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Guardians of jazz virtue fed up with unimaginative neotraditionalists would do well to hire Andrew White as their spokesman. In his new book, I, Educator, the 53-year-old Northeast D.C. resident attacks the state of jazz (and jazz education) with a fierce wit and—despite indications to the contrary—a sound mind. But hire is the key word, because White isn’t going to work for free. The multitalented saxophonist, oboist, bassist, composer, transcriber, and writer is, above all, a businessman. Having created and marketed over 1,700 different products (according to his self-penned bio, “Andrew White is the most voluminously self-produced artist”), White is always ready for some green.
“That’s my main thing…the money. I’ve made my artistic statement….I’m just an artist, so later for that—let’s make a good living with the art,” exclaims White, sitting in the living room of his South Dakota Avenue home. “I’m diversified. I got a lot of stuff out, so show me some duckies! I’m in business!”
As Andrew’s Musical Enterprises Inc., White has been in business for 25 years. He releases his own records, books, John Coltrane transcriptions (565 to date), and whatever else he thinks can make him some dough. The business is nothing if not demand-driven. An acquaintance whose girlfriend had an odd sexual kink once requested a tape that would be, literally, a gas, and White responded with his most jaw-droppingly outrageous product: Far Out Flatulence: A Concerto for Flatulaphone, which comprises 56 minutes of White lettin’ ’em fly. For $15, it can be yours, too.
White claims that all 27 of his books and treatises were “written out of the needs of my customers.” This number includes titles like 100 and One “Wise Cracks!” and Sideman! (both from his “X-Rated Band Stories” series), and a treatise on the music of John Coltrane, Trane n’ Me, (available in English and in a German-published translation).
But all this product shouldn’t give the impression that White likes to repeat himself. “I’m not a writer, I’m a musician. I’m a businessman,” he says. “If three people ask me one thing, I say, ‘Uh oh, that’s it. I’m losing money when the fourth one comes.’” White writes his books to address repetitive questions and, of course, to make some cash on the answers. (In fact, White responds to many of my questions by directing me to the proper book.) “All my books and treatises, every last one of them, there’s been a demand strong enough for me to sit down and say, ‘Well, I gotta do this because I’m losing money.’”
White has also released 42 records, though none since 1984. “What I need [another] record for?” he protests. “I have 42. I’m the last person in the business who needs a record!” Other than two Prestige recordings by his 1961–64 Howard University band, the J.F.K. Quintet, all of White’s releases as bandleader have been through his own label. “No [major-label] offers have been serious enough for me to consider,” he says.
Even if a deal fell into White’s lap, he insists that a major label wouldn’t be able to provide “an umbrella structure that would be able to accommodate all of my interests. I’ve always been interested in exploiting all aspects of what I do. I wouldn’t be able to do that with any record company, because their thing is to pigeonhole.” Plus, in the digital age White would be forced to make CDs. “I have no interest in making CDs,” White insists. “I’m anti-CD. I can’t stand CDs! I made my reputation on a type of sound and vibrance, and I don’t like the way I sound on CD!”
“I have [ethical] problems selling the Julius Hemphill CDs [I play on],” White insists, because Andrew’s Music is based on a long-standing tradition of consumer trust and honest commerce. “If I’m a merchant all year long, and if you come to one of my concerts and you want to buy one of my products after I’ve poured my heart out on stage, I can’t look at you with a straight face and offer you a product that I don’t believe in. Rather than deal with that whole phenomenon of distrust, dishonesty, I just stay away from the whole thing.”
In addition to playing with Hemphill’s saxophone sextet, White played bass for Stevie Wonder (1968–70) and the Fifth Dimension (1970–76), and oboe with the American Ballet Theater (1968–70). While still with the Fifth Dimension, White was asked to “bring da funk” to Weather Report’s Sweetnighter album. His funk and rock playing made White the target of some pinhead jazz purists, but White used his mainstream success to promote Andrew’s Music. Besides, White loves to bring the funk. “Nobody wants to groove more than I do. And nobody can feel like [I do]….I’ll sit there with tears in my eyes when I hear some good funk!” he testifies. White tells a story about once getting all emo over a groove when he played with James Brown. The band had a vamp going for 10 minutes. “The funk was so righteous I was crying like a baby while I was playing!”
Funk, rock, and classical music are secondary, however, to White’s devotion to Coltrane. He is known as an expert on ’Trane, not only for the solo transcriptions, but also for his extensive writings on the tenor-sax legend. “Most of the jazz cats don’t have [feeling]. They might have a quirk or something that makes them somewhat relevant above and beyond feeling, but Coltrane had a wealth of that. He was another type of player altogether,” says White. “The ingenuity displayed in what Coltrane plays in terms of his linguistic output is something worthy of note—on a very high note—and I’ve sought to do that.”
White transcribes Coltrane bootlegs as well as official releases, including such incredibly far-out and free records as Sun Ship and Live in Japan. The knack for transcribing came easily to White—and as early as middle school. “I was transcribing everybody. There were things going in [jazz] that were not compatible with my knowledge of music from a classical perspective,” says White. “To find out what the differences are solely from an educational standpoint, you have to have a text. There were no texts, so I created all my own texts.”
It was only after White realized he was violating his golden rule (if he’s asked for something four times, he’s losing money) that he began publishing the Coltrane transcriptions.
“All through my college years while Coltrane was living and all the way up until 1970, I was approached by people about what he was doing more than what anybody else was doing. I decided as a businessperson I couldn’t talk to all these people,” White explains. “I had so many of the transcriptions already from having transcribed them as a child. I said, ‘Let me make a series of these and put them out to make the answer available.’”
But despite great interest from jazzheads and educators alike, White makes more money from the publishing rights to 800 arrangements of his own material than from his transcriptions. “I did [the transcriptions] for historical record, but there’s no business there. People are really not buying them. Unless you’re a real Coltranophile…,” he says.
The transcriptions may not yield big money, but they provide White’s name with a notable aura, just as playing with Wonder and the Fifth Dimension did. “Curiosity yields business. I can’t tell you how many thousands of records I’ve sold simply because people are curious to see what the saxophone player sounded like who transcribed the Coltrane solos.”
But White’s sound is unlike Coltrane’s, apart from an ability to play blindingly fast runs with confidence. Then again, confidence has never been a problem for White.
“I always sound good!” he laughs. “I always sound good. They’ve been telling me that since I was 14 years old, but they don’t want to pay nobody. So I made a business out of how good I sound, how unique I sound.”
“I have what I call an ‘Andrew White traditional style.’ I’ve always played the same way, I’ve never changed. One of the greatest compliments I always hear is from a professional jazz musician who hasn’t heard me in 20 years and [they] come and hear me play, and they say, ‘Andrew’s still playing that shit!’”
Those jazz professionals who praise White’s style are the same ones who get socked in I, Educator. Always the businessman, White won’t divulge the names of the stars he clobbers, because they are “some of my biggest customers!”
In a piece called Frankly, We Go for the Name, White assails universities who hire star players as teachers on the basis of prestige alone. “I resent the street-corner intellectuals coming in now who can’t even read music. Standing up there getting $50,000 a year because they played with Art Blakey. I don’t appreciate that,” White scolds. “I’m not walking in [the classroom] with a cigarette lighter and a pack of cigarettes and stand up there and talk about where I grew up. That is, basically, what jazz education is about. I can’t get the money for what I do, because the celebrities are getting the money for that.”
White primarily teaches seminars, but he did conduct a jazz workshop at George Washington University during the 1992-93 school year. And he’s been offered the chairmanship of jazz programs, all of which he’s declined for various reasons, including not wanting to work for others or relocate. Or, more importantly, because he’s been offered the position without being asked for his pedagogical credentials.
“One thing I resent wholeheartedly is when somebody offers me a chairmanship of a jazz-studies department worth between 60 and 80 thousand dollars with full benefits and never asks to see a résumé. Only hiring me simply because I played the bass with Stevie Wonder. I resent that. That happens all the time,” fumes White.
Despite I, Educator’s serious assessment of the state of jazz studies, the book truly is hilarious (see sidebar). “And it’s not a comedy book!” claims White. “It’s comedically written, but you probably wouldn’t be able to walk after you read [my comedy books]. They’ve had to carry people off airplanes, people laughing so hard at some of the comedy books!” CP