One of the earliest, and still funniest, Saturday Night Live skits I ever saw features host and musical guest Ray Charles playing himself, alongside several members of the cast playing a popular young vocal group. As the “Young Caucasians, ” they give Charles’ soul hit “What’d I Say” a treatment more Branson, Missouri than Apollo Theater. Charles’ soulful voice is replaced with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irredeemably hokey chorus of teenagers, his gritty arrangement polished down to a cheery, utterly sexless sheen.
Charles’ manager tells him this is the pop version of the song. His further explanation that Charles’ recording will be played in the South and “Negro radio stations”, not to mention the Caucasians’ Brady Bunch-esque fashions and nasal honking, tell Charles as well as the audience that they just heard the white version of “What’d I Say.”
The “white version” comes up as a joke, intentional or otherwise, throughout the history of American popular culture. Another personal favorite is a scene from the 2002 film Undercover Brother, where the titular character asks about Michael Bolton’s cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” There are many more to choose from out there.
Critics as well as comedians like to include white versions in their work. For critics, the white version is an analytical tool, a deviation falling short of some non-white normative case. Critics’ white versions are usually subtler as well as less amusing, and it’s harder to select a favorite, but they still keep coming up with them.
Whether employed as a punch line or a critical idea, white versions tend to be deemed stiff and uptight, lacking the artistic sincerity and raw expressiveness of earlier, more “authentic” versions. As those corny Young Caucasians demonstrate, white versions are also sanitized for popular i.e. majority (i.e. white) consumption. That digestibility also coincides with the idea that the white version are also the more commercially successful (and ergo, artistically compromised) version.
Prewar jazz, bound up in popular music and entertainment, seems especially rife with examples to spur comedians and critics. Listening to the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” I can practically hear comments from some Gunther Schuller-inspired Statler and Waldorf:
The Benson Orchestra’s crisp articulation and bright sound are very different from any other “Wolverine Blues.” For some listeners, this is probably the “white(st) version” of the tune. Personally I just hear a band more rooted in ragtime than jazz, approaching a now familiar composition on their terms.
At a time when music publishers reigned supreme, the same tune could receive dozens of recordings by different bands of all different shapes and sizes, all giving it different treatments. British bandleader Bert Firman put his own stamp on Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:
Saxophonist and author Paul Lindemeyer explains:
On Henderson’s recording, the studio has a “hard walls” ambience and everyone seems to be in the middle distance, so no voices predominate. What you hear is a performance, not so much an arrangement. With Firman you actually hear the arrangement and discern the parts. This is a published stock by the dean of stock arrangers, Frank Skinner, who squared a few corners away and added a couple of “hot-cha” and “vo-de-o-do” figures but otherwise let Henderson’s work stand proud.
While clearly digging into Henderson’s tune, the Firman band also pushes the beat slightly more than Henderson’s orchestra while relying less on improvisation. They still provide an energetic, unique touch to a tune heard in countless jazz history courses and boxed sets. Yet the juxtaposition of Firman’s tenser rhythm and written parts with Henderson’s laidback beat and soloists is probably more than enough to peg the Firman record as just another white version.
If they’re not dismissed as outright imitations or sterilized products, critics also reduce white versions to needlessly complicated attempts at copying the more “natural” original. This blurring of “experimental” and “pedantic” may as well be called “Red Nichols syndrome.” Nichols’ music, including his approach to material primarily associated with seminal Black jazz artists, reflects his own style, taste, and cultural/musical upbringing. His “Heebie Jeebies” features a string of harmonically ranging solos and a wittily arranged double-trumpet soli:
It doesn’t introduce scat singing, and Nichols’ flip, facile cornet is a long way from Louis Armstrong’s golden, swinging sound. Likewise, Nichols’ “Black Bottom Stomp” settles into a cool, metrical groove and transparency that may seem unusual compared to composer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording:
Nichols’ music doesn’t lack anything; it just has different musical priorities but remains distinct and very personal. Even without altering the course of jazz history, that has to count for something in jazz. Unfortunately without a healthy dose of the blues, a loose rhythm, vocal inflections and (perhaps most damning) a corresponding narrative about the artist’s poverty, recordings by Nichols and others like him, when mentioned at all, are often relegated to clever knockoffs.
Not being jazz is one thing, but many white versions are consigned to an ersatz, second-rate category that’s as condescending as it is subjective. Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz splices Chick Webb and Benny Goodman’s recordings of “Don’t Be That Way” side by side to illustrate those bands playing against one another at the Savoy ballroom. Yet it also saddles Webb’s drive next to Goodman’s relaxed bounce in a calculated manner that might have made Lorne Michaels smile:
It’s easy to hear which group has the faster tempo, more sedate feel, harder drive, wider range of dynamics, etc. on Edgar Sampson’s arrangement. It’s impossible to hear what went on at the Savoy ballroom on May 11, 1937. Burns’ point is to show the viewer which band is “best,” as dancer Frankie Manning puts it, but we might just be hearing two unique performances of the same chart:
Seventy-six years later and beyond the Lindy-hoppers’ concerns, can we detect diversity rather than victory, musical priorities rather than stylistic purity? Can we forgive Benny Goodman for making so much money?
As big as the jazz tent has become, jazz’s white album may never be more than a footnote. Ultimately the point isn’t whether Goodman, Nichols, Firman, the Benson Orchestra or for that matter Armstrong, Henderson, Morton or any band are playing the way we expect or if they’re even playing jazz; it’s whether the music has something to say on its own terms. If not, is the music there for productive historical and stylistic comparison, or narrow artistic teleology? I still laugh at the Ray Charles skit but I now know that there’s a grain of truth to it that just isn’t funny. The world isn’t a comedy skit. Things are much more complicated, even if they do often come down to black and white, and more than music.