By February 1, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Jazz is dead, man: another view (part two)

George Gershwin, busy creating jazz. Not.

George Gershwin, busy creating jazz. Not.

(continued from part 1) Gioia’s book begins to make the point that pop standards, which are now ambitiously and pretentiously called “The Great American Songbook” by most historians of 20th century American music, and jazz are inextricably linked. Although Porter, Arlen, Kern, Gershwin, Berlin and company relied heavily on an African-American musical vocabulary that included jazz to varying degrees, to state that jazz would have not existed in the way that it did without these songwriters’ direct influence is ludicrous.

Jazz began as, and continues to be in some measure, a way of playing, rather than a specific genre. Early on, jazz musicians played all kinds of music—everything on their radar, actually, from light classics to marches to blues to rags—but in a radically new and different way. With a few notable exceptions like Duke Ellington, there was no real jazz repertoire until after World War II. Rather, jazz musicians played whatever was around them. Tin Pan Alley pop songs were no more, or less, important to jazz musicians than those of any other genre. Good songs, of course, were—and still are—celebrated by the best jazz players, but in the absence of material from American popular culture, jazz musicians have always felt comfortable looking elsewhere or creating their own.

Adding new, rhythmic complexity to the established syncopation of ragtime, then introducing at least rudimentary improvisation were what set jazz apart from any of its contemporaneous forms or movements in its earliest years. In a way that would define pop music in the last half of the 20th century, jazz in the century’s first half was about the player, not the song. Regardless of the material, the jazz musician’s reliance on improvisation and individual initiative are what set him apart. The best of jazz would have been memorable and remarkable in the complete absence of “The Great American Songbook”. We’re almost sure the same can’t be said if the opposite were true.

By all accounts, jazz was in fairly full flower before the vast majority of these “standards” had even been written, and if jazz had any obvious influences outside of African-American traditions like the blues and ragtime, it would more likely be late 19th century European music, or brass band music like that of Sousa, than any “great American” songs. By the time Kern, Gershwin and Berlin were established names in the early 1920’s, jazz was already undergoing its first revolution: the rhythmic miracle that was Louis Armstrong. While jazz and the 20th century American popular song developed concurrently, and jazz used American popular music as freely as it did any other fodder for improvisational frameworks—and probably much more so—there is less evidence that what makes jazz unique and important had more than a coincidental relationship with this “songbook” material. The converse, of course, is admitted by all parties. All of these Tin Pan Alley songwriters acknowledged their debt to African-American music, and while the extended works of Gershwin have an obvious black pedigree, it’s in the songs of composers like Harold Arlen where we see how internalized, and pervasive, these influences had become by 1930.

However cursory their previous reliance may have been, after World War II jazz musicians relied even less on popular song. By the late 1950’s, even the earlier tactic of borrowing harmonies from pop songs and writing new melodies for them was disappearing in favor of an exclusive, self-authored repertoire. By the mid-60’s, pop music had all but vanished from the most modern forms of jazz, and the entire post-war period produced a wealth of original jazz material. Hardly a symbiotic relationship with Harry Warren and Yip Harburg. Perhaps Schwartz and Gioia need to spend a few hard days listening to nothing but post-war jazz. Its connection to Tin Pan Alley is nebulous, at best.

At one point in his review of Gioia’s book, Schwartz calls the Benny Goodman-Peggy Lee recording of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When”, made on Christmas Eve, 1941—at the dawn of America’s involvement in World War II—“the most poignant jazz record ever made”. He cites the recording date, being a mere two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as evidence of this poignancy, and even adds to the melodrama in an accompanying video by adding some stock footage of the attack. One supposes we’ll see some footage of the 1967 riots when he does a retrospective of Motown. We can’t wait. The audacity of singling out a particular vocal record as “the most poignant” is bad enough. What makes Schwartz’s view even more maddening is that on that same date—up in Harlem at places like Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House—Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, Don Byas, Kenny Kersey, Joe Guy, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie were likely busy reinventing jazz in ways that would confound the likes of Goodman and Lee in years to come. A shockingly new vocabulary and repertoire was being created, one that would become modern jazz, and while it’s not surprising that it went unnoticed by most Americans at the time, one wonders if hindsight is of any benefit at all to the likes of reviewer Schwartz. The fact that all of these Harlem players were African-American is not insignificant, either. In Schwartz’s view of the music’s evolution, a couple of very good—but not in any way revolutionary—white jazz musicians, recording a pop tune written by white composers, somehow trumps even concurrent events like the Harlem scene described above. His ignorance of the real revolution is criminal for someone writing about jazz.

The recording in question, by the way, is a pretty good one, so don’t infer a negative review from our contention with its musicological merits. The young Peggy Lee was starting to show a real gift for jazzy interpretation of pop tunes, one that would be a big influence on post war “girl” singers. And Goodman, by this time often relying on technique and talented young sidemen to carry the artistic load, gives a nuanced, stripped-down performance that was becoming increasingly rare for him. Yep, it’s a good record. Just not a groundbreaking one. It’s, well, utterly ordinary by jazz standards, which is still better than most other things, we’d say.

To be charitable to Schwartz, his is really a view of American music as a homogenous stew, one that at a magical moment encompassed all American sounds of any importance. He sees the evolution as a holistic one, carried out by blacks, whites, Gentiles and Jews, somehow creating this mythical melting pot arm-in-arm, with things like jazz and any mid-century rhythmic and harmonic radicalism as sideshows to the real business of creating happy—or “poignant”—popular music. This view not only does an obvious disservice to jazz, it muddies the waters of American popular music, and elevates it to a place above all other genres, completely out of proportion to its role in the development of serious American culture. Pop culture, conversely, may well be inextricably linked to events like Pearl Harbor. Jazz, like other non-commercial forms, transcends these events, if it is affected by them at all. There is an oft-repeated myth that jazz functioned for a time as America’s popular music. Swing, in its most popular manifestation, is used as evidence of this. We’ll analyze this further as we move forward, but know that real jazz, then as now, operated under the radar of American pop culture. Swing was influenced in various ways by jazz, but they’re not one in the same.

Schwartz makes some useful observations, like the unexpected, but utterly accurate statement that “no singer—jazz or otherwise—was more esteemed by jazz musicians” than Frank Sinatra. He then sullies it immediately by adding that no singer had a greater influence on jazz musicians. Actually, I’m not sure any singer as admired as Sinatra had less of an influence on jazz. Especially that played by his contemporaries. We’ll guarantee that Eric Dolphy and John Coltarne’s music is almost completely free of any elements one could call “Sinatraesque”, although we know he was enjoyed by each of them. So, even though jazz players may have consciously admired Sinatra more, they were infinitely more indebted musically to Armstrong and Billie Holiday. This says at least as much about the tendency of post-war black pop singers to move as far away from jazz as possible with their vocal styles as it does about Sinatra, but he’s justly celebrated here by Schwartz. And by us.


Ellington and Strayhorn

Schwartz goes on to tackle Gioia’s assertion that perhaps Billy Strayhorn was trying to “come out” by writing the line “I used to visit all the very gay places” in his masterpiece of a song, “Lush Life”. This is wrongheaded on so many levels, from chronological to social to historical, that it’s not even worth debating. Suffice it to say that it’s simply not true. They go on to elevate Strayhorn as as an example of their view of jazz as inextricably linked with pop music. Strayhorn was, indeed, enamored with popular musical theater, and his emphasis was always on song and theatrical production even as he brought his harmonic and melodic genius to Duke Ellington’s band starting around 1940. Schwartz and Gioia seem to see Strayhorn as the real progenitor of all that’s worthwhile about Ellingtonia when in fact the bulk of Ellington’s most ambitious works, from his tone poems of the 1930’s and early ’40’s to his extended and ambitious orchestral works of the 1950’s and ’60’s, were created with little or no input from Strayhorn at all. Strayhorn’s role should never be ignored, of course. Ellington had always aspired to mounting full-scale Broadway-style shows that were more than the “revues” he’d written in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s , but it wasn’t until Strayhorn came along that shows like Black, Brown and Beige and Jump For Joy became possible for him. We don’t hold these works in the same regard as Ellington’s best instrumental creations, but we in no way want to diminish the very real talents of Strayhorn.

Finally, Schwartz—channeling Gioia—concludes that jazz is dead because the tradition that was The Great American Songbook is dead. I would agree that both are quite dead, although not because of any connection between the two. Jazz killed itself, which we discuss at length elsewhere here, but the reliance by the music industry on personalities like Elvis Presley instead of the earlier emphasis on the song itself is what killed the songwriting tradition in America. Broadway survives and breathes, through the claptrap of composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and through more able talents like John Kander and Fred Erb. The focus now, ‘though, is on story and an almost operatic form of sung dialogue (see Les Mis), so songs from even hit shows never seem to cross over into popular culture. Again, this has nothing to do with jazz, and never did, which is why we’ll read Mssrs. Gioia and Schwartz with a more jaundiced eye from now on.

Posted in: Jazz, Rants

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