Monday, April 8, 2013

"What color is he, anyway?"

That was reportedly the response George Shearing gave an interviewer who asked Shearing, "How come you're using a colored drummer?" "I never really thought about it. What color is he, anyway?" Shearing, you see, was legally blind, so "what color is he" might have been an appropriate response, if he didn't have any other of his six senses. I suspect that Shearing's tongue was planted firmly in his cheek, and that was his way of not responding in the nasty way he might have been entitled to. He was also British, where black and white seem to be colors more than separatist races.

The color of one's skin has long been an issue in the music world (and elsewhere, obviously), and this opining and sometimes outright discrimination on both sides deserves some pondering. Jazz bands were segregated for many years, but in the '30s some white bandleaders, notably Benny Goodman, realized what they were missing by not simply hiring the best players available, regardless of color, and began hiring black artists. Tommy Dorsey, wanting to expand the musical scope of his very popular orchestra, famously hired the great arranger Sy Oliver away from the also popular Jimmy Lunceford (black) band. Producer Norman Granz (Jazz At The Philharmonic) was a noted anti-racist and hired whites and blacks and treated them equally.

But from my experience in the jazz world in Los Angeles, there seems to be an undercurrent of separatism that I've been at a loss to understand. White bandleaders seem, almost without exception, to put together all-white bands. But the "why" is what I don't get; I played in a band led by a white drummer who had put together an all-white band that was working clubs around L.A. He once called me and said he was desperate to get a tenor sax sub for the following day's rehearsal. I suggested he call a black player who happened to be my friend and co-worker in another band (led by a black), and he replied, after a small hesitation, "Do you think he'd want to do it?" Meaning, I think, that he had a  great deal of respect for my friend, but he might have thought there was a racial divide that doesn't really exist. He did call Carl, who not only agreed to rehearse that day, but became an important, no, an integral, part of the band. (Carl has passed away since I started writing this, and some measure of respect and the high regard in which he was held could be seen in the attendance and participation in a fund-raiser that was held to help with his funeral and related expenses. It was attended by people of all races, who gladly performed to help his family in their time of need.)

I more recently played a rehearsal with a "white" band, and another black saxophonist friend was subbing that day. I welcomed him to the band, and he said he'd been trying to get into that band for years. I know that some, maybe many, maybe all, of the white band leaders work with black musicians in other venues, and have friends who are black, and respect them on both counts, so I don't get what's going on. It certainly and obviously has nothing to do neither with musicianship nor racism, as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, the black bandleaders seem to always have a healthy mix of players. I played and recorded with Buddy Collette at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. for the Library of Congress, and Buddy's band had blacks, whites, hispanics and even women. Buddy was definitely an equal opportunity employer, and hired on basis of musical ability and personality. Color never entered into it. I've played with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for some seventeen years, and he has the same mix in his band. John Stephens does the same. There seems to be something like reverse non-discrimination here somewhere. Other players I've talked to have observed the same thing but don't seem to have an answer. Perhaps it's simply tradition, status quo, or not thinking about it.

Perhaps I'm seeing a problem where none exists; I do see and perform with blacks in other venues. I have black friends that I'm as close to as my white friends (and hispanic, and women, and even redheads -- take that, Conan Doyle!). I've spent a lot of time writing this in a way that makes sense to me, and have hesitated posting it out of concern for offending someone, so maybe it speaks more of me than the situation I've put forth. I was, after all, raised in a segregated community in the south, and only went to school with (a few) blacks late in my college career. My parents taught me to not be prejudiced, and when I enlisted in the U.S.Air Force, I worked with blacks on a daily basis and had the greatest respect for them and their wonderful musicianship (as well as for my white co-workers). But I still saw racism on some level, even there.

So what was the question?? More important, what is the answer??

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