I’ve been hearing some strange who-shot-John static among musicians these last months. It hasn’t been just dressing room gossip or guys crying in their beer after hours of the Friendly Tavern. This noise wound up in a big public blast by Stan Kenton, who said in so many words that palefaces were getting pushed around the bandstand when it came to collecting honors in jazz polls.
Now Stan’s my man but in my book he was sounding some awfully sour notes in this particular jam session. I do admire him for coming out in the open and saying what I’ve heard some shadowy characters say in private. At least he has the courage of his convictions that white musicians are not getting the breaks. But as much as I like to stay away from the rumble, I can’t help but talk up and say my piece about this business of color in the music business.
Going back through my years in jazz, I sometimes ask myself what the so-and-so would have happened to Gene Krupa in my early years in Chicago if I hadn’t been given a chance to learn what jazz was all about from some really great Negro musicians. It would be ridiculous for me to deny this debt, just as it is inane to deny the very origin of jazz in Negro life. Jazz is as much Negro as the spiritual and to pretend anything but that is to fly in the face of fact.
What white musicians have been doing for almost a half century is to beg, borrow and even steal this racist asset from Negroes. This is not to say that once the heist was committed of great ofay jazz men were not able to improvise and improve on their larceny. Certainly Stan Kenton proved veritable genius in his gift for making new sounds out of what was often literally “old music.” No one can take that away from him or any of the other terrific white talents in the jazz field.
But I still insist that it all started down in New Orleans and that it was the fellows with cheeks of tan that first performed the obstetrical wonders that gave birth to jazz. From that basic theme, there have been many variations since—everything from Lombardo to Brubeck. But it all started down there on Basin Street in New Orleans.