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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Randall Sandke

Race and the Mythology,
Politics and Business of Jazz

Scarecrow Press
ISBN: 978-0-8108-6652-2



Randall Sandke is better known as Randy Sandke, a very talented trumpeter who I have heard and admired at several Blackpool Jazz Parties in recent years. This book sets out to disprove some widespread myths about jazz, many of which might be summed up in such misguided generalizations as "Black people have a natural sense of rhythm" and "White men can't play the blues".

Statements or assumptions like this draw an artificial boundary between black and white musicians and pretend that jazz was not only invented by African-Americans but that only they can play really good or authentic jazz. Sandke dismantles such myths with careful research, although one might have thought that, by now, there should be no need to show these ideas for the fictions they really are.

In fact they are still regrettably alive - even in academia. For example, a research project at the Open University has recently been given half a million pounds for a "Black British Jazz" project whose leader (A. J. Toynbee) has made such blinkered, even offensive, remarks as "If the British are now capable not only of tapping their feet in time, but of understanding the complexities of groove it is in no small part due to black jazz musicians who have shown that a sense of rhythm, far from being natural, is an extraordinary accomplishment".

Combating such myths has proved controversial in the past - for example, when Dick Sudhalter drew attention in his book Lost Chords to the contribution of white musicians to the development of jazz. Randy Sandke makes only one passing reference to Sudhalter, noting rather dismissively that his book only covered white jazz musicians from 1915 onwards.

At any rate, Sandke opens by stating two competing views of jazz history: "Does jazz represent the expression of a distinct and independent African-American culture...or is it more properly understood as the juncture of a wide variety of influences under the broader umbrella of American and indeed world culture?"

Randy calls these two two views "exclusionary" and "inclusionary", and comes down firmly on the side of the latter. He produces convincing evidence - such as the collaboration and mutual admiration that existed between musicians of all colours from the earliest days of jazz. The front cover picture on the dust jacket shows Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong working together harmoniously in Louis' All Stars - a relationship whose warmth comes through in their classic duet on Rockin' Chair. And Sandke quotes several occasions when Louis praised white cornettist Bix Beiderbecke.

Sandke questions the belief that jazz came exclusively from Africa and rightly points out the influences from European music on such seminal forms as ragtime (although he seems unaware of Louis Gottschalk, a virtuoso classical pianist who wrote works in the mid-19th century foreshadowing ragtime).

So far, so good. However, about halfway through the book, Randy Sandke suddenly launches an attack on fellow-trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, singling him out for supposedly being "a new black messiah". Randy undermines his own case by admitting: "It seems almost unfair to hold Marsalis personally responsible for assuming the exalted position that society so eagerly conferred upon him". Yet Sandke accuses Marsalis of such wickedness as excluding white musicians from the Lincoln Jazz Center. He doesn't explain how one person could be so influential even with the massive publicity he received from his record company. Other African-Americans (such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane) had earlier been accorded similar acclaim. And if Marsalis is such an evil influence, why does Sandke's website say that Randy has written transcriptions for Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra?

Wynton Marsalis was an individual who recorded classical European concertos as well as jazz, and he was widely criticised for his criticisms of developments like avant-garde jazz and his praise for classic jazz and the jazz "tradition". Randy Sandke forgets to mention that he himself has made many recordings and played at many concerts containing just such classic jazz. One cannot resist feeling that this is a nasty case of sour grapes, accentuated by Sandke's references to the neglect accorded to his invention of "metatonal" jazz. Having heard examples of it, I can well understand why it hasn't endeared itself to millions, because it is a concept which is very hard to grasp, and can sound as unwelcoming as some of the excesses of the avant-garde.

After such obvious subjective bias, I read the remainder of the book with much less enthusiasm and more scepticism. And in chapters discussing how both black and white musicians were exploited by the likes of agents, record producers and club owners, Sandke seems almost unaware of the discrimination against African-Americans which was a fact of life in the USA for so many years - and possibly still is. I agree with his opinion that there is no such thing as a "pure race", because we all come from mixed-up backgrounds, but it was still a fact that in America that, if you were considered "black", that was a pretext for discrimination.

Sandke's book raises many interesting questions about jazz, but his arguments are often thrown into doubt by the hints of personal prejudice. Yet he makes the point that some writers still fail to grasp: that a jazz musician's ability has nothing to do with colour or race (if, indeed, such things can be considered definite characteristics) but by his or her musical skill and what he or she manages to do with it. What they say in their music is much more important than how they look.

Tony Augarde


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