Just Friends: Racial Allies in Jazz Autobiography

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Autobiographical accounts of interracial friendships tend to take on unrealistic Huck-andJim-type dimensions, particularly in southern musicians’ autobiographies, where musical compatibility is often mistaken for a larger sense of harmony. A select few memoirs, however, have dispensed with this master narrative to illustrate instances of overcoming segregation through interpersonal means. In the vein of fellow Alabamian W.C. Handy’s The Father of the Blues, (1941), jazz composer/performer Willie Ruff’s A Call to Assembly (1991) uses the tools of African American respectability politics (ideals of democracy, Christianity and common humanity) to build more balanced relationships with young white contemporaries also enraptured by jazz, in the process shaming segregationists. In this case, music paves the way for whites’ understanding of larger social equality. In Bakhtinian terms, this authorial positioning is “centripetal” (literally meaning “rotation toward the center”), affirming unity and common core values to the reader.

By contrast, bebop musician Dizzy Gillespie in his To Be or Not to Bop (1979) takes on more centrifugal proportions, “clowning” his way around segregation like the time-honored trickster figure, finding allies in the jazz counterculture in the west, the north and abroad, beyond the reach of Jim Crow. Like Ruff, though, Gillespie takes advantage of jazz’s strategies to escape the trap of asymmetrical “friendships.” By eschewing the platitudes of the interracialbrotherhood tale, Ruff and Gillespie reveal the reciprocity and sacrifice necessary for white ally ship and establish jazz as a medium for political expression and true collaboration.


Birmingham, SC

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