Do you need to be black to play jazz?
Here’s an interesting sentiment I get from jazz teachers and other players from time to time:
“In the end, you really have to be American to be able to play jazz well, people from other countries just don’t get it.” (This was the words of a Canadian by the way).
And I quote a fellow Australian jazz musician who said the following to me at a jam session a few weeks ago:
“Well, after all, when it comes to jazz and blues we are just trying to play African-American music. No matter what we do, we will never get that good at it, because we’re not black, and we’re not American.”
Since I’ve been playing jazz, I’ve heard this kind of comment quite often, even from seasoned professionals.
And something doesn’t add up.
Now don’t get me wrong – some of the musicians that have inspired me the most when it comes to jazz are African American – like Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Charlie Parker.
But…Joe Pass, Jim Hall, and Bill Evans? They weren’t African American, but they were master jazz musicians too.
And let’s not forget Ed Bikert – in my opinion, he was one of the greatest jazz guitarists that ever graced the earth. He wasn’t black – and he wasn’t American either (he was Canadian).
Let’s think of learning a spoken language for a moment (after all, jazz is like a language).
“You have to be American to be able to play jazz and blues” is like saying…
“You have to be French to be able to speak French”. Which is ludicrous.
Of course, you’ve got a natural advantage to mastering a language if it’s spoken a lot in your home country.
Here’s the thing, though:
If you’re prepared to put in the work and learn the words of the language, anyone can eventually speak it fluently (Italian, Japanese, Jazz) regardless of race.
In fact, that’s what I love most about jazz, blues, and music in general. Music is something that dwells deep in the human heart, it communicates our suffering, expresses our joy, and is above any superficial differences in how we look or talk or the color of our skin.
Anyone can learn how to play jazz, including you.