Paradoxes at the Birth -- Two Books

Paradoxes at the Birth -- Two Books

Scott DeVeaux
The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History
(University of California Press, 1997, 664 pages)
Richard Sudhalter
Lost Chords: White Jazz Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945
(Oxford University Press, 1999, 912 pages)

by Ted Panken

copyright © 2000 Ted Panken

These days the term "jazz" denotes so many layers of reference that even the most articulate of the obsessed would be hard-put to define precisely what the music actually is and what they mean when they refer to it. Executed at the highest level of virtuoso craft, in constant dialogue with the past but constantly on the lookout for new tributaries to explore, the music -- whatever it is -- occupies a distinctive space, elegantly balancing on the high wire between High Art and Popular Culture.

The musicians covered in the two books under review, which span the years 1915 to 1945, faced no such ambiguities. Jumping off from a mosaic of bedrock vernaculars -- march band music, ragtime, Classical and 20th Century European music, Tin Pan Alley, spirituals decorous and sanctified, the Blues, the African notion of rhythmic narrative that survived diasporic dislocation -- they evolved the music at astonishing velocity; you can't find much in today's vocabulary that wasn't seeded at some point along that timeline. The cultural mix of raw materials honed and given shape by improvisational imperatives is one quality that makes jazz an art form radical in its essence.

These protagonists navigated radical terrain in several other respects, which pose basic paradoxes that historians and contemporary observers often find perplexing. The innovators of jazz, those who made statements so powerful that subsequent generations could not avoid piggybacking on them in moving the music forward, were African-American; yet proficient white improvisers played with wit, imagination and brilliance of the first rank. Living a good chunk of their lives in segregation times, jazz musicians were able to achieve a degree of interracial fraternity and color-blindness in their mutual relations; they never inhabited anything resembling an insular racial Arcadia, nor was the economic playing field ever not lopsidedly tilted in favor of whites. Less paradoxical, but perhaps the most radical notion is the implicit meritocracy that continues to define the social dimension of jazz, which in the realm of aesthetics is the most democratic of art forms, in which any bandstand performance comprises a real-time dialogue among the musicians. These days the pool of musicians is ever more diverse, spanning generations dating from World War I to post-MTV, as likely to hail from Australia or Israel or Senegal as from Louisiana or Chicago.

A big reason for this salutary -- or dilutive -- development is that the primary mode of passing down information is no longer via an oral lingua franca only decipherable to initiates (Wynton Marsalis titled a highly influential 1985 record Black Codes From the Underground), the process of codification being driven by the music's push into academe. While counting for the smallest potatoes in the entertainment marketplace (jazz recordings have a lemming-like gestation rate and survival probability, constituting a whopping 1.8% of all record sales), "Jazz" is big academic business. Numerous universities teach the language in sophisticated curricular form; so do high schools that can afford to buy instruments, and private cultural institutions like Lincoln Center.

The impact on musicianship has been immeasurable. Back in 1949 the great saxophonist James Moody created a solo ("Moody's Mood For Love") of such enduring popularity that he's forced to play it almost every time he performs. Yet, he claims that until 1959:

"I didn't know what it was to learn music. As a matter of fact, I used to go around asking, 'What are chords?' When you ask someone who doesn't know, it's like the blind leading the blind. For the longest time, I just went not knowing, playing by ear. Then finally, when I got with some people that did know, I had to start trying to learn. The musicianship is much better with these younger musicians. Why? Because they have the books and the schools and the teachers and the playalongs. If you feel like you want to learn something, you can learn it, from the bottom up. If you get a good teacher, you can play real quick."

Mr. DeVeaux belongs to an exclusive caste of musician-educators with academic sinecures (University of Virginia), and Mr. Sudhalter is both a professional trumpeter who specializes in classic jazz repertoire and a working journalist of four decades who in the '70s co-authored a detailed biography of the trumpeter Bix ("Young Man With A Horn") Beiderbecke. Both are skilled communicators, and their books are two of the best amidst an explosion of literature generated in the past quarter century since it began to be evident that the history of the music would fade into obscurity as its originators died unless their testimony was taken down.

The authors share a conviction that to focus on the processes by which musicians built vocabularies and made aesthetic decisions is the most reliable way to reconstruct the warp and woof of jazz history. To that end, they sculpt their heavily footnoted narratives with exhaustive reliance on primary sources -- oral histories, published interviews, contemporary newspaper and trade reportage -- as well as detailed analyses of improvisations and trenchant accountings of the shifting socioeconomic environment in which musicians operated. Where these comprehensive, groundbreaking studies diverge is in their assessment of race and its tricky and not always predictable consequences.

Lost Chords is a passionate, panoramic chronicle of the lives, milieu and music of a congeries of white jazz musicians of the second quarter of the twentieth century, famous and obscure, depicted at a novelistic level of detail and empathy that allows you to feel what it was like to be in their skin. Sudhalter points out things like the omnipresence of Sicilian musicians in early New Orleans jazz, tells you who they were, offers detailed, mimetic critiques of their styles. He clearly explains how race-based presumptions of recording companies forced white bands as proficient at "hot" music as a waltz to record syrupy pablum targeted at whites, while black bands who traversed a universal range of styles were pigeonholed into waxing stomps and blues for the "Race" market. He convincingly demonstrates the circular feedback loop of influence between white and black musicians in the formative years of jazz, and elucidates the personal, non-blues-centered aesthetics that white jazz musicians cultivated.

For these and many other virtues, Lost Chords is indispensable, yet the reader must ingest it with more than the usual grain of salt. Noting the "divisiveness" that cultural and racial politics of the last decades of the 20th century have brought to jazz, Sudhalter seeks to redress the wrongs perpetrated by the racialized "black creationist canon..., the continuing notion, especially held among chroniclers and critics, that white musicians, no matter how accomplished and influential, are, in [jazz historian] James Lincoln Collier's words, 'only in it on suffrance'." Towards this endeavor, throughout the book he alchemizes speculations on the pride of place his subjects hold in the great Jazz Chain of Being into objective statements of fact.

We first encounter this unsettling trope in the Introduction. After noting that "any attempt to look at the music without regard to such seminal figures as [Louis] Armstrong, [Duke] Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Henry Allen, Sid Catlett, Benny Carter and the rest would be folly; their primacy, and the reverence in which they are held, belong to the unquestioned foundation on which the entire edifice rests," Sudhalter immediately imparts equal gravitas to the quirky tenor saxophone virtuoso Bud Freeman, to the surging drummer Dave Tough, and to the Bob Crosby Orchestra, great musicians all, whose absence from the fray --for all their quality -- would have had only minimal impact on the music's course. Was the reedman-arranger Joseph Anthony "Fud" Livingston "certainly...a composer of infinitely greater range and harmonic sophistication than [Jelly Roll] Morton, while no less skilled at integrating solo and ensemble in original ways"? Perhaps he was. But in examining the oceanic course of jazz through the century, Livingston's legacy is a dried-up brook-bed, while Morton's is a mighty river which has fed the imaginative hungers of subsequent generations.

To hold strong opinions on recondite subjects is the essence of a connoisseurship as erudite as Sudhalter's; he makes you work hard to disagree with him. In the relativistic semiotics-obsessed climate of the day, minds may in good faith find as much value in Terry McMillan as Chester Himes, in Gilbert & Sullivan as in Verdi, in William Inge as in George Bernard Shaw. Where the reviewer perceives a fractious undertone of angry-white-male apologia, another in good faith may applaud a refreshing corrective to reverse racialism. As disingenuous as Sudhalter's tone renders his earnest protestations of pluralistic intent, it doesn't devalue this disorderly, fascinating opus.

The 77-year-old Italian-American clarinet virtuoso Buddy DeFranco experienced both ends of the spectrum; he spent apprenticeship years with top white bands like Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Boyd Raeburn, and later gigged with Charlie Parker, led a band on 52nd Street with Bud Powell and Max Roach, worked two years in Count Basie's Octet, and for another two led a band on the road with an all-black rhythm section featuring the echt hardbop pianist Sonny Clark and the primal drummer Art Blakey. In a recent conversation, he cut to the chase on the subject:

"The only thing I can say about Black and White during those days is that the Black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you; you could feel it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions. The White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, and never really got it. Tommy Dorsey was aware of that. He used to say once in a while, 'We don't have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that's a swing band.'"

During the early 1940's DeFranco was the first clarinetist to come to terms with the specialized approach to jazz known as bebop, which, as Scott Deveaux remarks, "is the point at which our contemporary ideas of jazz come into focus..., both the source of the present -- 'that great revolution in jazz which made all subsequent jazz modernisms possible' -- and the prism through which we absorb the past."

DeVeaux's elegantly argued, fluently written monograph -- well, he throws in occasional buzzwords like "privileging" and "commodified" as terminological nods to the ivory tower -- grapples head-on with the role of race as a key factor in the social and musical meanings of this transition. He constructs a convincing portrait of the pervasive de facto apartheid that existed in the music business and in the political economy of the post-Depression Swing Era and through the second world war that put the black musicians who developed the new language at an automatic disadvantage in the marketplace, and shows in great detail how the social milieu influenced their aesthetic decisions. He allows these musicians to speak for themselves as to how they functioned and evolved intellectually, incorporating to a degree unprecedented in such a study a mountain of first-person testimony drawn both from his own interviews and from the invaluable body of oral history on file at the Institute Of Jazz Studies at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

DeVeaux focuses on Coleman Hawkins as the link between jazz in its adolescence and the musicians just past adolescence who created the revolution to which he refers. After garnering a well-earned reputation as the tenor saxophonist supreme with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Hawkins emigrated to Europe in 1934, where he was able to perform for appreciative audiences as a featured solo instrumentalist with a complex, arpeggiated, harmonically sophisticated style; upon returning to the U.S. in 1939, he recorded a popular solo on "Body and Soul" that remains an iconic landmark. Neither an entertainer a la Louis Armstrong, a charismatic front man like Cab Calloway, an organized businessman like Jimmie Lunceford, or a canny psychologist like Duke Ellington, Hawkins made an abortive effort at leading a big band.

During 1943 and 1944, he was ensconced in New York's small 52nd Street clubs, recording for an array of small labels that popped up at the conclusion of a two-year recording ban necessitated by the military's requisition of all shellac supplies for weapons manufacture. He led combos which often featured cutting-edge younger players oriented to an instrumental, art-music sensibility, such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach, who along with contemporaries like Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, and Bud Powell were pursuing harmonic and rhythmic complexities in Harlem jam sessions -- DeVeaux dissects the social and musical dynamics of each environment in fascinating detail. By summer 1944, Gillespie and Parker were on the road with a now legendary dance orchestra led by Billy Eckstine, a highly influential black singer with a suavely masculine persona; DeVeaux contrasts the difficulties faced by this inspirational band with the success of the excellent band led by white clarinetist-vocalist Woody Herman, who had the means to buy modernist arrangements from Gillespie through a lucrative recording contract and access to network radio slots and classy engagements unavailable to Eckstine because of race. By the conclusion of "The Birth of Bebop," Gillespie and Parker have recorded bop masterpieces like "Shaw Nuff," "Ko-Ko" and "Dizzy Atmosphere," which seized the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young musicians.

This is an academic work, and DeVeaux hews closely to a methodology that presents Hawkins -- who was a major part, but only a part of bebop's nascence -- as the paradigmatic figure of the period; one occasionally longs for some model-breaking Sudhalterian sprawl. But The Birth of Bebop is what it is -- the most informed and lucid social history about the period -- and it is not likely to be surpassed. In these days of inexorable cultural leveling-down, when jazz values of craft and freedom seem more elusive and more essential to reclaim than ever, The Birth of Bebop nd Lost Chords provide valuable insights into what jazz was in the years when it was central to the zeitgeist.

Ted Panken writes about jazz for Down Beat, Jazziz, and numerous other publications and websites, and is in his 16th year of broadcasting on WKCR-FM (NYC). These reviews were originally published in Tikkun magazine, Sept-Oct 2000 issue.

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