J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hester’s Bigotry and Afrocentric “Jazz” Evolution


Bigotry and Afrocentric “Jazz” Evolution
By Karlton E. Hester, Ph.D.
Global Academic Publishing
1-58684-228-5


In jazz, one is expected to develop their personal style. Each recording should reflect the leader’s style. When writing about jazz, one can expect individual’s particular point of view to inform their writing and give it distinction. However, a specific point of view should not create blind spots of bias, for the sake of an agenda. Too often, Hester’s Bigotry and Afrocentric “Jazz” Evolution falls into that trap.

Hester is strongest when he concentrates on two areas, illustrating the roots of jazz in African musical styles, and in giving just due to underappreciated jazz figures. In discussing the role of the bass in jazz, Hester illuminates an under sung figure in Bill Johnson. As Hester writes: “The man who introduced the style involving pizzicato articulation on the “jazz” bass was Bill Johnson. He played with power, used triplets, and his bass lines were steeped in syncopation.” (p. 159)

In some respects, Hester echoes the concerns of Stanley Crouch, insisting that the African-American roots of jazz not be minimized or obscured. Given the role of such creators as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, such arguments are on solid ground. It is when Hester addresses white jazz artists, that his racial politics complicate matters. It becomes somewhat ugly when he repeatedly belittles Bill Evans. In his introduction, Hester castigates Gene Lees for supposedly “bigoted comments” advocating a high place for Evans in the Pantheon of jazz innovators, which Hester claims “would never be taken seriously among African-American innovators.” (p. xxxviii) When profiling the great piano stylists in jazz history, the best Hester can grudgingly muster for Evans is a terse and dismissive paragraph. Hester writes:

“Evans often omitted certain chord tones, especially the root, and expanded his chord voicing by adding extensions of ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths to provide more transparent textures. His musical style was vaguely reminiscent of Debussy’s turn-of-the-century Impressionism. Such harmonic extensions were introduced and exhaustively explored by earlier pianists such as Tatum and some bebop innovators. Yet, Evans’s approach reflected a more restrained European sensibility.” (p. 192)

Anyone familiar with the development of jazz in the later half of the twentieth century is familiar with the influence Evans had on succeeding musicians, including notable figures like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, and Fred Hersch. Hester would be more convincing to complain Evans influence is too pervasive, rather than deny it outright. This becomes embarrassing when Hester discusses the classic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. He lists five of the six musicians of “the ensemble from this period, often called Miles’ Classic Sextet,” but the piano is oddly not listed (p. 356) Of course, it was Bill Evans playing on Kind of Blue (except on one track), even penning the album’s liner notes.

At least Evans is discussed, unlike Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, who are only mentioned in passing. Like him or hate him, Chet Baker’s name does not even see print here. West Coast jazz in fact, is dismissed out of hand as white-bread commercial music, “which failed to produce an offspring.” (p. 473) Again, Hester keeps the blinkers on, failing to credit a style he dislikes, even though its artists would have an influence on future Bossa Nova and ECM-label musicians. While Hester rightly castigates early white pretenders, like Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” he simply ignores artists who do not fit his world view of jazz. For that reason, his book can not be recommended for academic audiences. It simply refuses to tell the entire story.

Hester, an accomplished musician, has much to recommend here, but he would have benefited from some prudent editing. He is often repetitive, largely repeating musician profiles and polemic points throughout the book. Hester can explain the technical innovations of particular artists lucidly, but his political commentary usually misfires. He often equates segregation with capitalism, even though segregation employed governmental and union power (the tools of socialism), in the form of discriminatory barriers to capitol formation and employment, to enforce its bigoted scheme. While Hester’s point of view gives his writing passion, it creates blind spots which ultimately undermine the book’s credibility.

(As always, I would be interested to hear from readers who have different opinion. E-mail comments on this or any topic discussed here to jb.feedback at yahoo dot com.)