The Rolling Jelly Series (6):
So since I devoted the last installment of the Rolling Jelly Series to defending New Orleans from accusations that it’s somehow an unusually segregated or racially tense place, it’s only fair to parse some of Alan Lomax’s interviews for evidence of, yes, racial tension.
I’m going to skip Morton’s comments on these matters, as they’ve been picked over by others. I’m also more interested in Lomax's 1949 interviews with other musicians, because you might think that 40 or 50 years after the period the men are discussing, they could be a little more open. But the interesting thing here is how careful they are. You have to listen between the lines, for the good, for the bad, and for the just plain mysterious nature of racial relations among musicians and the members of their audiences.
Lomax asked Leonard Bechet: “What kind of man was Bolden? Personally?
“Personally,” Bechet offered, “he was a light-brown skinned man, you know?”
In another interview, Lomax asked Albert Glenny: “What kind of a fellow was Bolden?”
“He was about my color,” Glenny replied, before adding: “About as tall as me.”
So, let’s just say race is something these guys were aware of. Anyway, Bechet made this interesting comment when explaining to Lomax what his brother (Sidney, of course) got out of playing in front of various kinds of audiences and with various kinds of musicians, some Creole, some black. “You have to play real hard, when you play for negroes,” he said. “Ya understand? You got to play hard, you got to go some. To avoid any criticism. If you happen to be a little different from them, you got to come up to the mark. You gain that drive … These people, ya understand, they play like they’re killing themselves.”
Interestingly, he also called that playing style “more artificial.” But for whatever reason Lomax didn’t pick up on that comment, and Bechet was never given a chance to explain what that he meant. Too bad.
Anyway, a recurring theme is conflict between “nice” Creole music, and the music of the rougher “other side” -- jazz. In time, the Creole musicians joined into the hotter music, of course, and one of Lomax’s interviewees said, rather sweetly, that now jazz would help straighten out “misunderstanding among the races.”
I’m more inclined to endorse a comment Bechet made, talking more strictly about the musical context, of what it meant when those different players got together, and what they created: “Ya understand -- like wild.” That sounds right. Like wild.
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