A candid conversation with the jazz world’s premier iconoclast, 1962
Davis: My troubles started when I learned to play the trumpet and hadn’t learned to dance.
PLAYBOY: You feel that the complaints about you are because of your race?
DAVIS : I know damn well a lot of it is race. White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians — just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race. It goes clear back to the slavery days. That was when Uncle Tomming got started because white people demanded it. Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing…
But prejudiced white people can’t see any of the other races as just individual people. If a white man robs a bank, it’s just a man robbed a bank. But if a Negro or a Puerto Rican does it, it’s them awful Negroes or Puerto Ricans. Hardly anybody not white hasn’t suffered from some of white people’s labels. It used to be said that all Negroes were shiftless and happy-go-lucky and lazy. But that’s been proved a lie so much that now the label is that what Negroes want integration for is so they can sleep in the bed with white people. It’s another damn lie. All Negroes want is to be free to do in this country just like anybody else.
PLAYBOY: Did you grow up with any white boys?
DAVIS : I didn’t grow up with any, not as friends, to speak of. But I went to school with some. In high school, I was the best in the music class on the trumpet. I knew it and all the rest knew it — but all the contest first prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn. If I hadn’t met that prejudice, I probably wouldn’t have had as much drive in my work. I have thought about that a lot. I have thought that prejudice and curiosity have been responsible for what I have done in music.
This black-white business is ticklish to try to explain. You don’t want to see Negroes every time you click on your set. That would be just as bad as now when you don’t see nobody but white people. But if movies and TV are supposed to reflect this country, and this country’s supposed to be democratic, then why don’t they do it? Let’s see all kinds of people dancing and acting. I see all kinds of kids downtown at the schools of dancing and acting, but from what I see in the movies and TV, it’s just the white ones that are getting any work.
I tell you why I feel so strong about the communication system. I never have forgotten one time in Europe this nice old man told me how in World War II, the Europeans didn’t know what to make of Negro troops. They had their picture of this country from our magazines and movies, and with a very few exceptions like Pops Armstrong and Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, they didn’t know about any Negroes except servants and laborers.
DAVIS : There are plenty I won’t play! I won’t take a booking nowhere in the South. I told you I just can’t stand Jim Crow, so I ain’t going down there in it. There’s enough of it here in the North, but at least you have the support of some laws.
I told you I ain’t going to play nowhere in the South that Negroes can’t come. But I ain’t going to play nowhere in the North that Negroes don’t come. It’s one of two reasons they won’t, either because they know they ain’t wanted, or because they don’t like the joint’s regular run of music. Negroes ain’t got as much money to throw away in night clubs as white people. So a club that Negroes patronize, you can figure that everybody that goes there comes expecting to hear good music.
by Alex Haley