Fetishizing Black American Music

Featured image is from Daniel Stewart’s Erosion project. Model: Imani Love

In the age of information channels that require no qualifications to reach millions, college juries where young jazz musicians are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and mass exportation and exploitation of black culture, Amiri Baraka’s essay, “Jazz and the White Critic” on the faults and arrogance of white criticism of jazz music has been utterly ignored. He writes about the futility of traditional musicology when evaluating “Negro music” and the arrogance of the white critic in telling a young black musician that what he/she is doing is wrong. Upon reading examples of statements made by white critics on the absurdity of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as an emissary of “anti-jazz”, I began to wonder about how much of an effect these flagrant statements really had on the imagination of the American people. Whose approval really matters and to whom?

In attempting to answer this question, I decided to figure out what American people were actually listening to when jazz was in the public eye. As the best selling jazz album of all-time, I figured Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue would be a good place to start. Having sold over 4 million copies in America, one might think that Kind of Blue must’ve been all the rage in 1959. However, the fascination with the seminal album was done almost entirely in retrospect. Kind of Blue didn’t receive it’s RIAA Gold certification (indicating 500,000 copies sold in the U.S.) until 1993. By contrast, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out (released in the same year), received its Gold certification a full 30 years prior in 1963. Stan Getz’s Getz/Giberto album received it’s Gold certification scarcely a year after it was released in 1965. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, now exalted as one of the most influential recordings of the century, didn’t reach Gold until 2001. The Downbeat, Metronome, and Playboy reader’s polls of the time reveal the same trends, with Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Shelly Manne routinely ruling public opinion. In the pre-album days of the swing era, figures like Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey consistently outsold Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington. Even today, the #1 selling jazz record of the year has not included a black musician since 2009 (and likely longer than that, Billboard only keeps the past 10 years on their website).

So the American public decides what music to buy largely based on whether or not the artist is white… so why the resurgence in the sales of Kind of Blue? Why do performance halls, museums, Jazz at Lincoln Center patrons, and critics now shout the names of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk? Baraka describes this phenomenon of reverse patronization as “Crow Jim”. He writes, “The disparaging ‘all you folks got rhythm’ is no less a stereotype, simply because it is viewed as a positive trait… The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingeniously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define jazz as an art (or folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy.”

This describes a sort-of fetishization of African American music and culture that has its roots in the race records of Bessie Smith and has come to full realization with the hip hop movement and figures like Michael Jackson. All the caricatures that White America has created of black people since the days of black-face and Birth of Nation have all of a sudden become fashionable. Since 1991, white consumers, mainly young, suburban males, have reportedly consumed between 60-80% of hip hop music. Much of today’s youth now wants to dress, talk, and act like the images of black people that the media has decided it wants to propagate. To illustrate the problem with this, I will defer to a quote from Summer Okoye’s essay, The Black Commodity: “…it boils down to this: For those Black artists and entertainers who just want to share their craft, what happens when prying White hands, like the ones in [Daniel] Stewart’s photos, are constantly clawing at and feeding on their Blackness? What does it mean when your identity becomes something to be bought and sold?” Artists like Louis Armstrong and Bob Marley, while of course marked by incredible artistic excellence, rose to mainstream fame because they had a persona the white critic could approve of. The more erratic lifestyles of Miles Davis and others couldn’t be marketed in the same fashion until the fetishization had taken its full form.

So whose approval really matters and to whom? The problem stems from a larger issue of people’s aversion to developing their own opinions, seeking mass consensus to validate their own thoughts. The first thing we must all say to ourselves to overcome Crow Jim: No one else’s approval really matters to me.


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