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Good Piano Always Hits The Spot

gpMadame Margaret Chaloff, a legendary Boston pedagogue revered by jazz and- classical pianists alike, wore turbans, had a crystal ball at the head of the staircase to her apartment, and read your tarot cards once you became a disciple. I never got that far. She listened to my Waldstein, declared me technically impaired, demoted me to raising one finger and -letting it fall repeatedly on one note. I turned my back on the piano and didn’t return to it for years.

In 1975 I went to hear the legendary vocalist Betty Carter. For the first minute or two I watched her body gyrate and her face contort–grotesquely, it seemed. Suddenly I realized: this was magical, not grotesque. Carter was using her body, her throat, her mouth, like a musician, a horn-player, not a “singer”! I never stopped listening to jazz after that, and the thought began recurring that I might learn to play it.

By 1985 1 was reaching-burn-out in a freelance journalism career, my parents had died, my marriage was in trouble. A war was going on between my head and my gut. Music gradually became a craving, though at no point was this a truly conscious process. I simply found myself one day looking through the Boston Globe classifieds; I examined a number of pianos and finally stood stroking the dark sides of a glowing ebony Yamaha upright. I admired its gilded sounding board, its touches of green felt. I struck its smooth keys, absorbed the bright crispness of its sound, wrote a check and a week later had it in my living room.

Trudy Silver, a former child prodigy, was a jazz pianist with a respectable reputation among experimental New York artists like the late bassist Fred Hopkins and the drummer Thurman Barker. I took a few lessons with Trudy; – then one evening I attended a. performance by her teacher, Makanda Ken McIntyre. His many recordings featured illustrious sidemen like bassist Ron Carter and pianist Jaki Byard. Makanda was a brilliant musician and composer, so I was shocked when, after I told him I was studying with Trudy, he asked, “Why didn’t you come to me?”

Jazz is one of the world’s great improvisational arts. When you perform, you are doing what an extemporaneous speaker does, composing on the spot. Being really good at improvisation requires a mastery of jazz syntax, grammar and vocabulary, technical fluency, and something far beyond even this-coherent, interesting thinking and passion (something many players lack: just playing fast and loud doesn’t count). Deep feeling in playing or singing, the sort that moves an audience to tears, is rarest of all. Makanda taught and still teaches improvisation and the psychology of impassioned performance. Unlike other artists of his rank he accepts beginners in the art. He became a friend as well as a mentor, taking me seriously enough to push me hard, demanding nothing short of excellence, and being patient when I couldn’t get it.

For a long time I just didn’t get it. I was a slow learner–a new, baffling, frustrating experience. I had talent, I knew how to play the piano, I’d been “good at languages.” It was therefore a shock to realize that in jazz one of my greatest problems was a “language barrier.” The rhythms, intonations and accents of jazz are very different from those of classical music. You know the caricature of the ignoramus who goes to a gospel service and does the clapping all wrong Say “MA-ry HAD a LIT-tul LAMB,” clap on the capitalized syllables, you’re in an elementary European 4/4 rhythm with emphasis on the “one” and the “three.” (The right place to start in gospel is on the “two” and the “four.”) This only hints at the complexities in African American music, from the blues, through James Brown through Herbie Hancock. Some teachers make their most bewildered students tap their feet on the “two” and. the “four” and play scales accenting those beats-sometimes helpful, in the end mechanical. At bottom music is a matter of feeling.

At its best jazz has punch and drive but also great delicacy. It has buoyancy but at the same time a lazy, laidback feel, like a drawl. Take the bebop master, Bud Powell. His phrases may sound punchy, even choppy, but listen well and you’ll hear the constant lyricism and, frequently, legato lines. Bud’s “legato,” however, isn’t a classical legato. Each note swells, decays, is fractionally sustained and often (though not always, there’s the kicker) there’s a millisecond of space before the next note. This, among many other things, gives his music its characteristic drive, a drive that has nothing to do with loudness, but with touch, exactly the right attack and resonance. Doing these big and little things well is like speaking, say, Italian. It isn’t enough just to know grammar and vocabulary. You need to sense the right cadences, where to use little words like “dunque,” what hand-gestures to use to highlight opinion and mood. It’s possible to speak Italian fluently and still sound hopelessly American, and it ‘s also possible to play jazz “lines”–a string of all the right notes-and sound hopelessly “classical.”

Among the teachers, who have helped me in my odyssey is the Manhattan-based classical teacher, Sophia Rosoff, whose students include famous recording artists and unknowns alike. (Among her jazz-pianist disciples are Fred Hersch and the legendary bebop artist, Barry Harris.) She shows you how to move your body effortlessly and efficiently; the connection between movement, hearing and feeling is paramount.

An ingenious part of her teaching is the “outline.” Take any composition-a Debussy etude, Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure”–playing only the first beat in every bar for eight to sixteen measures. Then add the second heat in every bar, chords and all, next the last few, eighth notes, and so on until you have the entire piece under your fingers. Each outline becomes a kind of haiku in sound, your torso and arms moving through the minimalist sound poem with an economy of effort (dramatic contortions and swaying a la Glenn Gould are not part of the scene). From this calm center you begin to hear and feel music differently, understanding the slow, graceful movement underlying” even the fastest compositions. In time you can play the wickedest pyrotechnical compositions and sound effortlessly graceful. This incomparable pedagogue has enabled me-to overcome, the technical disabilities that stymied me earlier; through her I have achieved a sound and delicacy of touch that often draw comment.

I’d be lying if I said that along the road to professionalism I’ve never felt doubt or discouragement. But at no point during the years I’ve “learned to speak” have I despaired of getting there. For one thing, during the first six years or so there was no “there” there. My “real work,” as opposed to this labor of love, was intellectual–reading, writing, editing. My father was a famous biochemist and cancer researcher; I’d trained for an academic career; my ingrained habit was measuring myself against the intellectual best. My return to music was a backlash against all of this, an education and careers in which I always did X to get to Y, Y to get to Z. Coming back to music was a pure drive to pleasure. There was no Z to get to, X was Z.

In the late eighties I sat in at my first jam session. Wally’s is an African American bar in Boston’s South End. Jazz legends like Erroll Garner played there in the fifties; the bar has been a launching pad for young musicians, mainly male, often black. Every year at least several Wally’s proteges go on to play in New York City.

Picture a long, dark, narrow, smoky trough with a behind-the-bar mirror featuring a border engraving of “African Kings,” a gaggle of testosterone-driven twenty-something males jockeying for bandstand recognition, Berklee School of Music kids urging each other on, and always the hard-core older faithful listeners. In those days Wally, the bar’s founder, in his nineties, often stood just in front of the bandstand stooped over his cane, gazing in judgment out of eyes that had seen the greatest come and go.

Into this scene I entered, alone, female, white, clearly way beyond college age and not a fan or a groupie. A grim-faced waitress in her fifties carded me and at my amazed “You must be kidding!” snapped, “Everyone’s gotta show their license, you’re not an exception.” That night there was no piano, only a Yamaha DX7. Synthesizer keyboards look like short piano keyboards, but synths rarely even approximate piano sound. They’re more like horns or organs, and you have to know how to produce the right combination of sustains, short sounds, and special effects. I played very badly and left the bandstand attended by polite silence.

When it’s had to do with something I’m sure I will ultimately do well, I’ve never accepted failure. But fascination, not egotism, drove my daily practice. The journey through the mystery was its own reward. I recorded a short “demo tape” to send to a summer jazz workshop I wanted to attend; I got a scholarship. I endured other sobering “Wally moments” that summer, went back to the drawing board, and returned for several more summers, improving each time. I began getting gigs. My great joy was actually playing with other musicians, most of them better than I was. I almost always loved performing. In the mid-nineties I began really beating the bushes for gigs, got hired, and was increasingly accepted as’ a working musician.

I omit a lot, here: sexism, for one thing: I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been asked by an audience member, even after I’ve played, “So, you’re the singer?” or the times when a male member of my group has been approached as a leader by a listener who thinks I’m just some chick behind the piano. Women now in their twenties and thirties have it easier than baby boomers and their seniors. But jazz is still male-dominated and discrimination still exists. As in any field, there are networks, almost always old-boy or young-boy ones. A latecomer to this profession, I’ve been out of all loops, so I’ve usually had to get my own jobs, hiring my own musicians, only occasionally getting hired as a side-person.

To get through the inevitable disappointments you need to be driven, stubborn, thick-skinned. You need mentoring, at least one teacher willing to be honest about your deficiencies and patient enough to stay with you as you stumble through and beyond them. You also need a lot of support from your family and friends. My partner admires practically every chord I produce, comes to-almost all my gigs, and always invites his friends. To say that’s helpful is an understatement.

When I started studying jazz in the late eighties I learned about blues, bebop and what’s sometimes called “The American Songbook”–short pieces by legendary composers like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Blues is to jazz what the sonnet is to poetry-a distinct eight- or twelve- bar form, its basic harmonies, melodic lines and a “feel” rooted in the twenties. All variations on the early, deceptively simple, powerful origins of the blues have been so much icing on the, cake. If you don’t understand blues you can’t play jazz.

You also can’t do without bebop, a texture of short, forcefully (and trickily) accented phrases with drum-like left-hand hits on piano. Rhythmically speaking it’s reminiscent of tap dancing. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were its greatest innovators. They did for jazz in the late forties and the fifties what Haydn did for classical music in the eighteenth century, ushering in the modern era. Technically, bebop is extremely difficult. Its chromatic lines twist and turn back on themselves, are often played at lightning speed, and must be precisely accented according to extremely sophisticated rules of syncopation. Another of my teachers, jazz senior statesman Harold Mabern, used to tell me that bebop was the hardest language in jazz: if you can master it, you can play anything.

My jazz loyalties are split. On my own gigs, the ones I lead with duos, trios and quartets, I like to play in the African American jazz tradition of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and their white allies–Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn, Fred Hersch. I also write music and, when I can, play at least two of my own pieces. Occasionally I play funk because I loye dance music. In New York I recently performed as an accompanist for gospel singers. I make it a practice never to turn down a gig unless it’s in a field I just don’t work in (classical, Dixieland, Klezmer). On solo gigs I play what’s referred to as “straight-ahead” repertoire- pieces like Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” or Rogers and Hart’s “It Never “Entered My Mind,” beautiful melodies in the same lyric tradition as Schubert’s songs. It’s easy to push, down the keys and produce a humdrum “sing-along” of such tunes; It’s another to play them with a delicate tou ch, fluid melodic line, swing, passion and originality. For an idea of what can be done with “old saws,” listen to the incomparable Art Tatum, Hank Jones’ album in the Maybeck Recital Hall series, Herbie Hancock’s deconstructions of Gershwin tunes on “Gershwin’s World” (Verve, 1998), or any one of Fred Hersch’s solo CDs. As for women pianists who do interesting things with standards, there’s the late Mary Lou Williams–or-a new discovery for me-an interesting contemporary pianist-vocalist, Patricia Barber.

I write my own arrangements, sometimes using odd time signatures, casting a ballad as a bossa nova, a 4/4 as a waltz or a fast 6/8, trying to find new harmonies. I compose short pieces with a lyrical bent. I’ve written others that don’t have a conventional form or recognizable melody, but there isn’t much call for them in the places where I work. I get ideas from classical composers like Brahms as well as from gospel, Latin music and rhythm and blues. I used to be doctrinaire about jazz, shunning classical music for it. Now I feel that while each musical family has its own language and grammar, the deep structure of all music is the same, moving the player and listener in the same ways, through the body to the brain and the emotions. At its very best music is about the unity of body, mind and feeling. This is a spiritual matter: the greatest music, jazz included, is transcendental, religious. This isn’t something tied to “slow” pieces: it has to do with emotional power, not tempo.

When you’re playing long hours for uncaring listeners it’s a challenge to keep the fires of deep feeling and playfulness burning. The music business, which cares only about the bottom line, easily crushes the soul out of performance: there are thousands of tired performers who play in restaurants, hotels and bars just to get the job lone. To avoid this fate I try to focus on feeling and hearing whatever I’m playing. I also try to vary what I do, alternating solo playing with group work, teaching, composing and occasional wrung like the essay you’re reading.

I also go out to hear my fellow musicians as much as possible, finding things to admire in the playing of each and thereby expanding my-circle of musical friends and acquaintances. Jazz Venues are constantly shrinking and competition is a constant harsh reality; it’s easy to find your spirit poisoned and your energy sapped by the feeling that another’s gain is your loss. At all costs I shun this pitfall.

I’ve been interviewed locally; my music has been played on local radio stations. I run into people who say they recognize my name from the Boston Globe music listings. Like many other jazz musicians I try to find unconventional places to perform: churches and community centers come to mind. But I also do what nearly every jazz musician must–I play in restaurants, for private parties, weddings, corporate events. When I’m lucky I play with good musicians and I can choose good repertoire. But I often find myself being musical wallpaper, unseen and scarcely heard, ensuring customer happiness and the quick turnover the manager requires. I remind myself that even performers like the great bebop pianist Barry Harris play against a fog of chatter, clinking silverware and ringing telephones. “That set was for your talking pleasure,” Harris sometimes quips between sets; “the next one is for your listening pleasure.”

Good Art And Good Jazz? Sign Us Up!

gaagjToday there exists a group of artists who specialize in jazz-themed art, and their work is selling better than ever. For them, the desire to create jazz art stems from a deep affinity with the music and its visual interpretations. And galleries across the country are taking notice. From private sales to festival posters and corporate commissions, jazz art is making it to the big time.

The Appeal of Jazz Art

The rise in demand for jazz art can be attributed to the strong economy and the growth of the art market in general. But there are also a number of specific reasons why jazz art is a hit among buyers. For some, it represents a kind of tourist art–a souvenir that one can take home from cities like New Orleans, a popular destination for jazz. For others, jazz art offers a way to put a face on the music. Too often, jazz musicians suffer anonymity–far more than their counterparts in rock `n’ roll and country. Another discernable attraction is that jazz art, like the music from which it originated, transcends economic and social boundaries. As artist Arnold Thompson remarked, “Everyone is connected to music, whether they realize it or not.” Artist Paul Wegner agreed, stating “jazz is part of our cultural history. It came from the slaves–from their oppression. And it was the impetus for all other musical styles we hear today, from rock`n’roll and rap to R&B.” Dale Fitzgerald, the founder and executive director of The Jazz Gallery in Soho, which has hosted two international jazz art competitions, agreed: “Not only is jazz America’s music, it is alive with America’s history.”

Of course there is the purely aesthetic appeal of jazz art. Many buyers are drawn to the bright colors and expressive brushstrokes typically found in the work, which artists usually employ to capture the vibrance and spontaneity of jazz music. This style is evident in the work of Paloma Editions artist Gil Mayers and Arnold Thompson of the Electric Gallery.

The types of jazz art can vary greatly. Some are portraits of musicians or composers, like “Piercing Spirit” by Faith Krucina of Artistic Impressions in Dunedin, Fla. Others, such as “Flippy Lippi Plays the Blues,” by Stephen Henriques of San Francisco, are more abstract and have unidentifiable figures.

Keith Rocco of Tradition Studios in Woodstock, Virg., and InRepresentation in San Jose, Calif., strives to make his paintings historically accurate. His subtle hues set the mood and effectively capture the Kansas City jazz scene during the 1950s.

Wegner, represented by the Meisner Gallery in Farmingdale, N.Y., creates jazz sculptures in bronze using a fragmented style that is inspired by jazz rhythms and invites the viewer’s eye to jump around to each part of his sculpture, creating rhythm. He strives to make viewers “feel the music and intensity” through his work.

Other art buyers are attracted to the musician’s “stamp of approval” on a work. Such was the case for artist Paul Rogers, represented by Artworks in Pasadena, Calif., who painted a portrait of Dizzie Gillespie as a part of his 75th birthday celebration. Each edition was signed by Gillespie and naturally held an even greater attraction for buyers. The limited-edition print sold out in no time.

Meet the Buyers

The buyers come from all walks of life. Wegner noted his patrons include “doctors, lawyers, construction workers … there is no set pattern.” Artist Nina Mera of San Francisco agreed: “Just like a jazz fan, buyers can be wealthy or people who come from the street.” Baby boomers now in their middle ages do comprise a strong percentage of the population, but young people are also interested in this art.

For Margarita Bergen, owner of the Bergen Galleries in New Orleans for the past 23 years, many of her customers are Europeans who come to the city for its numerous jazz festivals. “The Germans are especially big buyers,” Bergen commented. “They know so much about our heritage that they can tell if a musician in a painting is holding the wrong instrument!” Fitzgerald added that the Japanese are also patrons and “some of the people most interested in our shows.”

Where Jazz-Themed Art Sells

The venues for selling jazz art are as limitless as the art itself. Jazz festivals across the world attract millions of tourists each year and offer a wonderful opportunity for jazz artists to display and market their work. The festivals also offer the chance for jazz artists to meet their peers and exchange ideas, while being inspired by the grooves and rhythms coming from the soundstage. Many artists create posters for these festivals, like Charles Bibbs of B Graphics and Fine Art in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Certain cities tend to fare better than others. Sarah Wegner, wife of artist Paul Wegner, commented, “Our biggest market is in New Orleans. It is a big convention town and many tourists go there and want to bring something back.” Other big markets include Las Vegas and San Francisco.

A number of artists also receive commissions to create art that will grace the covers of books and CDs. Henriques’ abstract work has appeared on eight book covers and two CDs. Rogers is painting 26 portraits to illustrate the Jazz ABC Book, a children’s book to be published in the spring of 2002 with text by Wynton Marsalis.

Commissions from corporations and celebrities provide other avenues for their art. Rogers’ big clients include American Express and Anheuser-Busch. Artist/actor Billy Dee Williams, represented by Claudia Wishnow of Long Beach, Calif., recently sold “Lady Sings the Blues” to the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Wegner’s sculptures can be found in the collections of Phil Collins and Natalie Cole, among others.

The Web has also become a great venue for selling jazz art. Since Bergen has put her gallery online, the response has been overwhelming. Robert Beckham, managing partner at the Electric Art Gallery, LLC, a retail gallery formed in April of 1994 that sells exclusively online, has also received great response from buyers. For artist Nina Mera, who paints in other genres, her jazz-themed works such as “Billie Holiday,” sell very well through the Electric Gallery and comprise a major part of her work.

While most of the artists interviewed do not exclusively create jazz art, the majority agreed that they would be able to sustain their income from the sale of jazz art alone. Rocco, who is a newcomer to the genre (he began creating jazz-themed art only eight months ago), found immediate success at Artexpo New York 2000: “People didn’t want to buy the prints–they wanted to buy his paintings right off the floor!” exclaimed Davina Daon of InRepresentation. And while Krucina creates all kinds of art, she affirmed that jazz art is the “genre of art that has given me inter national attention.”

Ward Knows Jazz

There’s something about Armstrong and that particular piece that just represents everything American to me. It always has.

What year are we talking about?

Fifty-six.

This was the “Ambassador Satch” period, when not a lot of people thought of him as a great, serious figure.

wkjYes, but there was something in that music that spoke to me, and still does. I play Louis Armstrong 10 times a week. When I want to feel better, that’s what I play. I think you do the Same thing.

Well, my experience was somewhat similar. I was in New Orleans when I was 15, and I had grown up listening to classical music and then rock, and then rock turned into Fabian and so there wasn’t much to listen to. And I heard a New Orleans jazz band, which got me very excited. Back in New York, I was with my parents visiting some friends, and they had an old Cue magazine in which 15 jazz critics picked the 10 greatest jazz albums of all time, and there was only one album on every single list: The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume Three, with “West End Blues.”

Let’s talk about Louis. When you write about him, and I hope this is true when I write about him, and it’s true when a lot of people, like Dan Morgenstern, write about him, there is a glow in the prose. And it’s there every time he comes into your book.

It’s hard to put into words. There is something elevating about everything he ever did. I’ve never heard anything by him that I didn’t feel somehow lifted up by. There’s something about that incredible sound too. It’s so warm and so magisterial. I don’t mean to sound corny, but there is something terribly loving about him. It just gets you. No matter how silly the song. “Blueberry Hill” knocks me out. Now, I couldn’t care less when anybody else sings that song. He found the essential humanness in everything he did.

It’s a generous music.

Totally welcoming, totally warm, totally inspiring, I don’t know how else to put it.

When people used to mention Louis “Armstrong to me I would say, you know, forget “Hello, Dolly and “What a Wonderful World,” you have to listen to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. I don’t feel that way any more. Now, my feeling is, it’s all there in “Hello, Dolly.”

I listened just last week to a thing he did very shortly before he died, something like “What a Wonderful World,” only a much sappier song. And he’s an old man, and you can hear he’s not feeling well, but it still just lifts you up. And it’s all the more moving, because he’s struggling a little bit to do it. It’s as close to religion as I’m ever going to get.

Well, I’ve always made that connection. My only religious experience is Louis Armstrong. He changed my life, and William James says that a true religious experience doesn’t backtrack, it changes you forever, and this passes the test.

The trumpet player Max Kaminsky said, “I’m very religious, I worship Louis Armstrong.”

There is an experience of conversion for a lot of people when they make the leap from knowing Louis Armstrong as one of the old entertainers who used to be on The Ed Sullivan Show to really bearing him. Did this happen a lot with people working on the film?

I think so. People got interested in the music, a lot of young people who loved rock and had never really heard jazz at all, film editors and so on, really began to listen. I think it was mostly Armstrong who ushered them in.

When you started putting the script together, did you know that Armstrong would be the central figure?

I did. And Ken came to see it very quickly, too, as soon as he began to listen. But I mean, it’s always seemed to me that Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who was so very different, are the two titanic figures in the history of the music. There are lots of other wonderful musicians, but those two speak most to me.

Reading the book, there is a tremendous excitement, that these are not just great musicians but they’re inventing the world over and over and over again–I mean every time somebody new comes in, it’s not just that it’s a remarkable new personality from yet another corner of the United States but a whole different vision of the music. Did you get a feeling that that historical aspect was over?

No, I don’t think it’s over. One reason we didn’t do more on the current era is that at some point writing about the music becomes more journalism than history. And I don’t know enough. I mean, I’m not as sympathetic to a lot of recent music as I was to earlier stuff. But I think the world is still full of young people trying to play, and I still love to hear them. I just think that when you’re dealing with Armstrong, and Ellington–and Charlie Parker–they are such huge figures that it’s terribly hard to know if anyone in recent years has been anywhere near as important. I don’t feel qualified to make those judgements.

I agree a lot of extraordinarily gifted young players keep coming along, but what I don’t often bear is the individuality. When Lester Young came to town, everybody said, Damn, no one bas ever played the saxophone like that. There were a few people in the sixties you could say that about. Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, whether you liked their music or not, you knew they were doing something that bad never been done before. I wonder if that can be sustained, or if we’re in a sort of posthistorical period when it becomes a question of constantly interpreting what went on in the twentieth century, the way classical music is constantly interpreting what went on in the nineteenth.

That’s a hard one. I’m very partial to the notion that you can play all kinds of music in new ways. That you can play Jelly Roll Morton in an interesting way, you can play Thelonious Monk in an interesting way. That’s not a lesser thing. It’s making something new out of something old, building on a great tradition. I think Wynton Marsalis does that, and other people do that, but I can’t tell you who’s going to be a monster in the future that people will write books like this one about. I just don’t know.

How did you choose which stories to tell?

Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t know how to do history unless I’m telling a story. I believe in chronological history. Things develop in order. Jazz history is very often done in a way my father described as “potato-race history.” You know, you put the potato on the spoon and you run up to the finish line, then come back and get another potato. So you do big bands all the way to the end. Then you come back and cover small groups. That isn’t how jazz or anything else actually develops. Things happen all over the place, all at the same time. What I enjoyed was linking up things, so that you know that in a given month various things happened in different parts of the jazz world. For better or worse, that isn’t how jazz history is usually done.

You’re right. I think that’s one of the great things about the book and the film. You’re in the throes of the swing era and suddenly Dizzy Gillespie arrives, which is exactly what happened, because he was part of the swing era.

Bebop was invented by swing musicians. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Nothing does.

Swing really is a huge foundation for everything that’s come after it. I detect a slight tone of sadness in the book when the music begins to lose its popularity, specifically with dancers.

Well, I think everybody feels a sadness that it lost popularity. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment, Bird and Dizzy are heroic people. They’re trying to create an art form, to be seen as artists, not entertainers. That’s a very admirable goal, and it produced marvelous music. But it was also difficult music. Unless you’re an astonishing virtuoso, it is hard to expect people to sit and listen to somebody play long strings of solos. You have to really be listening.

I wonder whether, if he had his druthers, someone like Wynton, who venerates swing and everything it means, would want people dancing?

I know for a fact he loves to see people dancing. It makes you play better, he says. Swing musicians talk about playing at the Savoy and having the audience tell them they weren’t swinging. Dancers would come up and say, you know [snapping fingers], “Pick that up.” It must have been something to experience that amazing give-and-take, that call-and-response excitement. Ellington talks about how wonderful it was to play a ballad and see people falling in love in front of you.

I remember being taken by the fact that Ellington would play a performance where half the evening would be a concert with seats, and at intermission, they’d remove the seats and it would be a dance. But the book didn’t change.

Yeah, it was the same book.

Of course, the irony is I always had the suspicion that a lot of the younger jazz enthusiasts, my generation, a little older, a little younger, who fetishize the swing era now, wouldn’t have gone within 50 miles of a ballroom in the 1930s, because it was too popular.

I suppose that’s true. They would have been looking for something more arcane.

One of the major themes throughout the documentary and the book is race.

Well, it’s an awful corollary to the story. There’s the blatant kind of racism of keeping people out. And there’s a much more subtle kind, which is the idea that somehow jazz music is–at least when played by blacks–somehow an instinctive, raw, natural, primitive thing. That math runs right through the whole history of the music. During the sixties and seventies, for someone like Duke Ellington, who had risen above a lifetime of condescension, to hear someone like LeRoi Jones calling on black musicians to reject everything that ever happened in Europe, including the tempered scale, in favor of what he called “the new, the `primitive,’” must have been especially awful.

You tell anecdotes about black players’ pretending that they can’t read music or that they’re making it up on the bandstand after they’ve rehearsed for hours.

They would practice until they knew every single note, and then hide all the music, because white audiences didn’t believe black music was “authentic” if musicians knew how to read. How people put up with that and kept on creating is simply–oh, what’s the word I want?–it’s heroic.

Did you know from the beginning that race was going to be so big a theme in this work?

Yes, I did. You can’t do American history and not do race. I don’t know a single part of the story it doesn’t come into at some point. But especially, obviously, it comes into this one.

Did you learn anything that you didn’t know?

Wynton helped me see that the first generation of young whites to play the music were heroic too. They were a terrifically disparate bunch. Some came from well-to-do suburban families or small towns, others were street hoodlums. What they had in common was that they were irresistibly drawn to jazz, which their friends and families dismissed as “nigger music,” not worth listening to, let alone trying to play. They heard something in that music that spoke directly to them and they determined to try to play it for themselves. They weren’t necessarily better or worse on the subject of race than a lot of other whites, but they heard Louis Armstrong and they knew that sounding like that was something to strive for. Now, none of them ever achieved it, but no black musicians ever achieved it either.

A lot of them were disowned.

Bix Beiderbecke’s family is the most famous example. His father never reconciled himself to the career his son chose to follow. But, as Wynton pointed out to me, it’s hard not to be sympathetic with the old man: Beiderbecke’s father had been afraid that if Bix became a jazz musician and lived that kind of life, he would become an alcoholic. And, of course, he did.

Another family like that is that of Jelly Roll Morton, who was a Creole and …

Absolutely, and I’m sure Ellington’s family was initially appalled by the kind of music he chose to play. They loved him, so everything he did was perfect because he was the apple of their eye, but still he was not playing the kind of accepted middle-class material they would have wanted him to play.

You begin the book with the lawyer and law professor Charles Black’s memory of having beard Armstrong as a college student. He had grown up in a racist community and assimilated all kinds of racist attitudes; he heard Armstrong, and it changed his life forever. He went on to help litigate Brown v. Board of Education. Do you have any idea whether Louis Armstrong ever knew the impact he had on civil rights?

I know he was proud of what he’d done, even when younger musicians who didn’t understand all that he’d gone through criticized him. But that incident seems to me to speak for the whole book, in a sense. He goes to a dance at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. He had never heard of Louis Armstrong, had never heard jazz, he’s basically there because he hopes he’ll meet girls. And he hears a black person who is a genius.

And he knows it.

And he knows it. It’s mysterious. You can’t define it, but he hears it and he knows, even as a teenaged white kid from Texas, that that’s something he’s never heard before, and it stays with him all his life. You know, when he came home after the Brown decision, he played Armstrong records as a celebration. It always circles back to Armstrong.

Yes. And when I listen to certain performances, I never hear them as nostalgic. I always hear something new.

I do too. Whether he’s playing or singing, he does something you didn’t remember he’d done.

I think one of the major impacts this project is going to have will be to raise his national stature, because most Americans don’t really know what he did and who he was.

No, he’s the guy with the handkerchief on the old TV shows. I’d be satisfied if it just changed that.

It would be hard to think of a book about an art that centers on a hundred years with so many tragic figures. One of the most interesting, because he’s surely among the very least known, is Jim Europe.

James Reese Europe was an extraordinary person. He was consciously trying to produce a new kind of black music, a kind of ragtime-based precursor of jazz, and in the most articulate and interesting way, while playing for all the rich people in New “York. He had New York’s leading dance band before the First World War, and then he took this Army band to Europe and just blew everybody away.

And they were heroes under fire.

His regiment was the most decorated unit in the American Army during World War I.

You tell a remarkable story about their playing, down South during the war.

They’d been sent to some place in South Carolina for training, and the treatment they received was absolutely horrible. But the fascinating story to me was that they had gone down with a bunch of other New York troops, including white ones, and when the white New Yorkers saw what was happening to their fellow New Yorkers who happened to be black, they were furious and would go beat up the rednecks. I found that to be one of those surprising stories about America that show how complicated we are.

There was great consternation about whether black troops would be allowed in the town. The mayor publicly stated that they should know that even in uniform they were going to be treated the way black South Carolinians were. When they gave a concert in the town square, things were tense. A big, muttering white crowd gathered. But after Jim Europe was finished, all they wanted to know was, When were his men going to play again? And the next day, the same sheepish town fathers came and asked if the band could play at the country club.

Another aspect of the race thing is that the whites who glommed on to jazz from the very beginning are almost all from minorities–Italians in New Orleans, Jews in New York, Irish in the Midwest and Northeast. And another thing that I had not put together is that both Beiderbecke and Parker learned so much from movie scores.

There are other parallels. Toward the end of their careers, they’re both addicts of different kinds and they’re both perpetually feeling that somehow they’re not doing what they should be doing. They both think that there’s a secret–if they just knew more about European music, maybe they could produce something better. They’re both listening to the same French impressionist composers too. They both hear something that they’re interested in, and neither gets anywhere near doing what he might have done, because their own appetites devour them.

Who are some of the people you got to love the most during the course of the book? We’ve talked about Armstrong and Beiderbecke. Are there others who surprised you?

One of the great things about doing this book–and why it was frightening at the same time–was that it made me listen to people that I hadn’t listened to as carefully as I should have. Lester Young is one, especially in those late years when he has all the lilt of his early stuff plus all the sadness of the human condition. It always swings, and it just kills me.

And he was attacked for those records.

Oh yeah. And then Ben Webster. I don’t think there’s anybody except Armstrong I like to listen to more than Ben Webster. You know, he was called “the Brute,” a hopeless drunk, mean, sometimes violent, yet he plays so tenderly. That’s one of the great things about jazz, the spectrum of emotion it produces. That a man like Webster could produce those intimate, whispering, tender sounds …

That reminds me of Johnny Hodges, whom I got to watch close-up for two days with the Ellington band when I was an undergraduate at Grinnell. Johnny Hodges looked like the most bored man on the face of the earth, like he’d rather be any place but on the bandstand. He’d sit there looking out of one side of his face and then the other, and then he’d put the horn in his mouth and play the most rhapsodic and exquisitely beautiful solo you ever heard in your life.

That’s exactly right. These are consummate professionals.

One of the first jazz musicians I heard as a kid was Dave Brubeck. I kind of put him aside for a long time, but I fell in love with him as a human being through the movie and the book.

He is a marvelous human being, and in the film he’s terribly moving. I remember, when I was a kid, I would read that there must be something wrong with him, because that was the era when if lots of people liked a musician, that was by definition proof that he wasn’t worth listening to. Brubeck was hugely popular and therefore superficial somehow, and out of touch with his raw feelings. And the other cliche was always that Paul Desmond, his alto saxophone player, was the great musician, and you just had to wade through the Brubeck part. When you really listen to those records, it’s not true at all. Desmond was great, but Brubeck can play. His music’s deeply emotional and swinging and exciting. I heard him in India when I was a teenager. He came and played and tore it up, at Delhi University. I’ve been very lucky. The first three bands I heard in person were Count Basie’s, Duke Ellington’s, and Dave Brubeck’s.

There’s a moving moment where Dave talks about having to show the cover of Time magazine to Ellington.

Yeah, they were on tour in `54, and Time had been preparing two cover stories, one on Ellington and one on Brubeck. And Brubeck, who worshiped Ellington and saw him as a friend, heard a knock on his hotel-room door early one morning, and there was Ellington saying, “Look, Dave, you’re on the cover of Time.” Brubeck said it was the worst moment of his life. He wanted to be on the cover of Time, but to be there before Ellington was a terrible thing for him.

Jazz leaves everyone behind at some point. For me, it’s fusion. For most people, it’s the avant-garde.

For me, it’s fusion. I can’t listen to that. And I can’t listen to–whatever it’s called– “soft” jazz.

Oh no, I don’t even think of that as jazz, or I would have said that first. That’s appalling. The very idea that they call it soft jazz is a libel. How do you feel about the avantgarde? Did you find yourself listening to more of it because of the project?

Sure, I listened to more, but it’s so diffuse it’s hard to generalize about. I like some late Coltrane, but after that, I find it very hard to stay with it. I think the same thing happened to jazz that happened to painting at about the same time. I graduated from Oberlin College in 1962 with a degree in studio art, and I remember that for most of my fellow students who went on in painting, their goal in life was to do something novel. Each of them thought his or her job was to somehow do something unlike anything anybody else had done. Frankly, none of them produced much. The drive to be new is different from the drive to be genuinely true to your own vision. Since the sixties there has been that pressure on artists in all fields to reinvent the wheel.

But the really great ones weren’t attempting that any more than Charlie Parker was. I don’t think Ornette Coleman could have been anything else.

No, and I like Ornette Coleman. I don’t like all of his music–I don’t understand why he ever took up the violin–but you can hear history in his music, you can hear somebody deliberately choosing to do things differently from the way other people have done them. For me, for somebody who likes history, it’s fascinating to hear somebody reaching back into the past and making something altogether new. That I find thrilling.

There’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but nothing comparable in jazz. There’s Nashville, but nothing like that in New Orleans. I suppose a lot of this has to do with race, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that jazz just doesn’t generate as much money.

It doesn’t have the audience it used to; it is an undervalued art form. It is the most intensely American music, created by the most despised minority, out of all the music they heard here. There is nothing more American.

Yet most Americans, as I keep discovering, don’t know what it is. I was once on a talk show in Bismarck, North Dakota. There was an all-star concert that evening at the local college, a dozen great musicians, and I was there to lecture. And they asked me to go on the air in the afternoon to plug the concert. The host had some cheat notes about the musicians and whom they worked with, and she said, “Well, now, you say all these musicians play jazz, but I see here, looking at their biographies, that a lot of them played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie,” and I’m waiting for the question.

What was the question?

She says, “Well, you wouldn’t call them jazz, would you?” And I thought, I’m on a different planet here.

What did she mean?

She thought Duke Ellington and Count Basie were like Glenn Miller or Lawrence Welk, leading old-time dance bands.

I remember–I put it in the book–the year before I got to Oberlin, Ellington went there to play, and they took the grand piano off the stage because the Oberlin Conservatory of Music thought jazz musicians would hurt the instrument. He had to play an upright, which of course he played as though it were the greatest Stein way in the world. There was not a flicker of resentment. He had dealt with this before. It was beneath him.

My freshman year they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, and they had a couple of beautiful pianos for anybody who came out of Juilliard, but for the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sent over this upright. Same story.

But a different ending. John Lewis walked over to the piano, played a C-major chord, and said, “Where’s` the piano we’ll be using?”

The Genius Of McKay Was In The Subtleties

tgomkThis lowering of the bar for what was acceptable in middle class circles, and the apparent democratization of culture, were interpreted by Marxists as a sign that society was moving toward a classless state. McKay was a one-time Marxist who, like many intellectuals of his generation, visited the Soviet Union and even participated in the Fourth Congress of the Third Internationale. As we look at excerpts from Home to Harlem and Banjo, it is important to keep these prevailing ideologies in mind – Africanisme, Freudianism, and Marxism. For while McKay subscribed to prevailing theories of Freudian repression and the healing effects of jazz as some kind of “primitive rite,” he landed in a much more stubborn, atypical place with regard to class conflict, race, and individual salvation. That stubbornness is what makes him not only surprisingly prescient for his day, but it is one of the qualities that give his novels their special cast of truth.

Home to Harlem, a voluptuously written book that luxuriates in the sounds, sights, smells, language, and rhythms of the district, swarms with metaphorical equations of jazz with sex, sensuality, animal passion, and the primitive. The book’s main character really is Harlem itself, but the plot follows the picaresque careers of two protagonists – a working man named Jake, who has deserted his Negro regiment in World War I (ironically, not because he is a coward, but because he gets bored, never being sent to the front), and Ray – an intellectual who does menial work to support himself, and who is attracted to the night life of Harlem.

When Jake comes back from Europe, he heads for Harlem. At a “buffet flat” where a hostess sponsors private parties, he and his old pal Zeddy join up for some jazz and dancing. McKay writes:

A “blues” came trotting out of the pianola. The proprietress bounced into Jake’s arms. The men sprang at the two girls. . . . . Oh, “blues,” “blues,” “blues.” Black-framed white grinning. Finger-snapping. Undertone singing. The three men with women teasing the stags. Zeddy’s gorilla feet dancing down the dark death lurking in his heart. Zeddy dancing with a pal. “Blues,” “blues,” “blues.” Red moods, black moods, golden moods. Curious, syncopated slipping-over into one mood, back-sliding back to the first mood. Humming in harmony, barbaric harmony, joy-drunk, chasing out the shadow of the moment before. . . .

Earlier, at another “buffet flat,” “a phonograph was grinding out a ‘blues,’ and some couples were dancing, thick as maggots in a vat of sweet liquor, and as wriggling.” Later, at a nightclub called the Congo: “Jake and Zeddy picked two girls from a green bench and waded into the hot soup. The saxophone and drum fought over the punctuated notes. The cymbals clashed. The excitement mounted. Couples breasted each other in rhythmical abandon. . . the cymbal snuffed out saxophone and drum. . . .” McKay’s images of sweetness and hotness suggest not only sex, but along with the rather shocking description of the dancers as “wriggling maggots” in a “hot soup,” emphasize the strictly physical, animal nature of this activity. His rhythmically punctuated phrases highlight the rhythm of the music.

In one of the more lyrical passages in the novel, in which Jake and Ray, who are working on the railroad as waiters, visit a high-class bordello in Philadelphia, the notion of primitivism, Africanisme, animal barbarity, and lyrical beauty all come together: “The piano player had wandered off into some dim, ancestral source of music. Far, far away from music-hall syncopation and jazz, he was lost in some sensual dream of his own. No tortures, banal shrieks and agonies. . . . The notes were naked acute alert. Like black youth burning naked in the bush. Love in the deep heart of the jungle. . . . The sharp spring of a leopard from a leafy limb, the snarl of a jackal, green lizards in amorous play, the flight of a plumed bird, and the sudden laughter of mischievous monkeys in their green home. . . .” Here is an image of Africa that, while almost comic in its pastoral exaggeration, at least has nothing to do with the most obvious African American association with that continent – the “tortures, banal shrieks and agonies” of slavery. And the open sesame to this Shangri-La? Music – a jazz pianist who has “wandered” into “a sensual dream of his own.” How tantalizing to imagine what music McKay might have been hearing that night.

Of another bordello, McKay writes, ” . . . the atmosphere of Madame Suarez’s was fairly Bacchic and jazz music was snake-wriggling in and out and around everything and forcing everybody into amatory states and attitudes . . . . At the piano a girl curiously made up in mauve was rendering the greatest ragtime song of the day. . . . The women, carried away by the sheer rhythm of delight. . . abandoned themselves to pure voluptuous jazzing. They were gorgeous animals swaying there through the dance, punctuating it with marks of warm physical excitement.” Today, it is hard to reconcile McKay’s progressive politics with depictions of African American men and women dancing to jazz like “voluptuous animals.” Indeed, his descriptions of blacks seem to be just the howling stereotypes that consistently have been used against African Americans. In Home to Harlem, he describes blacks as “simple, earth-loving animals, without aspiration toward national unity and racial arrogance.” In Banjo, he writes, “Jake possessed a sure instinct for the right rhythm,” adding later, “Negroes are like trees. They wore all colors naturally.”

Why would a politically progressive African American writer, a radical who had written for journals such as Crisis, consciously set out to reinforce such damaging stereotypes? Indeed, that was the question asked by McKay’s virulent critics. For while Home to Harlem was a bestseller – the first novel by a black writer, in fact, ever to make the bestseller list – it did not sit well with much of the black intelligentsia (save for Langston Hughes, who adored the book), nor with the black middle class. The bourgeoisie was far from ready to line up behind an identification of African Americans with “barbaric” and “primitive” roots, nor with the “lowlife” pimps, whores, and musicians of Harlem McKay was implying were at the real heart of black culture. “Uplift,” they argued, was the goal, and it would be achieved only by playing down these so-called roots and emphasizing the Negro’s ability to blend in with white – and Western – values of thrift, hard work, and repressed, prim emotional states. Even a critic as perspicacious as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in a review that Home to Harlem “nauseated him” and made him feel like taking a bath. Marcus Garvey, leader of the “back to Africa” movement in America, went even further. He called the novel a “damnable libel against the Negro.”

Before answering his critics, we should note that many Harlem Renaissance writers, notably Langston Hughes, used the language of primitivism to describe African Americans, and that they did not mean it pejoratively. Indeed, the notion that African Americans had roots in a pristine African past, however imaginary or idealized, was an important social affirmation of black beauty and racial pride, one echoed in Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Band” and in the many black revues advertising “brown-skinned beauties,” jungle decor, and the like, in an era when most whites, boosted by bogus theories of social Darwinism, regarded blacks as sub-human.

And while it may sound quaint today, it was considered thoroughly “modern” in the 1920s (not to mention the 1950s) to think that living out one’s “primitive instincts” was a healthy activity. In spite of its negative connotations, classifying blacks as “primitive” was construed not as a criticism, but as a compliment. Indeed, proletarian authors of the period were inclined to think in precisely these terms, no matter the color of their subjects. McKay’s sentimentalized blacks – “honest,” “pure,” and “natural” – are not much different from Hemingway’s Spanish and Cuban peasants, or Steinbeck’s “Okies” and paisanos. There was even a positive political scenario built into this sentimentalization, by which the ruling classes, over-refined and neurasthenic, unable to feel “real” emotions, could be seen as ripe for toppling by a more lusty – and healthy – underclass.

But we must look further, to Banjo, a heavily didactic novel with long, rather implausible intellectual discussions on the Marseilles docks, for McKay’s resolution of these contradictions. Set in the seedy sailors’ district of Marseilles called “The Ditch,” the novel is again a pastiche of stories and incidents, this time along the docks, where black vagabonds from all over the world – West Africa, East Africa, the West Indies, and the southern and northern United States – commingle to laze on the beach, beg for food from the incoming freighters, whore, eat, drink, and play music. Banjo includes long cafe discussions about race, class, prejudice, and civilization. (At one point, McKay even has one of his characters refute the reviews of his previous novel!) The central character, Lincoln Agrippa Daily, known simply as “Banjo” for the instrument he plays, is a live-for-the-moment fellow from the American “Cotton Belt,” whose dialog is written in a thick dialect. One of his pals, Goosey, also from the South, is an angry “race man” who has witnessed the lynching of his younger brother, hates all whites, and wants to sever all associations with the South and slavery. One of the first discussions between Banjo and Goosey concerns the appropriate instruments for jazz, an argument that will be familiar to aficionados. “Banjo is bondage,” says Goosey. “It’s the instrument of slavery. Banjo is Dixie. The Dixie of the land of cotton and massa and missus and black mammy. We colored folks have got to get away from all that in these enlightened progressive days. Let us play piano and violin, harp and flute. Let the white folks play the banjo if they want to keep on remembering all the Black Joes singing and the hell they made them live in.”

Banjo replies that he plays the banjo “because I likes it.” “But wha’ you call coon stuff is the money stuff today. That saxophone-jazzing is sure coon stuff and the American darky sure knows how to makem wheedle-whine them ‘blues.’ He’s sure-enough the one go-getting musical fool today, yaller, and demanded all ovah the wul’.”

Goosey considers this argument for a moment, but still insists, like the bourgeoisie who taught him, that “It’s a new day for the colored race. Up the new race man and finish the good nigger.”

McKay clearly takes Banjo’s side in the argument. “The banjo is preeminently the musical instrument of the American Negro,” he writes. “The sharp noisy notes of the banjo belong to the American Negro’s loud music of life – an affirmation of his hard existence in the midst of the biggest, the most tumultuous civilization of modern life.”

Black American jazz musicians eventually tossed aside the banjo, partly for the reason Goosey outlines, no longer wanting to be associated with denigrating images of minstrelsy. As a musicological aside, it is fascinating to read some of the other scenes in Banjo and realize that McKay is documenting early instances of palm-wine guitar music being played in Europe, a precursor of West African Highlife. The short-lived quartet Banjo forms in Marseilles, with his Nigerian friend Taloufa on guitar, Goosey on flute, Malty on what is described as “tiny tin horn” (comet?), plays a simple, “rollicking West African song” called “Stay, Carolina, Stay,” which sounds as if it might be like a calypso. McKay describes it as “more insinuating” than the jazz tune they’ve played earlier, “Shake That Thing.” Indeed, in Marseilles, with its inhabitants from all over the world, McKay’s reach is to the entire African American diaspora, and he has the advantage of seeing jazz as one of many musics that have been developed by Africans around the world. In a restaurant scene, when two soldiers strike up a duo on accordion and stick rattle, McKay describes the pan-African mix of music they produce like this. “They played the ‘beguin’ which was just a Martinique variant of the ‘jelly-roll’ or the Jamaican ‘burru’ or the Senegalese ‘bombe’.”

In addition to being an avid fan, McKay actually knew quite a bit about music. One of the main characters in Banana Bottom, Squire Gensir (based on McKay’s childhood mentor, Walter Jekyll), is a collector of black folklore, through whom McKay makes his ample knowledge known. In McKay’s 1921 review of Shuffle Along, the first great black Broadway musical, for the socialist magazine Liberator, one can hear him thinking about ideas that will later turn up in Home to Harlem. “In Harlem,” he writes, “along Fifth and Lenox Avenue. . . [the Negro] expresses himself with a zest that is yet to be depicted by a true artist.” All of this, of course, McKay planned to do.

McKay’s familiarity with jazz and blues, and with international black folk culture, makes his use of the word “jazz” more instructive than it might be in the novels of other, less-schooled writers. The word, which he uses interchangeably to refer to music and dancing, eventually becomes for McKay the very symbol of personal freedom itself. In Home to Harlem, Jake says, “Let’s go to the Sheba Palace and jazz around a little.” McKay also writes, “The dark dancers picked up the refrain and jazzed and shouted with delirious joy . . . .” In Banjo, he says dancers “turn themselves jazzing loose in a back-home, brown-skin Harlem way” and “she jazzed right out into the center of the floor and shook herself in a low-down African shimmying way.” Also: “Oh, he jazzes like a lizard with his girl.”

McKay, however, also uses “jazz” in a broader way, implying the esthetic of unpredictability and surprise associated with improvisation, and the jaggedness of the music’s rhythm. In a sudden altercation at one of the Harlem “joints,” he says, in a nice graphic image, “A table went jazzing into the drum,” and in Banjo he refers to the “indiscriminate jazzing of all the Negroes of Marseilles” in a way that makes it clear he is referring to improvised behavior and living for the moment. The association of jazz with a devil-may-care, “seize the day” philosophy spurred by the catastrophe of World War I – a common theme of novels of the 1920s – is spelled out specifically by the character Banjo, who is himself a musician: “I went through that war,” says Banjo, “for I was just crazy for a change. And the wul’ did, too. And one half of it done murdered the other half to death. But the wul’ ain’t gone a-mourning forevah because a that. Nosah. The wul’ is jazzing to fogit’. . . . The wul’ is just keeping right on with that nacheral sweet jazzing of life. And Ise jest gwine on right along jazzing with the wul’.”

For Banjo, who can’t remember to collect money when he’s playing because he’s having such a good time, life seems to run along a bit like a series of solos: “Life was just one different thing of a sort following another.” When he is challenged about his carelessness, he says, “I ain’t got no head for remembering too much back, nor no tongue for long-suffering delivery. I’m just right-there, right-here baby, yesterday and today and tomorrow and forevah. All right-there right-here for me now.”

The eternal present in which Banjo lives is, of course, the improvised moment of his trade – jazz – which McKay is seemingly idealizing as a way of life. Yet McKay also sees quite clearly the negative consequences of this creed. Though Banjo and his friends are clever enough not to go hungry, and they spend a good deal of their time siphoning off wine from barrels on the dock, they also are regularly beaten by the police, arrested capriciously, harassed, treated with disrespect by everyone in power, and can barely even get into the hospital when they are sick.

To balance Banjo’s instinctive arguments, McKay reintroduces Ray, his intellectual foil from Home to Harlem, about halfway through the novel. Banjo’s way isn’t the life for Ray. He has higher aspirations, even though it may be hard to hold on to them. He muses: “He was afraid that some day the urge of the flesh and the mind’s hankering after the pattern of respectable comfort might chase his highdreams out of him and deflate him to the contented animal that was a Harlem nigger strutting his stuff. . . for escape, he wrapped himself darkly in self-love.” For a moment, he considers “dropping out” in the way that the bohemian vagabonds he knows in Europe have done: “I wonder sometimes if I could lose myself in some savage culture in the jungles of Africa. I am a misfit.”

But these Whitmanesque allusions to celebrating oneself and escaping society soon give way to a different solution, one that is more reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence. We can track how McKay works out these contradictions between self and society through his use of the word jazz as an equation with sex.

In Banjo, McKay makes it clear that he believes the African rhythms that have spread out over the world do carry a sexual message. When the sailors play their palm wine duet, he comments: “‘Beguin,”jelly-roll,”burro,”bombe’ no matter what the name may be, Negroes are never so beautiful and magical as when they do that gorgeous sublimation of the primitive African sex feeling. In its thousand varied patterns, depending so much on rhythm, so little on formal movement, this dance is the key to the African rhythm of life.” In an earlier passage, however, he expands the notion of sexuality to the idea of a positive, charged, “eternal life flow” that overlays a philosophical theory of “life force” onto Banjo’s existentialist credo of living in the moment:

Shake to the loud music of life playing to the primeval round of life. Rough rhythm of darkly-carnal life. Strong surging flux of profound currents forced into shallow channels. Play that thing! One movement of the thousand movements of the eternal life-flow. Shake that thing! In the face of the shadow of Death. . . . Life over here! Shake down Death and forget his commerce, his purpose, his haunting presence in a great shaking orgy. Dance down the Death of these days, the Death of these ways in shaking that thing. Jungle jazzing, Orient wriggling, civilized stepping. Shake that thing! Sweet dancing thing of primitive joy, perverse pleasure, prostitute ways, many-colored variations of the rhythm, slaves, barbaric, refined, – eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent – the dance divine of life. . . . Oh, Shake That Thing!

This is, of course, pure D. H. Lawrence, who believed that the oppressed classes – and “colored peoples” – were in touch with a powerful “life-force” that would eventually, through animal instinct, repair what was a broken civilization. McKay admired Lawrence very much, at one point writing that he was, more than James Joyce, the “quintessential modernist.”

McKay builds this Laurentian argument through Ray. As he is trying to decide if he will leave Marseilles to go “jazzing” with Banjo, instead of going home to Harlem, he thinks:

Once in a moment of bitterness he had said in Harlem, “Civilization is rotten.” And the more he traveled and knew of it, the more he felt the truth of that bitter outburst. He hated civilization because its general attitude toward the colored man was such as to rob him of his warm human instincts and make him inhuman. Under it the thinking colored man could not function normally like his white brother, responsive and reacting spontaneously to the emotions of pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow, kindness or hardness, charity, anger, and forgiveness. Only within the confines of his own world of color could he be his true self. But so soon as he entered the great white world, where of necessity he must work and roam and breathe the larger air to live, that entire world, high, low middle, unclassed, all conspired to make him painfully conscious of color and race. But of one thing he was resolved: civilization would not take the love of color, joy, beauty, vitality, and nobility out of his life and make him like one of the poor mass of its pale creatures.

What McKay argues in Banjo, through Ray, is nothing less than his own strategy for survival both as a black artist and individual. Like Lawrence, he sees that the Great War has been a wake-up call to reform a “rotten civilization.” (Interestingly, the formative experience of violence Jake has as a young man in England during the war isn’t in the trenches, but in London’s East End, when he observes a race riot.) But, being black, he also sees that the very civilization Lawrence is out to reform still has no use for African Americans.

Looked at this way, McKay’s “stereotyping” of African Americans as “natural” and “primitive” comes across as less of an underestimation, or limitation, than as a survival strategy in an extremely hostile world. He is determined to be happy, whether the world wants him to be, or not: “Ray wanted to hold on to his intellectual acquirements without losing his instinctive gifts. The black gifts of laughter and melody and simple sensuous feelings and responses.”

Earlier in the novel, Ray argues that jazz, and African American culture generally, has flourished precisely because it has been ghettoized in places such as Harlem: “When white people show that they do not want to entertain us in places that they own, why, we just stay away. . . . There is no pleasure in forcing ourselves where we are not wanted. That’s why the amusement side of the life of the Negro in America is such a highly-developed thing. And in spite of the deep differences between colored and white, it is the most intensely happy group life of Negroes in any part of the civilized world.”

McKay even allows Ray to make this argument at one point, in Banjo, using jazz as the symbol of the emotional and psychological superiority of blacks: “No wonder the whites, after five centuries of contact, could not understand his race. How could they when the instinct of comprehension had been cultivated out of them? No wonder they hated them, when out of their melancholy environment the blacks could create mad, contagious music and high laughter.”

McKay’s embrace of this “mad, contagious music” becomes a symbol for the reclamation of self-determination and community by blacks – for blacks – without reference to whites’ perceptions of them as primitive, atavistic, or, worse, as vehicles for reckless self-expression. Jazz also becomes a metaphor for McKay’s practice as a writer, since he sees that its success as an African American art form derives precisely from its use of folk idioms. Black literature, he argues, also must use the behavior of everyday people for its grist, not the idealized forms created by the wishful thinking of the black bourgeoisie.

But “can’t a Negro have fine feelings about life?” protests Grant, a student working on the railroad, in Home to Harlem.

“Yes,” answers Ray. “But not the old false-fine feelings that used to be monopolized by educated and cultivated people. You should educate yourself away from that sort of thing. . . .”

McKay then goes on to reprise, through Ray, one of his own earlier poems, “The White House,” in which he had excoriated society for giving blacks its discards: “We ought to get something new, we Negroes. But we get our education like – like our houses. When the whites move out, we move in and take possession of the old dead stuff. Dead stuff that this age has no use for.”

In Banjo, he continues the theme: “You’re a lost crowd, you educated Negroes,” Ray says to an idealistic student in a Marseilles cafe. “You will only find yourself in the roots of your own people.” Ray then makes a direct reference to the Harlem Renaissance: “It’s the common people, you know, who furnish the bone and sinew and salt of any race or nation. . . . If this renaissance we’re talking about is going to be more than a sporadic and scabby thing, we’ll have to get down to our racial roots to create.” When the student counters, “I believe in a racial renaissance, but not in going back to savagery,” Ray replies, “Getting down to our native roots and building up from our own people is not savagery. It is culture.”

This is an extraordinarily sophisticated argument for the period, and one that sounds remarkably familiar. Though he was influenced by the dated life-force ideology of Lawrence, it’s also clear that McKay’s goal as a black artist was not altogether different from that of contemporary jazz musicians today, such as David Murray, Ornette Coleman, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Like them, he saw that black art, like all art forms, must begin with the street, with the lives of everyday people. He also saw that there is power in reclaiming for one’s own group the negative images that have been thrust upon it by the dominant group.

Jazz, Classical, Whatever. How Good Taste Always Wins

jcwin the long run, both jazz and classical music show every sign of thriving. During the 1950s Thelonious Monk sold pitifully few records compared with Patti Page. It is of course tragic that Monk did not live to see the tables turned. Yet turned they are – and likely to remain so for posterity.

Now let us step back from the vicissitudes of the current marketplace and look briefly at music history. At its broadest, the term “classical music” covers all European (and some American) art music since the Middle Ages. But as a practical matter, what most people mean by “classical music” is the beloved repertory of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that dominates the modern concert hall. The many differences between this beloved repertory and the equally beloved repertory of jazz need not be belabored here. But one difference, rarely articulated, pertains to the question at hand: emotional expression.

At the time of jazz’s birth, the romantic composers – Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner – had already carried emotional expression to the utmost heights and depths. Indeed, in the opinion of Eduard Hanslick, the process reached the breaking point with Wagner: “The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” the eminent critic wrote, “reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel.”

Hanslick was the champion of Brahms, whose music contained romantic emotion within the discipline of older forms like the sonata and the four-movement symphony. As romanticism grew ever more extravagant in the work of Mahler, Elgar, Holst, and Richard Strauss, a second reaction set in: modernism. But it’s important to note that modernism came much later to music than to the other arts. The musicologist Carl Dahlhaus reminds us that “the music of the second half of the nineteenth century was still romantic, while the current of the age as expressed in literature and painting had moved on to realism and impressionism.” This was still true when jazz first appeared in the early decades of the present century.

The romanticism of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century music set it apart not only from the other arts but from the major intellectual currents of the day, which were scientific and positivistic. Writes Dahlhaus: “Music, the romantic art, had become ‘untimely’ in general terms, though by no means unimportant; on the contrary, its very dissociation from the prevailing spirit of the age enabled it to fulfill a spiritual, cultural, and ideological function of a magnitude which can hardly be exaggerated; it stood for an alternative world.”

To be sure, many varieties of music offer “alternative worlds.” That is why religious authorities throughout history have regarded music with suspicion or at least caution. Jazz itself possesses this power, derived largely from its roots in Afro-American religion. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is something unique about the European musical culture that was the backdrop to jazz’s birth: namely, the quasi-religious worship of music itself. This is the quintessence of late romanticism, and its influence persists today in the almost fanatical reverence with which many people approach the study and performance of “classical music.”

By now the reader may be suffering from terminological confusion. On the one hand, I have been referring to the music of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as “romantic.” On the other, I have noted that it is customary to call this same music “classical.” What’s going on here? Aren’t “romantic” and “classical” supposed to be opposites?

Yes, according to the textbook definition of “classical.” According to that definition, the “classical” period of European music began in the early eighteenth century, when composers such as Pergolesi, J. C. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and the young Haydn were inspired by the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment to reject the grandiosity, complexity, and religiosity of the baroque in favor of a style that was simpler, wittier, and more elegant, accessible, and (in the parlance of the time) natural. This approach eventually blossomed into the magnificent music of Mozart, Beethoven, and the mature Haydn. Scholars call it “classical” in order to distinguish it from what followed: the looser, more varied structures and heightened, more subjective emotions of romanticism.

Today, however, this distinction is rarely found outside of textbooks. To the average American listener, the difference between Beethoven and Mendelssohn – or between Handel and Berlioz, for that matter – seems trifling compared with the difference between, say, symphonic music and techno. This alteration in perspective is a little like the New Yorker’s famous cartoon of the North American continent as a vacant lot on the far side of New Jersey: we are so preoccupied with the foreground, we miss what is going on in the background. It is simply a fact that the American musical landscape at the close of the twentieth century is dominated by certain prominent features that are not European.

Chief among these is jazz, and the greater body of music to which it belongs, which was created and historically dominated by black Americans. The critic Henry Pleasants argues cogently that in the present century the “classical” vs. “popular” division in music is not one of quality (there is good and bad in both) but of idiom. Indeed, Pleasants reminds us that Western music has undergone an idiomatic shift every time its creative center shifted geographically: during the Renaissance, the center was the Netherlands; during the baroque era, it was Italy; during the “classical” period, it was Austria-Bohemia; and during the romantic era, it was Germany. Future historians, Pleasants predicts, will describe the first half of our own century as “the Afro-American epoch.”

We now arrive at my central argument, which is that the rise of jazz in the first decades of this century was not just an idiomatic shift in Pleasants’s terms but also a shift toward “classicism” in the most abiding sense of the word.

As we’ve seen, the time of jazz’s birth was one of exhausted romanticism. It was also a time when, after long delay, certain European composers were embracing modernism. For some of these composers – Schoenberg, Webern, Berg – modernism meant rescuing music from excessive emotionalism by subjecting it to the hyper-rationalism of the twelve-tone and serialist methods of composition. The result was a body of work displaying undeniable intellectual rigor but (in the consensus of several generations of listeners) musical rigor mortis.

Other modernists – Satie, Milhaud, Stravinsky – took a more viable path. They sought a revived “classicism,” meaning not a return to older forms but an attempt to restore certain timeless classical virtues – simplicity, wit, elegance, accessibility, naturalness – to music. As Aaron Copland wrote about these “neoclassicists,” “They signified the absolute end of the Germanic Brahmsian and Wagnerian approach – the one that seemed to say you had to listen to music in a very solemn and sacrosanct manner with your eyes closed and your head in your hands.” Interestingly, these same composers were attracted to jazz. Their attempts to incorporate jazz into their own compositions (such as Milhaud’s ballet The Creation of the World) were not very successful, largely because they did not bother to have the “jazzy” bits performed by experienced jazz musicians. But these “neoclassicists” were fight about one thing: the best way to flush exhausted romanticism out of people’s ears (and souls) was with jazz.

Why is that? The answer is simple, but its outlines have long been obscured by a tenacious misunderstanding of Afro-American music in general, jazz in particular. To get at this misunderstanding, let me reiterate the two chief objections to jazz that were made by educated opinionmakers earlier in this century.

The first objection was that jazz had a dangerous, Dionysian power to “intoxicate and estrange” the listener. The phrase is Thomas Mann’s, and in his 1925 short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” the four-year-old daughter of a professor becomes physically agitated and emotionally overwrought while dancing to “the weird music of the new world . . . jazz-band music” at a family party. Less nuanced than Mann’s account was the alarm sounded by establishment figures such as the New York physician (quoted by jazz historian Neil Leonard) who offered this diagnosis in 1922: “Jazz music causes drunkenness. . . . Reason and reflection are lost and actions of persons are directed by the stronger animal passions.”

As I have argued elsewhere, this grotesque insult to jazz was, from the beginning, mirrored by an equally grotesque compliment[middle dot] This compliment, which I call primitivism, celebrated the same presumably Dionysian qualities in jazz that the objection deplored – and, not surprisingly, it cropped up whenever Dionysus and the passions were elevated over Apollo and the faculty of reason[middle dot] Here, from a 1925 Pads newspaper, is a prime example – a rave review of Josephine Baker’s debut at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees: “In the short pas de deux of the savages, which came as the finale of the Revue Negre, there was a wild splendor and magnificent animality. Certain of Miss Baker’s poses, back arched, haunches protruding, arms entwined and uplifted in a phallic symbol, had the compelling potency of the finest examples of Negro sculpture. . . . The frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience.” I need not harp on the fact that such attitudes persist in much contemporary discourse about Afro-American music and culture[middle dot] Indeed, the worst excesses of “gangsta” rap seem little more than a childish attempt to enact the only slightly updated primitivism of journalists, pundits, and academics who ought to know better. As Baker herself remarked after reading her reviews, “The white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks.”

But I digress[middle dot] The second objection to early jazz was strikingly different[middle dot] It came from the musical establishment and is stated concisely in Copland’s 1930 complaint that jazz “was an easy way to be American in musical terms, but all American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz moods: the blues and the snappy number.” What I take Copland to mean is that jazz lacks sufficient emotional range to express fully the American experience[middle dot]

If this comment is true, it’s a hard truth to accept[middle dot] Nineteen-thirty was, of course, a bit early to be passing judgment on the expressive powers of a music that was only then reaching maturity. But that does not make Copland wrong. While unduly dismissive, his account of the “two dominant jazz moods” gets at an important truth: when it comes to evoking the peaks and abysses of emotion, Afro-American music does not compare with romanticism. Indeed, as the rock singer Janis Joplin once noted (in a rare moment of sobriety), “black music is understated.” Needless to add, Joplin’s own style of performance rejected understatement in favor of uninhibited self-expression – that shibboleth of the 1960s counterculture that still distorts many rock musicians’ understanding of the blues.

It appears from the newspapers that, due in part to the attention it receives in Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, the ancient philosophy of stoicism is back in fashion. Indeed, it has its own Website. This is good news for blues lovers, because as African American writers from Ellison to Albert Murray have emphasized, stoicism is the very essence of the blues. In its original setting the blues was, after all, the music of a people who could ill afford to indulge their emotions, especially potentially dangerous emotions such as grief, despair, and anger. When blues performers (and, in a different way, gospel performers) evoked these extreme emotions, they did so in a ritual manner aimed at control and, ultimately, survival. Another figure from the 1960s understood this better than Joplin. Interviewed by Nat Hentoff for the liner notes to his second album, Bob Dylan observed: “What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside of them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat.”

Thus what Copland describes as a limited emotional range is given a more positive spin by admirers of the blues, who see the same limitation as self-imposed – indeed, as the musical expression of stoicism. If this is the case (and I think it is), then how do we reconcile this view of Afro-American music with the aforementioned objection to jazz as a music that arouses the passions to a dangerous degree?

Here lies the tenacious misunderstanding alluded to earlier. As we’ve seen, those who objected to jazz back in the 1920s believed (in Neil Leonard’s summary) that “the most frightening aspect of jazz was its mysterious power to strike at the heart of rational conduct and moral judgment.” Yet remember – this was the end of the romantic epoch, which worshipped music as the most emotional of the arts, as “an alternative world” where otherwise rational people could lose themselves in profound, even extreme states of feeling. Did jazz really pose a threat in these terms?

I think not. Look again at the little girl in Mann’s story: she becomes hysterical not after listening to the “monotonous Negro programme in unfamiliar rhythm” but after dancing to it. The real objection to jazz was not that it stirred the emotions but that, in an age of Victorian repressiveness, its powerful and infectious rhythms moved the body. Physical “agitation” was understood to have harmful effects, especially in females. And while Mann’s professor concedes that “these mad modern dances, when the right people dance them, are not so bad after all,” the general opinion of the time was that the rhythmic element in Afro-American dance and music was the product not of craft or art but of raw instinct. Baker learned how to dance during a long apprenticeship in vaudeville. But this fact was lost on her Parisian admirers, one of whom gushed, “Josephine moved like an animal. An animal doesn’t think about how it moves, it just moves.”

This disparaging view of rhythm is hardly “classical,” if by “classical” we mean derived from the ancient Greeks. Plato did not regard rhythm as raw instinct. Rather he considered it, with melody, a uniquely human power that must be handled with care because it plays a crucial role in training (not repressing) the spirited part of the soul. For Plato there is a direct connection between the habits of practical activity and the virtues of intellect and moral character. In this light, it’s important to recall that the most common applications of rhythm since time immemorial have been work and worship. In cultures where rhythm is most highly developed – Africa, India, parts of the British Isles – people have long known that the finer the rhythm, the better it will revive the weary and reconcile the discordant. In a word, rhythm civilizes.

Where does this leave jazz? More or less where Copland put it: outside the romantic tradition of heightened, intensified, exaggerated, and finally self-indulgent emotional expression. But is this such a bad thing?

I realize that some of jazz’s most intelligent defenders would bridle at the suggestion that jazz is not romantic. There is in the culture at large a tendency to prefer the romantic to the classical. Dan Morgenstern, for example, exhibits this preference in his review of James Lincoln Collier’s biography of Louis Armstrong: “Armstrong, the creative artist, remains a puzzle to Collier, whose sober, serious, rational, and essentially classicist esthetic is in constant conflict with Armstrong’s passionate, playful, intuitive, and essentially romantic gift for transformation – indeed alchemy – which transcends (or simply bypasses) the bourgeois conventions of Western European ‘high’ culture.” In an otherwise trenchant critique of a greatly flawed book, this passage is a lump of undigested assumption. Jazz is “romantic” because it is not “sober,” “serious,” “rational,” and (horrors) “bourgeois”? What does this mean? That jazz is inebriated, unserious, irrational, and – what, if not bourgeois? Romanticism was, and is, the favored music of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, as Dahlhaus explains, what we now call “kitsch” is really romanticism gone to seed:

Musical kitsch, whether rousing and high-flown or soothingly sentimental, is a decadent form of romantic music. When the noble simplicite of a classical style descends to the market place, the result is banality – the mere husks of classical forms – but hardly ever kitsch. Kitsch in music has hybrid ambitions which far outreach the capabilities of its actual structures and sounds. . . . Instead of being content with modest achievements within its reach, musical kitsch has pretensions to big emotions, to “significance,” and these are rooted in what are still recognizably romantic preconceptions, however depraved.

What happens when jazz “descends to the market place”? At worst it becomes “smooth jazz” – admittedly banal but not kitsch. Kitsch is Andrew Lloyd Webber.

When I interviewed Grover Sales for this article, he made the commonsense observation that “There’s classical jazz and there’s romantic jazz.” He’s right. Within every kind of music deserving of the name, there is a certain balance, a vital tension, between the expression of passion and the restraint of form. Brahms, for example, filled his classical sonatas and symphonies to the brim with romantic feeling. Indeed, it would be pretty meaningless to talk about emotional restraint if there were no emotions present to be restrained.

I will also readily admit that none of this grand categorizing yields a tidy universe. To call any work of art “classical” or “romantic” is to draw highly speculative and imperfect parallels between it and other works remote in space and time. Indeed, the more one reads about what has historically been considered “classical” and what “romantic,” the more dizzying the polarity feels.

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