The Magazine

Jazz by the Book 

Up the river from New Orleans, and into the concert halls.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By TED GIOIA
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New Orleans Style
and the Writing of
American Jazz History

by Bruce Boyd Raeburn

Michigan, 352 pp., $26.95

Ellington Uptown

Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson
and the Birth of Concert Jazz

by John Howland

Michigan, 360 pp., $28.95

When I was 17 years old and newly arrived on my college campus, I scandalized the department of music by playing "Maple Leaf Rag" at my piano audition. Back then, there were no professors of jazz or professors of the blues at Stanford--and darn few anywhere else. My friend, the late Grover Sales, summed it up best when he said that, in jazz, "the 'professor' was what they called the piano player in the whorehouse."

As a result of this neglect, the early history of African-American music was mostly preserved by fans, not academics. They usually did this without grants or institutional support. And when a few of them did get into positions of influence--as did Alan Lomax or John Hammond--the amount of good they could do for the music was little short of amazing. Hammond and Lomax, for example, played a key role in advancing the careers of Billie Holiday, Leadbelly, Count Basie, Son House, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Wilson, and George Benson--in addition to helping white artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Benny Goodman.

You would think that scholars today would be grateful for the amateurs who worked tirelessly to preserve the music's history in the days when academics were missing in action. Yet the exact opposite is the case. Numerous books have come out in recent years belittling or attacking the efforts of the first generation of record collectors, researchers, and historians. Recent studies by Bruce Nemerov, Robert Gordon, Marybeth Hamilton, and others have set the tone for this game of revisionism. And what could be more satisfying to a certain mindset than to take these white males who dared to preserve black music and show that their seemingly disinterested advocacy was actually driven by (in Marybeth Hamilton's words) their "fears and obsessions."

Given this prevailing tone, it's refreshing to read Bruce Boyd Raeburn's New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Raeburn offers a fair and compassionate account of the early jazz researchers who rescued the story of early jazz from oblivion--and sometimes rescued the musicians themselves. For advocates such as Bill Russell and Gene Williams, rediscovering New Orleans music sometimes required them to lend money to old players, put up musicians at their apartment, look after them when they were ill, bury them when they were dead. Needless to say, you don't get tenure for these activities, none of which shows up on the curriculum vitae.

Who were these people who showed such commitment to African-American music? Yes, they were white and usually male (although not always, as Raeburn makes clear in his look at the women who loved early jazz). Some got started as record collectors,
others were writers or discographers, and a few were musicians themselves. But they shared a passion for jazz. Sometimes they showed too much passion, and Raeburn does an admirable job of bringing to life the disputes and grievances of the middle years of the 20th century when traditional, swing, and modern camps fought to impose their definitions on the form.

The marvel was that a consensus view eventually emerged, one that could find a place of honor for all parties involved. The end result was, above all, a historical perspective that acknowledged New Orleans as the center from which everything else flowed. To this day, the Crescent City is commemorated as the birthplace of jazz--rightly, in my opinion--but this preeminence only gradually emerged from the disputes and conflicting theories of the postwar years. As late as 1957
Leonard Feather could assert that "jazz was not born in New Orleans," and though his evidence was meager, his position testified to the last lingering desire of the modernists to put the traditionalists in their place.

Raeburn's skill and fairness in navigating through this tale is remarkable--even more remarkable when one considers that the author's father Boyd Raeburn (1913-1966) was a modernist bandleader much celebrated by the progressive critics of the day. Yet the son deals evenhandedly with every participant, and when he comes down with a firm verdict, it is invariably judicious and compelling. He plays no favorites, and emerges as a trustworthy guide to a subject usually treated with polemic and posturing.