The Problem with White Hipness

“The Problem with White Hipness” was written by musicologist Ingrid Monson when she was at the University of Michigan. It was published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society in autumn 1995. The paper discusses white notions of hipness and African American culture.

“The perspectives of Amiri Baraka, Mezz Mezzrow, Norman Mailer, and Dizzy Gillespie are used to develop the thesis that there is a problem with white presumptions [1]about how hipness relates to African American cultural life and history. This problem requires addressing interrelationships between race and gender, as well as the legacy of primitivism embedded in common assumptions about how jazz since World War II relates to social consciousness, sexual liberation, and dignity”[1]

The author contends that both gender and race are important factors in when it comes to white associations between primitivism and jazz. These links tie ‘hipness’ to jazz in the modern era, framing an important ethnomusicological discussion. Public perceptions of the lifestyles of jazz musicians have had a great impact on the attitudes and clothing style of white males in post-World War II America.

The author draws on several well regarded books and papers on jazz in her argument, including  Blues People (Bakara), To Be or not…to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie (Dizzy Gillespie), Mezzrow, and The Hip: Hipsters, Jazz and the Beat Generation. She often quotes large paragraphs, interpreting the facts presented differently from the original authors. These negative citations present a stark contrast between the author’s arguments and the ethnomusicological mainstream. Monson then uses accounts from jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie to strengthen her argument. While such performers are traditionally associated with drugs and sexual excess, most were everyday family men. Drawing on Freudian theories linking primitivism and sexuality, she contends that the hyper-sexualization of the male jazz musician is symptomatic of white audiences thinking of African Americans as raw and backward. It is important that modern attitudes towards hipness take history, social inequity and different moral values into account. This subconscious view of African American musicians as outsiders will continue as long as different views on sexuality and fashion are seen as retentions from a more primitive society.

One of the most interesting points made in the paper is the difference in style between influential bebop musicians like Max Roach and that of the white “zombies” emulating them. The oversized zoot suits, and “black” affectations of the jazz-listening community contrasted starkly with the performers themselves. Similarly, Monson’s critique of the romanticization of drug abuse also establishes a similar point. The assertion that jazz musicians never viewed intoxication as a creative force is a compelling one, which must be included in dialogue about jazz music.

On the other hand, some of Monson’s arguments criticizing ‘white hipness’ positively cite white jazz sources. Downbeat magazine, one of the driving forces of white interest in jazz, is represented as a force of non-primitivist racial integration in the jazz world. Arguments often gloss over the fact that club owners like Teddy Hill who “treated the guys well” (Monson), often did not pay performing musicians. The sources Monson uses are so entrenched in the mainstream views on jazz that positive citations of this sort often lend uncertainty to an anti-establishment argument. An argument could be made that white ‘hip’ sources are often the most strident in criticizing white ‘hipness’.

“The Problem with White Hipness” raises several possibilities for scholarly dialogue.

  • While Monson’s paper correctly identifies several issues with the white idea of ‘hipness’, it fails to account for the role of white and Hispanic musicians in the bebop era. Several influential bop compositions, including Oleo (Sonny Rollins), were based on George Gershwin songs. The role of musicians from different cultural milieus in the bebop era highlights how the incorporation of different musical ideas was a massive part of this supposedly anti-assimilationist movement.
  • “The Problem with White Hipness” demonstrates that being ‘hip’ in the 1950s involved the white middle class attempting to imitate the lifestyle of ‘raw’, ‘primitive’ African Americans who were excluded from ‘civilized’ society. Despite the success of Manouche jazz songs like Honeysuckle Rose (Django Reinhardt), the Romani people who played them faced similar societal exclusion in France. An application of Monson’s approach to this travelling population explains cultural disdain for Romani culture and heritage in Europe.
  • Monson explores the white idea of male African-American jazz musicians symbolizing masculinity and sexual freedom. She highlights how the role of women in jazz at the time was downplayed by a ‘hip’ audience. Female performers often faced violence and sexual harassment from bandmates, and criticism from audiences at the time. Similar analysis of modern day hip-hop culture explain the misogyny in rap songs like Bitches Ain’t Shit by Dr. Dre, as well as the marginalization of female rappers by the hip-hop community at large.

 


 

[1] Ingrid Monson, “The Problem with White Hipness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 48, No. 3, Music Anthropologies and Music Histories Autumn 1995 : 422.

 

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