It’s only a matter of time before whites aren’t allowed to listen to jazz anymore.
Just like dreadlocks and the word “squad,” soon the greatest expression of American culture, what Dizzy Gillespie referred to as “our native art form—jazz!” may be deemed off-limits to white serial cultural appropriators.
This would be more than a tragedy; it would be heinous historical revisionism of an almost criminal nature. Jazz is not only the most significant African American contribution to the ongoing American experiment, it is also the most meaningful and beautiful expression of what America is and can be. Jazz is a wholly new language that encompasses the American experience, while going beyond place and time to speak to the hearts and souls of people throughout the world.
Labeling the appreciation and playing of jazz by whites “cultural appropriation” is absurd and completely ignores the roots and realities of this unique musical genre.
First of all, if African Americans had not “appropriated” Western musical instruments and music theory, jazz would never have existed in the first place. Jazz incorporates the entire Western canon, African rhythms, field hollers, spirituals and Christian church music. More than anything, jazz is rooted in the blues, which is the essence of swing. Jazz and blues come out of a uniquely American experience, an amalgamation of people and experiences infused with strong emotions of every kind, from sadness and anger to joy and exaltation.
Second, whites have always been a part of jazz, so to exclude them would be sheer ignorance. Jazz was not created by African Americans in isolation, and it did not become the most popular music in America by appealing only to one small segment of the population. Most importantly, jazz musicians themselves did not care about the color of a person’s skin. All that mattered was: can this cat play?
Here are some quotes from legendary jazz musicians that illustrate this point:
Miles Davis: “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing.”
Dave Brubeck: “Kinship doesn’t come from skin color. It’s in your soul and your mind.”
Don Cherry: “When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
Ornette Coleman: “The human being receives the pleasure from music, not from the argument over what it is.”
Duke Ellington: “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.”
Dexter Gordon: “Jazz is a living music; since its beginning has expressed the feelings, dreams & hopes of the people.”
Johnny Griffin: “Jazz is music made by & for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.”
Percy Heath: “Jazz is letting everybody do his or her thing with the music.”
Billie Holiday: “You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, you’re working without any real feeling.”
Max Roach: “Jazz is a democratic musical form. We take our respective instruments & collectively create a thing of beauty.”
Sonny Rollins: “Music represents nature. Nature represents life. Jazz represents nature. Jazz is life.”
Arturo Sandoval: “I am only a mixture of countless influences & thanks to that I am able to find my own style of playing.”
Wayne Shorter: “Your humanity is your instrument.”
Stan Getz: “There are four qualities essential to a great Jazzman: taste, courage, individuality & irreverence. These are the qualities I want to retain in my music.”
Quincy Jones: “Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, young & old shared just a little of what he is good at doing.”
Finally, before yet another truth is thrown down the memory hole and replaced with divisive political propaganda, let’s take a look back to the glory days of jazz, when true titans loomed large on the American musical landscape. Marvel at the genius born of cultural appropriation!