Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?

The Cry of Jazz directed by Edward Bland at The Boston Center for the Arts

IF IMAMU BARAKA had his way, whites would not even be allowed to review Edward Bland's film, The Cry of Jazz, let alone play or write real Jazz music themselves.

It was Baraka who in his essay Jazz and the White Critic, said so eloquently what took Bland about fifty minutes to express ineffectively in this 1959 film. Bland contends that white musicians have taken over and subsequently destroyed black jazz. Bland bases his contentions on the argument that jazz is built upon the contradiction between restraint and freedom which only blacks, through their heritage of suffering in America, can understand.

He illustrates this thesis by explaining how the soloist expresses how "things should be" in America with his improvisational expression of black joy and freedom, while the rhythm section, with its repetition of one melody over and over again, represents black life as it is--restrained, helpless, and stagnant--"how things really are." What injuries the credibility of The Cry of Jazz is Bland's not-so-logical deduction that because whites haven't suffered they plainly can't understand, and therefore can't create, play or even listen correctly to jazz compositions.

Bland's forum for showcasing this message considerably damages any support he could bring to bear for his tenuous argument. He places three black musicians spouting out the "jazz for blacks only" decree in a highly unrealistic setting of a small white cocktail party of three naive white racists and a fourth white woman who is "trying so hard to understand" the obfuscating arguments of the musicians. And Bland's cause isn't helped by the "acting" so reminiscent of one of those Steve Cochran - George Nader beat generation movies that reeked of one-star performances.

But while these idiotic white characters (one professed to see no difference between jazz and rock 'n' roll) try to shoot holes through Bland's thesis with questions directed only at his strongest contentions--such as whether "Negroes" have actually suffered--they never press the musicians to explain why some lower class oppressed white or other minorities aren't producing jazz as prolifically as blacks.


Nevertheless Bland's most effective moments come when he makes a mockery of the white "attempts" at jazz. At first he cuts away from the genteel party to street scenes of lower class blacks accompanied by some appropriately blue jazz tunes. Then he wickedly splices to a serene snow scene with an unperturbed upper crust executive getting off a suburban local; next, he cuts even deeper to a white woman nonchalantly trimming the white locks of her baby poodle. All this, to a background of pristine Brubeckian pop, a cruel contrast to the rest of the film's dynamic, gutsy soundtrack.

Aside from the black-white jazz juxtaposition, Bland gives little support for his murder indictment of white jazzmen. He fails to deal with the then up-and-coming black musicians, particularly John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, who when the movie was made were far from their deathbeds. And more importantly, he precludes any sort of white imitations arising, a viewpoint which the plangent sounds of John Klemmer's tenor sax go far to dispute.

We must turn to Baraka's essay, written four years after this film was made, to find the glue that Bland needs to bind his loosely-constructed "unique suffering" argument together. Rather than ignoring the existence of a few competent white jazz musicians, Baraka admits that some white musicians, "originally Dixieland Jazz Band, Bix, etc. sought not only to understand that phenomenon of the Negro Music, but to appropriate it as a means of expression which they might utilize."

Baraka also agrees that the black experience is singular but he at least allows the white artists a stab, even if a little off-base, at playing and even writing jazz music:

The white musician's commitment to jazz, the ultimate concern, proposed that the sub-cultural attitudes that produced the music as a profound expression of human feelings, could be learned and need not be passed on as a secret blood rite. And Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made. The white jazz musician came to understand this attitude as a way of making music, and the intensity of his understanding produced the "great" white jazz musicians, and is producing them now.

Regardless of both Bland and Baraka, whites will continue to play (or at least listen to) what they think is jazz. And even if, as both claim, whites will not be able to understand the social or cultural origins of jazz because they have not experienced them, whites will no doubt continue to believe that they even enjoy just the type of jazz that Bland and Baraka say they can't.

The other films in The Boston Center for the Arts series of which Bland's film is a part include Dizzie Gillespie, a 1959 Les Blank production, and John Jeremy's Jazz Is Our Religion. Jeremy's 1970 film supports Bland's thesis that even when a black musician plays from his roots he blows his soul "through a white man's machine." But the work is most notable for some fine stills of the conditions and communities that breed jazz as well as a scattering of poetic jazz talk by Langston Hughes.

Unlike Bland's film, Jazz Is Our Religion offers both hope and enthusiasm for the future jazz scene. And more realistically, rather than limiting the jazz rites to blacks, Jeremy invites us all to "go worship in the church of jazz--the nightclub."