Last weekend I saw a concert of ragtime and stride piano. It celebrated the likes of Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum. Two pianists played, one white and the other black.
The white one, Brian Holland, played in a driving style, his lightning-fast left hand banging out a clean, steady rhythm while his right hand skittered up and down the keyboard rendering the melody in thick chords. This is the “contest” kind of ragtime playing that elicited Joplin’s famous dictum, “It is never right to play ragtime fast.” Subtlety is compromised, but watching the energy and dexterity is narcotic.
The black one, Aaron Diehl, started out playing spare, ruminative versions of famous pieces — properly, boiled-down fantasies on the pieces rather than the pieces themselves. Quiet, unbusy and witty, they were beautiful in the way that much modern art is.
Yet the fact remained that what Mr. Diehl had done did not require the physical dexterity of what Mr. Holland had done. Mr. Diehl appeared “deeper,” and certainly more ethnic, sprinkling his renditions with blues licks. But to the extent that when two people play the same kind of music in one concert there is inevitably an unspoken air of competition, Mr. Diehl had lost.
Given that Mr. Diehl is a young jazz prodigy who has played Wynton Marsalis, I assumed that ragtime and stride just didn’t happen to be among his specialties. Yet I was kind of disappointed. If there had to be a winner, in a fellow-traveller sense I wanted it to be him.
But Mr. Diehl wasn’t finished. He tucked into a couple of Art Tatum pieces, and now showed that not only could he do a crisp, topspeed left hand when he felt like it, but nailed Mr. Tatum’s famous jaw-dropping right-hand runs, with an easy smile all the while. He truly tore the piano up — it was almost hard to believe a real person was playing.
So, Mr. Diehl is his own man and is plenty “diverse” — but he can also stand his own against what the mainstream throws him.
The concert put me in mind of the discomfort many feel these days with minorities being subject to serious competition against whites — except when happenstance has it that minorities already can hold their own. No one worries about blacks competing with whites on the basketball court.
The debate over whether middle-class black students should be given preferences in college admissions anymore is an example. Behind the justifications based on diversity and so on, one senses a general conviction that for black students even of comfortable background to be evaluated on the same basis as white students would be profoundly inappropriate. Not so very long ago, after all, official segregation and bigotry meant that for all blacks, competition against whites was always an overtly rigged business. Clearly the bad taste still lingers in the mouths of many.
That informs much of the reaction to CBS’s announcement that next fall, “Survivor” will pit white, black, Latino, and Asian teams against one another.
“Segregation!” many are shouting — as if in itself, segregation is always a crime. Too often today this word is used as a verbal truncheon rather than as a conduit of reason.
Obviously Jim Crow was indefensible, and I am as eager as any of us to find out what was in the white Louisiana school bus driver’s mind who has been reported as telling black kids to sit in the back of the bus.
But “segregation” also once meant the excellence of all-black schools like Dunbar High in Washington, D.C. Today “segregated” KIPP Academy schools are making top students out of brown-skinned ghetto kids. Segregation created ragtime, for that matter.
Disenfranchisement is one thing. But if “segregation” means simply “black people making do without white people,” then give me more of it.
“Survivor” is resorting to race-based teams because they need ratings and race is our national obsession. Will some racist whites hole up in their living rooms rooting for the white team for unsavory reasons? No doubt. But there will always exist some such people, and their complete extinction is not necessary to black progress. More important is that such attitudes are no longer dominant in the larger culture. We are long past the days when Jack Johnson, who was a black heavyweight champion boxer in the aughts and teens, was regularly drawn as a cartoon ape in news drawings in which his white opponent was lovingly rendered as an actual human being.
Black America should just take the “Survivor” occasion to cheer in jolly fashion for our own. We used to do it for the Negro Leagues. Then ten years ago it was for O.J. An all-black “Survivor” team says better things about America than either of those cases.
Mr. Holland and Mr. Diehl finished by sitting at the piano together and playing a fantastic four-hand arrangement of the Maple Leaf Rag — almost as if to give me something to end an editorial with. However, rather than closing with a statement about this being what America should be all about, I’ll just mention that next fall when I Tivo “Survivor,” I’ll be rooting for the black team.
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