Pete's Blog

Armstrong's Trumpet

You hear it a lot in my business, or at least read it a lot. Any writer wanting to fill up a slow news day will address the question, if only to establish his or her all-important anti-racist bonafides. They will say that it doesn't matter whether Paul Butterfield, say, could actually play the blues well (he could) because he shouldn't have been doing it at all. Paul Simon's "Graceland" album comes in for a lot of this, too. Despite that fact that he paid the South African musicians who played on it more money than they'd ever seen in their lives, it was still a piece of "colonialist cultural imperialism" and as such invalid, inauthentic, racist. Artists take what they hear and work with it without preconditions or reservations. That's what makes them artists. Louis Armstrong used a European instrument, the trumpet, along with European music notation and the sonorities of European brass bands to make his own personal statement, a statement that went around the world and still inspires almost a century later. Should he NOT have done this? Was he a cultural imperialist? How about Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, who were influenced by Delius, Stravinsky, and Ravel? When Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress all he wanted to sing was Gene Autry cowboy songs. It was Lomax, the Eastern liberal, who insisted Mddy sing blues. It was more authentic. Interestingly, nobody in hip-hop complains about white artists like Eminem. He's good and there's an end on't. Perhaps when Barack Obama is elected President, which I sincerely hope will happen, we'll hear less of this kind of orthodoxy-mongering.

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