Searching For The White Wail

White hipsters, Art Pepper etc
by Gordon Campbell

Of late, significantly more rage and angst has been directed online at skinny white girls wearing Straight Outta Compton merchandise than there ever has been about skinny white boys doing the exact same thing. Obviously, aspirational blackness by white guys is seen (by white guys) as having more validity as part and parcel of a hipster tradition. If the word ‘hipster’ means anything – which it arguably doesn’t – it seems to be more of an impulse than a condition. One always headed for the margins, and away from the white-bred, white-bread mainstream.

Most times, the journey has a racial element. Routinely, it involves an embrace and/or co-option of black culture, slang and body language. Down the years, white people have charted a trajectory from jazz to blues to soul to funk to hip hop, with a side trip for some to reggae. Be black, baby.

What did we do, to become so white and blue? I first came across that phrase in a 1970s essay by Gary Giddens about the turbulent life and troubled career of the jazz musician Art Pepper. The question is as old as the blues and as recent as the Compton movie. What is it with the magnetic pull that white hipsters feel to music that’s created mainly by black artists and evokes experiences that 90% of white audiences will only ever experience vicariously?

There’s a simple answer to that question, and a complicated one. In his essay, Giddens touched on both:

The important thing about the good white white jazzmen is not that they appropriated the black American’s music – a narrow and paranoid sentiment that denies the individuality of all jazzmen, white and black – but that so many of them chose a black aesthetic as the best possible source for self-examination. Those who dug deepest avoided minstrelsy, and went beyond mere technique. ….In mastering a foreign musical syntax, they have straddled the racial division of American life, crafting a music that is not only of itself, but about itself.

Giddens went on to talk about validation via drug use:

For some, the musical route was not sufficient. Junk provided a keener initiation. It was another step in the excommunication of home that had begun with the original commitment to what James Jones liked to call ‘outlaw music….’

The extreme example of this process was Art Pepper. An acclaimed poll-topping musician, he made his way down a path into heroin addiction, burglary, armed robbery, a long stretch in San Quentin and finally, a triumphant comeback. The autobiography Straight Life that Art published in 1979 in partnership with his wife/editor Laurie Pepper – is arguably the most compellingly confessional book about a musician ever written. Should you need them, it also provides useful tips on how to survive in the yard at San Quentin. (Act crazy, don’t stare at anyone, don’t bump into the Native Americans, and rat on no-one.)

Basically, the book is a naked portrayal of an addictive personality – to music, heroin, and sex in roughly that order. The candour is compulsive. (Well, some of the sex stuff is because he was originally trying to land an excerpt in Playboy magazine.) You get to know Pepper in many of his incarnations : musical genius, whining narcissist, addict, voyeur, rapist, burglar, prison inmate, lover… and a survivor par excellence. He died in 1982, two weeks after his last recording session.

Reading Straight Life is a useful reminder of the different emotional pitch at which we all live our lives. First hand, Pepper appears to have experienced what Jack Kerouac only imagined was happening in the mind and body of his Dean Moriarty /Neil Cassady character in On The Road. And as a few others have noted, Straight Life is a book about addiction that leaves William Burroughs’ Junky pretty much for dead.

A musical prodigy – he was playing in the Stan Kenton big band at age seventeen – Pepper eventually ran head on into the reverse racism of being a supremely gifted white musician in an art form created by blacks, and dominated by the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Pepper’s account of his eventual escape from the giant shadow cast by Coltrane is especially touching. He writes with empathy and insight about the burden of cultural/musical expectations that hung heavily on Coltrane, and which sickened him and eventually helped to kill him at the age of 40.

As for the problems that Pepper himself brought to the table…early on, Straight Life offers plenty of parlour psychiatry invitations to trace his struggle for acceptance right back to his desperately lonely upbringing. Arguably, even the addictions and the stretches in prison were the echoes of a bad boy’s search for acceptance. It didn’t help that in the mid 1950s/early 60s jazz was starting to seriously polarise along racial lines, in sync with the wider politics of the day. Ironically, as Whitney Balliett once pointed out, it may have been his stolid, emotionally cold grandmother (who raised him) who gave Pepper the stubborn survival instincts that enabled him to endure prison, and the endless struggle to obtain the dope he needed to maintain his habit. Servicing his addiction comes across as an exhausting, full time job.

Pepper managed to survive prison by never becoming a rat, and he wasn’t about to rat on his musical contemporaries either. The most you get in that respect in Straight Life are some generous words for Stan Kenton, that moving assessment of John Coltrane and a brilliant account of a saxophone duel onstage with Sonny Stitt. Oh, and he also thought Stan Getz was a cold fish, for all of Getz’ s technical prowess. That’s about it for the gossip.

On Youtube you can find several clips of Art Pepper. If I had to choose one, this 1978 version of “Patricia” – a tune he composed for the young daughter that he virtually abandoned – is probably it.

Footnote: Decades ago, Norman Mailer wrote a controversial at the time ( and now almost forgotten) essay called “ The White Negro” about the white hipster.

In 2015, the unconscious racism and the convoluted Reichian sexual politics have dated badly, and there’s a reason why the essay eventually appeared in his collection Advertisements For Myself. There’s a lot to do with burnishing the Mailer persona. Yet even so, some parts still leap off the page, as timely now as they were back in 1957. Like this, for instance :

In this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger.

Eventually, taking the humility option will only bury you alive, as the Compton movie defiantly indicates. Yet the alternative – of trying to be Dr. Dre, but with the risk of ending up as the next Eric Garner or Michael Brown – is no less forbidding. White people enjoy safer options. They can visit the ‘hood vicariously….but in most cases, the journey to the margins is a round trip ticket.

1 Comment on Searching For The White Wail

  1. The ‘White Blues’ were exemplified by Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, tambourine percussive on Soundtrack of’Vanishing Point’, 1971. White gospel influenced, but covered ‘Come a into my kitchen’, and, um, ‘Never ending song of love’ like in a Revivalist meeting. Stan Kenton did Wagner very oxymoronic.

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