Reviews/Blogs - A Rebuttal to The Chicago Reader Review

On June 19, 2015, The Chicago Reader gave us our first major newspaper review, even though the paper itself is an independent weekly. Neither Dave nor I are thin-skinned individuals. Indeed, as journalists, we've been trained to be as objective as we can and not let our emotions interfere with our writing. But the review by the Reader's jazz critic, Peter Margasak, is a perfect illustration of what we allude to in our book when we refer to the "subliminal hostility with which many academics view Italian Americans" (pg. 28). Margasak's antagonism isn't so subliminal.

We sent a follow-up letter both to Margasak and to the Reader's editors, asking for a chance to respond to many of the review's assertions. We have yet to hear back from either of them; therefore, to add some fairness and balance, we are posting this unduly negative review on our website, complete with our own direct comments (in italics)."

Rebuttal to the Chicago Reader's Review of Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica The Chicago Reader
Friday, June 19, 2015
Books / Jazz / Music
Posted By Peter Margasak on 06.19.15 at 02:00 PM

"A new book on Italian-Americans in jazz distorts history"
The first thing that jumped out at us was the article's title--specifically, its use of the word 'distorts.' Whether Margasak or his editors selected this word is irrelevant. It automatically sets a negative tone, suggesting a modus operandi to our research---under-handedness-- that was never intended. Our goal was to complement, not distort, jazz history).
Chicago authors Bill Dal Cerro and David Anthony Witter attempt to spell out the abundant contributions Italian-Americans have made to jazz over its century-long history in a new, self-published book called Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience. As a catalog of Italian-American jazz musicians—some of whom changed their names to sound less ethnic such as Flip Phillips (ne Joseph Filipelli) and Louie Bellson (ne Luigi Balassoni)—the book provides a worthwhile service, a kind of low-key encyclopedia featuring short biographies of important figures. In their preface the authors write, "our goal with this book was to be celebratory, not chauvinistic," and I don't have any reason to doubt that claim. But it isn't quite borne out in the writing.

It's indisputable that Italian-Americans have been important to jazz. But so have countless other ethnic groups in the U.S. Dal Cerro and Witter acknowledge that jazz was a black creation, but they not only strain their credibility when they say they noticed "some links between patterns of Italian immigration and some elements in the birth of jazz," they engage in absurd historical revisionism. It's hardly a secret that jazz was a brilliant hybrid music that freely borrowed all sorts of ideas from European culture—Italian opera among them—but it's offensive to posit that Italian immigrants had such a direct hand.

Two points about the above paragraph:

a) Yes, we know that "countless other ethnic groups in the U.S have been important to jazz." Apparently, Margasak didn't read the Foreward by Professor Frank Salamone, Ph.D, which states (pg 7): "This book documents the role which Italian Americans have played in the development of jazz without denying the tremendous influence made by African Americans and others." And maybe he didn't understand the actual title of the book itself, although it's pretty simple: "Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience."

Such a broad, sweeping statement---meant to dismiss the singularity of the subject matter--would never be made about authors documenting the roles of Jewish Americans in Jazz (as Mary Morris does in her 2015 book, "The Jazz Palace") or of African Americans in jazz, nor should it. In short, this is condescension.

b) Margasak admits that Italians did influence jazz, yet ends by terming such influences "offensive." We can't read his mind, but he seems to be implying an old saw: "How dare anyone try to take credit for what is largely an African American art form?" We make no such claims anywhere in our book. He is projecting.

The authors came to the book project as Italian-American historians rather than musicologists, so it's not surprising that the musical analysis is rather light, focusing more on personalities, history, and social aspects. There's nothing wrong with that, although some of the errors are hard to swallow. In the first chapter, which discusses the music's emergence in New Orleans, the authors bizarrely mention the Connecticut composer Charles Ives, erroneously labeling him Creole. They seem to have confused the very white New Englander—who did draw upon a wide swath of influences in a polyglot fashion akin to jazz—with New Orleans composer Louis Gottschalk.

This is/was a legitimate error. We did mention Louis Moreau Gottschalk (Margasak forgot his middle name) in the same sentence with Ives. Unfortunately, it was cut off and we didn't spot this error until after the book was already printed and paid for. As independent authors, we didn't have the funding to go back and order an entire reprinting, but we will correct this error in the second printing. We also didn't think that the misidentification of Ives's ethnic background would matter via the remaining 382 pages of the book, considering we never mention him again. What, ultimately, does this have to do with the subject matter at hand--again, a book on Italian Americans? We underestimated the ire of reviewers like Margasak, eager to pounce on a petty error to lord it over new authors.

In a chapter about Philadelphia organist Joey DeFrancesco they write that he "introduced the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument largely used in church settings, into the modern everyday jazz vernacular," an assertion that would probably confuse Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Baby Face Willette, Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, or Bill Doggett if they were still living. One of the problems with self-publishing is a lack of editorial oversight.

On page 192, we refer to Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff as "two early giants of the jazz organ" who were mentors to Mr. DeFrancesco. On pg. 199, we call Charles Earland "a B-3 organ master." Again, Margasak may be projecting: He smells a conspiratorial attempt to deny black musicians their due. Finally, we deliberately use the phrase "modern everyday," meant to acknowledge that, indeed, DeFrancesco is considered a modern example of the jazz organ mastery of past B-3 players. In fact, in 2015, he was again selected by Downbeat Magazine as their top jazz organist of the year. Perhaps Downbeat staffers are closet racists, too?

An entire chapter is devoted to New Orleans cornetist Nick LaRocca, whose import is distorted because he played on the first commercial jazz recording by the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose race made them early ambassadors for the burgeoning form despite a lack of originality and technical brilliance; they were to King Oliver what Pat Boone was to Little Richard.

Again: We trumpet--no pun intended--a white jazz musician; ergo, we are racists? First of all, the chapter on LaRocca is largely historical. We make no claims on his greatness as a musician; as Margasak himself notes in his review, we are not "musicologists" (although, if we did voice such an opinion, he would no doubt call us "pretentious," too). Instead, we quote others about LaRocca and let the readers decide. In fact, in the same chapter (pg. 36), we mention that black musicians like Louis Armstrong--a LaRocca admirer, btw-- turned jazz into art.

It's also a bit insulting that the authors felt the need to lump female subjects into a single chapter, as if their gender disqualified them from fitting in with the men.

So now we move from racism to sexism. We did not "lump" (Margasak's word) female musicians into a separate category out of neglect or spite. In fact, given the structure of the book, we felt that their achievements might be overlooked. We deliberately gave them their own chapter to specifically help readers appreciate their talents. Writers like Margasak may consider such gestures quaint or vaguely sexist, but our intent was pure.

Incidentally, we profile some amazing women in the chapter: Dottie Giaimo Dodgion, the first female jazz drummer; Joanie Pallatto, one of the first women to work as a recording engineer; and singer Roberta Gambarini, who is compared by many critics to the great Ella Fitzgerald. Margasak mentions none of them. Who's the real sexist here?

Still, the book is readable and the extended chapter called "Italian Americans in Jazz: the Ensemble Cast" delivers a thorough chronicle of lesser-known figures including Chicagoans like Joe Vito, Danny Polo, and Gene Esposito.

A grudging bit of praise, although the word "readable," like his earlier comments about not mentioning jazz artists from other ethnic groups, likewise smacks of condescension. Given the relentlessly negative images of Italians in the mainstream media, was Margasak expecting our text to be written in crayon?

Finally, scroll down and read the blog responses to Margasak's review. Confronted by so many positive comments about Italian American musicians, he sheepishly admits that our book was "comprehensive," but that he merely found fault with its "numerous inaccuracies" and that we "overstated our case." To which inaccuracies does he refer...the aforementioned petty one about Charles Ives? And what "case" do we "overstate?" Is Margasak implying that Italian American jazz musicians were NOT talented or influential?

We await his response.

Bill Dal Cerro, David Anthony Witter