Get any group of college-educated music nerds in a room and you will notice two odd things about them. (I mean listen-to-music nerds and not play-music nerds.) The first is that they are mostly or all male and the second is that they will all be under some weird impression that "race" is a musical term. Guys who couldn't identify the time signature of a piece of music with any reliability at all will be able to tell you just how "black" the music is. Believe me I know because I used to be one of them.
Every time a music nerd sits down to write a music history they have a Whiggish idea of progress in the back of their heads. They firmly believe that there has been a steady evolution of music from whiteness to blackness. Further, they firmly believe that this progress not only accompanies racial progress but somehow causes it.
Indie music, for example, tends to be very white—dense harmonies, very little syncopation. For some writers, the popularity of this music is as ominous a notion as the return of the Ku Klux Klan would be.
And there is something even weirder about that because the whole idea of "black music" is a white idea. We like to think we are well beyond the days of the Minstrel show wherein white people dressed up in cruel caricatures to present the kind of "black" music the white audience liked but we are not. If anything, all we have done is cut out the middle man: why have some white guy smear his face with cork to present cruel caricatures of black men obsessed with violence and macho sexuality when you can get 50 Cent and Kanye West to do it more "authentically".
And most black music listeners have no interest in being purists about the music they listen to. There is a very good reason why Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands were only available on record. There simply wasn't an audience for a group that played this sort of music in the clubs that black Americans went to at the time. Bands that played for paying customers couldn't afford to play just hot music; they had to play waltzes, polkas and sweet tunes to make a living. (The only people who could afford to be purist about hot jazz at the time were white upper-middle class boys who, not coincidentally, are the same people who make Hip Hop and Rap profitable today.) The same is true of Coleman Hawkins landmark recording of "Body and Soul"—hard core jazz fans might have been willing to sit around and listen to that one after hours but the paying customers on the dance floor wanted to hear the melody.
The most popular band among actual Black Americans in the 1930s, as opposed to what white Americans like to fantasize about what Black Americans are supposed to like, was this one:
The most famous, or example, or infamous example, depending on your perspective, was the Royal Canadians setting the attendance record at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930. And it wasn't just the dancers who loved Lombardo. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Don Redman were all big fans. Here is Don Redman's tribute to Little Coquette. It's such a tribute he was lucky that Lombardo wasn't the litigious type:
It's not just that Redman's melody is a variation of Lombardo's. Compare the saxophone sections on the two records. There is a clear and powerful influence here.
Of course there is an "evolution"in between the two records and, yes, I find the second one livelier and more interesting too. But Redman's music—and it is Redman who, more than anyone else, creates swing—is heavily influenced by artists such as Lombardo and Paul Whiteman. The music nerd version of history is a fraud.
You can make that fraud sound convincing by stopping the story at certain points. If you make Be Bop the last chapter in your book about jazz or Hip Hop the last chapter of your book about rock music, you get that result. But there is no less (or more) reason not to make Cool Jazz the last chapter of your book about jazz or New Country the last chapter of your book about rock. If anything music that tries to be very black tends to come off as an aberration in the history of American popular music. Louis Armstrong had far more in common with Bing Crosby than he did with Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry has far more in common with Taylor Swift than he does with Kanye West.
It's a racial tragedy that Amy Winehouse is praised for music that is completely and utterly derivative of R&B while there is no no black equivalent to Taylor Swift. There ought to be.