Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Alan Kurtz, former writer/editor for on-line blog Jazz.com, and then a regular commentator/essayist for Blogcritics.org, has now published a brief but significant book with the defining title Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise (available via Amazon). Mentioning his book in a comment elsewhere, I suggested that Alan's intent was a "rigorous examination of race records old and new, racial stereotypes black and white, and race-baiting by any and all." Ranging over more than a century of music, Kurtz traces the not-very-hidden continuations of minstrelsy, the post-Civil War "coon shows," in the changing disguises they acquired decade after decade all the way up to the present.
Minstrel shows began with whites demeaning blacks by blacking their own pale faces, then exaggerating perceived Negro characteristics and diction. (I'd say "denigrating" except the root syllables suggest denying blackness, when the opposite was intended.) But black people got "even" by creating their own minstrel shows, reclaiming whatever cash was to be made and maybe slipping in some coded language--ebony Ebonics perhaps?--that only other blacks would understand. (Kurtz doesn't make that point, but I believe minstrelsy history would show certain skits and jokes as having hidden layers of meaning.) And this formed the platform for much of the entertainment and then recordings produced thereafter, black performers allowing similar racial stereotyping to go on, casually working for the white agents and managers, record labels and venue owners, in order to gain broader (meaning white) audiences and any resulting "big money" possibilities.
Kurtz looks at a variety of examples, from Louis Armstrong singing "Shine" and dressing as "King of the Zulus," to the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras playing "jungle music," to Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie and Slim Gaillard speaking hipster slang and clowning on stage (though Young was too Pres-identially cool for such antics), to the anger, adamant noise, and bruited Africanisms of the so-called Free Jazz players, to the disturbing and disreputable yet astonishingly popular rappers of the past two decades. Drug addicts and draft dodgers, doowoppers and barwalkers, greedy deejays and seedy ofays, malcontents and militants, tattered Toms and cats named Fats... they're all here. Whatever their stories, the black artists Alan chose as examples (even the raw-sex gangsta rappers) played on perennial white stereotypes concerning black "primitiveness" and sexuality in order to win white listeners (buyers) while retaining their core black fans.
What this may say about the subconscious bigotry, gullibility, even masochism, of white folks... well, Kurtz leaves that as a message inherent between the lines. He has covered a creditable amount of material in 27 trim and pithy chapters--quoting lyrics, excerpting related academic folderol, describing the major characters, presenting each tale in his stringent, sarcastic, acerbically witty, stubbornly intellectual yet sometimes intentionally rude style. Compressing and telescoping major developments and eras, he offers concise examples rather than expansive concepts shaped through time. Inevitably this requires him to excise (or give short shrift to) the parallel developments that might complicate his focussed perspective.
Some sample omissions... Ellington played jungle music, yes, but he also required his band to appear on-stage as gentlemen scrupulously garbed in tuxes or suits, the Duke's droll elegance having rubbed off on them too. Yes, Marvin Gaye got down and slightly lewd with "Sexual Healing" (and the Let's Get It On album before that), but he had already created What's Going On, one of the most thoughtful, socially conscious, yet entirely musical albums of all time, essentially a Soul symphony. And some rappers keyed in on political and ghetto issues rather than chanting violent or abusive threats; think of the amazing single releases of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and that crew ("The Message," "New York New York," "White Lines").
What bothers me some as reader is Alan's heavy emphasis on rap, half of his book devoted to way too many crude and offensive lyrics of the past 30 years quoted at depressing length. His own comments deservedly make a mockery of this unfortunate era in black music, but I'd rather have read more about the ragtime years or the Roaring Twenties, or how black music deflected the Depression, all of which he clearly could have made serio-comic and fascinating. Author Alan picked his own exemplars of course, but conspicuously absent nonetheless are important artists as raw or clever or brilliant as Millie Jackson, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron--even popular Soul performers like Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes--all of whom would have helped flesh out the pre-rap portions of Kurtz's thesis and book. (Maybe he'll get to do an expanded second edition.)
At any rate, many amazing sections are too X-rated for me to quote, but here's a passage that might suggest the mischief Kurtz gets up to:
For all its innovativeness, then, bebop was little more than the plaything of a handful of eccentric geniuses whose stereotypical posturing more than their abstruse art appealed primarily to white audiences. In particular, the outlaw persona of Charlie Parker briefly rekindled the allure of the savage to ofay primitivists such as the Beats, who pretended to dig jazz but didn't know a bongo from a bassinet. One such was Beat godfather Jack Kerouac, who in his slapdash essay "The Beginning of Bop" has Dizzy screaming, pianist Thelonious Monk crashing and nonpareil saxophonist Charlie Parker squealing as "off they whaled [sic] on Salt Peanuts jumping like mad monkeys in the gray new air."
In another excellent paragraph, Kurtz conflates President Bush's post-9/11 advice that Americans go shopping, with a then just-released, blithely hedonistic album by rapper Jay-Z, which coincidentally enjoyed brisk sales:
Yes, Mr. President, it's true: as part of us knelt in prayer, grieving for the victims and their families, or gaped numbly at the TV and tried to comprehend this assault on our collective identity, another part of us went shopping and came home clutching The Blueprint. But I ask you, sir: What better proof could there be that murderous martyrs flying hijacked airliners in hot pursuit of their 72 virgins and a camel (the mythical desert equivalent of 40 acres and a mule) had failed to penetrate our spiritual airspace? The enemies of liberty might take love out of the City, damn them, but they'll never destroy our quest for a pair of chicks on X, menaging in the car before we reach our garage. God bless you, Mr. President. And God bless Jay-Z.
Additional "rappercussions"--from Hurricane Katrina, the AIDs epidemic, street violence, N's and B's and ho's, rival posses and brutal po-lice--are spot-lit one by one and then skewered by Kurtz. He even uncovers a 2006 regional hit version of a 19th century minstrel-show tune, which brings the bitter survey full circle. But he ends the book by quoting some scatalogical lyrics from The Notorious B.I.G. (one of several murdered rappers) and then remarks, straightfaced as ever, "Leave it to Biggie Smalls to make us nostalgic for the quiet dignity and grace of 'coon shows' and blackface minstrelsy."
Strong stuff, and an impertinent, imperfect, but important book.