A footnote to my review of Stephan Talty’s Mulatto America:
Talty writes that jazz music is not merely an amalgam of sources—blues, ragtime, classical, brass band—but “that the music is comfortable playing all these musics from the inside. The borrowings are not mocking or unsure but marked by total confidence.”
Here, Talty owes at least an attribution to Ralph Ellison, who famously attacked LeRoi Jones’ argument in Blues People (1963) that blues and jazz were black artistic responses to cultural alienation. In a scathing review of that book (reprinted in Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings ), Ellison wrote: “The master artisans of the South were slaves, and white Americans have been walking Negro walks, talking Negro-flavored talk (and prizing it when spoken by Southern belles), dancing Negro dances and singing Negro melodies far too long to talk of a ‘mainstream’ of American culture to which they’re alien.”
In other words, black people helped create the American cultural mainstream, even if they didn’t always get full credit for their contributions or reap the monetary rewards. And they didn’t, of course. This has been true from Elvis to Eminem. But this is hardly to say that Elvis was, or Eminem is, a thief. To the contrary, they’re participating in the same cultural mix as black artists. Neither would exist without the other. Said Ellison, “the most authoritative rendering of America in music is that of American Negroes” (emphasis added).
That argumentcasts doubt on what has always been, for sentimental reasons, a favorite quote of mine from Blues People. Jones gives Bix Beiderbecke credit for transforming jazz from a black music to an American music.
The point is that Afro-American music did not become a completely American expression until the white man could play it! Bix Beiderbecke, more than any of the early white jazzmen, signified this development because he was the first white jazz musician, the first white musician who brought to the jazz he created any of the ultimate concern Negro musicians brought to it as a casual attitude of their culture. This development signified also that jazz would someday have to contend with the idea of its being an art (since that was the white man’s only way into it). The emergence of the white player meant that Afro-American culture had already become the expression of a particular kind of American experience, and what is most important, that this experience was available intellectually, that it could be learned.
I always liked the idea of giving Bix credit for making jazz into an art form, but from Ellison’s perspective, this is hogwash, even self-loathing hogwash. Jazz didn’t need white people playing it to become art. But it did need white people to exist. American culture has always been a wonderful mixture of influences. Black people borrowed from African and European music to create jazz, and players like Bix felt right at home for that reason. Far from being interlopers, Bix and his fellow white innovators were participants in American music. (See Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords  and the controversy surrounding its publication for more.)
[October 22, 2007]