The picture shows a “Hitler moustache” inadvertently cast on the face of Merkel by the pointing finger of the Israeli Prime Minister. The image was captured by Marc Israel Sellem, a photographer for the Jerusalem Post, who immediately posted the picture on his Facebook page, leading to an avalanche of tweets, comments and Facebook likes and shares.
Patriarchy takes for granted that women are inferior and “the weaker sex,” as assholes used to refer to women decades before. The system of patriarchy is smug in its paternalism towards women. Patriarchs love to hold open doors for women and treat them with what they (patriarchs) imagine to be “respect.” “Respect and protect women,” they chant, like a bunch of crows perched on a tree branch. They love to talk of women being “queens” and how “strong” and “lovely” and “noble” and “fair” they are. They say women are romantic and emotional while men are visual and phallic, that women are from Venus while men are from Mars and all that crap. Actually, both are from planet earth but who cares? The language of patriarchy puts women on a pedestal that women themselves did not create.
The paternalistic language of patriarchy is highly indulgent and ever-adaptable. It is a shape-shifting chameleon, and therefore a dangerous language. Actually it has evolved to the point where self-proclaimed feminists can borrow extensively from it without their even realizing it. Feminists speak of their bodies being “sexualized” by “heterosexists,” of the “oppressive male gaze,” and so on. This is a white, Western middle-class concern, voiced in rhetoric that has precise roots in the blue-stocking language of Victorian social reformers, nearly all of whom were White, female (and largely racist) Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But today’s Social Justice Warrior does not do his or her research; in fact they do not read books at all unless they are schlock books by Amanda Hocking or Jonathan Safran Foer. They refuse to realize that when they express shock and horror at the expression of overt sexuality they are walking in the high-laced shoes of Carrie Nation, Anthony Comstock and their ilk.
These modern-day Victorian social reformers will never admit to themselves that their rejection of sexuality (especially heterosexuality) is heavily tinged with racism. It is the exact same racism of their late 19th century American ancestors, who were horrified that newly-freed black male slaves were now free to put their hands on white women. These ancestors had once been Abolitionists and felt relatively safe in protesting the enslavement of Africans–safe, because he was in chains; because he was illiterate, and generally not in any position to challenge the authority of white Americans. But when he was freed he became a threat. Feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made her position clear in an oft-quoted statement from 1868: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lydia Maria Childs, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”¹
Of course, it probably never occurred to Ms. Stanton that Patrick the Mick, Sambo the Sambo, Hans the Kraut and Ching Chong could ever rise to the high Democratic cultural standard of the superior Anglo-Saxon Race. Today, her ideological descendants, many of whom are black, think that such a feat might still be worthwhile. Many of these black descendants are self-styled “feminists,” “feministas” and “New Black Men,” who are quite young and generally middle-class oriented. A lot of them are self-styled “Afropunks,” and though they are among the most privileged of all African Americans in light of their economic standing (and the willingness of the white Establishment to employ them), they often pretend to be at a social disadvantage vis-a-vis other black people–most especially “heterosexual black men.”
The writer is familiar with these kinds of privileged blacks because he attended high school and college with them. He knew (and still knows) a lot of them personally. So when someone such as Damon Young writes that “Straight Black Men” are the white men of Black America, he just rolls his eyes to the ceiling of his room and says, “here we go again.”
Yep, here we go again. There are no shortage of articles in print or on the internet that deal with this very same subject: the supposed savagery of the Black Male. I compiled such an enormous amount of data researching it that I decided to tackle the subject of Black Male Savagery from an entirely different historical context and in an entirely different nation: French Algeria.
“Beneath the patrilineal pattern of Algerian society,” Frantz Fanon writes, “the (French settler) specialists described a structure of matrilineal essence…The Algerian woman, an intermediary between obscure forces and the group, appeared in this perspective to assume a primordial importance. Behind the visible, manifest patriarchy, the more significant existence of a basic matriarchy was affirmed. The role of the Algerian mother, that of the grandmother, the aunt and the “old woman,” were inventoried and defined.
“This enabled the colonial administration to define a precise political doctrine: ‘if we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.’ It was the situation of woman that was accordingly taken as the theme of action. The dominant administration solemnly undertook to defend this woman, pictured as humiliated, sequestered, cloistered…The behavior of the Algerian was very firmly denounced and described as medieval and barbaric. With infinite science, a blanket indictment against the ‘sadistic and vampirish’ Algerian attitude towards women was drawn up. Around the family life of the Algerian, the occupier piled up a whole mass of judgments, appraisals, reasons, accumulated anecdotes and edifying examples, thus attempting to confine the Algerian within a circle of guilt.”² (Italics mine)
If Fanon’s words sound eerily (and nauseatingly) familiar to an African American reader, that’s because they are familiar. Since the end of Reconstruction we have heard similar rhetoric not only from our avowed enemies but even from liberal and even left-leaning whites and blacks who call themselves our allies. From Elizabeth Stanton to Joel Chandler Harris to Charles Carroll to Robert Shufeldt to Susan Brownmiller to Alice Walker, Ann DuCille, Sapphire, Mark Anthony Neal, bell hooks, Bill Cosby, Cornel West, Kevin Powell and lately Barack Obama, Robert Lashley, Jemelle Harris and others we have heard variations on this same tiresome theme. It would be a waste of our time to trudge through all of their paternalistic nonsense–I invite the reader to do this independently–but to sum it all up their words toward black men (particularly heterosexual black men) can be summed up with a few words: stop acting like a nigger savage and act like we tell you to.
We are not that stupid. We know that VSB is a subsidiary of The Root, which in itself is a subsidiary of Univision, a white Cuban-American owned TV station. The Root is really rootless. (Univison pretends to be non-white whenever it has to deal with Dolt 45 and the alt-shite. When it deals with African Americans or Afro-Latinos, it puts on blackface and makes monkey noises.)
Although not entirely without merit, The Root has a long history of condescending to rank-and-file African Americans. Nearly ten years ago The Rootwas roasted by Ta-Nehisi Coates for insinuating that African Americans were an anti-intellectual people. The author of that article was right on many accounts but Mr. Coates was even more correct in calling the author into question. It was the same old black bourgeois condescension towards the unwashed black masses that we have been hearing for God knows how long, and quite frankly we are sick and tired of hearing it.
We, the unwashed negroids, are surfeited with privileged blacks scribbling this stuff on high for Harper’s, or the Huffington Post, or from The Grio or The Root telling us to “clean up our act” and “pull up our pants” or some such shit. And in the case of Mr. Young–well, it isn’t so much what Damon Young said concerning allegedly heterosexual black men vis-a-vis “black people”–one wonders which “black people” he really has in mind–but how he said it, and how he framed his narrative concerning black machismo. He generalized about an entire subset of the American population and not-so-subtly stigmatized them as The Enemy.
It is white paternalism disguised as black brotherly advice. Damon Young talks of black heterosexism³ and “patriarchy,” parroting the language of the white liberal academy, which doesn’t give a shit about blacks one way or the other. The white liberal academy’s job is to make sure that African Americans are sufficiently divided and compartmentalized so that the white political establishment can manage them better. Some have suggested that Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas was being satirical. He isn’t being satirical; he is doing the white liberal’s dirty work, like Robert Lashley before him, and Mark Anthony Neal, Kevin Powell, Randall Kenan and countless others before that.
Mr. Young’s piece is getting accolades from wannabe black establishment writers who foolishly believe that this is actually a subject worth talking about. “I thought Damon did an excellent job tackling a difficult and complicated issue, and I was happy that he used his male privilege to help tell our stories,” a Dr. Kristian H. wrote in the Huffington Post. “Black women have not been allowed to be both Black and female. Historically, we have had to choose our race over our gender, and we have not had the space to express the challenges we face as women. We have not talked about our pain in order to protect our Black men’s dignity. We have not been able to be truly feminist, for fear that it disregards, or contradicts, our shared Blackness. We are so worried about the repercussions of discussing our issues with toxic masculinity that we ignore them.”
Of course, when Kristian H. says “we” she is referring to her own subset of black middle-class women who go through the same trauma and pain she describes. I’m not going to say that the pain is all in her head, but she is pointing to the wrong source of that pain. She can at least gently protest Damon Young’s whitewashing of “heterosexist” black men by saying his basic analogy is “divisive and hurtful,” but in her elite feminist angst she goes on a tear and contradicts herself: “You are not absolved of the responsibility of both acknowledging and uplifting your Black women. Black men have a heavy burden to bear, and you have been taught and conditioned that it is somehow acceptable to dump that burden on Black women. Black men have historically only had power over Black women, so you’ve made us suffer to help ease your pain. You have disrespected us, you have degraded us, you have silenced us. Yes, slavery, oppression, colonization, and dehumanization can take its toll on your psychological well-being. We get that you are in pain, we are too, and we want to support you. But being in pain is not an excuse to cause pain; we must stop the cycle of abuse.”
Kristian H. continues: “Black women are often harassed on the street by Black men who objectify our bodies,* and we are taught to be polite and smile to ensure our safety from a young age.º We are taught victim blaming, we internalize it, and we try to dress a certain way because only “respectable” women deserve respect. I am sorry, Damon’s piece is not dividing Black men and women; Black men are dividing us with their own actions, of their own accord. They are doing that when they refuse to date Black women. They are doing it when they call us aggressive, argumentative, or a feminist (which is apparently a bad word) for talking about these issues.” (Italics mine)
If I were white, I might believe Kristian H’s rant. But I am not. I can only remember my mother decades ago frequently putting my father firmly in his place whenever she felt he had said something she disagreed with. (I owe my razor-sharp tongue to my mother as well as my father, by the way.) I can only recall black women on the streets of Washington D.C. in the eighties, nineties and 2000s wearing skin-tight latex pants and not too worried about the “heterosexist male gaze;” if anything, they appeared to relish it. They made up the majority of black women in that city then and still do now. Kristian H. does not. She is a product of a fake white liberal academia that is so paternalist in outlook that it thinks it can not only manufacture our history and identity but also–absurdly enough–imagines it can dictate the exact terms of our own oppression to us.
Fanon himself has been accused of sexism on more than one occasion. Yet in spite of this we should listen carefully to Fanon’s words here, in light of Damon Young and Dr. Kristian H. We have seen all of this before and not just in America, not just in colonial Algeria. “Colonial society blazes up vehemently against this inferior status of the Algerian woman,” Fanon writes, and a French feminist-settler is quoted in the book as saying, “We want to make the Algerian ashamed of the fate that he metes out to his women.”
Today we know that the colonial French were completely full of shit. When Algerian women refused to fall for the bait, the French colonial patriarchs and matriarchs alike declared a “nigger-hunt.” After November 1, 1954 the French liberals and feminists decided that an Algerian was an Algerian, feminist, patriarch, gay, straight, light, dark, rich, poor, or otherwise. The events of that day (and subsequent ones) showed French colonialist liberals that their attempts to forestall Algerian independence had been in vain. Nonetheless, they kept at it:
A strand of hair, a bit of forehead, a segment of an “overwhelmingly beautiful face” glimpsed in a streetcar or on a train, may suffice to keep alive and strengthen the European’s persistence in his irrational conviction that the Algerian woman is the queen of all women. (Fanon, p. 43)
Algerian women were not falling for it. After 1955 Algerian women were allowed to fight in the war for independence. Whatever Djamila Bouhired thought of Algerian patriarchal machismo she was not chipping in her lot with French liberals and certainly not writing sob sister stories to center-left French magazines, detailing her abuse at the hands of macho Algerian men. Nobody is dare suggesting that such men did not exist: they did. But that is not the point.
One million Algerians lost their lives in a fight against the kind of liberal fuckery that Damon Young and Kristian H and Kevin Powell and Robert Lashley childishly spout. Understand that the aforementioned negroes are only concerned about their own personal glory. They want literary prizes, they want book contracts, they want to see their names on the New York Times bestseller list. But they don’t want to look like obsequious alt-right colored bootlicks like that lump of shit, Jesse Lee Petersen, or those two gold-dust twins Diamond and Silk. So they take a route which they imagine is more honorable: calling out black men on their abusive and irresponsible behavior. And not just any group of black men, mind you, but straight black men.
But Black liberals do not understand gay culture, whether black or white. The black liberal image of the black gay male is just as condescending as its image of the straight black male: whereas all straight black men are priapic crotch-grabbing machos, apparently all gay black men are limp-wristed, faggoty snap-queens who look like RuPaul. As a heterosexual black male even I have to call bullshit on this. But you know American liberals–they, like their supposed enemies on the far right, also live in a world of cheap stereotypes.
Most of these violent black machos–and there are many of them–are either heterosexual failures, or actually gay. A few of them have been caught wearing dresses, as this lovely example clearly shows. Many of these ultra-macho black (c)rappers are rumored to be gay, and according to Suge Knight himself at least ninety-five percent of them are. Now American society does not give a shit about black gay men, but they see some of them as useful tools in beating other black men in the head with; they imagine that the black gay man–because he has been ostracized from his community (and let’s face it, he often is)–will be useful in ridiculing and beating down the rest of us.
Anyone who has spent time in Black America knows who the real “white” people are in our communities. They are the pseudo-educated black males and females or they are black male drug dealers, entertainers, politicians, pimps, cops and of course, thugs. The irony of this is that in real time–not in Harvard’s make-believe ballroom time–black women are far more likely to avoid jail, to get employed, to choose whichever mate they wish to be with, and in general they are single out of choice (no matter what some liars may say).
Black American women in general prefer men they perceive to be glamorous, and that perception is unpleasantly skewered towards outlaws, bad-boys, thugs, etc. It is one thing to accuse the black heterosexual male of being a thug and quite another to ask who made him that way. The Harvard liberals won’t go there for a reason. They know that it was that black thug’s mammy who made him the way he is and they also know that black women (generally speaking) prefer black men to be thugs because they—well, many black women think that’s sexy.
Your average straight black man in America is not considered desirable because he is “a broke-ass nigga,” as anyone will tell you on the street. He has no real money and drives a shitty car. He is unemployed or underemployed. He does not own anything. He does not manufacture anything. He does not print the money. He does not head any army or any navy. He has a flag which, at the moment, does not stand for much more than angry ressentiment. Above all he has zero control over black women, who will tell him exactly what they feel about him in no uncertain terms. These same women will insult him, reject him, beat him up, jail him or even kill him. He has no privilege other than that which exists in the heads of Anglo-Saxonized negro feminists, racist Asians, racist Latinos (especially Mexicans), racist white ethnics, and toothless redneck trash who think “niggers” are stealing their jobs and women. In fact he is collectively what white men used to call “the lady of the races,” and for good reason: he is nothing in the eyes of America, nothing in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his wife, girlfriend, mother, father, children and finally even his own.
Negro-Saxons and their lot are not interested in talking to this man. They have already decided that he is not really a human being. They are too keen on playing leap-frog over this man to get to the top of the Anglo-Saxon’s totem pole. They don’t give a shit if this black macho is systematically dehumanized and depersonalized. They don’t give a shit if his actions have less to do with privilege and more to do with his having been turned into a man-child after four centuries of slavery. And more importantly, they certainly don’t give a shit if millions of black women really do get beaten and killed by these machos–as long as they can’t write a book about it and make millions.
Damon Young “clapped back” when thousands of angry writers responded to his ill-thought out article. He now pretends that “moist” is worse than the word “nigger.” Damon is entitled to his opinions, but he needs to stop treating black Americans like children. Not just STRAIGHT black American males–we don’t need anymore of these stupid colonial-style divisions–but African Americans, full stop. Everyone is implicated. Any mother who has raised a straight black male child is also implicated, because that mother largely made him what he is. Mr. Young, Mr. Lashley and Kevin Powell are either too ignorant, too confused or too contemptuous of African Americans as a group to see that when they attack “heterosexual black men,” they are also leveling the gun at themselves.
They are too short-sighted to see that articles and theories such as these are used as alibis by the white public to socially ostracize black men on sight, regardless of their sexual orientation. When a cop, or a white woman or man sees a black man in a predominately non-black social setting, the first impulse will be to have him singled out and then detained. We know that white society makes no distinctions, and when the shit hits the fan in a few years Damon Young just might find himself in the gas chamber before most of us—if only because he is more visible and more prominent than the rest of us. But—like those Jewish collaborators for Adolf Hitler– he might get lucky and join some future Neger-rat that will protect his ass from immediate death.
Sterling Brown once said, “Harvard has ruined more niggers than bad liquor.” He was right. And ditto for white liberalism.
¹Written in 1868 for The Revolution, a suffragist paper funded by Irish-American Democrat and arch-racist George Francis Train.
²Fanon, “Algeria Unveiled,” Studies in a Dying Colonialism, p. 35-45
³White people call it a “jock mentality.”
*How quaintly Victorian of her.
ºSpeak for yourself, Kristian H. Most black women we see on an every-day basis are as in-your-face and rude as they see fit. Of course there are exceptions, but we don’t see too many of them.
And to think that a piece of shit like The Birth of a Nation is hailed as a “masterpiece” in the USA, while Jud Süss is rightfully banned throughout the European Union as anti-Semitic poison. Food for thought…
D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece has long haunted film critics and historians. The first “blockbuster,” it’s the most important, and until Gone With the Wind in 1939, the highest-grossing film in the history of American cinema. Yet it’s also an evil work of racist propaganda that helped spur on the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. As Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote, the worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is.
The first thing to keep in mind about the release of Birth of a Nation is that 1915 was exactly the same historical distance from 1865 as 2013 was from 1963. For Americans in 1915, the United States Civil War was their Kennedy assassination, and their War in Vietnam. The second thing is that, in September of 1914, the French had just fought the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne…
When I think of the word “Jazz” I am reminded of the music I love the most, which is why I generally have a positive reaction to the word. Not that I have really cared too much about the word in and of itself. It is a very silly word. Actually, it’s stupid and insulting. Imagine someone referring to Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as “fancy-schmancy” or “longhair” music, and you get the idea. Admittedly some of this Music, because it really is cheap, superficial, flashy and overblown for its own sake really does deserve the childish moniker of “Jazz.” Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, on the other hand, or Miles Davis’s Tempus Fugit, or Sidney Bechet’s Summertime, or Gillespie and Parker’s Groovin’ High (1945) however, simply do not deserve to be categorized by such a word. Many of the greatest practitioners of this music have always detested it. “It’s a nigger word,” railed Miles Davis, in a rare 1980 radio interview. “It means nigger music…when white people hear the word they think of niggers fucking and shit like that.” Clarinetist and soprano saxist Sidney Bechet considered the word to be superfluous; he preferred to call the music “ragtime” throughout his life. To him Jazz was just “a name the white people have given to the music. There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…But Jazz, Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass…”.
Duke Ellington (with whom Bechet played briefly in 1925) himself said as much concerning “Jazz.” The word seems to have rubbed him the wrong way and he used it reluctantly, out of lack of choice for a better word. “By and large, (this music) has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with,” he once wrote. “The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem.”°
Indeed. “Jazz” has the stink of Storyville all over it. Since its closing in 1917 a huge amount of legends and fantasies have grown up around Storyville, fed in large part by the embellishments of musicians who once played in its establishments. For the record let it be known that, aside from solo pianists such as Tony Jackson, Kid Ross or Ferdinand Mouton (or LaMothe or LeMott) no jazz band (nor any other band) ever played in a Storyville brothel: most whorehouses were ill-equipped to house a six or seven-piece band on their premises. Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Manuel Manetta, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Peter Bocage, Henry Zeno, George “Pops” Foster, Alphonse Picou, Armand Piron, Sidney Bechet and their ilk plied their trade in grungy cafes and dance halls such as Pete Lala’s, The Big 25 or Tom Anderson’s cafe for distressingly long hours and for insultingly low pay. These establishments were often hot, sweaty and stinking of armpits, bad breath, wet farts and God knows what else–which explains why New Orleans’ Union Sons Hall, a popular dance hall among black New Orleanians, was cheekily referred to as the “Funky Butt Hall.”
In any event, the music that the above musicians were shaping between roughly 1890 and 1915 was very rarely, if at all, referred to as “jazz,” let alone “jass.” To Sidney Bechet and Louis Nelson DeLisle, it was always “ragtime music.” To others it was simply “The Music.” The shady origins of the word jazz–indeed, the very cheapness of the word itself–appeared to impress even in the minds of its creators that what they were doing was cheap, dirty, and disreputable–“jungle music,” as Rudy Vallee once insinuated on his radio program. If early jazz musicians plied their trade in ratty joints, it was certainly not out of choice.
“Who draped those basement dens
With silk, but knaves and robbers
And their ilk?
Who came to prostitute your art
And gave you pennies
for your part?”
–Duke Ellington, excerpt from text of Black, Brown and Beige
There are dozens upon dozens of other explanations for the origins of the J-word and all of them are rather ridiculous. Jazz, in 1912, was simply an adjective used to describe something spunky (as was jasm, a word dating to at least 1860) screwy and off-the-wall–the way Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson described his latest (and unsuccessful) method of pitching. As for “jass,” speculations abound as to whether or not it is a derivation of “jaser” (the French verb to jabber on and talk shit) or a reference to the scent of jasmine (which the whores of Storyville allegedly wore) or whether it was simply cooked up by white New Orleans musicians (such as Tom Brown¹) once they made their way out of the South and towards Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
The truth is that “Jazz” was slapped on The Music as a way of selling it to the broader white American mainstream. The earliest known reference to “Jazz” in a musical sense dates from July 11, 1915. This very revealing article, written by Gordon Seagrove for the Chicago Tribune, features a caricatured “darkie”² alto saxophonist woo-wooing away on his horn. So it is perfectly clear that as early as the summer of 1915 The Music–a potent mixture of blues, ragtime and secularized spiritual harmonies–was already being referred to as “Jazz.” The word was insulting, but it sold the music and helped to get some of these musicians out of Funky Butt Hall. (Note the two Z’s and not two S’s. It is not entirely clear as to how or why Tom Brown, Johnny Stein or Dominic La Rocca came up with “jass.” In my opinion, Jass sounds a lot like Ass–indeed, most of the records put out by the Original Dixieland Jass Band and its many imitators (between 1917 and 1920) sound like “ass,” and certainly not in a good way.)
I have already noted that New Orleanians generally disliked the term. Northerners were not much different. To James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake it was still Ragtime. Ellington’s own preference was for the term Negro Music. “I am not playing jazz,” he stated in 1930, in reference to his musical ambitions, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.” Ellington had once counseled bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson on the matter. “Why don’t we drop the word ‘Jazz’ and call what we are doing ‘Negro Music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Reportedly, Henderson was not too keen on dropping the “J” word, assuming he himself had ever used it.
Of course, negative reaction to the J-word was not always limited to black musicians.³ Much of this resentment was echoed even by white musicians themselves, such as Red Norvo, who once said in 1944 “I certainly hope it isn’t jazz we’re playing, because jazz to me represents something obnoxious, like that Dixieland school of thought…the musicians it stands for are corny by today’s standards.”
Dave Tough, one of the core members of the white Austin High Gang, eventually gravitated to more modern sounds and remarked of Dixieland that it was “nowhere,” requested by slumming “snobs” on a nostalgic kick in 1940s Manhattan. “Those Dixieland characters come here to live their youth all over again,” Tough railed. “They like to think it’s still Prohibition and they’re wild young cats up from Princeton for a hot time. All they need is a volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald sticking out of their pockets.” Tough dismissed “Hot Jazz” as harmonically infantile, “a bad copy of the music that white Chicago musicians played who were in turn doing bad imitations of the music that they heard from the musicians who came from New Orleans.”
Charles Mingus, in 1969, said: “Don’t call me a jazz musician. The word ‘jazz’ means nigger, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit.” John Coltrane, a few years before his death, told an interviewer that “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” Anthony Braxton (like the late Ornette Coleman) will tell you the exact same things, and not mince words about it. In fact Braxton is deeply skeptical of many of the current trends in “Jazz,” particularly those inaugurated by the Marsalis Brothers under the tutelage of Stanley Crouch and the late Albert Murray; he sees in the current “Jazz” revival a “freezing” of what was once an innovative and living musical language in stoneª so that it remains locked forever in an American (and in this instance, Southern) past which we ought to have placed far behind us. Braxton assumed that Marsalis’s music was simply a comfortably nostalgic accompaniment to the increasingly toxic racism and reactionary politics of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush “administrations,” and on a very real level he is right: as pleasant as Marsalis’s music can be at times, it speaks very little–if anything–of our contemporary world; the harshness and dissonance that one can find in his music is the harshness and dissonance of another, simpler time. Sadly, even in that “other time” (say, the 20s and 30s) much of the music did not reflect the temper of that time but simply glossed over it with the phony 23-Skidoo slush of The Clambake Seven or, God forbid, the horror that was the Andrews Sisters.
Today, the most vociferous opponent of the word “Jazz” is trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has made it his mission to assassinate not merely the J-word but everything else associated with it.† To this end he has promoted the term #BAM, short for Black American Music. “There is no such thing as jazz,” he wrote in April of 2014, completely negating the idea of any sort of “Jazz tradition.” “(A)ny idea of what that might be is false. It’s impossible to build a tradition upon something that was never a designed to be a true expression of a community. The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie, just like racism.”
The lie being, of course, not merely that “Negroes” are a simple, funky, sexual, violent and primitive people without a history, without traditions, without art, without minds and so on and so fourth–no point in repeating oft-repeated lies–but also the very lie that any such creature called a “Negro” exists. When Duke Ellington spoke to Fletcher Henderson of the need to create a “Negro Music” he was simply utilizing the current and frankly most socially progressive language of that time. Duke Ellington’s “Negro” was not the Negro of Tom Brown, Stephen Foster, Joel Chandler Harris, or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nor even, for that matter, Mezz Mezzrow. Ellington rejected that image of the Negro publicly and was even more vehement in his rejection privately: “And was the picture true/Of you? The camera eye in focus…./Or was it all a sorry bit/Of ofay hocus-pocus?”
Ofay hocus-pocus, properly translated, is essentially what mainstream jazz or jass was and quite frankly, still is. Today that hocus-pocus (better known as bullshit) is simply dressed up in the robes or respectability and topped with a tasseled hat. But even the squarest of the super-squares, the rank-and-file men on the street, know that the vast bulk of contemporary jazz is remote, effete, elitist and un-listenable and that the back-asswards racism of many a “jazz classic” make even some of the best of jazz unendurable. Louis Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” for instance–a lovely melody marred by idiotically trite lyrics–was straight Stephen Foster, a fact he himself knew quite well and seems to have performed the tune largely in a satirical manner: On one early rendition of “Sleepy” (from December 1932) he twists the lyrics and sings, “when it’s slavery time down South.”
“To speak of ‘jazz tradition’ is like to speak of ‘racial justice,'” Payton continues. “It’s not possible to have justice within the confines of race because race was specifically designed to subjugate certain people to an underclass so that the “majority” thrives. Injustice is inherently built within the racial construct. There has never been any tradition within jazz other than to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.”
As a staunch anti-fascist, I share both Braxton’s and Payton’s concerns about this thing called “Jazz.” I hate to look at The Music–my music–through the ugly prism of politics. Yet at some point such skepticism becomes inevitable. As much as I enjoy vintage jazz–I have to confess that it is the virtual soundtrack to my life–I see ugly political trends running in tandem with the current enthusiasm for ragtime, “hot jazz” and “swing.” It is a disturbing thought that the music of Blind Boy Paxton, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Craig Ventresco, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres and innumerable other trad jazz and ragtime bands both in the U.S. and elsewhere could serve as a musical soundtrack to something else: the rise in far-right nationalism across the globe. Fortunately, it ain’t necessarily so: there is a German swing society located in Berlin which is vociferously anti-fascist and even Socialist in outlook. But I’m afraid that their progressive politics are, generally speaking, not shared by those who enjoy their music.
°‘I was recently held up again at a Dublin street corner by a small crowd who were listening to a young man with a strong North of Ireland accent who was aloft on a little Irish scaffold. / “Glun na Buaidhe,” he roared, “has its own ideas about the banks, has its own ideas about dancing. There is one sort of dancing that Glun na Buaidhe will not permit and that is jazz dancing. Because jazz dancing is the product of the dirty nigger culture of America, the dirty low nigger culture of America.”’ Myles na gCopaleen, from an extract of his Irish Times “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns (1944)
¹Tom Brown (1888-1958) was a tailgate trombonist who brought his band to Chicago in 1915, billing it as “Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland.” Brown was the brother of pioneering slap-bassist Steve Brown and a pathological racist and anti-Semite who once confided to journalist Al Rose that Europeans and Asians (“them foreigners”) refused to listen to jazz unless “niggers” were playing it, that “niggers” weren’t smart enough to discern any sort of harmony because, well, they were “just niggers.” As a side comment Tommy also noted that these same “niggers” were riding on previously all-white tramlines, that “dagos” were getting all the good hotel jobs in New Orleans and that “Jews” were taking over Uptown–three notable developments in late 50s New Orleans which disturbed him somewhat.
²Gordon Seagrove, writing in the Chicago Tribune (1915), begins his article by asking a young lady “what is the blues?” The young lady answers, loudly and enthusiastically, “Jazz!”
“A blue note is a sour note,” explains an unidentified Chicago pianist in Seagrove’s article. “(Blue notes) aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the South a half-century ago and are the interpretations of darkies (sic) originally. The trade name for them is Jazz.”
³Much of the resentment on the part of Black American musicians to the word “Jazz” is due to racist assumptions concerning the true nature of The Music. Even to supposedly liberal and sympathetic minds (such as John Hammond or Patrick “Spike” Hughes, himself a superb jazz arranger) jazz was essentially a happy, primitive, supersexual party music where bored upper-class whites violated their sense of propriety by getting drunk, getting high, or giving or receiving a blow job under a cafe table. Leftist jazz critics (such as Rudi Blesh) read into The Music an expression of Negro misery, anger and resentment of the Jim Crow status quo. While this is true to an extent it does not give the whole picture of what The Music is about, and in fact is simply the white left’s paternalistic vision of Black “jazz” as a proletarian, anti-elitist folk music–a vision which is just as limiting as the right-wing “happy darky” caricature of “jazz” music.
ªBraxton: “The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact….
“It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.”
Braxton’s concerns about “reductionism” in so-called Jazz music echo Frantz Fanon’s own observations concerning the Moldy-Fygge Jazz junkie’s revulsion towards bebop: “The fact is that in their eyes jazz should only be the despairing, broken-down nostalgia of an old Negro who is trapped between five glasses of whisky, the curse of his race, and the racial hatred of the white men. As soon as the Negro comes to an understanding of himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, when he gives birth to hope and forces back the racist universe, it is clear that his trumpet sounds more clearly and his voice less hoarsely. The new fashions in jazz are not simply born of economic competition. We must without any doubt see in them one of the consequences of the defeat, slow but sure, of the Southern world of the United States. And it is not utopian to suppose that in fifty years’ time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship.” Frantz Fanon, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” Wretched of the Earth. Bold-face mine.