“A rare contradiction in terms”: Mormon Racism and the Utah Jazz

By June 7, 2016

Utah Jazz player Ron Boone meets with LDS Church President Spencer Kimball, 1980.

Utah Jazz player Ron Boone meets with LDS Church President Spencer Kimball, 1980.

There’s a joke common among sports fans concerning the Utah Jazz and the team’s nickname. It’s so obvious that it hardly needs to be told. Utah Jazz is a contradiction in terms because nothing could be so absurd as jazz music in Salt Lake City. It received a brief mention in the opening scene of Baseketball, a 1998 comedy starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind South Park and The Book of Mormon musical:

Soon it was commonplace for entire teams to change in search of greater profits.
The Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, where there are no lakes.
The Oilers moved to Tennessee, where there’s no oil.
The Jazz moved to Salt Lake City, where they don’t allow music.

Get it? It’s funny because jazz, a rich musical tradition based on “collective improvisation,” could nowhere be more out of place than the straight-laced capital of Mormondom. Often left unaddressed are the racial undertones: Jazz was, of course, pioneered by black musicians and Mormons in the United States are overwhelmingly white (both literally and stereotypically). The jokes occasionally give way to real-life proposals to rename Utah’s pro basketball franchise and give the Jazz nickname back to New Orleans’s latest NBA.[1] 

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never really considered the history of the joke. Nor had I considered the timing of the New Orleans Jazz’s move to Utah before reading David Halberstam’s book on the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, The Breaks of the Game. Portland opened the season in Salt Lake City, helping the newly-arrived Utah Jazz welcome the reintroduction of pro basketball to the state on October 12. The NBA Board of Governors had only approved the move of the struggling New Orleans franchise to Utah a few short months earlier. Narrating the opening night matchup between the Trail Blazers and the Jazz, Halberstam notes:

If Portland was shaky on opening day, then Utah, the Utah Jazz was even shakier, a reminder of the lack of professionalism at the managerial level in the league. Utah was new this year; the previous year the same team had been the New Orleans Jazz, and having failed gloriously there, it had been moved, lock, stock and nickname, to Salt Lake City (the name a rare contradiction in terms, given the Mormon beliefs on race, though it suggested other possible misnomers in the league: the Los Angeles Nordiques, the Atlanta Yankees).[2]

While the racial and religious undertones had always been there in the joke about the incongruence of the Utah Jazz, I had never before seen them connected explicitly. It wasn’t just stereotypes about Mormon whiteness, either. References to a rich African-American musical tradition were out of place in Utah specifically because of “Mormon beliefs on race.”

By 1979, of course, those beliefs had begun to shift.  The timing of the Jazz’s relocation to Utah and the revocation of the priesthood ban is striking. The NBA Board of Governors approved the relocation on June 8, 1979, exactly one year (to the day) after Spencer W. Kimball’s announcement that “all worthy male members of the [Mormon] Church” could now “be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”

Beyond being one of the earliest published observations that Utah Jazz is a contradiction in terms (does anyone know of earlier expressions? Please share them in the comments!), the passage in Halberstam’s book points to the possibilities of studying sports in Utah as yet another angle through which to understand Mormonism’s complicated relationship with race.[3]

____________________

[1] There are black Mormons, of course, and have been since the movement’s inception. And once upon a time, Mormons themselves were racialized as non-white. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that Salt Lake City is home to a surprisingly robust jazz scene and hosts an annual international jazz festival.

[2] David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game, rev. ed. (New York: Hyperion, 2009. Originally published in 1981 by Alfred A. Knopf), 85. Emphasis in original.

[3] See also Mike Altman’s 2003 guest post here at JI on “Race, Religion, and Basketball in Salt Lake City.”

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Race Sports


Comments

  1. Fascinating, Christopher. Thanks. It’d be interesting to read about the experience of the basketball players during their first few years in Utah. What was the black community like in SLC at the time? Were Mormons eager to embrace a mostly-black sports team to practice their new religious reality? Would make an interesting project.

    Comment by Ben P — June 7, 2016 @ 9:02 am

  2. Agreed, Ben. Mike Altman’s post linked to in footnote 3 gets to some of that, as it played out a few years earlier with the ABA’s Utah Stars. But it’s a subject ripe for inquiry.

    Comment by Christopher — June 7, 2016 @ 9:43 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher. Your piece makes me curious about what effect the Jazz actually had on racial attitudes in the decades after the relocation to Utah, with its almost uniformly white population. Presumably some of the team’s players represented, for many Utahns, the most proximate and conspicuous instances of black men, and I wonder what normative effects that had, if any.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 7, 2016 @ 9:57 am

  4. Sadly the Utah jazz scene isn’t nearly as good as it was in the Utah Jazz heyday back in the 90’s. Far fewer places with regular good jazz played whereas there used to be several places with regular jazz music.

    Comment by Clark — June 7, 2016 @ 10:58 am

  5. You want jazz? Then come on down to New Orleans where you can still sit in smoke filled rooms with drunk patrons sloshing their hurricane drinks all over you. Then, take a walk in the famous French Quarter where you can be accosted by homeless panhandlers and rogue New Orleans policemen. I haven’t heard of any Utah Jazz players who felt so alienated by their new digs that they up and moved back to NO. And, FWIW, plenty of white people play jazz, too. It isn’t a “black” thing.

    “Unlike blues music, that was exclusively performed by blacks, jazz music was as inter-racial as the melting pot of New Orleans. Blacks were not the only ones who played jazz. Jazz groups were formed by Italians, Creoles and all sorts of European immigrants. The “African” roots of the music may or may not have been obvious to the practitioners, but clearly it did not stop them from adopting it.”
    http://www.scaruffi.com/history/jazz1.html

    Comment by Get over it — June 7, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

  6. I’ve always thought it a shame that it wasn’t the New Orleans FOOTBALL team that made the move to Utah. Because it would have been awesome to have the state’s only pro sports franchise named the “Utah Saints.” What might have been…

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 7, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

  7. Here is a link to a photo the LDS Church News ran in 1980 of President Kimball visiting with a Jazz player. I remember seeing it back then, and apparently I’m not the only one, because I found it now as one of “35 memorable photos from the LDS Church News archives.”

    http://www.deseretnews.com/top/2740/7/Ron-Boone-35-memorable-photos-from-the-LDS-Church-News-archives.html

    Comment by John Mansfield — June 7, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

  8. Awesome, John. Thank you for sharing that link. That’s a great photo.

    Comment by Christopher — June 7, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

  9. The Booner!

    Comment by BHodges — June 7, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

  10. I’ve updated the post to include the photo of Kimball and Boone. Thanks again, John.

    Comment by Christopher — June 7, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

  11. […] post originally appeared at The Juvenile Instructor: A Mormon History […]

    Pingback by “A rare contradiction in terms”: Mormon Racism and the Utah Jazz – Blog Basketball jones — July 8, 2016 @ 10:54 pm


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