White Jazz

White jazz--those were the words that kept running through my head. Why? This evening I listened to three of America's finest jazz musicians at Birdland: Paul Bley on piano, Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums. And they all happen to be white.

"White Jazz" is the title of a James McElroy novel set in LA in the 1950s. This is the time and place that keeps summoning McElroy. (It also is the setting of his novel "LA Confidential," that inspired the script of the blockbuster film.) For McElroy, white jazz is synonymous with West Coast Jazz. Several musicians identified with this style function as minor characters in his novel, including Art Pepper, the great saxophone player who died a few years ago.

Pepper's "Straight Life" is one of the great jazz autobiographies. The book was the joint effort of Pepper and his wife Laurie, the daughter of a Los Angeles Trotskyist steelworker. Pepper had deep conflicts about race. One of the most painful passages in "Straight Life" describes his feelings of rejection after some black musicians tell him that they do not want to play with a white man. He internalized his pain and became resentful of all black musicians. In the 1950s, Pepper became a heroin addict and ended up San Quentin after a grand larceny conviction. After his release in the 1960s, he discovered the recordings of John Coltrane and turned his back on the West Coast style and developed a harder and "blacker" sound. He also started working more with black musicians.

There really isn't such a thing as white jazz, just musicians who are white. Yet, on the other hand, there have been distinct currents since the beginning of jazz that do owe something to the racial identity of the innovators. Take Bix Beiderbecke for example. Critics and historians would consider Bix to be the prototypical white jazz musician, if that term has any meaning at all. This cornet player appeared like a meteor in the 1920s and had a brief but brilliant career until booze and consumption killed him. His black counterpart was Louis Armstrong, whom he revered. Armstrong's inspiration was the blues and ragtime, while Beiderbecke looked toward the European classics. His "In A Mist," recorded shortly before his death, is a lovely mixture of Debussyan harmonies and jazz syncopation played on a piano.

The first time I heard live jazz was at Bard College in 1961. Paul Bley led the band which featured Pharoah Sanders on saxophone. Sanders, along with Coltrane and Archie Shepp, was to become a key figure in the 1960's revolution in jazz, which black musicians spearheaded under the influence of black nationalism. But this was early enough so that a distinctly "white" stylist like Bley and someone like Pharoah Sanders could work together. In a few years, a racial divide would make this all but impossible.

Paul Bley, Bill Evans and Lenny Tristano: these are three of the great white pianists of the post-WWII era. Bley is still going strong, while Evans and Tristano died long ago. Their roots certainly are in the Beiderbecke tradition. The blues are a secondary element in their performances. Each of them experimented with meter and harmony, using techniques that suggest European influences, from Bach to Bartok. During the 1950s and 60s, when black pianists were digging deeper and deeper into the African-American experience through the use of gospel and blues, their white counterparts were exploring music as a pure form. The racial and musical divide was fairly deep, with the occasional pilgrimage made by someone like Art Pepper.

I booked Evans for a concert at Bard College in 1964. He was deep in his heroin habit at the time and had hardly a word to say to anybody. He sat down at the Boesendorfer in a small recital hall on a warm Saturday night in October and played for two hours nonstop. It was one of the finest performances I have ever heard in my life. I have a vivid recollection of a young art major sculpting a lion with fallen leaves outside the hall. Bill Evans played in a deeply lyrical style, often in a trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. He transformed forgettable songs like "Nancy With the Smiling Face," a Sinatra favorite, into gentle beguiling works of art. As he sat at the keyboard, he could never stop thinking about where he would get his next fix.

Tristano was a blind pianist who lived in Long Island and made few club dates or recordings. He was a great teacher, however, and helped dozens of students become solid professionals, including a singer named Carla White. Carla co-led a band in the 1980s with Manny Duran, a polished trumpet player with a classic bebop style. He is 70 now and has been playing professionally since the late 1930s. He once told me how he started out in jazz.

"I was listening to my radio in 1938 and all of a sudden I heard this trumpet. It was Louis Armstrong and I couldn't believe my ears. I had never heard anything that great in my life. That's what I wanted to do, play like that."

So Manny Duran started out in a Mariachi band called "Los Gallos," the roosters. "We called ourselves that because we used to play all night long and welcome the dawn. Man, people used to feed us and serve us drinks even when nobody had money. That was most of the time in the 1930s, especially in Mexican neighborhoods in San Antonio. But we had fun." I interviewed Manny and Carla for a jazz magazine once. When they made their first record, Nat Hentoff wrote the liner notes. He cribbed my interview. I think it's the best liner notes he ever wrote.

There is no longer a strong black identity in jazz, as there is not much of a black nationalist movement. Most young black jazz musicians follow in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis, whom some people regard as a neoconservative. He is the curator of the jazz program at Lincoln Center. His partner is Stanley Crouch, the author of "The Hanging Judge," that takes aim at black nationalism, rap music, and other pet peeves. Marsalis and Crouch view the black revolution in jazz of the 1960s as a horrible excess akin to bra-burning or bellbottom jeans. They are trying to recreate the classic sound of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but what comes out has more of a museum quality than anything else. Part of the problem is that the vacuum in black politics creates a cultural vacuum as well.

Jazz, like left politics, is marking time right now. It has always been deeply sensitized to shifts in American society. The white, or West Coast, jazz of the 1950s captured the detachment of a certain relatively privileged layer of society from mainstream values. It adopted an existentially "cool," mask-like form rather than one of protest. What could be a more perfect analogy for the early nuclear age than an art-form that seemed almost numb at times. In a few years, black jazz would find its own unique voice as well, as the civil rights movement took shape. Charlie Mingus was the prophet of this music, who wrote angry but beautiful songs inspired by such events as the Little Rock desegregation battle. These artistic dichotomies have deep roots in the racial contradictions of American society. A new music would engage with these contradictions and move to a higher level, but this can only occur when society itself provides the inspiration. It will be obvious when that moment is at hand.

Louis Proyect