Monday, February 11, 2008

Thursday, January 14, 1960: The Pale Gaze

Nat “King” Cole’s album At the Sands was recorded live on January 14, 1960 at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. At the time of Cole’s concert, the Sands’ Copa Room was the place where one might see a so-called “summit” or ensemble performance of the “Rat Pack,” a group of entertainers (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, et al.) whose extravagant lifestyle was characterized by real or symbolic (makes no difference) excess: the American Dream realized through dissipation. A popular singer, Cole--having long since surrendered his primary identity as a jazz pianist--performed at the Sands for a white audience that for well over a decade had associated him with “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire...”). The Sands concert exhibits a range of musical styles that allowed Cole to highlight the mellower inflections of his voice; he sang some old hits and some old standards, including ballads (“I Wish You Love”), the blues (Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” W. C. Handy’s “Joe Turner Blues”), Rodgers & Hart (“Thou Swell,” “Where or When”), and Rodgers & Hammerstein (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”), variously arranged by Nelson Riddle, Pete Rugolo, and Dave Cavanaugh.

Hence the Sands show seems to have followed the format of Cole’s 1956-57 television show that had been cancelled slightly over two years earlier. As Krin Gabbard explains in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1996): “Throughout the run of his [television] program, Cole was surrounded by white performers playing “white” music, most notably vocal groups such as the Boateneers and the Cheerleaders and an orchestra led by Nelson Riddle. And on many episodes he was surrounded by groups of all-white dancers and singers.” Perhaps most importantly, observes Gabbard, the TV show’s producers “had numerous strategies for containing his sexuality, at some points playing up his status as a family man....More often than not, Cole was photographed from the waist up in much the same way that Elvis Presley’s lower body was concealed when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event that took place during the run of Cole’s own television show. Although, in a sense, Cole was the inverse of Presley--a restrained black man acting “white” rather than a shameless white man acting “black”--NBC felt a need to conceal his hips in the same way that CBS attempted to censor Presley” (246). Moreover, Cole’s significant film career, argues Gabbard, was consistently characterized by attempts to neutralize the exotic allure of “a sexually attractive black male whose singing voice had already been the source of fantasy for many of his listeners” (245).

By “neutralize the exotic allure” I mean the attempt to utterly repress the (forbidden) possibility of interracial sex--that is, the lure of transgressive sex. The album cover of At the Sands would seem to do just that: it consists of a photograph (presumably) taken during the actual concert, in which Cole, illuminated by the glare of the spot lights, stands at the microphone, smiling, confident, and relaxed. Behind him is the largely white orchestra; in front, looking on, the white audience, barely visible in the smoky shadows beyond the edge of stage. The photograph would seem to be nothing more than just what it is, a snapshot taken the night of January 14, 1960 of a Nat “King” Cole concert: since he’s the star, of course he’s on the album cover. The cover is simply an unadorned moment frozen in time, perhaps stereotypical of such things, a picture of a highly popular singer on stage in concert benignly recorded for posterity. Nothing like, for instance, the presumably “lurid” album cover of Tabu, an album featuring the music of Ralph Font and His Orchestra, released by Westminster Records just a few months prior to Cole’s Sands concert.

And yet, they both depict the same scene. The earlier cover, Tabu, makes explicit what is (almost) concealed in the later cover. Following Eric Lott, Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998) calls this concealment the phenomenon of the “pale gaze,” a gaze “motivated by the lure of transgressive sex--the bliss promised by miscegenation”(254). Both album covers enact a scene depicting “White eyes watching objectified and sexualized black bodies” (254).

Even so, Jarrett would have a problem with my argument if I would end the analysis having provided only these two instances of album art as my examples, because the minstrel model, the operation of which I’ve explained here, “expresses white interests alone, even if only to castigate and, ultimately, atone for those interests” (254). Like all models of “cooptation,” says Jarrett, the minstrel model “ignores, discounts, or represses the possibility of reciprocity. White fantasies and desires don’t just prey upon black fantasies and desires, they also feed them. They’re reciprocal, forming a feedback loop.” Instead of a minstrel model, what is needed is a minstrel cycle, a model which can account for “mutually defining desire” (254-55). British music critic Simon Frith explains the minstrel cycle in this way: “white youth becomes an object of black pleasure exactly to the degree that the recurring fantasy of being black is coded into white style, white anxiety, white posture” (Village Voice, 3 September 1991, p. 78). The virtue of the minstrel cycle over the minstrel model, Jarrett argues, is that race can be seen, not as “one of the raw materials from which culture is produced,” but rather one of the “byproducts” of a “complex social machine” (255). The operation of the minstrel cycle explains how Nat “King” Cole became, as Krin Gabbard puts it, “one of the few black actors who functioned [in a few significant films] essentially as a white hero,” although to do so he “had to surrender a good deal of his masculine presence and sex appeal." The reciprocal example? Gabbard uses white actor Hoagy Carmichael, whose screen persona was irrevocably altered by his association with African American musicians. He “ended up playing parts that could just as easily have been played by blacks” (240).

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