Imagine you’re born “Thelonius Sphere Monk” in the early part of the last century on New York’s west side back when it was a slum (think “West Side Story”).
And you’re black. What do you do?
Well, you of course teach yourself the piano and become one of the best ivory-ticklers in jazz history. You’re known for “improvisation,” which means you make it up as you go. And you make it fine.
Apart from his music, Monk was never understood. He died after a run of contrary medical diagnoses, including depression, bipolar disease and withdrawal. He was recommended for electroshock treatment. But while he lived, man, did he live.
Or imagine you’re born John Coltrane (pronounced “coal-train”) in North Carolina. You grew up during the depression, enlisted in the Navy at the end of WWII and played in a Navy band but always as a “guest” so that the brass didn’t get wise to a black sax player in the band.
Naturally, you meet an oddball pianist named Monk who teaches you the ropes.
And you meet a cool cat named Miles. As in Miles Davis, who came improbably from a profitable pig-farming family in Illinois and went to Julliard. He was an incredible trumpet player, and we can only guess what he might have done if not for his heroin addiction.
Miles hooked up with a saxophonist named Charlie Parker. That would be “Yardbird” Parker, and later just “Bird.”
Bird grew up in Kansas City as the son of a Native American mother and an absent black father. He dropped out of high school, practiced his sax 15 hours a day and invented bebop jazz. He, too, was a heroin addict and died at 34.
Bird’s bebop addiction led him to a trumpet virtuoso named John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Dizzy grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of nine children and taught himself to play trumpet and trombone.
He taught himself well. Like Bird, he improvised — if you can call it improvisation to conjure up the product of thousands of hours of practice.
Dizzy managed to get himself fired by a singer and bandleader named Cab Calloway. The story is that during a performance Cab was hit with a spitball from his own band. Cab accused Dizzy, apparently wrongly and maybe just because he envied Dizzy’s adventurous solos.
Dizzy’s answer was to stab Cab in the leg with a steak knife. Talk about improvisation.
Cab is remembered mainly for “Minnie the Moocher” but he was a successful and multitalented entertainer. His trademark was “scat” singing. Cab came from an upper-class black family but found his fame in the Cotton Club of Harlem, New York.
I know a little about music and used to play in an amateur jazz band. I was never any good, but I can recognize the good stuff when I hear it. The music these guys made is amazing on all levels – technically and creatively. It’s been heard for nearly a century and will last centuries more.
I can’t say the same for Ludacris and Jay-Z.
Most of the great jazz musicians played in the years of horrific Jim Crow laws in the South and overt discrimination in the North. Sometimes they weren’t allowed to use the front doors of the clubs they played.
They didn’t make black music, and they didn’t make white music. They just made music. And did they ever.
How did they do it?
There were no racial quotas to help them. There was no “affirmative action” unless you define that term to include their own personal action to affirm themselves.
I think their achievements were not despite the absence of affirmative action, but because of its absence. If they’d been told they weren’t good enough to make it on their merit and so the standards would be lowered for them because there was a racial slot to fill, would they have held the same confidence in themselves? Would they have practiced as hard? Would they have taken the same risks?
I doubt it. True achievement comes from true merit. They had a lot of both.
I have a message for everyone out there named Thelonious, Bird, Dizzy and Cab. And for everyone named DeShawn, Jazmine, Jose, Pablo, Nguyen, Feng, Xiu, Pierre, Mohammed, Simon, Kim, Walther, Gal, Klaus and Jai. And everyone else with hard-earned and God-given talent: Let’s forget about race and just make music.
P.S. Much of the great jazz is now anthologized. See for example, “The 75 Best Jazz Tracks of the 1960s,” “Jazz Noir” and “The Very Best Jazz Vocalists,” all available on Amazon and elsewhere.
P.P.S. On the sidewalk outside the Aspen Art Museum is a cool sculpture by a Swiss artist named Ugo Rondinone, on loan from Nancy and Bob (recently deceased) Magoon. Check it out.
(Published Feb. 4, 2018 in the Aspen Times at https://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/beaton-affirmative-action-and-all-that-jazz/)