Jazz & Race & Growin’ Up White

Great Day

Jazz stars posed for a photo called  ‘A Great Day in Harlem.’ It hangs in my bedroom.

I grew up in a place so white that Italians were people of color. Today it’s hard for me to imagine anywhere in this country quite like it. When my brother first saw a black person, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he asked her why her skin looked like that. In Grinnell, Iowa there was one black family, one Jewish family and one Mexican family in a town of 8,000.

What I knew about black people came from TV, the news media and from records.

Thing about my brother and me… we grew up in a musical family. When other kids our age listened to pop singles on the radio, we got into jazz. And we couldn’t help noticing that the greatest jazz players — nearly all of them — were black men.

I loved (still do) the excitement of jazz. The swinging rhythms and the amazing invention. Those black jazz musicians seemed like gods to me.  I was learning to play instruments and I knew how hard they were to master. Jazz artists could play with such speed and virtuosity, and not just that. They were making it up as they went along!! Somehow each note was spontaneously combusted. How did they do it?

The astounding musical improv of the jazz musicians was something I could barely even imagine. Yet I was forced to try to imagine what kind of people lived in African America, a place that I simply never saw. I knew about the history of slavery and racial bigotry and the poverty that black folks suffered over the years. But just as I wondered at the artistry of the jazz men I was puzzled by the stories of violent crime in urban black communities, the black power movement and the fights between the black and white when they started busing school kids in Boston.

What was going on? If the jazz musicians were gods were black criminals devils? The distance between them and me and the images filtered through the media made it hard to believe they could be mere human beings. Today I live in a place were black people are part of the landscape but not a part of my personal life. The barriers are lower and less visible but we have not overcome them.

My brother and I played jazz music when we were in our teens. I played drums and he played upright bass. In fact, Jim still plays bass in jazz combos where he lives in Illinois. He’s gone much further than me, being able to understand the musical invention I found so miraculous.

Years of time and miles of distance have caused my brother and me to grow apart, but we still have the common language of jazz. He sends me CD’s in the mail, like the recording I just got of sax players Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis playing live at Minton’s, wherever that is. I hadn’t heard Eddie Davis play in decades but I immediately recognized the voice of his horn. It’s quick and graceful but starts to shout when he wants to heighten the drama.

I listen to that CD on my car stereo and it takes me back to the days when I played jazz records until I wore out the grooves, hearing the amazing sounds of the black men who played it.

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