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
New Orleans Style
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,
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
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.
I especially like his advocacy of what he calls the "fun factor" in the music. In addition to opinions and ideologies, he suggests, "jazz should also be fun, rooted as it must be in a sense of play that is basic to human experience." He shows that "the answer to the riddle of New Orleans style, the secret of its success as a 'good time' music, was the way in which it brought people together." Its trademarks were "liberty, equality, fraternity, and fun."
This probably makes sense to the casual listener or New Orleans tourist, but they might be surprised at how often it is forgotten within the jazz world these days.
New Orleans Jazz and the Writing of American Jazz History focuses on early jazz researchers. John Howland's Ellington Uptown, also from the University of Michigan Press, looks at a handful of important early performers and composers. But though Howland expresses, in the introduction, his "hope that the music discussed in these pages will be heard," the dry exegesis he employs in the next 300 pages will give few readers much reason to check out the works under discussion.
Howland focuses on the concert jazz tradition, in which artists such as Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, Paul Whiteman, and others tried to incorporate elements of classical music into their performances, and present longer works that deviated from the simple song structures of early jazz. Howland is thorough in his formal analysis, counting the measures and comparing thematic material from different sources with meticulous care. Yet again and again he seems reluctant to make any value judgments unless he can quote an outside source--and then he almost immediately starts backtracking from whatever verdict he just cited.
Surely he realizes that much of the music he is analyzing is on the brink of disappearing from the repertoire. The only decent CD release of James P. Johnson's concert works recently went out of print, the Carnegie Hall concerts by Ellington in the 1940s are much more difficult to find than they once were, and I have never seen a comprehensive CD set of Whiteman's recordings. Much of this music is excellent, and some of it ranks among the finest flowering of jazz.
In short, it is worth going to the trouble of tracking it down. But you wouldn't get much impetus to do that from Howland's dry and schematic approach, which treats these works with as much passion as if he were dealing with actuarial tables or Babylonian cuneiform.
Yet Ellington Uptown is not without its merits, especially for the specialist who already knows these works. Howland's attempt to show the connections between Ellington and Whiteman will be an eye-opener to jazz insiders, who tend to see these two figures as diametrically opposed to each other. Howland is also good at tracing the mentor/disciple relationships within the black community, as well as the attitudes and obstacles that often prevented jazz musicians from playing a larger role in the Harlem Renaissance.
On the other hand, I am puzzled to see him offer a long list of later musicians who were influenced by the concert jazz tradition--offering names such as Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, and Kanye West--and yet not mentioning Wynton Marsalis, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning work Blood on the Fields is clearly the most significant modern-day extension of this approach.
Yet whether we are dealing with the New Orleans tradition covered by Raeburn, or the Harlem masters dealt with by Howland, scholarship these days may be less important than preservation and advocacy. I have noticed that many jazz fans (and even many critics) of the current generation avoid listening to music that was recorded before the late 1950s, when high fidelity arrived on the scene. They have no patience for listening to the older recordings.
What a shame! Some of the greatest musical moments in the history of jazz came on those old 78s, and it is worth accepting the scratchy surface noise and one-dimensional sound quality to savor them. I wish each of these books came with a CD (or even two CDs), but don't let that stop you from filling in the gaps yourself. Readers will enjoy these books all the more if they track down the soundtracks to the stories they relate. T
Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The Birth and Death of Cool and the editor of www.jazz.com.