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Music and Race, Part I

I started to play guitar years ago, back in 7th grade. I would suspect that my story is not too different from many other stories. I found something I was good at and I could be proud of. I was cruising through Mel Bay quite content and happy, until an uncle pointed out Jimi Hendrix played better with his teeth then I did with my hands. Although I was heavily into pop music at the time (Madonna, Michael Jackson - it was the mid 80's, what can I say?), I forced myself to tape the special for the anniversary of Hendrix's death from the local classic rock station. This was definitely way cooler then Mel Bay. Especially because Hendrix was black, like me.

"We would discuss bands we thought were cool on the phone, and I would get directions to their house. It was almost funny to see their faces when I showed up."
I practiced a lot. By the time I was old enough to drive, my musical tastes had expanded from Hendrix to the "Big Hair" metal bands to Metallica and Yngwie. I was pretty good at playing that kind of thing. I was tired of playing and practicing for myself all of the time, so I started answering advertisements at the local music stores for high school bands looking for guitar players. Inevitably, we would discuss bands we thought were cool on the phone, and I would get directions to their house. It was almost funny to see their faces when I showed up.

They would always ask if I really knew the songs that they were about to try to play. I always did, usually better then them. They'd be impressed. I almost never got asked to come back and play again. Someone finally admitted to me that I "just didn't look like a heavy metal guy". On top of that, the black kids at school were all down on me because I didn't like rap.

I entered college in a different city and decided to be a guitar major. When I came home at Christmas break, I took a trip to the mall to check out the big hollowbody Gibsons. The big mall music store was busy. There was some 10-year-old banging unmercifully on a sunburst 175 while his parents and a salesman looked on. It was obvious the kid had never played a guitar before. I waited until they left and asked the guy behind the counter very nicely if I could play the sunburst 175. He looked me over, decided that I wasn't worthy of the Gibson (as if the 10 year old were) and suggested I try a nice Epiphone Sheraton instead. I've never been in that store since.

My junior year of college, I got a teaching job at a music store in town, which happened to be right across the street from another music store. I wandered over to the other store one slow day, and happened to see a particularly cool Jeff Beck Strat on the wall behind the counter. I asked to play it, and got the same appraising stare from the lady behind the counter that I had gotten from the salesman at the other store. Although there were unskilled hands playing more expensive guitars throughout the room, she had to get a manager to give me permission. He was even so kind as to carry the guitar across the room, plug it into an amp, and tune it for me. His condescension faded quickly after a few Hendrix licks. There's no way I would buy anything from them. Ever.

I live in an entirely different state now. I recently went into a popular chain guitar store, and got a very familiar appraising look when I asked to see a Gibson guitar.

Pretty soon, I won't have anywhere left to shop.

Jeremy Cotton is a full-time teacher and performer in the Dallas area