays klezmer, he owns it. He finds that offensive. I am not the jewish pope so I have no authority to pass judgment on that question. I believe that art is to share. I also believe that artists borrow or steal from each other, normally, that it’s a good thing. This is a different issue from failing to acknowledge sources of learning, and economic exploitation. Sometimes something backwards happens: we all agree on the principles of tolerance, and appreciation of the vast variability from individual to individual – and then somehow it ends up being narrow, proprietary, and intolerant. It is a combination of nature and culture that allows us to create and appreciate art. The lushness of a major triad, or a V7 chord resolving to a I chord, satisfies souls whatever color ears are attached to those souls. I oppose saddling the beauty of music with intolerance.

  33. Peter Hill

    In general I agree with the articles. However I agree with Miles Davis’s assessment that the reason Gil Evan’s was a non racist white person was because he was from Canada rather than the US. Of course there are racists all over he world but the problem is much worse is the US where apparently reasonable people turn out to support the Obama birther theory and general white supremacy. That simply doesn’t happen in Canada or Europe. I think historical guilt over the slavery in the US drives racism as a justification for genocide.

  34. James Dugan

    As a musician (both professional and semi-professional) for over 4 decades, I found myself often ‘covering’ or creating music in the styles of blues, blues-rock, funk, and jazz. As a white artist, I didn’t think that I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to be able to sing in a black style, or play funk or second-line rhythms – I thought it was just Music, not a racial gateway or hurdle. Miles hired Bill Evans because he was good, and he hired Philly Joe Jones because he could swing.

  35. Andrew S Guthrie

    If it weren’t for music and the so-called “cross-over audience” who knows how much worse USA’s perpetual post-slavery damnation would be. In my own life, as a white person, those kind of performative spaces have provided much needed relief from the country’s over-riding racial tension, a circumstance well documented in the history of both jazz and rock and roll.

    Thank you for your article and allowing us to respond/comment, because I guess all of us think about this a fair amount. For whatever reasons, as a consumer, I have always leaned towards African-American/Caribbean/African music, not exclusively, but for the most part. But I never felt the need to hide any of those proclivities, in fact I promoted them. But I can add that those interests have been, at times, looked on with suspicion by a certain kind of white person . In those cases I was indeed profiled, most likely as a “liberal”. Don’t call me a liberal, I’m a leftist, LOL. If the music moves me, I’m not going to leave it behind.

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