I have become colorless. I have clear speech and non-ethnic char-acteristics.
-- Bryant Gumbel, former host of NBC's The Today Show1
Becoming part of the mainstream is essential for any group to succeed in America. Nelson George, author of The Death of Rhythm & Blues, an insightful study of postwar black popular music, believes that African Americans, overly impressed with assimilation, have exchanged racial unification "for an American identity of dubious value."2 Although he concedes that integration has given them a better life, he argues that it has disconnected them from the roots of black culture.
George's subject is "crossover," the efforts of minority artists to appeal to a wider audience by making their music more palatable or by marketing it in wider channels of distribution. Although the word is of recent coinage, it is an old phenomenon.
The ragtime musicians were the first crossover artists. Their strategy was to gain admittance to the popular music industry by writing songs that white music lovers would want to buy. Few blacks were able to read music or could afford to purchase sheet music, so the market was driven by white tastes. In the drive to reach commercial success, ragtime be-