As originally published in|
The Atlantic Monthly
Jazz, Hot and Cold
by Arnold Sundgaard
From Atlantic Unbound:|
Flashbacks: "Jazz at the Crossroads" (February 26, 2003)
A song of itself is not jazz, no matter what its origin. Jazz is what the
jazzmen searching together bring to it, take from it, find within it.
Spirituals, blues, stomps, ragtime, quadrilles, folk ballads, popular
songs--all these and more are the subjects of their creative scrutiny. Even the
most sensitive and skilled of jazz arrangers like Duke Ellington and Ralph
Burns cannot put down all that is actually played. Much is left free for
improvisation, and no precise method of notation has been developed to indicate
its rhythmic and emotional complexities. In most cases no formal score whatever
is followed. The song and its arrangement become for these men a means to an
end. The music used, in other words, is somewhat incidental to the inspired
uses to which it is put. For this reason jazz, within the realm of music,
thrives on endless exploration and ceaseless discovery.
Coming, as it frequently does, as an outcry of a hurt suppressed or an exuberance released, jazz strives to speak for and to the individual. Because of this the group through which it speaks and from whom it must find its support is seldom a large one. As Henry "Red" Allen said one night, "If you got too many up there at once you start to get in each other's way!" So here are voices speaking alone, speaking personally, yet drawing strength and deriving character from the group. The "combo," as it is called, becomes almost a term of affection. The word has been cut down from "combination," which means "a union or aggregate made by combining persons or things together so as to effect a purpose." While intended originally to describe restraint of trade, it could serve quite easily as a description of love. And, like love, the playing of jazz is one of the few rituals which permit such a feeling of shared joy, one of the few arts in which creation and performance are simultaneous.
Jazz, by its very nature, is a kind of freedom rooted in the sense of responsibility. Each soloist is guaranteed unrestricted freedom but he must exercise this privilege always with the other men in mind. Between them they possess and treasure a common rhythm supporting a community of sounds out of which the single voice is sustained and strengthened. A symphonic performance, somewhat in contrast, demands a rigid control by composer and conductor; a discipline in which the musicians expect and are expected to submit to an outside will. (Imagine the pandemonium if the second trumpet of the Boston Symphony suddenly stood up and took a few riffs on his own!) But in a jazz group the total effect is the result of total contribution. The music exists without a strong central authority. Perhaps this sounds dangerously close to the classical hope for anarchism. In a sense it is exactly that, and in its less skilled practitioners the result is indeed anarchy. When functioning at its best, however, there is unbelievable order as each performer gives and is given, as he sends and is sent. This responsibility does not begin and end with the performers. In contrast to an alarmingly large body of contemporary music, jazz expects to be listened to. It does not pretend to be soporific even when accused of being an aphrodisiac.
Jazzmen are a proud and independent lot; they refuse to conceal themselves behind a potted palm. While great moments of jazz can be recorded, remembered, and even revered, the art itself cannot be wrapped, stamped, and packaged like dehydrated noodles. On the contrary, active participation here and now is the very lifeblood of its existence. "The most inventive improvisation comes only when the conditions are compelling," Gerry Mulligan has stated. And the remarkable thing about jazzmen is that if nobody else will listen to them they will play for themselves. Hence the jam session in its original meaning. Hence the obsessive faith in their own striving. Hence the disdain of a commercialism which seeks--and they know it--to standardize, to stabilize, and ultimately to crush this lonely, loving art.
HISTORICALLY the journey that jazz has taken can be traced with reasonable accuracy. That it ripened most fully in the redolence of New Orleans seems beyond dispute although there are a few deviationists who support other theories of its origin. Around 1895 the almost legendary Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson were blowing their cornets in the street and in the funeral parades which have always enlivened the flamboyant social life of that uncommonly vital city. At the same time, it must be remembered, Scott Joplin was producing ragtime on his piano at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri; and in Memphis, W. C. Handy was evolving his own spectacular conception of the blues.
Jazz in its beginnings, however, relied more on a variety of traditional ballads and songs than it did on new compositions. "Tiger Rag," for example, is an inspired lift from an old quadrille, evidences of which still cling to the notes. Most of the music grew out of fertile memories and atavistic impulses rather than out of conscious study. "Head music" they still call it, and one of the reasons Bunk Johnson joined Buddy Bolden's band was that he didn't have to read notes in that organization. Even to this day there are jazzmen who are reluctant to admit they can read music, because of the stigma which adheres to the conservatory-trained professionals.
Exactly why jazz developed the way it did on the streets of New Orleans is difficult to determine even though a spate of explanations have poured forth from the scholars of the subject. Obviously the need for it there was coupled with the talent to produce it and a favorable audience to receive it. During those early years the local urge for musical expression was so powerful that anything that could be twanged, strummed, beaten, blown, or stroked was likely to be exploited for its musical usefulness. For a long time the washboard was a highly respected percussion instrument, and the nimble, thimbled fingers of Baby Dodds showed sheer genius on that workaday, washday utensil.
Also in New Orleans there was the lively tradition of the "second line" at street parades, which was made up of eager youngsters imitating the elite among the adult performers. Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, George Lewis, Barney Bigard--all of whom are abundantly alive and still playing with the vigor of youngsters--were graduates of the "second line." There was a truly intense rivalry between the various burial and marching societies and all took great pride in their musical prowess. And then, as a final environmental fillip, in the area known as Storyville there was as fine a group of brothels as any city ever boasted, and the managers of these mansions were absolutely without prejudice toward any form of art which would enhance the sense of elation among their patrons. As Jelly Roll Morton said of the district, "everything in the way of hilarity" was sought and sold there. There are those who still look askance at jazz because it was partially a product of this and other Bacchanalian playgrounds. But to condemn jazz for that reason is as foolish as it would be to destroy a Greek vase because of the presence of Silenus blatantly pursuing the maidens across a Grecian meadow.
This favorable situation of responsive patron and stimulated performer allowed the new music to thrive. One thing seems apparent in the development of the style which it evolved: the Negro bandsmen (and those influenced by them) seem to have applied their own special vocal technique and feelings to the instruments which fell into their capable hands. Spirituals and blues were an integral part of their heritage, and both forms of lament take on a strong, driving quality when sung by Negroes without the debilitating effects of formal musical training. As they sang, so they played. Fused to this tradition of singing there was the equally profound effect of the "stomp," which grew out of their own primitive folk dances. These were the racial colors and local textures, Creole and working class amalgams, applied to the new music, and it is logical to assume there would be no abrupt change in feeling simply because of the acquisition of cornets, clarinets, "trambones," violins, and tubas. That the vocal and instrumental styles were similar is still evident in the musicianship of Louis Armstrong, whose voice and trumpet employ the same basic style of jazz phrasing.
When Storyville closed down in 1917 under the inexorable pressure of history, the musicians of New Orleans began to wander under the pressure of economic necessity. The easiest and most convenient mode of exodus was by riverboat, on which some of them had already begun to play under Fate Marable, an early bandsman who specialized in dance music for the Mississippi voyagers. Around each bend in the river these musicians encountered fresh approval for their form of music. Some of them lingered for a time in Memphis and St. Louis but it was in the favorable climate of Chicago that most of them became most firmly established. There in the South Side they found a home which possessed certain essences comparable to those of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
The story of the twenties in Chicago is almost too familiar to need repeating here. What seems pertinent is to observe that jazz, once dispossessed, gravitated toward a particular kind of environment in which its existence was not only possible but, seen in retrospect, probable. The South Side of Chicago during the twenties was Storyville on a much larger scale, and because of this the New Orleans music continued an unbroken development there.
The first real threat to the inner strength and natural development of jazz came in the thirties with the depression and repeal. These twin pressures provided, for the first time, a completely new set of circumstances with which the music had to contend. There was now a second exodus, this time away from gin-mills and steady employment. In one sense the music was, as it had never been before, homeless. In another sense its home was everywhere. Fragmentation set in and the musicians were scattered like the other uprooted families of the period. Some of them found a subsistence employment playing rent party music--"pitchin' boogie" it always had been called--and there was a brisk revival of boogie-woogie, which had languished during the twenties. Little of it is heard today; it was at its best on a battered upright piano with the landlord howling outside the door and the tenants howling within. Whether boogie-woogie was the victim of rent controls, low-cost housing projects, or a change in musical taste is hard to say. All that remains is warm memories of Jimmy Yancey, Pine Top Smith, and Cow Cow Davenport assisting in raising the rent through song and a communal effort.
The most sensationally successful of all jazz derivatives was swing, which thrived in the late thirties. Here was a music that could be danced to with zest and listened to with pleasure. (That it provided its younger auditors with heroes such as Shaw, Sinatra, and Goodman is more of a sociological enigma than a musical phenomenon.) But swing lost its strength and vitality by allowing itself to become a captive of forces concerned only with how it could be sold; not how it could be enriched. Over and over it becomes apparent that jazz cannot be sold even when its practitioners can be bought. Like truth it is a spiritual force, not a material commodity.
During the closing years of World War II, jazz, groping for a fresh expression, erupted into bop. Bop was a wildly introverted style developed out of a certain intellectualism and not a little neuroticism. By now the younger men coming into jazz carried with them a GI subsidized education and they were breezily familiar with the atonalities of Schönberg, Bartok, Berg, and the contemporary schools of music. The challenge of riding out into the wide blue yonder on a twelve-tone row was more than they could resist. Some of them have never returned. Just as the early men in New Orleans didn't know what the established range of their instruments was, so these new musicians struck out in directions which might have been untouched had they observed the academic dicta adhering even to so free a form as jazz.
SINCE the heyday of bop, recent though it may seem to some, further fragmentation has developed into what is referred to as "progressive." These are the younger men, most of them still in their twenties, playing today. The occasional designation for them as "cool" is merely a subheading for conversational and record-blurb convenience. The term means little except that it suggests a certain control and lack of frenzy. The music in this stage of its evolution is inclined to be contemplative and introspective. In performance and as a person Chet Baker, for instance, is completely without any of the effusive histrionics or gregariousness of a Fats Waller or a Charlie Shavers; the quiet mastery of mood and meaning emerging from his incredible trumpet tends to command a hushed, almost reverent respect for the statement within him.
The progression implied in the term "progressive" has been twofold. For the musician there has been a phenomenal advance beyond the rigid rhythmic and harmonic limitations of the older music. Some of this is so striking that the leader of a small dance band, listening to Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan for the first time, cried out, "They knock me out, those kids. Where do they get those frantic chords?" For the listener to this music there has been an advance, or at least a change from the old bar and bedroom atmosphere to the trappings and flavor of a Student Union recital lounge.
One of the cashiers at the Basin Street in New York City, mourning over the sedateness of the clientele, said, "Mothers bring their children to hear the first few sets each night when these guys play. That's why we got a few rows of chairs as well as tables. You'd think it was Town Hall or something!" And it is true--the quality of the applause is strikingly similar to that of Town Hall and the intent faces could be transferred to the Rathskeller at the University of Wisconsin or the Lion's Den at Columbia and nobody would notice the difference. "In the old days," the cashier continued, "they used to say the music was so loud you couldn't hear yourself talk. Now they get sore if you even whisper!" A strange, new audience, no question of that--they listen as avidly to Oscar Peterson as they listen to the Bach Aria Group.
Some of the music now being developed seems valid, warm, and forceful as in the case of Mulligan; some of it borders on the self-conscious and seems coldly intellectual as in the case of Brubeck. The brilliant performance and startlingly original arrangements of Mulligan have won the admiration and respect of such established professionals as Benny Goodman and Alec Wilder. Brubeck has been acclaimed by college audiences from one jumping campus to the next. Both Mulligan and Brubeck, along with an increasing number of others, seem to be evolving an art form out of jazz in which the musically trained mind will be able to bring to his work the exhilarating innocence and freedom of folk expression. Not that either performer (and others with similar backgrounds) is "folk" in the older sense of the word; both are too sophisticated for that. But they seem to sense the necessity of speaking the jazz idiom out of their own convictions.
The question inevitably arises: Which of all these forces is truly jazz? It is a little like asking: What is art? The answers, now found in many languages, are numerous and various.
THE shelf on jazz in the music room of the New York Public Library fairly bulges with volumes in French, German, and Italian. It seems strange to read in German a book called the Jazzlexicon in which you will find scholarly resumes of such eminent jazzmen as Dizzy Gillespie and Cozy Cole. And there are currently in the releases of several record companies examples of jazz as played in Denmark, Sweden, and Australia. Obviously the form and style are no longer limited to our own country. And jazz, as a youthful form of art, is listened to as avidly in London as in Palo Alto or Ann Arbor.
The musicians now entering the field of jazz are invariably more educated in formal music than were the contemporaries of King Oliver and Jack Laine. There is no escaping the force of history even at the cost of a pristine folk expression. There are those who long for a return to Dixieland, believing that the sounds produced there are evidence of a True Church. But no art can be completely restored by the archaeologists who uncover it; they only can point out where and when corruption began.
Let us try to recall the beginnings of jazz. The form around which much of the early music developed, the blues, was a simple twelve-bar phrase. It was the very essence of simplicity. Not that the blues were or should be the limits of jazz possibility, but an examination of their treatment may indicate how a song lends itself to improvisation and stylistic freedom. One of the oldest, and so described affectionately by Jelly Roll Morton, is "Mamie's Blues," which begins:--
Two nineteen done took my baby away,
Within those three simple lines is compressed all the Odyssean anguish necessary for musical exploration. There is no need here for involved rhyming and qualifying clauses--that is the function of the music. Let the trumpet state what departure means and the clarinet will describe what being alone means. Let the trombone tell how long it is between departure and return and then all three, supported by string bass, drums, guitar, or banjo, will find a way to say that hope exists and will survive the agony of separation.
Does this seem too simple an explanation? Then how explain the richness of emotion and variety of expression which emerge from such a simple song when played by skilled jazzmen? Are not these words the materials of their special poetry?
When I saw you this morning, baby, why did you walk away? When I saw you this morning, baby, why did you walk away? Can't believe that you don't want me, I thought our love was here to stay.
In order to amplify and enlarge the impact of such a simple yet fecund idea the musicians have, from time to time, tried to enlarge the scope of their instruments and the intricacies of their arrangements. It would seem sometimes that they wanted to get more out of their horns than was mechanically possible; just as it has seemed sometimes that they tried to get more out of life than was humanly possible. About many jazzmen one feels the urgency in them to live, and to live at the outermost limits of human possibility. This urgency seems unwise to the cautious of this world and disheartening to the vanquished. To many others, accustomed to a less oblique conception of living, it is a little like mountain climbing and the pursuit of white whales in that its suppression is impossible and its explanation difficult.
For the younger progressives of jazz, the exploitation of the blues has been done so thoroughly and well by the older men that they feel the necessity to look elsewhere for their musical source material. The rigidity of the mellowed blues form and its strict chord structure doesn't permit them sufficient freedom for the development of their present ideas. They hold the blues in high regard and realize that if the pattern is changed they are no longer the blues. It is like adding a fifth line to a quatrain; it may be a poem but definitely it is not a quatrain. In other cases, as in a song like "Sweet Georgia Brown," the melodic line seems to have been developed directly out of the progression of chords which in turn dictate, more or less, the harmony. The popular songs of Kern or Rodgers or Porter offer more challenges and freedom, both rhythmically and harmonically, and almost all the men beyond the stream of Dixie work with this as material instead of the older pieces. In many cases new music, none of it with words, is being written which will provide the musical challenges their virtuosity suggests to them.
The driving force behind all jazzmen is somewhat the same and the search for fresh and vivid expression is the basis of musical growth. When asked why he played the way he did a member of one of the younger groups said, "I guess it's the only way I can talk the way I feel. I mean what I've got to say I can say best this way." When asked, "Hell, what is it you want to say?" he looked far in the distance, then tried to answer. He took seriously the fact that words are not the only means of man's expression and if he wished to be heard fully he would have to seek another kind of voice. But what he seemed to be saying with the evanescent words of his music--in this case he spoke through a trumpet--was that life is ephemeral and let us make the most of it. Poets have suggested, too, as he was doing with his music that there is joy to be found in the human situation as well as an inescapable sadness. Is it any wonder that a serious concern for this complex of emotion should drive a verbally inarticulate man to the bosom of his music?
For a youth in search of identification, the urgency to life, which he finds in jazz, becomes a vital symbol of hope and extramundane aspiration. A parent may look on in horror at what he considers the baser aspects of this music. And there is no denying that with a force so delicately powerful somebody will cunningly try to mix in with it an element of fraud and deceit. But this calls for honesty, discernment, and understanding rather than suppression, because jazz, like the existence of blood and bone and flesh, is an affirmation of life and should be permitted the freedom to find its own true voice and not be shamed into silence.
Since the time of New Orleans, jazz has run the gamut from simplicity to complexity. Life, it has been observed, has run a similar course. If jazz is a reflection of life, as it seems to be, why then has it aroused such antagonism among many people? First, I think, because it challenges complacency. Secondly, because it refuses to be bridled by the accepted and equivocal standards of society. Thirdly, because it is never still; it does not hesitate to press forward on every boundary of the emotions no matter how they may be denied. But most of all it has tried to speak without guile or circumvention to the troubled mind and bewildered heart. As long as doubt and loneliness exist this music will try to speak to them. There will always be people who do not wish to listen; to them the music is disturbing and they either deny the existence of bewilderment or they wish to escape its deeper meaning. But disturbances of the mind and heart cannot be quieted by logic or quelled by ridicule. As long as this is true, jazz--as a voice from within--will find expression and survive.
Copyright © 1955 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1955; "Jazz, Hot and Cold"; Volume 196, No. 1; pages 54-58.