Last month saw another encouraging bit of evidence that in the field of jazz at least, racial prejudice is taking a back seat to recognition of talent. Roy Eldridge, the small colored trumpeter, whose size doesn't seem to prevent him from blowing as dynamic a horn as any of his fellows, stopped fooling around with his own little band in Chicago and joined up with Gene Krupa. Judging from a few late evening broadcasts I have heard in the past few weeks, I wouldn't say the change is doing Roy's reputation much good, for with one or two exceptions he concentrated on "instrumental tight-rope walking" rather than the excellent, tasteful jazz improvisations he has been known to perform in the past.
But the trend is the more significant thing. Too long has the Negro, generally recognized as the originator of the jazz style, which white musicians have only imitated and polished, started out with not two, but three strikes against him in his fight to gain an equal footing with the white man here as in every other field in which he has tried to make headway. There is every reason to claim that jazz is the Negro's own artistic achievement. In every form of artistic expression there is an occasional Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson or Richard Wright, but in jazz the Negro comes into his own in a medium he himself invented and developed.
Yet from the commercial angle, the Negro has been slow to gain recognition. Even when swing music struck the public fancy some five years ago, the Negro reaped a few of the accruing dividends. White bands have commanded all along ridiculously higher prices for their music. Only last year Count Basie widely outplayed Benny Goodman in a joint charity concert held in Madison Square Garden. Yet for their efforts Basie's band received about three times less money than the King of Swing drew down. And only last summer Basie's band was in danger of breaking up because it could find no bookings.
Goodman himself has been one of the first to grant the colored musician equal opportunity to star in the big time. Ever since Teddy Wilson joined him in 1935 he has had one or more Negroes occupying important places in his organization. Wilson and Lionel Hampton, the versatile vibraphonist and demon of the two-fingered piano, both gained so much publicity that they have now broken off and launched their own bands. And now Charlie Christians and Cootie Williams, two other colored virtuosi, are performing with Goodman's sextet.
It is true, however, that the glorification of a few outstanding colored players promises little yet for the less talented Negro musician. Even the best colored bands, as Basie's experience shows, have difficulty getting jobs, although their musical ability may be far greater than that of the stereotyped white bands which feather their nests with the proceeds of their successful mediocrity. Then too, once they hit the limelight, colored stars, like too many white players, are wont to sacrifice their playing styles to impress the multitude, as Eldridge is doing now. No matter how many Negro players are featured with white bands, they will do little to spread the popularity of their music unless they cease merely displaying their technical ability.
NEWS AND NEW RECORDS: The latest Columbia reissue batch, out yesterday, includes an album of Louis Armstrong Hot Five records of the vintage of 1926. The intense Armstrong trumpet overcomes any little obstacles of poor recording to show his earlier style of playing to advantage, though most of the numbers sound quite dated. Among the single records the best is the great Red Norvo "Blues in E Flat," one of the greatest improvised performances ever made by a pickup band of colored and white musicians. Bunny Berrigan, Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, and Johnny Mince, late of Tommy Dorsey, combine their talents to produce one of the most satisfying jazz records of the past ten years . . . George Frazier '33, the Boston jazz critic who has frequently graced the Crimson Network with his presence, this year has decided to immortalize his alma mater's most notorious characteristic. He and his fiancee are writing the lyrics to "Harvard Indifference Blues," which Count Basie will record for posterity . . . Another interesting new release is a series of "Improvisations in Ellingtonia" by Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard and Billy Taylor of Duke's band and the French guitarist Django Reinhardt. These four sides, made over in France about three years ago, show each of the players at his best, which is enough to recommend them