Other People’s Culture and the Problem of Identity

by Bill Benzon

Some years ago I was reading an article in Krin Gabbard’s anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), one of a pair of anthologies arguing that “jazz has entered the mainstreams of the American academy”. The general purpose of the anthology is to help ensure that this new discipline is in harmony with the latest developments in postmodern humanities scholarship. One Steven Elworth contributed a paper examining the critical transformation of jazz into an art music: “Jazz in Crisis, 1948—1958: Ideology and Representation.”

In the course of his argument, Elworth observes: “The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other. I do not wish to argue, of course, that one can only write of one’s own culture. In the contemporary moment of constant cultural transformation and commodification, even the definition of one’s own culture is exceedingly contradictory and problematic.”

My immediate response was “Right on! Brother!” But then I asked myself, “Just what ‘culture not one’s own’ is Elworth talking about?” Since this article is about jazz I assume that jazz culture is what he’s talking about. I further assume that Elworth is White, for I cannot imagine a Black scholar writing that way about jazz.

[Portrait of Cozy Cole, New York, N.Y.(?), ca. Sept. 1946] (LOC)
Cozy Cole, the drummer at the back. New York, N.Y., Sept. 1946. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

As we know, the jazz genealogy has strands extending variously to West Africa and Europe, has been and continues to be performed by Blacks and Whites, before audiences both Black and White – though, in the past, these have often been segmented into different venues, or different sections of the same venue – the music is conventionally considered to be Black. That convention is justified by the fact the music’s major creators have been overwhelmingly Black. Thus it follows that jazz culture is, as these conventions go, Black culture.

But, in what sense would jazz be foreign to Elworth, and so NOT his own culture? The fact that he is writing about jazz suggests that he likes it a great deal and knows more than a little about it. It is quite possible that he grew up in a house where folks listened to jazz on a regular basis. If not that, perhaps he discovered jazz while among friends or relatives and came to love it. He likely attends live performances; perhaps he is a weekend warrior, jamming with friends either privately or in public. He may well have been to weddings where a jazz band played the reception. He is comfortable with jazz; he knows something of its history and understands its conventions. It is not exotic music. That is to say, it is unlikely that Elworth discovered jazz in some foreign land where no one speaks English, nor eats and dresses American style, nor knows anything of Mozart or Patsy Cline, among many others. Jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life.

So why doesn’t he think of it as his culture? Why must he caution himself (and us) against “reducing it to an ineffable Other.” On both counts the answer, I suspect, is the same: convention. The same set of conventions would require that Leontyne Price think of Puccini’s music as belonging to someone else’s culture, though she sings the music superbly, and may also require that a Black physicist – such as Dr. Shirley Jackson, currently president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – think of Newton and Einstein as belonging to someone else’s culture. On the other hand, I may claim both physicists for my culture despite the fact that I’ve not studied physics since high school and make no use of it in my professional life.

That doesn’t make much sense.

Culture and Society

Let us ask another question: What does Elworth’s love for jazz suggest about his circle of acquaintances? In my experience, nothing beyond the likelihood that some of them also like jazz. In particular, there is no particular reason to believe he has any Black friends, people with whom he breaks bread at home, and on holiday occasions. He may, and he may not. It is a signal fact of American social life, however, that music passes freely back and forth between different racial groups. But this movement of cultural artifacts and actions doesn’t necessarily forge bonds of personal friendship and commitment between individuals in those groups. And this too has a great deal to do with why politically self-conscious Whites, such as Elworth, think of jazz as the music of another culture.

That sentence, however, might more accurate if we substituted “society” or “social group” for “culture.” For all practical purposes, the music Elworth routinely listens to is his culture, but it may not have originated in his social group. A b-boy may never have heard of Louis Armstrong, but his grandmother may have grown-up listening and dancing to the music of Louis Armstrong or with Sidney Bechet or Earl Hines. Such links of acquaintance are likely to be weaker for Elworth, though he may know jazz considerably better than most b-boys.

The distinction I have just made between culture and society is one I’ve been making for years, though it is not mine. I learned it from my teacher, David Hays, and he learned it from his, Talcott Parsons. Society is a concrete network of relationships between people. Culture is a set of ideas, attitudes, and practices: what people speak, sing, believe, the cut of their clothes, and so forth and so on through a long list. The distinction is a bit strange if you are not used to it, for common usage tends to collapse the concept of culture onto groups of people. We tend to think of cultures as groups of people, and that confuses matters.

Not so Long Ago and Not so Far Away

Let us journey back in time to an earlier moment in the interaction between Blacks and Whites. Early in the seventeenth century, at about the same time Jamestown was being settled, Richard Jobson, an English sea captain, journeyed to the Gambia River area in what is now Senegal to explore its commercial potential. He subsequently published The Golden Trade or a Discovery of the River Gambra and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians in which he observed: “There is without doubt no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them their musicke will seldom be wanting.” Jobson certainly belongs to a social group that is historically distant from those he observed and his culture differs from theirs as well. They are outsiders to one another’s societies and to one another’s cultures.

A century and a half later, in 1755, the Rev. Samuel Davies heard slaves in Virginia and remarked that “Negroes above all the Human Species that I ever knew have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no Books they learn so soon or take so much pleasure in, as those used in that heavenly part of Divine Worship.” And psalmody was certainly important to these colonists, many of whom were religious dissidents who saw in America an opportunity to create a perfect Christian community, a New Jerusalem free of European institutions. Here many White colonists and early Americans found a common cause with their Black brethren. For the religious practices those Africans carried with them were even more expressive and emotional than the sermons and conversions of revival Christianity. Anecdotal accounts of mixed-race camp meetings in the early nineteenth century suggest that the Whites were much influenced by the vigorous psalmody of the Blacks. Thus it was that the ecstatic techniques of African animism mingled with and helped to stabilize the ritual practice of large numbers of charismatic Christians. These practices then became standard among large numbers of Black and White Christians and fueled the revivals that have been a feature of American public culture for two centuries.

This situation is quite different from Richard Dobson’s. Dobson lived in one social group, with its culture, and the Africans lived in different groups, each with its culture. These Black and White Americans lived in the same larger society, one, however, that was riven by divisions of region, race, ethnicity, class and caste. One result of this is that, whatever American culture was and is (and I have reservations about such notions as “American culture”), it has many variants that are local and specific to these different groups.

One of the peculiarities of this cultural interaction between groups of Whites and Blacks is that southern Blacks were called on to play dance music for their masters, in European styles and on European instruments, while northern Whites began developing minstrelsy on Black models, based on their conception of what plantation life was like. By the middle of the nineteenth century minstrelsy was well on the way to becoming America’s first medium of mass entertainment. After the Civil War Black minstrel troops began traveling the country even as the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured America and Europe in triumph. Late in the century minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and to Broadway.

In the early twentieth century Blacks and Whites met in urban ballrooms where White dance and music adopted forms of Black sexual expressiveness. Thus we arrive at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1920s where Duke Ellington had a five-year run in which his so-called “jungle style” came to maturity. What is so very interesting and peculiar about this situation is that he developed that style before an audience that was exclusively White; society “swells” mixed with gangsters and the demimonde, who downed expensive drinks while watching all-but-naked “high yellow” chorus girls dance to Ellington’s pseudo-African jungle exoticism. The Club maintained a strict difference between the clientele and the talent, nor do we have much reason to believe that that segregation disappeared outside the club. We have one venue where people from two different social groups interacted under strictly controlled circumstances.

The music pleased the clientele, otherwise they would not have been there, and we can only assume that it pleased Ellington and his musicians as well. If they thought of themselves as pandering to the unsophisticated tastes of a White audience none of them has ever, so far as I know, said so within hearing distance of a journalist or historian. In standard accounts of jazz history Ellington’s music of this period earns high praise.

Toward a Conception of Layered Identity

So, in this situation just whose music is it? Which of the two social groups does it belong to, Black or White? Does it belong to the audience whose taste was satisfied and who paid the bills, or does it belong to the musicians who provided that satisfaction? What happens when the sons and daughters of those White audience members begin themselves to that “Black” music? How do we talk about cultural praxis that “belongs to” two segregated social groups?

Nor should we think that this peculiar situation is exclusively an American one. In their compelling book and accompanying CD, Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives & the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia, Dick Blau, Charles & Angeliki Vellou Keil, and Steven Feld document a similar socio-cultural configuration in contemporary Greek Macedonia. There we have a social-cultural arrangement in which Romani musicians (aka Gypsies) provide live music for Greek celebrations of various types. The Romani are residentially segregated and occupationally segregated beyond their role as musicians. They work jobs that other Greeks do not want.

Thus we have two cases – America and Greek Macedonia – where a segregated minority provides musical services for a more powerful and wealthier social group. Beyond this, Keil has argued that this particular situation is quite wide-spread. In case after case it is the Other People who have the coolest music, the funkiest grooves (“Groovology and the Magic of other People’s Music”(PDF)):

In the American society that I know best and in a remarkable number of other societies as well, it is the ‘others’ who make the best music, the most interesting music, the most necessary music, the soul-satisfying music, the grooviest and richest sounding music, the music that is finally most characteristic of ‘us’ as well as ‘them’. Think of the African-Americans and Latino-Americans in the USA, the ex-slaves throughout the Caribbean, Middle and Latin America, the Gypsy musicians in all the European countries and the Balkans, the Jewish minorities that once had special musical status all over the Arabic and North African world, the griot castes of West Africa, the national minorities whose musics are taught in all the primary schools of China because the Han believe that their minorities are all more natural, less repressed and civilized, and, when it comes to music and dance …. much groovier.

It is by no means clear to me just what we must do to gain a deeper understanding of these structures and mechanisms. One thing we must do is take a deeper look at the complicated psycho-cultural dynamics of racism. That’s one thing.

We also need to consider a more sophisticated approach to conceptualizing lived identity. Reductive ideologies of national and ethnic identity do not and will not countenance the notion of multiple identities, but that does seem to be how many of us live. In order to begin accounting for what he discovered in Macedonia, Charlie Keil has begun developing a notion of layered identity, where different “layers” of one’s identity are linked to different social contexts and historical streams.

The fact is, cultural practices of all kinds circulate from one group to another under all kinds of conditions, whether free interaction between groups or the conquest and oppression of one group by another. The cultural practices of any given group are likely to have 100s or 1000s of sources, some recent and others distant, some geographically near and others far off. There is no simply way to conceptualize the relationship between a single group and its many cultural influences, or between a single individual and the many groups in which she may participate, and all the manifold and various cultural practices flowing through the mesh.