A White Blackman

by William L. Benzon

The first time I heard the phrase – “white black man” – Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, three-quarters of a life ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit, the joy, the freedom and dignity, I cultivated in the heart of jazz.

When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.

[Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947] (LOC)

By William Gottlieb, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, April 1947.

My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. For one thing, this was an old recording and the sound quality was thin. I had to hear through that. For another, I’d never heard anything quite like it.

But I listened and listened and, gradually, I learned to hear Armstong’s music. There was his tone – by turns jubilant, plaintive, tightly-coiled, tender – his ability to bend notes, to worry them. And his rhythm, his amazing ability to stretch or compress time, to float phrases over the beat. This rhythmic freedom was quite unlike anything I knew in the military band music which was the staple of my instructional and playing experience, the latter mostly in middle school and high school marching and concert bands. It was exciting.

Above all, there was the blues. Its emotional provenance, grief, resignation, longing. The sound, the particular notes, those so-called “blue notes.” It wasn't until much later that I learned enough about music theory to know which notes these were, and to know that these notes didn't exist in any European musical system. But I could hear these notes, I could grasp their expressive power. I wanted to make them mine.

Fortunately I had found a trumpet teacher who was a jazz musician. Mr. David Dysert was more than willing to teach me the ways of this strange idiom. He taught me jazz rhythm and phrasing – “It don't mean a thing if it don't got that swing”. He also told me that it was almost impossible for musicians with a “legitimate” background to play with a jazz feel. The ways of swing had to be learned when you were young. That was when I first became consciously aware of the cultural distance between my immediate background and the music I loved. But my parents had no reservations about my love of jazz even if they didn’t share it.

But it wasn't until I went to college – to study philosophy – that I began seriously to think about these matters. That was in the late Sixties, with the civil rights and anti-war movements in high gear. I read about the African origins of jazz rhythm and tonality – on my own, not for any courses I was taking – about how the slaves were forbidden to play drums but that didn’t keep them from clapping their hands or from singing those “blue” notes, the tones they brought from Africa. Reading Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), among others, I became aware of how American music in general was tremendously indebted to African-American music and, by implication, African music. I began to understand that when I moved toward jazz, as many other European Americans have done, I was moving toward Africa and away from Europe. Whatever American culture is, in general, in the musical arena it is largely a hybrid of European and African elements.

Late in my college career I joined a local jazz-rock band called the St. Matthew Passion. One particular arrangement began with the horns playing avant-garde free-for-all passionate noise for a short time. Then the rhythm section started the song proper, with a regular beat and melody. At our last gig the sax player and I were alone – the trombone player couldn't make it. We began as usual, and then, something snapped. All of a sudden there was just the music, flowing through me. Through us. And the light, the almost blinding white light. It was wonderful. And frightening. We pulled back. The rest of the band came in on cue. The sax player and I never really talked about what had happened – what could we say? could talk bring it back? – but, with a significant nod, a mumbled “that was nice,” we managed to convey to each other that something special had happened.

Perhaps a year or so later I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a concert at Morgan State ¬– then a state teacher's college, now a university. He played a long solo in “Olinga” and, as the solo began to end, I had a definite sense that, in some way, Dizzy was returning to himself, as though his soul had left his body during the solo and now was returning – from a spiritual Africa, everywhere present, and available, to those who listen but do not seek the present in the future/past. While it is almost impossible to describe this event – perhaps because I must do so in the language of a culture which tries very hard to deny that such things happen, and are important – my sense of it is quite definite. To this day I believe that, if I saw a film of Dizzy playing this solo, I could indicate the precise moment when his soul rejoined his body.

Strange, and moving, as these experiences were, they were yet not unexpected. A child of the Sixties, I had read about ecstasies, about mystical experience, about “altered states of consciousness,” as the psychologists called them. But even before that, when I was first studying the trumpet, I had read Jean-Baptiste Arban's assertion that “There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained.” That statement is from Arban's Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn, a standard pedagogical text which has come down to us from Nineteenth Century France and which I knew as Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet.

The Nineteenth Century in which Arban wrote the book on the trumpet was the same century which saw the United States of America fight its bloodiest war, a Civil War growing from the cruel injustice of slavery. Those enslaved Africans survived to become free men and women in part through the strength of their religion, a vigorous religion in which an African spirit wore European Christian dress. When, back in college, I read that jazz – and the music of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the late B. B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy hisownbadself, and many others – springs from the African-American church, I was astounded. This vibrant, expressive, funky music was unlike anything I had ever heard in church. In my church people had given me puzzled looks when I sang with too much enthusiasm and improvised variations on the hymns.

It was only in late 1980s that I heard this church music live, and it was not even in a church that I heard it. It was in a concert setting on a Sunday afternoon in Albany, New York. First a local ensemble performed, the Wilborn Temple Ensemble. Then the Morgan State University Choir. Spirits were high. People in the audience shouted encouragement to the singers – “I hear you,” “take it slow girl.” Many clapped rhythmically and many were unable to remain seated. The joy and the love were infectious. I clapped, and cried, and felt renewed. This was home.

And then it was over. I returned to my apartment and reflected back on the afternoon. The music was what I had expected it to be. While it wasn’t a church service, the enthusiasm and passion of musicians and audience was what I had expected from all the descriptions I had read. I felt that, if I could have this experience every week, it might be worthwhile to attend a church where this music is sung. But I realized that, for me, it wouldn't work. Most, probably all, of the musicians I had heard that afternoon, and most of the audience, believed the religious doctrine in that music. I do not.

For me, the spirit must live in the world I can see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and share, with others. And work with them to make the world a better one, for us, for our children, and the nieces and nephews of their great-grandchildren. The human spirit was born on the savannas of Africa. It survived slavery, triumphantly so. We must not allow it to die in the ghettos of the Twenty-First Century.

That Zola Kobas saw me as a white black man is a good thing; just as it was a good thing that Ade had a party where Zola and I could meet. But it is not a good thing that we live in a world where such a good things seem remarkable. I would be happy to live in a world where racism is but a distant memory and so would Zola and Ade. That is not our world, not yet. And so we must acknowledge that I am white, they black, and work against the conditions which force that acknowledgment from us. To be a white black man is a good thing. It would be better to be just a man.

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I first published this over a decade and a half ago on a long-gone personal website and then on a now-dormant site called Gravity. I’ve made a few slight changes in this version.