Dave Brubeck And The Performance Of Whiteness

The author says Brubeck fought racism more than most white jazzers but failed to realise his privileged socio-economic and 'whiteness' status


Author Kelsey Klotz is described by her publisher as “an (ethno) musicologist specializing in jazz history, race studies, and American cultural studies”.

Her objectives in this detailed and decidedly academic study are to unravel the meaning and functions of “whiteness” and their place in “identity formation”. Building on a plethora of recent and current scholarship, she attempts to “understand whiteness [as] a performance”. This book – developed from a doctoral thesis – is massively documented, and selects Dave Brubeck and his “performativity” from the 1950s until his death as its ostensible concern. The customs and practices of white supremacy in the United States are viewed as a system that “supports, protects and values white people and whiteness as it simultaneously dominates, silences, and de-values non-whites”. So far, so good, but deriving as it does from a doctoral thesis, and despite valuable insights, it is unlikely to appeal to a wide readership. The most limiting factor is the frequent insertion of sociological comment that drains the meanings of “whiteness” of immediacy. One example can stand for many, as when she quotes approvingly the aperçus of a fellow academic traveller.

The black/white binary has never been about descriptive accuracy, but it is a deliberately reductionist racial project constructing white power and privilege against the alterity and abjection of the imagined polarity of “blackness” and the transfer of power across generations and (white) ethnicities.

Klotz is convinced that Brubeck did as much as – if not more than – any mid-20th century white American jazz musician to condemn racism whenever it appeared. She also confesses her feelings for Dave and his wife Iola. In a disarming passage she relates that “In the name of loving and knowing, I focus on Brubeck’s whiteness . . . not to critique him unfairly for not always being who I wanted him to be in the twenty-first century”.

As is already well-documented, Brubeck regularly refused to perform at racially segregated venues, notably in the American south. At considerable financial loss, he cancelled a 25-date tour when 22 colleges and universities would not allow his black bassist Eugene Wright to appear with an otherwise all-white group – the Dave Brubeck Quartet. He also refused to tour South Africa when Wright (with whom the entire Brubeck family had a warm and reciprocal relationship) was again “black listed” (my coinage).

She observes that from the 1950s onwards Brubeck increasingly appealed to educated white women previously uninterested in or suspicious of ”jazz” and its negative sexual connotations. In a calculated move to gain some acceptance below the Mason-Dixon Line, he cannily released two albums (both in 1959), Gone With The Wind and Southern Scene, which were unabashedly aimed at southern white musical memories. She also compares and contrasts the audiences, performances, popularity and merits of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as their respective uses (and derivations) of counterpoint.

But Klotz also asserts that Brubeck (understandably) failed to realise his privileged socio-economic and “whiteness” status. She judges that his “performance of whiteness is inseparable from his performances of masculinity, heterosexuality, Christianity, middle-class belonging . . . each makes up part of his experience and informs his performance of whiteness, and none can be extracted from the other”. (Now we know).

Drawing on Ralph Ellison’s depictions of “the invisible man”, in his novel of the same title, Klotz compares and illustrates the images of Armstrong, Ellington and Monk when they (individually) appeared on the cover of Time magazine, with that of Brubeck who graced the cover in 1954. His depiction was granted an “individual subjectivity” whereas, for instance, that of Armstrong presents him as a stereotypical minstrel. She contends that it was Brubeck’s “whiteness” that rendered him visible as human, even as his whiteness, and its modes of privilege, remain invisible. An overly long chapter, ”Negotiating Jewish Identity”, discusses a Jewish cantata, commissioned by Rabbi Charles D. Mintz and composed by Brubeck (following the disbanding of the quartet in late 1967), which was an attempt to sooth black/Jewish relations as the civil-rights movement was beginning to fragment.

In conclusion, Klotz affirms that by the 1990s Brubeck (then in his 70s) felt unjustly sidelined as black jazz musicians began to receive (long-overdue) and wider recognition. Belatedly, perhaps, he also began to claim native American ancestry.

Although there are valuable insights into the power and salience of whiteness in the American national experience in this monograph, it is unfortunately marred by repetitive prose, over-quotation, and discursive (microscopic) footnotes placed at the bottom of every page – sometimes overwhelming the actual text. A 10-page and allegedly “Selected Bibliography” rounds off a well-intentioned but over-egged and not always digestible confection.

Dave Brubeck And The Performance Of Whiteness by Kelsey Klotz. Oxford University Press, 2023, pp 301. ISBN 9780197525074