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Barry Ulanov: 1918-2000
Barry Ulanov

Born: 1918 in New York City, New York
Died: May 7, 2000 in New York City, New York

Early Champion Of Jazz's Modernists

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Barry Ulanov established a reputation as a scholar, writer and translator in several fields, including literature, visual arts, religion and psychology. He taught at Princeton University for two years from 1951-53, and at Barnard College from 1953-88, and was active in the Church following his conversion to Catholicism in 1951, including serving on the Vatican II Council in the translation of the Mass from Latin into the vernacular.

He wrote many books on religion and psychology, often in collaboration with his second wife, Ann Belford Ulanov, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he also taught a course until last year following his retirement from Belford.

To jazz fans, however, he was best known as the author of some of the earliest serious studies of the music, and was a high-profile champion of the modernists in the internecine battles of the bebop era. He had to overcome parental opposition to his passion for jazz -- his father was a concertmaster in Toscanini’s NBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and disapproved entirely of his son’s leanings toward jazz.

His father hoped he would become a classical violinist, but a car accident as a teenager in which he damaged both his wrists ended that possibility. Ulanov chose to attend Columbia University in New York rather than Harvard, a decision made with access to Harlem’s thriving jazz scene of the late-1930s rather than purely academic considerations in mind.

He began to write about jazz while in college, and became the editor of Metronome in 1939, a magazine which focused mainly on classical music, but also covered the white swing bands of the day. Ulanov radically reshaped the editorial policy, introducing coverage of black jazz musicians, and supporting the radical new developments of bebop as the decade progressed.

The emergence of bebop precipitated one of the schismatic splits which sprinkle jazz history, with the supporters of the new music -- led by Ulanov and the late Leonard Feather -- on the one hand, and the traditionalist lobby on the other.

In one famous episode in 1947, Ulanov organised a battle of the bands on radio, with his own hand-picked selection of bebop players led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie going up against the resident band from Rudi Blesh’s This Is Jazz show. A programme knows as Bands for Bonds was the chosen battleground, and the modernists emerged triumphant in the ensuing poll of listeners.

Ulanov wrote pioneering studies of Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby in the 1940s (a projected book on Louis Armstrong was never written), and both a history and a handbook of jazz in the 1950s, a decade in which continued to cover jazz write in magazines like Down Beat and Esquire, after which he chose to concentrate on his academic interests. His support for modern jazz was acknowledged by pianist Lennie Tristano in his composition ‘Coolin’ Off With Ulanov’.

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