Blue Notes, In Black and White

Question: Is there a broader sociological purpose to your work? 

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Gary Giddins: The only sociological purpose I can remember that I had to deal with and sort of get past was race. I grew up with this idea that—I mean it was a fact, it wasn't just an idea, that white musicians were given all kinds of help that were denied black musicians. This is an African-American music. Most of the great figures have been black, and yet in the '30's, it was the white bands that got all the great hotel gigs and all the great radio hookups. Even in the '50's and '60's, when I was coming up, the white bands frequently got the most attention. I remember everybody saying that Stan Goetz was punished for years because of something that a critic wrote about him in “Life Magazine,” Albert Goldman said he was the greatest saxophone player in the world. This was a time when Colin Hawkins was alive and Sonny Rollins. And it was so offensive, really it would have been offensive to say that about anybody because it was ridiculous, but it seemed it was always the white guy.

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And so a lot of people started to put down Stan Goetz. And I remember having lunch one day and I was writing a line for a wonderful saxophone player, a black musician and we were having lunch, and he made some kind of disparaging remark about Stan Goetz. And I had done this myself. And I said, "But, you know, isn't Stan a great player?" And he looked at me and he said, "Of course, he's a great player." So, you have to get by that. Goetz is one of the supreme figures in my judgment, but there was so much of that and I really had to deal with that.

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In the '70's I used to talk about this with other critics, white and black, that we'd say, like if you're standing on 20th Street, and a new white band was coming to town on 15th, and a new black band was coming in to town on 25th, it's five blocks that way or this way, we'd all go to see the black band. It's just the assumption from history is that something more is going to be happening there.

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So, I think at some point, you just finally have to really try to become color blind and say this guy is saying something and this guy isn't, and it isn't a question of race and it isn't a question of gender. That was a big issue that we started to deal with because, while most of my favorite singers have always been women, there haven't been a lot of really notable women instrumentalists. Marylou Williams, the great genius, she's always the token female in every discussion of instrumentalists and orchestraters and composers. But there have been so many really gifted women players in the last several years. So, that's been something that you have to deal with.

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But on the other hand you don't want to say, well she's really good just because she's a woman, or because she's cute, there was a lot of that too. I remember there was a notorious piece in an essay in which this guy was going on and on about this woman musician and he just described her legs once too many times to make it a credible piece.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Jazz is an African-American music, yet its major white figures initially received the top gigs, the big money—and the scorn of black musicians. Untangling the genre’s racial politics is part of Gary Giddins’ job.

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