Celebrating Black Genius

Drizzle by R.B.
Drizzle by R.B.

The failure to recognize genius has a long-term price tag .

I’ve been a committed jazz fan for more than thirty years, and the most important truth I’ve gleaned from a dogged immersion in this music is an appreciation for the power of Black Genius. Any intelligent discussion of jazz involves, number one, an acknowledgement that this art form is the creation of the African-American community.

All of its innovators have been black – that should not be an argumentative presumption. This is not to diminish the contributions of the many terrific white musicians who have come to the music – it’s a crucial fallacy to believe that giving black musicians their due somehow lowers the value of white players.

The fact that all of the iconic innovators in this music have been black can easily be demonstrated by a cursory examination of the most obvious examples. For instance, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis. These are just a few of the giants of improvised music – a few examples of those whose merit cannot be seriously argued by any rational scholar.

They all share one thing in common – they don’t have a white counterpart. I find joy in this fact, but even if I didn’t – it remains a fact. In America, we seem to have missed the boat, and lost a huge cultural opportunity for advancement by being stuck in a mode that refused to acknowledge the immensity of Black Genius.

Let me be perfectly clear about this: there have been many, many white contributors to this music  who have been innovators — however, in the “Mount Rushmore” of iconic innovators that I imagine, those figures are black.

I thought long and hard about this : there are compelling cases to be made for Lennie Tristano, and Steve Lacy, for example, certainly innovators in the larger scope, but they wouldn’t be carved into my mountainside.

I grew up in the sixties, and I clearly remember that in my primary and secondary education – the notion of Black Genius was reduced to two examples: George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. Frederick Douglas was mentioned, mostly for his role in the abolitionist movement, with very little emphasis given to his stunning intellectual achievements. That was it. No mention of even obvious historical figures like W.E.B Dubois; and in the sixties, Martin Luther King Jr. was still regarded as an extremely polarizing political figure with none of the adulation common to the present day.

But everyone of us understood (because we were told) that J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig von Beethoven were absolute musical geniuses. Their work was serious and important and every educated person was expected to accept that premise as common knowledge.

Louis Armstrong was frequently featured on 1960s TV, but only as an “entertainer,” mostly relegated to vocal renditions of pop music or the clichéd warhorse “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” a tune so corny that even white folks loved to clap along (usually off-beat.) Once in a great while, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis might make it onto the airwaves – but the idea that these men were geniuses on par with Bach and Beethoven was never advanced or discussed.

Imagine what a different world we might live in today if only we had the wisdom and humility to admit that black people were producing art of the highest degree back in the sixties (or any other decade.) Of course, the mindset to make that realization involves first admitting that we are all humans deserving equal rights, respect and protection under the law. We are, as a country, much to our shame, still a long way from such an understanding, and because of that myopia, America has never really bothered to champion its most stunning, and only indigenous artform.

And of course, that myopic dysfunction has led to the wholesale dismissal of generations of geniuses. What if every American child could whistle Duke’s “Rockin in Rhythm,” or appropriate snatches of Armstrong’s iconic solo on “West End Blues,”? What if Bird’s shocking alto break on “Night in Tunisia,” was part of our cultural lexicon, or if we, as a nation could sing Monk tunes like we can all imitate “Fur Elise,” or the dun-dun-dun daah of Beethoven’s 9th? Would a nation that shared such information debase itself in what passes for the “pop” music of today?

I don’t think so. I truly believe that exposing people to innovations in human achievement represents the opening of a door not easily closed.

But perhaps more importantly, developing an understanding of the above could serve as an important argument for abandoning grotesque notions of white supremacy and the tacit reliance on white privilege that remains an uncomfortable subject that so few are willing to discuss seriously.

I believe that it would become harder to accept the wholesale discrimination, mass incarceration, and economic depravity with which we have shackled our fellow human beings if we could only acknowledge the brilliance and depth of their contribution to the American experience – in all fields, not just music.

I use music as my argument, because music is what I know.

I continue to hope to live in an America that values and celebrates the musical achievements of the African-American community. There is a treasure trove of joyous exploration to be found in this music – it may be an acquired taste, but once acquired, it often becomes a preferred one.

I began this essay with a short (extremely short) list of black musical geniuses. Those were icons – names so obvious as to be beyond serious debate. The true list is immensely more populous.
One could think of the Bebop and Free Jazz movements as the “Manhattan Projects” of American music. In the same way we can all cite Albert Einstein, and Robert Oppenheimer – it’s easy enough to single out Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.

But the Manhattan Project only succeeded because of the collective work of thousands of brilliant minds – most of who were in the genius category by any standard measure.

Jazz music serves as the living proof that one doesn’t have to imagine what such an intelligent, collective force could accomplish in the pursuit of a nonviolent, nondestructive goal – it’s all right there in front of you – easily available for anyone with the time and inclination to investigate.

There are the instrumental geniuses: people like Clifford Brown and Bud Powell and Wes Montgomery – who have changed the way their instruments are perceived – there are the compositional geniuses – folks like Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Mingus and Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith – who changed the way we hear the music itself – closely related are the conceptual geniuses – Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor –who forever broke through the stylistic constraints of what was thought “proper.”

I used to be kind of perplexed or bemused by the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s emblematic motto: “Great Black Music.” The younger me didn’t know if the phrase was meant to exclude me. I no longer feel that way – in part because of an interview that I saw with the great bass player Cecil McBee, on tour with the Leaders, a group that featured trumpeter Lester Bowie and drummer Famoudou Don Moye – both members of the Art Ensemble. McBee postulated that all American music was “Great Black Music” – even country music – even Elvis. All of a sudden it made sense to me – black people are intrinsically woven into the American experience, and they have been influencing or downright creating the music of our culture from the beginning.

“Great Black Music,” isn’t just a slogan fit for banners, emblems and bumper stickers – it’s a truth we should all acknowledge with pride.