A Jazzman's Sour Notes on Race

Tulane's trumpeting twit.

1346788497149_mobilelargeOnly hours after Front Page posted my article last week about bogus racism allegations – in which, among other things, I lamented that Black Studies programs in American universities are too preoccupied with inculcating victimhood and accusing people of racism to produce works like Terry Teachout's recent biographies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – I discovered that Teachout himself, who is the Wall Street Journal's theater critic and critic-at-large for Commentary, had been publicly smeared with an allegation of racism just a few days earlier. The hurler of this allegation was Nicholas Payton, a well-known jazz trumpeter who holds the title of “Distinguished Artist and Visiting Lecturer” at Tulane University – and who has also taught “master classes, clinics and workshops at over 40 institutions” from Cornell to Stanford. If I've chosen to shine a spotlight on Payton's attack on Teachout, it's not because Teachout needs my defending (indeed, this isn't really about Teachout at all) or because Payton is worthy of any special notice as a thinker (ha!), but because the way in which Payton goes after Teachout, and the terms in which he discusses matters of race generally, perfectly exemplify the irrational, indeed hateful, racial ideology that has increasingly infected American society.

Payton's charges came in a piece entitled “Duking It Out with Teachout and Other Racist Assailants,” in which he began by arguing that Teachout is typical of a number of biographers who “always attempt to tear down great Black legends in the spirit of 'making the subject more human'” and who in the process actually end up “dehumanizing” their subjects. Moreover, complained Payton, these writers “always go after the guys for whom there can never be enough praise, like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. Who they should go after is overrated White musicians like Nick LaRocca, Frankie Trumbauer or Bix Beiderbecke.”

As I say, Teachout doesn't need any defending from me (and I'm certainly not speaking for him here), but I couldn't read Payton's opening sentences without thinking: “Well, if Terry Teachout is a racist, then there's no white person anywhere who isn't one.” (Which, I suspect, is precisely what Payton believes.) About Teachout: we're speaking here of a man whose Armstrong and Ellington books are patently labors of love. Only a mad ideologue could consider them pathographies (to borrow Joyce Carol Oates's useful term for those biographies that do indeed seem designed to decimate their subjects). Teachout's reverence for Ellington and Armstrong is palpable on every page, as is his determination to help readers more fully appreciate their art, understand the social and aesthetic forces that shaped it, and recognize the obstacles they surmounted in order to create it. This is what every good biographer does – but one can understand why someone like Payton might be made uncomfortable by the idea; ideologues of his sort, whether they worship Stalin or Mao or Che Guevara, prefer their idols gigantic, unreal, and flawless. What's striking is that Payton genuinely seems to imagine that all the people who have snapped up copies of Duke and Pops have ended up with diminished respect for these men. Idiot.

There's more. Biographers like Teachout, Payton suggested, would be better off “bringing their great White Ancestors down a peg or two,” instead of taking on the likes of Ellington and Armstrong. Except that – and now (no pun intended) we're off to the races –

there is no such thing as a White Ancestor because the White race is an imaginary construct that was designed by the elite solely for the purpose of creating a race of people to promote the false idea that the whiter your skin, the better you are. The elite don’t want to do the dirty work so they dole out free passes called “White Privilege” to their subjects and to the peasants.

I think the fact that there is no such thing as White Ancestry is the base of the problem for most of these types. Whites have no culture of their own besides colonization. It must be hard to be White and to look around at a world of people with a deep heritage and a connection to their community and feel empty inside because you have none. Ah, the perils of White Privilege. I guess you can’t have everything.

In Payton's view, then, books like Teachout's are nothing more or less than an expression of their white authors' powerful suppressed envy of black people's culture, heritage, and sense of community. “Whites have no culture....”: unlike anything you can find in Teachout's work, this statement is itself the very essence of racism. It's both ugly and preposterous. But in today's academy, it's quite simply an expression of the reigning orthodoxy. (Imagine how long a professor would last at Tulane if he wrote: “Blacks have no culture.”) Payton went on:

To be Italian, Spanish, Jewish, or Polish, now that means something, but what does it mean to be White? It means that the basis of your history starts with a lie. Black is synonymous with being African, but being White is synonymous with no nation or culture in particular. To be White is to align yourself with centuries of violence and oppression. To be White is to say that you’re a part of those who went into Africa and told them your White Jesus is more powerful than their Black Ancestors. You came into our villages and told us we would go to hell if we didn’t serve your God. You separated children from their families, you emasculated and effeminated [sic] our boys and men, you raped our girls and women....

No acknowledgment here, needless to say, of the key role played in the slave trade by the African blacks who sold their fellow blacks to Europeans; no recognition that even now, in several African countries, black people are still held as chattel by other black people; no sign of appreciation for the fact that while slavery has been a fact of life throughout human history, regardless of race or place, America is the one country in which the members of one race fought a long and bloody war to free the members of another race from bondage.

Yes, Payton does criticize some of his fellow blacks. Who? Shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson? Practitioners of the “knockout game”? No. The black people he despises are the “so-called Brothas and Sistas” who, “vying to get a stamp on their White Supremacy card,” are all too eager to “sellout [sic] their colored constituents for a few pieces of silver.” For instance, Manning Marable, whose biography of Malcolm X is “indicative of a Western way of thinking.” Payton likewise slams James Gavin, who in his New York Times review of Teachout's Ellington biography committed the crime of calling Ellington a “black jazz titan in a racist age.” Payton's comment:

So, Black jazz as opposed to what? White jazz? And when did this Racist Age end? Then he continues by saying Duke’s mission was to “lift jazz to the level of concert music and to win respect for his race.”...It’s another way of him saying that Nigger music is beneath the European standard.

This is the sound, ladies and gentlemen, of a hopeless, sputtering bigot. And get this:

I have a hard time even dignifying these guys by making reference to them, but I can’t just sit here and let these White dudes disrespect our masters without saying anything. That would be unconscionable. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” …..

In other words, Teachout, Marable, and Gavin are nothing less than evil, the lot of them. As for jazz:

…this music is a cultural contribution from a people who are forced to live and be in servitude to a system that is designed for them to fail....People like Teachout and Gavin have been brainwashed to see the Black American as nothing more than lazy and shiftless thieves who are incapable of contributing anything more than entertainment or being a nuisance to society....But what significant contributions are they making to the world besides treading on others’ legacies?….It is clear from their words that not only do they lack respect for Black life, but they know nothing of it, and it is only because of White Supremacy and Privilege that they even have a platform.

As it turns out, Payton's nutty screed about Teachout wasn't a one-off; on the contrary, it was only the latest item in a rather substantial and staggeringly barmy oeuvre that's positively brimming with raw racial enmity. Payton commemorated the death of Nelson Mandela, for example, by criticizing American blacks who fought apartheid in South Africa instead of struggling against their own oppression in the U.S. “I don’t like to play the 'Who’s More Oppressed?' game,” he maintained, “but the Black American takes a back seat to no one when it comes to the holocaust and genocide perpetrated upon us.” The funny part here, of course, is Payton's claim that he doesn't like to play the “Who's More Oppressed?” game. This is his game, and he plainly loves to play it (perhaps even more than he loves playing his trumpet).

Unsurprisingly, Payton embraces the standard Black Studies view that racism in America is still as bad as ever. “Because we are occasionally allowed to sip the secondhand drops that fall to the ground from the gourd of White Supremacy,” he wrote, “don’t [sic] make us any closer to liberation than our African counterparts. In fact, we have become punch-drunk from too many cups of post-Civil Rights Kool-Aid to the point that we actually believe that we’re better off now than we were pre-integration.” (Similarly, in another recent piece, he rejected “the notion that we post-MLK Blacks are liberated....The recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride and many others speak to that.”)

Then there's “A Nigga Tired: Why Non-Blacks Shouldn’t Say Nigga,” in which Payton demonstrated that his cranium, like those of some of the founders of Black Studies, is crammed with wacky historical hypotheses:

There are schools of thought that the annunciation of “Nigga” can release kundalini energy in the body. There are no vowels in many ancient languages, and by this logic, “Nigga” can also be related to “Naga” which is the Sanskrit word for a deity that takes the form of a serpent. As a result, the incantation of Nigga or Naga can arouse this sleeping, coiled serpent that sits at the base of the spine and cause one’s spirit to awaken.

No comment. As for America, if you haven't already gathered as much, Payton has nothing positive to say about it:

I cannot love America until America does something for me to fall in love with her....This country’s wealth is built on slave labor which gives a disproportionate advantage to the majority and created its current systems of supremacy and privilege, which is only offered in abundance to those who bow to the White altar.

At several points, Payton charges that white people just don't understand what it's like to be black – a familiar plaint of today's campus race-baiters. Clearly, he and his ilk don't have a clue what it's really like to be white. They seem to have the idea that waking up every morning encased in pinkish flesh is the biggest rush there is – that it gives one an automatic sense of belonging, a profound feeling of cultural power. They depict the “white world” as a place in which even the most poor and downtrodden caucasian somehow enjoys even more privilege than the current President of the United States. Payton and his fellow true believers are so fixated on race that they don't appear to realize that race is far from the only defining trait by which people are judged every time they go outside, that in fact there are countless attributes that some individuals seize upon in order to try to make other individuals feel inferior, and that it's incumbent upon civilized, mature people, for the sake of their societies and their children's children, to struggle to rise above such poisonous pettiness.

Enough. Bottom line: Payton is a racist. A passionate racist. And he's proud of it. Anybody upon whom he slaps the label of “racist” should wear it as a badge of honor. Tulane should be ashamed to have given him a title containing the word “distinguished.” But worst of all is that he's no isolated case. His numbers are legion – and, thanks to the efforts of his fellow ebony-tower ideologues, growing every day.

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Tags: Race, Racism, Black