In 2016, when Ben Carson appeared in the media as one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination, I began thinking a lot about black conservatives and how they have a lot in common with black jazz musicians.
Typically, one would rarely associate these two groups as having anything remotely in common. And in many instances, they don't. Politically speaking, black conservatives are usually Republicans, and black jazz musicians are Democrats, as is the case with most artists when it comes to voting. While it is true they share nothing on the political stage, here are some beliefs and values they share:
- Both believe in personal accountability.
- Both are willing to think beyond the traditional realms of black culture.
- Both are committed to the individual, not to the black majority.
- Both are comfortable and willing to play to a non-black base.
For better or worse, black conservatives are committed to what they believe to be the truth, not what makes most black people feel good. Rarely do they even have large sums of blacks in their political corners, though the numbers are significantly growing in recent years. Consequently, this has afforded them the freedom to be independent thinkers within their race. They don't have to worry about alienating blacks nor being alienated by them. Most don't travel in their circles. People like Ben Carson and Candance Owens (and Kanye West, to a certain extent) are often vilified in the press by racial feather rufflers like Don Lemon and Michael Eric Dyson, and the only real crime they've committed in the black court of public opinion is thinking differently. Or, as most say, "Thinking like white people."
Having an unpopular take on the world is nothing new to the black jazz musician. We are usually the outliers of our families and communities. Our views and values tend to be worldly and less typical. This is seen in our appreciation of different kinds of music, food, art, travelling to different countries, and how comfortable we are with inter-racial and inter-faith relationships, as friends, lovers, and bandmates. In a typical jazz group or audience, you'll have white Jews and black Christians; Buddhists and atheists; gays and lesbians, bi-sexuals, heterosexuals, and those who might be transitioning.
The majority of black jazz musicians that I know have many interests and inter-personal relationships that fall outside the typical realms of black culture and daily relations. And this is very different from other blacks who are of similar socioeconomic status and not in the arts. Where I grew up in Virginia, blacks mingled with blacks and whites with whites. End of story. This is especially true within church culture. We might all be God's children, Monday through Saturday, but on Sunday mornings, God's house is segregated like the Jim Crow South.
Since the inception of jazz, black musicians have strived to be the best Americans they could be, not the best black folks. During Bird's time, blackness was not much of a political bargaining chip. It certainly did not carry the same weight of power and control as it did during the late sixties and thereafter. White guilt had not made it's way to the mainstream. Consequently, music was not created through the lens of race, but through the lens of excellence. As a rule of thumb, when race and politics take precedence over musical excellence, it looks good on paper, it serves as a convenient vehicle for virtue-signalling, but the musical results often can't withstand the test of time.
Since the bebop era, when jazz made the transition from popular music to art music, our commitment (and I'm not speaking for all) has been to our artistic vision, not what makes people feel good--blacks or any other groups. Consequently, we've ended up with few blacks at our gigs. For most, this is not a problem, as long as somebody appreciates what we do, and are willing to pay us to do it. Our commitment is to our vision, not that of the black collective. And this is precisely how black conservatives think.
Contrary to popular belief, black conservatives are not always seeking out a majority-white base. These are just the people with whom they share similar ideas. Let me add that these are also the people who hire them to tout conservative talking points. Just like black jazz musicians are not purposefully trying to fill their gigs with whites and Asians. These are only the groups who are coming out to hear us play—point-blank.
I'm sure that high profile conservatives like Candance Owens and Condoleezza Rice would love to speak in front of black majority audiences. Since most blacks are loyally-Democratic, this will rarely happen. Blacks are often so unified politically that any Republican outreach is viewed as a wasted effort with a zero-sum return. During the 2012 election, President Barack Obama received 93% of the black vote. In 2017, Mayor Bill Deblasio received 96%. This is textbook collectivist thinking. It's also the reason we're often taking for granted by political candidates. We are loyal political pets. Why else would Joe Biden go on the Breakfast Club and say "you ain't black," if you vote for Trump? Even though he said it jokingly, it speaks to the sense of ownership white liberals and black politicians feel they have of most black Americans.
As I said earlier, black conservative talking points don't make the black majority feel good—which is an understatement. They preach about personal accountability and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, often sounding cold and uncaring and like they're kowtowing to the white man. They often perpetuate the narrative of "Hey, buddy, I made it. What's your problem?" Tough love, without love.
Most black jazz musicians that I know have similar ideological beliefs. If nobody will hire us, systemic racism is not our default response. Even if one suspects that it is, very few will act on it. Most practice productive pessimism: not expecting anything from anyone and living your life not as a victim, but as a person of action. The bottom line is that no matter the cause, you have to study, practice, and keep trying. This is not negotiable. Or better yet, start your own band.
Politically speaking, many of the things that unify the black majority, like institutional racism and white supremacy, are usually dismissed by black conservatives as conspiracy theories and scapegoats for black regress. And this never goes over well. What's interesting is that black conservatives seem to stand against everything that white liberal stands for. When it comes to police brutality, black conservatives say to black people, stop committing so many crimes, and you won't be targeted. White liberals tell the cops that they need more diversity training. When there's an under-representation of black students at specific colleges, black conservatives tell black students that they need to study harder. White liberals say to colleges that they need to assess black students differently. One remedies problems with excellence and personal accountability, the other by coddling those they view as disadvantaged.
Black jazz musicians who thrive in the industry are also very committed to excellence and personal accountability. If the press seems to be covering white musicians more, the remedy is to make more exciting music or create our own scene. Or, as I do. I write about my music. I don't sit around and wait for DownBeat and the New York Times. If white bands are being booked disproportionately by European promoters, our remedy is to improve our music or learn to play the political game a little better. "We step up our hustle."
I think we can all admit that there are times when certain groups just seem to receive preferential treatment over others. Sometimes for good reasons. I remember periods when it was convenient to be young and black. And periods when white musicians seemed to be a promoter's group of choice. During the height of the Me Too Movement, promoters were proudly touting on social media how many women they booked on their festivals that year.
We've all been on the outside looking in, depending on how the pendulum of preference was swinging. And guess what? No one cares. The victimization card is not an option--at least not to the successful ones. If affirmative action existed as a remedy, most would have too much pride to cash that chip in--and those who do use it, pay for it, long term. We earn our place on the bandstand, and we don't need our circumstance to be socially-engineered by white liberals, pro-black protesters or professional virtue-signalers
One complaint that many have of white liberals is that they are often too preoccupied with trying to comfort blacks or keep us in a perpetual state of anger. Our misfortunes can always somehow be attributed to systemic racism or white supremacy. This feels comforting to the sympathizers and the victims. If someone scored badly on the SATs and is told that the test is racially biased, then that lack of accountability would make their failure easier to deal with. It wouldn't help them long term, but it would feel good to point their finger outward at that moment.
During my first few semesters at Berklee in the early '80s, there was a population of black students who felt under-represented in many of the top ensembles: The Recording Band, The Herb Pomeroy Ensemble, The Dues Band, and a few others. I'm not saying that these claims were unfounded, but our resolve was comparable to the narrative touted by many black conservatives. If we needed better reading skills, we got those things together. If we needed better doubling skills, we got that together, too. We didn't form protests and marches against the school, forcing them to lower the black students' requirements. We didn't make them develop a white assessment and black assessment of playing abilities. Just as many black conservatives claim to have, we rose to the occasion, despite how we felt the deck was stacked. Social engineering was not necessary. We simply got our act together. Again, back to the practice of productive pessimism. Consequently, we did a lot better career-wise than many of the white and Asian students who occupied Berklee's top ensembles.
Let me be clear, I'm not letting black conservatives off the hook, either. They are often too willing to go on white conservative platforms and duke it out with black liberals like two black-bucks fighting for the amusement of the white slave master, like champion Mandingo fighters. In today's political world, that white slave master is usually Fox News.
But I am often impressed with how calmly black conservatives can debate matters of race using reason and statistical data, and not unbridled emotion, which is very different from white liberals and pro-black defenders. They often debate racial issues with anger, intimidation, and character assassination of those who disagree with them. Republican whites are called racists, and conservative blacks are called coons and sell-outs, no matter the evidence.