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Response: A Debate Surrounding Randy Sandke's Book

'Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet'


Randall Sandke Jazz History Book Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet
Courtesy of The Scarecrow Press
Howard Mandel, in his review of Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, Randall Sandke's meticulously researched and provocative look at race and jazz, calls Sandke's argument a "muddled analysis," and has provoked heated comments below his blog post promoting the review.

Regardless of whether Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet is "aimed to support an agenda rather than explore a thesis or celebrate the achievements jazz musicians of every stripe," I was fascinated by Sandke's book, and found that it addressed issues that have been bothering me since I became involved in music. I'm often irked by jazz journalists' tendency to cluster around trends, and for seeming to believe in the very hype they help create. Sandke writes, "I want to see music judged on its own terms free of external considerations," something that Mandel, in the comments section of his blog post, dismisses as naïve and idealistic. Mandel claims that, like it or not, external factors carry weight when it comes to the actual way music is sold and admired.

Naturally, the paths of musical absorption and dissemination often run proximal to those of various marketing campaigns. However, when marketing campaigns are mistaken for historical truths, a problem arises, and the problem is both amplified and made especially peculiar when race is an integral part. Marketing as myth is one way of summarizing Sandke's book, and one example he points to is the "Young Lions" phenomenon of the 1980s, when record companies introduced the proposition that jazz is inextricably linked to being black, and is defined by specific characteristics.

The position, which was held for no other reason than to entice people to buy albums, was often misinterpreted as a proposition of real substance, i.e. an exclusionary definition of "jazz," the propagation of which raises existential questions for musicians who fall outside of its bounds. In jazz school, I can recall many instances of listening to my teachers imply that blackness is essential to being a jazz musician, and then looking at the mostly white class and thinking "then what are we all doing here?"

The same observation probably confuses and frustrates a multitude of aspiring musicians, but many are unwilling to wrestle with it because they acknowledge that historically. black musicians have faced obstacles when it comes to self-expression and making a living while doing so. On the other hand, as Sandke shows through primary sources such as payroll records and interviews, despite racial challenges, black musicians have generally had an equal footing in the jazz market throughout the decades.

Mandel claims that Sandke's perspective is "nowhere near as comprehensive or unclouded by personal bias as he believes it to be." While it may be true that Sandke's frustration with his own career setbacks aren't directly rooted in the issues he raises, his argument is very even-keel and concise. On the contrary, Mandel seems to have read the book (three times, he claims) in a haze of bias. He is ruffled and defensive, and writes the following as an attempt to defend jazz writers from what he sees as a misguided attack:

"Without the efforts of white writers who Sandke accuses of having been overly laudatory to black musicians - and also the enthusiasm of listeners of all stripes - the music of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the other greats may never have been heard by the majority of white America at all."

Rather than poke a hole in Sandke's thesis, this is in concurrence with Sandke's belief that jazz developed as a joint project among blacks and whites. It wasn't just white jazz writers, but white musicians, producers, and promoters who helped spread the word about jazz. Sandke would agree that journalists have done a great service to black musicians. He simply takes issue with the journalists who wrote about music as if its authenticity or quality hinged on musicians' being black. He holds that such a proposition promotes racial separatism, and that it does a disservice to jazz because it places emphasis on race rather than on the music itself.

Sandke isn't ignorant to the fact that external forces have a lot to do with music dissemination and admiration. As he mentions in his book, it explains why a black musician like Fletcher Henderson learned to master the blues style of the time: because there was a market for it. I think anyone in the jazz industry will acknowledge that artistically irrelevant factors such as race and marketing affect the way music is heard, but it's safe to say that steering clear of those factors as much as possible is still in the best interest of jazz.

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