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Black Popular Music in America by Arnold Shaw (Schirmer: $19.95; 307 pp.)

March 16, 1986|Johnny Otis | Otis is a bandleader and host of a weekly radio program devoted to black music, KPFK'S "The Johnny Otis Show."

Obviously a lot of hard work and solid research went into this book. It offers a wealth of chronological and statistical material that will serve both the reader of casual interest and the serious student of black American music well. Unfortunately, it is also loaded with philosophical pronouncements that will dismay and infuriate informed readers.

The more I read, the more I wondered--why so many pages devoted to white artists? Isn't this a book about black music? And why the persistent defensive opinions about whites' alleged contributions to black music?

Let me cite just one example: Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and other rock-a-billys are discussed in biographical detail whereas considerable black music giant Dizzy Gillespie is dismissed in a few sentences as a be-bopper who "occasionally waved his rump rhythmically in paying customer's faces."

To an interested and expectant reader, the title of this book, "Black Popular Music in America," suggests, or should suggest, some examination of the way of life within the African-American community--that is, a look at the people and the culture that gave birth to the various revolutionary forms that go to make up black music.

But if one looks to this book for any insight into the way of life and the people who created the unique textures and flavors of American black music, one will be disappointed.

That jazz and other black music forms have been a fertile field for white appropriation remains a historic fact. A writer could hardly do a treatment of the black music without touching upon the subject. Author Arnold Shaw touches it again and again. There are 10 sub-sections under "The White Synthesis," plus one called "Blue-Eyed Soul" and one under the heading "The Sepia Sinatras." It makes you wonder if Shaw had black music in mind or its effect on whites. It is as though he can't really decide what stand to take on this touchy matter. He knows it is a thorn in black artists' sides and a question that must be dealt with because he strikes right out on p. vii of the introduction with, "In recognizing that white musicians, singers and song writers have profited greatly--I have used the word rip-off in some of my writing." So far, so good, but as he continues, one wonders if he means that at all. He goes on to say, "We have tended to disregard the musical contributions made by whites . . . without the (white) refinements the black style and its originators might have remained a satellite."

To suggest that black artists lack musical refinement is to ignore the work of Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Scott Joplin, Fletcher Henderson, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong and an army of black men and women too numerous to list here.

With regard to Benny Goodman being "The King of Swing," Shaw declares, "It was a title that most historians properly believe belongs to black pioneers of the style--Henderson, Basie, Ellington." But since "most historians" didn't write the book, I can't help but wonder what Shaw believes. The following statement helps shed some light on the question. "Goodman and the other big white bands," Shaw writes, "contributed precision, accuracy of pitch and polish."

It's been many years since I've heard this indictment--that is, that black bands were imprecise--played out of tune--lacked polish. By listening to Count Basie's original record of "Jumpin' at the Woodside" back to back with Benny Goodman's copy of the same composition, we are re-reminded of what white "precision, accuracy of pitch and polish" can do to black music. Unfortunately, the average reader will not have the means or the inclination to dispel this myth--so the presumption is reinforced.

It has been suggested by musicologist Dr. Portia Maultsby and musician/writer Preston Love that the term jazz be ceded to the white musicians, record companies, writers, critics and teachers who have, since the earliest days of the idiom, combined to dilute and synthesize what was once a pure and powerful cultural product and to call the original art form what it is: black music.

How refreshing it would be to one day read a chronicle of black music that went beyond the eternal search for the great white hope. This book contains a steady stream of references to Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bix Beiderbeck, Pat Boone, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, Mick Jagger.

If the over-inclusion of white emulators in a book ostensibly about black music is irritating, the omission of important black artists is unforgivable. If ever there was a music that was and still is both black and popular, it is gospel music. This book has very little to do with the traditional gospel music of black Americans.

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