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
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.