Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Lesson In Brass (Thanks, Jose)

(There was a problem with the link to "Whispering Bells" that was here. If you are not familiar with the song, you can go over to YouTube and find it in a hurry. By the Doo-Wop group, the Dell Vikings.)

I’ve been blessed in my life to have friends and acquaintances from all of the peoples of the earth. Men and women from of every race, color and creed. (Note: technically I don’t think that I have ever known a Zoroastrian or an Eskimo. There’s an implied racist remark in that last sentence. Did you catch it? It’s getting harder and harder to avoid them as people seem to be getting more sensitive.) But anyway, I have gotten to know a wide variety of God’s children, that’s safe enough to say. I have paid attention, too, and I have learned a lot. Not only about them, but about myself as well.

As hard as we may try to be the people that we wish to be, we are, all of us, stuck with being the person that we are. In my case, that means being a fully paid-up member of the white, patriarchal hegemony. The person that I’m stuck being is, therefore, more or less racist. I accept this more on information and belief than on any conscious evidence. I despise racism in all of its manifestations, and I am not aware of any prejudices that I carry where they would be accessible to my conscious mind, and I would rather eat a bug then to say anything that would make anyone uncomfortable on account of their ethnic information, but I have had occasion to see it in myself over the years. Implicit racism, the experts call it. Hopefully less frequently manifested as time has marched on, yes, I’m fairly certain of that. Even after extensive self-examination and various educational experiences, however, we are stuck with being ourselves.

The thing is, I take it as a given that anybody who was born and raised white in America has benefited from that whiteness in hundreds of ways on thousands of occasions in the course of their lives. Everyone treats you better, everyone is more polite, and you are much less likely to run afoul of the police. Those are the facts, even if you may never have realized it or actively wielded the privilege. Accepting the privilege, either consciously or unconsciously, puts you automatically in the “racist” category, even if you may score at the “less” end of the “more or less” scale.

It’s hard for us to see these things ourselves, even though it is constantly happening all around us. We are too close to the phenomenon to view it properly. It manifests itself in the small, innocuous details of our preferences. They may be visible to others, and if we are lucky, the others may share their wisdom with us.

I have received lessons over the years from men and women whom I knew well enough for them to give me the gift of honesty. They have calmly, almost lovingly, pointed out that some small aspect of my thinking was rooted in invisible racism. Take Jose’s lesson, for example.

Jose was from one of the Spanish speaking islands in the Caribbean, one of the ones that is not Puerto Rico. We worked in shops that were a few doors apart on the main drag in that part of Queens, and we both used the service available at the other shop. We hit it off, I believe, because we were both clever and because we both existed at the same wavelength of the wise-guy continuum. (We were both also in our mid-twenties and rather handsome. That did not hurt.) It was probably important that we were both music lovers, and we both had extensive record collections, although our collections were as different as night and day.   

I had close to a thousand LPs by then, and most by far were by white rock and roll acts. There were a handful of jazz records, quite a few Reggae and Afro-Pop records, some classical music, and a few double handfuls of soul records, and some James Brown, and I loved Graham Central Station. The crossover, salt-and-pepper acts were also represented, like Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix. Overall though, it was a pretty white collection. There were no Latin records in my collection at all when I met Jose.

Jose, on the other hand, had almost five thousand records already, and all but about twenty were Latin music. He had a handful of soul records, and two LPs by the Rolling Stones*, a few jazz records, and the remainder were all of the varieties of Salsa music. It was an amazing variety too, when you thought about it. There were all flavors of Newyorican Salsa, O.G. Puerto Rican Salsa, La Música from Cuba, and all of the other Hispanic Caribbean islands were represented, including Jose’s, and a surprising number of records from Columbia and Venezuela, plus many sources that escape me right now. They ranged from very big, very jazzy Salsa bands to one record from Cuba by a band that consisted of four musicians: drum-kit, congas, bongos, and timbales. That latter act got an amazing amount of melody and harmony from those drums, and of course all of the rhythm that you could ever need. The effect was startling. The effect of that whole collection on me was, in fact, startling.

We got to discussing all of this one day. I think that the conversation started by me noticing the two Rolling Stone records. I had picked up a few Salsa records by then, you know, Fania All Stars, top-of-the-pops Newyorican stuff, Ray Barreto.

The lesson began when I started commenting on the instrumentation of Salsa. The music in general emphasized horns to a much greater extent than I was accustomed to. I mentioned that I was totally okay with saxophones, but that a little bit of the trumpet was enough for me. I much preferred the sax. Jose turned his head slightly, laughed a little, and said, “that’s racist,” in a conversational tone.

“Really?” I said. He shrugged his shoulders and through another little laugh said, “yeah.” 

We didn’t really tackle the idea in detail, although I might have said something about I guess there’s just been a lot more sax in the music that I’m used to. He let it go. I was obviously warming up to Salsa, and there was a whole lot of brass in that, so maybe Jose was satisfied that progress was being made.

In the decades since, I have considered this idea in detail. I have come to the strong conviction that Jose was 100% right in his indictment of my preference. This is how implicit racism sneaks up on you. Consider the song at the top of this post. When “Whispering Bells” was a pop radio hit**, I had only a child’s awareness that black Americans were involved in the record business. That was 1957, and by then I owned records by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and I had seen their photos and I knew that they were black. I knew that many of the Doo-Wop acts were black, and I loved that music as well. I was also a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, had been for years already, and I knew for a fact that many of them were black. I was okay with all of it, but being under the age of ten, however, I had never grappled with the meaning of this diversity. 

The point is that “Whispering Bells,” and most of the other radio hits of the time, featured saxophone solos, and that became the sound that I was comfortable with. The key being, “radio hits.” Referring, of course, to the radio stations that a white boy from Queens would be listening to. It was very lucky for me that those pop stations were remarkably integrated at the time, as it related to the artists. I loved all of the New Orleans records that made the Billboard Chart, and almost all of them featured great saxophone players. Saxophones were part of the popular musical landscape until they were finally squeezed out by the electric guitar, but there was hardly a trumpet in sight, unless you were a jazz fan, which I was not. The only jazz that I really liked was created on guitars (Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell) or the Hammond B3 organ (Jimmy Smith). I loved James Brown, but I didn’t examine the line-up of his band. All of that came later on anyway. My white experience carried me into my mid-twenties without exposing me to brass instruments in music that I really loved and identified with (with the exception of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station, where the rhythm was much more important to the band’s sound).

You could not say that my passive experience of the music in the air around me carried with it any racial animus, but my preference later on for the sax over the trumpet was, in fact, implicitly racist.

Jose is still my friend, and in fact he is still teaching me valuable lessons. He lived in New York for a long time, and had a marriage to a beautiful and rather wonderful Puerto Rican woman that lasted, let’s say, quite a while and produced two wonderful daughters. Jose is on his own now, and has moved permanently back to his Caribbean island. We chat now on Facebook. He lives far from the beach in the mountainous interior of his island nation, in a small city that I had never heard of, and he regularly posts videos of the location. Some he shoots himself; some are “chamber of commerce” videos, meant to publicize the area and maybe generate some tourist action. It’s a beautiful place, and it reminds me in all of its details of Thailand (except that people drive on the right side of the road). If not for Jose, I would associate his country only with baseball players, like most Americans would, I’m afraid.

The only sensible response to the implicit racism that is in our hearts is to smile ruefully, accept it, and do the best that we can to spot it when it comes up. To spot in in the distance, before it can do any harm. Before it can embarrass us, and before it can cause any distress in others. Perhaps if we can all do this, the world can move forward from the dismal racist swamp that it is still mired in. That would be nice.

*I have noticed over the years that the Rolling Stones often show up in record collections where they are the only white rock and roll act present. I’ll just put that out there for you to consider at your leisure.

**Whispering Bells was a hit for the Dell Vikings, which had the distinction of being an integrated Doo-Wop act. That was, let’s say, uncommon at the time. This fact was lost on me until much later.

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