Book Review: Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise by Alan Kurtz
“Pornographic filth.” What generation of teenagers hasn’t heard their favorite musical genre described in those words (or something close) by their parents? From jazz, bebop, swing, rock, protest, political and now rap music, artists, their producers, managers, and marketers have all had to deal with the trade off between talent and the demands of the marketplace. According to Alan Kurtz, author of Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise, “showmanship trumped musicianship”.
Kurtz’s erudite inspection of a trend he has identified and now details in his first book is not his first foray into writing He has written for years about music, particularly jazz, and proven himself to be, depending on the reader’s point of view, either a provocateur, an instigator, or a rabble rouser. Regardless of how the reader perceives his topics, his delivery, and his opinion, Kurtz can certainly provide the match for the proverbial powder keg.
The Dutch introduced slavery into Jamestown in 1619 and Long Island in 1626 and it didn’t take long for stereotypes to arise. Mr. Kurtz opines that perpetuation of these stereotypes sustains a racial underclass. Then he asks why 20th-century black musical performers would continue to cultivate white racism. Is it simply opportunism and market savvy? Or is it something deeper?
Answers are elusive and attempts to clarify what might be answers will inspire engaging conversation and perhaps heated debate. Our journey to enlightenment begins in Egypt’s 18th dynasty and progresses (musically) through the era of black-face minstrels, jazz, bebop, and rock. We enjoy the benefits of thorough research and learn about the evolution of each of these musical genres and the associated stereotypes. It’s on the stage of Harlem’s Cotton Club, courtesy of none other than Duke of Ellington, that we first meet the archetypal concept of the “jungle savage.” The chronology continues from rock through protest and politically charged genres and concludes with gangsta rap.
Readers who have open minds and the ability to follow metaphors and similes will appreciate Kurtz’s style and humor. This reviewer was continually caught off guard with what should have been obvious set-ups for a clever punch line. Gross exaggerations and blatant satire were occasional blind-sides. Perhaps my own ability to embellish stories made me susceptible. A charming occasional use of lyrics as prose was a pleasing feature and adds to the readability of what could have been a boring scholarly thesis.