The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2001, Volume 47, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Kyle E. Ciani, Reviews Editor

California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West.

Edited by Jacqueline Cogdell Dje Dje and Eddie S. Meadows. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Photos, illustrations, charts, tables, notes, source materials and guide. $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Daphne Duval Harrison, Professor Emerita, Africana Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore, and author of Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, (1998)

Jacqueline Dje Dje and Eddie Meadows have taken a major step toward bridging the gap between African American musical universes within the continental United States in this volume of essays on musicians and music in California. It should be noted that the subtitle is misleading since there is no discussion of musicians in other western states. Nevertheless, the contributors have brought forth an array of interesting information on musicians, the media, and the historical evolution of a musical culture that can be rightfully identified as distinct in performance style, audience acceptance, and venue.

Topics include the impact of Black migration on San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego; the effect of segregation and discrimination on the economic and cultural development of Black communities and individuals; the influence of class, religion, and economics on performers and consumers of various genres of music. Additionally the authors discuss the media and the entertainment industry vis a vis the shaping of musical taste and profitability. This information is garnered through musicology, demographics, and oral histories, some of which are sound, scholarly works. Some are weak because of a paucity of supplementary evidence. This weakens a very important contribution to the study of African American music history, because, as editors and other authors repeatedly point out, there is an assumption that every major African American musical innovation came from the East Coast, the Midwest, or the South, and that the artists on the West Coast are pasteurized (my choice of word) versions of the great musicians that have either settled there or have spent a certain amount of time there. Fortunately the reader will be disabused of this notion by the essays of Dje Dje, Robert Eastman, Michael Bakan, Eddie Meadows, and Jean Kidula.

The text is divided into three sections: Music in the Urban Environment, Music and the Media, and The Musician as Innovator. In the first, Baken provides an excellent history of Blacks and music in California from the l900s to l930. Of particular interest is the arrival and influence of Ferdinand, aka “Jelly Roll,” Morton who is usually identified with New Orleans or the East. Bakan shows the circuitous route by jazz musicians who may have been born and lived in the East, North or Midwest before settling on the West Coast. Some remained for the rest of their lives; others left and returned; and others visited frequently because of movie and recording industry opportunities. He also illustrates how the impact of socioeconomic changes in the Black community led to an expansion of musical tastes that went beyond a preference for classical and conservative religious music to include dance bands and eventually, jazz and blues.

Robert Eastman continues the story by examining nightlife and the impact of World War II on the Black community, and performance opportunities for musicians from 1930 to 1945. He notes racism and police restrictions as factors in shaping musical life of both performers and audience. Radio became an important means for “allowing” black audiences to hear their favorite artists when laws prohibited them from frequenting “whites only” clubs. The increasing concentration of Blacks eventually gave them different avenues for enjoying their music. Their “after hours” and “members only” clubs became the Apollo theatres of the west. This chapter also includes tantalizing vignettes of artists such as Nat Cole, Charles Brown, Cecil Gant, Art Tatum, Herb Jeffries, Paul Quinichette; and of advocates of Black music such as Bardu Ali and Johnny Otis. Eastman asserts that the fluidity of the population and the emergence of the Hollywood entertainment industry encouraged an openness to new or modified forms of jazz and blues that gave rise to rhythm and blues and so-called “cool jazz.”

The brief essay on the blues scene in Oakland by Lee Hildebrand is disappointing because of its brevity. Hildebrand’s introduction to Michelle Vignes’ photographic essay, “Bay Area Blues,” is more cogent, and discusses the blues scene and artists more broadly, giving the reader a balanced view of the impact of socioeconomic changes on the music, musicians and audiences. The interview of Bob Geddings by James Moore would have benefited from additional commentary about other artists and the recording industry in Oakland after the 1980s.

Dje Dje discusses the relationship of socioeconomic strata to the religious experience of African Americans as expressed through their music. She illustrates this by comparing southern religious sects and the musical transition that occurred when Blacks migrated to the North, Midwest, and then West. She contends that the assumptions that Chicago-style gospel was the preeminent factor in shaping all black gospel music is inaccurate. This chapter is a wellspring of sound scholarship that enables the lay or scholarly reader to understand the interrelationships of individual and group artist innovations that shaped the California gospel tradition from the turn of the century to the 1990s. Like many of the essays in the book, this piece could be been more readable if it had been edited more tightly.

Two interviews with individuals who were actively involved in the recording and radio industry give an insider’s view of the impact of radio and recordings on the development of an audience for African-American popular music. Al Bell, formerly of Stax records, was interviewed by Kwaku Person-Lynn who elicited an excellent discussion on Blacks and creativity as derived from their musical roots. He contended that radio played a major role in shaping what Stax aired and recorded. This trend can be seen today in the move by artists to online production, promotion and sales to avoid control by major recording companies. By contrast, the outdated interview of a radio program manager illustrates the dependencey of artists upon exposure on radio, television and, now, video. The main conclusion one may draw is that lack of control over the media dramatically shapes as well as transforms the tastes of the listening audience.

The parentage of Rhythm and Blues is claimed by California, and perhaps rightly so, argues Willie Collins. Nellie Luther, Ruffs Thomas, Ruth Brown, and others might not agree. Club blues and Jump blues evolved from the mix that occurred when a varied population that migrated from many parts of the country responded differentially to the blues styles that come from the Southwest, South and Midwest. The discussion of various R&B styles is rich with names and titles. The author’s penchant for generalizations about the motives of particular artists, time periods, locales, education, religious and other cultural experiences diminishes their value. For example, his claim that “concern for humanity sets California R&B apart from nation” is preposterous. To state that “Nat Cole sold his soul for popularity” presumes that Blacks in other parts of the United States did not buy his recordings or enjoy his performances. Previous chapters illustrate over and over that musical tastes varied in the Black community and continue to do so.

The Meadows essay was intriguing, informative and, sadly, representative of the present status of jazz throughout the country. I must confess that “Lite” Jazz in the title was totally foreign to this reader, who is not from the West Coast. The meaning eventually evolved after Meadows illustrated and discussed the demographics of listeners and audiences. The evidence suggest that young, more affluent, audiences, prefer not to have any kind of listening experience that requires them to think about the complexity of the music or to be engaged in an artistic interchange of musical ideas. This is not entirely their fault, Meadows notes, because the reduction or elimination of music programs in public and private schools has diminished their exposure to a variety of musical experiences. The irony is that the forefathers and mothers of African Americans were exposed to classical as well as popular folk music whether or not they had extensive formal education (see above, the Bakan and Dje Dje essays). Hopefully Meadows will update this study since there seems to be an increased interest in Jazz in the schools because of new young artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard and Vanessa Williams, and programs like those of Betty Carter, Billy Taylor and David Baker.

The last section has three essays on individual artists–Clora Bryant, jazz trumpeter; Andrae Crouch,composer and performer; and Brenda Holloway, vocalist. The Holloway and Bryant articles are based mainly upon interviews of the artists with some supplementary information from other sources. They were interesting, but left this reader wondering whether they were representative of most women artists. Hallway’s story seems self-serving and does not provide sufficient evidence to justify its inclusion to the exclusion of such artists as Eta James, Willie Mae Thornton, Esther Phillips or Margie Evans.

The Jean Kidula essay on Andrae Crouch is an informative and scholarly examination of the artist in an historical and cultural framework that demonstrates a continuum of musical and religious practices from African slavery to the present. Crouch is revealed as a superb musician who is an astute businessman and devout religious leader. His understanding of his talent and how it is used for artistic, religious and economic purposes is forthright and refreshing. Kidula is keenly aware of the sociocultural practices such as trance and spirit possession that shaped the African American religious experience. Kidula correctly posits that gospel music should be viewed as an extension and “continuation of the spiritual’s message of hope and deliverance.” It would have been helpful to the reader if this essay had been placed in tandem with Dje Dje’s essay.

Overall, California Soul is a worthy contribution to the literature on African American music. It demonstrates that the music of California African Americans is neither monolithic nor does it copy the music from other parts of the country. Rather, it has evolved on its own terms with certain unique qualities that have shaped the music of African Americans and other groups elsewhere. For this Book ReviewsimagesreaBook Reviewsimagesson, this book should be required reading for the student and lay reader interested in American music. The list of musical and textual sources by David Martinelli is a thoughtful supplement that will be of service to those who wish to do further study. Better editing and the reduction of end notes would serve the reader better. Hopefully, a revised edition will expand on those topics that have evolved since the book was printed.

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