All Things Saxophone

Jazz “Chops”:  A Matter Of Color?

Last modified 09/12/08


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"When Sunny gets blue, her eyes get gray and cloudy, Then the rain begins to fall, Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, love is gone so what can matter? No sweet lovin' man comes to call" . . .

Thirty years ago when I started gigging that was my favorite song (mostly because it was the only one I knew well).  I had the good fortune at that time to be playing with a piano man who would gracefully launch into a chorus every time he saw me on the bandstand.  It still brings a smile to my face -- he was as old as dirt, a great player & mentor, cool as they come, and the only black jazzman I worked with then.  As a naive suburban kid living in the late '70s I heard a lot of talk about jazz chops being a matter of color, and at one point I may have even believed that.  The shocking thing is that in this day & age there are still some people that do -- even major contributors to the music.

As an example, some of these folks have contributed to documentaries about jazz history that only cover one viewpoint; leaving out much of the history that doesn't fall within boundaries "of color".  This approach tries to impress upon people the idea that "to play this style you have to be (fill in the blank)", or more derogatorily, "you're a (fill in the blank) dude so you can't play like that".

THAT IS SO LAME!  It's the same kind of false conclusion that bigots derive from statistical studies that incorporate color of skin as an attribute.  We hear about those studies every time the press reports about violent crimes, teen pregnancies, etc. and groups them by African Americans, Caucasians, or Hispanics.

Yes, there are differences that can be seen in social statistics as well as in the jazz art form, but they DON'T come from differences in skin color.  THEY COME FROM DIFFERENCES IN CULTURE.  Historically cultural differences have closely followed ethnic boundaries, so some people have tragically misunderstood the relationship there — thinking it has to do with color of skin, which it doesn't in ANY case.

The cultural difference is clearly visible in the historical development of the jazz art form.  For example, African Americans, because of their cultural background had a different exposure to jazz than other folks, and it often showed in the amount of "chops" a player from that background had.  The same applies to the cultural exposure of Hispanics and Caucasians.

The encouraging thing is that the lines of demarcation are blurring because of the cultural exchange born through the growth of tolerance over the last four decades.  We can see that in jazz when we look at a great player like Phil Woods who is so influenced by Cannonball Adderley (you can check them out at TheCats and SaxophoneMan's Hall Of Fame).

Are jazz "chops" a matter of color?  It's a question that shouldn't even be asked.  I look forward to the day when it won't be.