The Color of Jazz: A White Musician’s Place in A Black World.
A young musician in New York grapples with his success within a black genre.
HARLEM, NEW YORK — It’s Saturday in August, and it’s hot. Tony Glausi is wearing a funky floral button-up performing with his four-piece jazz band at Home Sweet Harlem. “Thank you for coming out, everyone. I’m Tony,” he said. He motions his hand back, giving attention to his band-mates before picking up his brass trumpet. The entire band is different hues of brown.
Tony is a tan shade of white, with hair styled like Elvis Presley. “Anybody else wants to come up and play?” Tony opens the performance to the entire crowd. One by one, local musicians and regular patrons take the stage as Tony sits behind the keyboard.
“I love the synergy with him and the other musicians,” said Donna, the owner of Home Sweet Harlem. She met Tony soon after he moved to New York. “I love their silent language. Their nods, the smiles,” she said.
Three months later, Tony is at The Rum House in Times Square. He is wearing a tailored black suit, white collared shirt, and black patent shoes. He moves around the room and politely greets the audience between his sets. There’s no announcement for the guests to join him on this stage, “It’s more formal, not like Harlem,” said Tony. This band is called “Tony Glausi and
Friends.” They all match Tony’s attire, frequency, and race.
“He’s truly a showman,” said Donna, “He’s making it happen for himself.”
Tony Glausi is one of the most successful jazz musicians in his generation. He’s an international trumpeter, keyboardist, and composer. He has performed over a hundred times on stage around the world — and has recorded 25 studio albums. Additionally, he’s recognized in the “Downbeat Jazz & Blues Magazine” for his innovative compositions.
In 2016, he received the Laurie Fink Career Grant, which recognizes outstanding jazz talent.
He won first prize in the 2017 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Solo Competition, first prize in the 2017 ITG International Trumpet Competition, and first prize in the 2014 National Trumpet Competition. He’s received full-ride scholarships to the University of Oregon to complete a bachelor’s in jazz performance and a master’s in jazz composition. He’s been called “a great writer and a terrific trumpet player,” by renowned songwriter Burt Bacharach, and “one of the finest young trumpeters,” by jazz artist Dave Douglas.
Tony is 24 years old.
Even though he’s found success in jazz, he finds it complicated navigating this black genre,
“If someone calls me a cultural appropriator, all I can say is ‘I’m sorry,’” said Tony, “I do this with respect. I do this knowing the history. I do this as a form of expression, doing my part to represent black people.”
One would say Tony’s music career has just begun, but he’d argue it started before he could even spell jazz.
He was two years old when he first heard Stevie Wonder in Portland, Oregon. A home video captured him bouncing up and down on his parent’s living room ottoman to “I Wish.” When Tony revisits the video, he doesn’t remember the moment, but he recognizes the feeling. “Anyone that is dancing to a beat like that is going to feel music for the rest of their life,” said Tony.
Tony began writing and playing music at three years old. He received private piano lessons from pianist educators, including his mother, focused mainly on Mozart and Beethoven. By age five, Tony could play one hundred piano songs.
At age seven, Tony had Stevie Wonder’s “Fulfillingness First Finale” on a constant loop. “It is my favorite album of all time,” he said. On his 11th birthday, his uncle gifted him with Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album. After listening to this record, Tony continued to add other musical icons to his growing repertoire, including Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and Earth Wind & Fire.
During his freshman year at West Linn High School, he played the trumpet for two jazz bands, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra and Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra. Tony was ten years old when he discovered the trumpet. “After I played more with these jazz bands, I knew this was where my heart is,” said Tony.
When Tony was 17, he was invited to his first jazz club in Portland called Jimmy Mak’s, “My best friend invited me,” he said, “Though it was primarily white.”
After watching jazz in person, he began researching various trumpet legends to learn from. One being Seattle native, Jay Thomas. “He’s a swinging cat. I fell in love with his records,” said Tony. He often drove to Seattle from Portland to watch Jay play. Tony finally approached Jay with a gutsy introduction, “Hi, I’m Tony Glausi.”
For six years, Tony and Jay played and composed music, becoming fast jazz buddies. “He’s an inspiring being to be around,” said Tony, “He articulated how to play the trumpet non-verbally. Watching him was how he gave me advice.”
Even though Jay Thomas is white, Tony realized most of his musical inspirations were black. His diverse musical taste influenced his move out of Oregon, “I wanted to make progressive, beautiful music,” said Tony. When he turned 23, he packed his belongings and relocated across the country to New York.
Tony now resides in Harlem, where he realizes he’s not in Portland anymore.
The first year into Tony’s move, he joined a jazz band with eleven Haitian musicians. Tony was attracted to the band’s sound, and being the only white musician didn’t faze him. “I play in a Haitian band, when can you say that in Portland?” he said.
Later in 2017, Tony became more musically established in New York. He formed two bands on his own with two completely different sounds. “Tony Glausi and the Band” primarily plays at Home Sweet Harlem, and his “Tony Glausi and Friends” band plays at The Rum House in Times Square.
Home Sweet Harlem and The Rum House are only a thirty-minute subway ride apart on the A train, but their styles couldn’t be further alike. In Harlem, the vibe is “jazz in free-form,” and in Times Square, the style is “straight-classical tone.” Tony is the youngest white player in all three bands, but racial conflicts have not risen in either. “We don’t always get along, but all bands do that,” said Tony.
On July 22, 2018, three young black sisters, Latifah, Tashya, and Nia Wilson, were attacked in Oakland, California, by a white supremacist. Latifah was stabbed in the neck, and # NiaWilson’s throat was slit. Nia died instantly. Latifah survived. After Tony saw the breaking news, he felt compelled to do something. “It felt gross to ignore Nia,” he said.
Tony went to his room and put on his #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt. He grabbed his iPhone, microphone, and trumpet then started to record. He didn’t write a piece prior, wanting it to sound authentic. “I played it back and thought, ‘That sounds like what I want to say,’” said Tony. He captioned the video, “I don’t really know what to say other than this needs to stop. #Justice4Nia,
#BlackLivesMatter,” then posted it to social media.
In less than 24 hours, it went viral. The video garnered over 43,415 views. “All white musicians need to stay aware of issues that affect black people,” he said, “who are inevitably their band-mates.”
As Tony progressed in his career, he began to notice his white privilege within jazz. He experiences white privilege in music differently than other areas of life. “It’s complicated,” he said. He sees white privilege benefits him with white audiences who only want jazz from white bodies. “That privilege exists with the oblivious white public, which is fucked,” he said.
Keenyn Moore, Tony’s Harlem band-mate, believes white jazz musicians need to be responsible within the black genre. “I do feel they [white musicians] should give credit where it’s due,” he said, “[Jazz] blossomed out of suffering and pain.”
Jared Michael, an Indianapolis black jazz musician, and composer, shares Keenyn’s sentiments. “I don’t have an issue with white musicians in jazz at all,” said Jared, “If a white musician truly loves music and studies it, then there tends to be less chance of them disrespecting the music.”
Tony realizes when he uses his platform to uplift the black community, some of the white public react negatively. On his #NiaWilson video, one white person wrote ALL LIVES MATTER in all caps. “I saw that and was just like, really?” said Tony.
Though Tony views the racial fight differently within jazz culture, “If you can play and you’re black, you’re working,” Tony’s frustration is with some jazz bands’ image. He believes some black bands don’t book white musicians for authenticity reasons. “Some good white musicians are better than some black musicians,” he said.
Tony dislikes any decision that chooses racial optics over pure talent. “There’s a famous white jazz musician who did this,” he said, “He had a black drummer in his band. I was thinking, ‘Dang how does that [black] guy feel?’”
Tony admits it’s uncomfortable to verbalize the notion of “working harder” as a white musician,
“That’s the white perspective, and I try not to have a white perspective,” he said.
In 1957, Norman Mailer, a controversial critic, reporter, and journalist wrote “The White Negro.” This essay analyzes white men who desire to be apart of jazz culture. “So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro,” said Mailer. Tony feels uncomfortable with the “White Negro” terminology. “I would never call myself that,” he said. Though, he does agree with the meaning behind the term, “I don’t feel like I identified with the typical white American,” said Tony, “I feel more like a white, black person.”
At 21 years old, Tony started to feel uncomfortable in predominantly white spaces. “In a room full of white people, the hairs on my neck stand up,” he said. As he better understood how race worked with age, he felt whiteness was volatile. “I would think ‘How many white people in here believe in crazy things like bigotry or racism?’” said Tony.
Even though he is sensitive to race, Tony has been called a cultural appropriator. “I always try and be respectful and not to flaunt my whiteness, my image, or steal blackness. Just play music,” he said. Tony’s been confronted twice in public for appropriating, but mainly chastised on social media. On his YouTube video, a black man accused Tony of exploiting black pain for financial profit. “I’ve had enough of you white people trying to make a buck off black lives,” said the man. Tony sees these type of comments as opposite of his intentions but doesn’t denounce a black person who feels he’s a cultural appropriator, “Because technically I am,” he said.
Tony still strongly believes white musicians have a right to be in jazz, “If you took all the white people out of black music, that would be a shame,” he said.
In the book, “Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Jazz Community,” author Charles D. Gerard posed the question, “Is jazz a universal idiom or a black art form?” He also writes that white musicians have been a part of jazz since 1910, but “a series of African-American artists have forged the history of jazz — and the developments have been a result of black people’s search for a meaningful identity as Americans and members of the African diaspora.”
Keenyn doesn’t have an issue with white musicians in jazz, “I don’t feel like black music should only have black musicians,” he said. But, he does find it problematic when white musicians intellectualize the genre. “I feel like they turn everything into a theory,” said Keenyn, “Nicholas Payton said it best, ‘You can’t study a feeling. You either have it, or you don’t.”
Jared views white jazz musicians’ attempts to create their own jazz education as problematic as well. “Many education programs hire professors that have the degrees, but may not the ability to evoke the essence of the music.” He believes the science of jazz theory can be abusive to the music. “The intense analysis of the music could, and possibly have taken the very “soul” or essence out of the music,” said Jared.
In jazz, many white jazz musicians have collaborated with black jazz legends: Count Basie and Benny Goodman, Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans. “White musicians have brought innovation to jazz,” said Tony, “Not as cultural appropriators, but as true collaborators.”
Not all jazz musicians experience and see the craft the same. Although Tony, Jared, and Keenyn agree, it’s the one place that doesn’t promote exclusion. “[In jazz] the African spirit is of inclusiveness and unity,” said Keenyn.
Donna sees white jazz musicians’ presence saves this black art form,
“When white musicians come into [jazz] it keeps it alive,” she said,
“Let them in.”