Black, Brown and Beige

September 26, 2006 at 12:12 am (jazz, Jim D)

I was heartened to read that last week jazz musicians picketed the British ‘Mobo’ (Music of Black Origin) awards in protest at jazz being dropped as a ‘catagory’ .

I was even more pleased to note that the New Orleans-style protest band outside the ceremony included the brilliant young altoist Soweto Kinch (a previous winner of a ‘Mobo’ award) and trumpeter/vocalist Abram Wilson. According to the (UK) ‘Times’, Kinch said,

“I just think it’s preposterous…it is ludicrous to have these pretensions to being a global and significant and world-class event and ignore a vibrant and healthy jazz scene, internationally and in the UK”.

Hear, hear to that I say. And it’s especially good to see young black players like Kinch and Wilson making their presence felt in British jazz: for much too long both the traditional and the modern jazz scenes have been dominated by white players and white fans, whilst black musicians and fans have been virtually non-existant – or, perhaps, excluded: even heavy metal rock seemed to have more black adherants than jazz.

Now, happily, things seem to be being (slowly) put right – not least by the efforts of the articulate and historically-aware Kinch. He is making an effort to draw our attention to neglected black musicians who worked in Britain in the 1930’s. 40’s , 50’s and 60’s: the likes of altoist Bertie King, trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, bandleader Ken “Snakehips” Jackson, clarinetist Carl Barriteau…and then, a little later, the very advanced altoist Joe Harriot and South African expatriates like saxist Dudu Pukwana and drummer Louis Maholo (both of whom made excellent music in Chris Mcgregor’s Brotherhood of Breath). All credit to Kinch for drawing our attention to these unsung heroes.

My only – very minor carp- is with the very concept of “black music”. Of course, jazz is a predominantly black art form. But, as a matter of straight fact, most of the early New Orleans musicians were “Creoles of Color”, who most certainly did *not* regard themselves as “black”, and rather looked down upon Afro-American ‘negroes’ like Joe Oliver and the young Louis Armstrong.

It was only when jazz escaped New Orleans and landed up in Chicago, and then, New York, that racial barriers came down.

But the point is, that jazz was the first manifestation of Western culture in which black people were afforded equal status to whites, and where they (the blacks) responded by proving themselves at least the equals – and very often the superiors – of whites.

None of which makes jazz “black music”: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden and Miff Mole have as much claim to be regarded as jazz pioneers as Louis Armstrong, Joe Oliver or Sidney Bechet. In fact, jazz’s greatest achivement is to have broken down racial barriers first in the recording studio (Eddie Condon, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong), then on the bandstand (Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Lional Hampton), and finally in society (Martin Luther King, Malcolm ‘X’, Nat ‘King’ Cole, etc)…

Despite that quibble: congratualtions to Sowato Kinch.

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