October 15, 2009

now you has jazz

One evening in 1919 the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet attended a concert in Paris by Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra-thirty six Americans, including four banjo pickers, a couple of violinists, a drummer who kept juggling with his sticks, and a choir which sang Negro spirituals. At one point a young man played blues on the clarinet. "Their form was gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto," wrote Ansermet afterwards in the Swiss journal, Revue Romande. "What a moving thing it is to meet this very fat black boy with white teeth and that narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does but who can say nothing of his art save that he follows his 'own way'-and when one thinks that this 'own way' is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow."

As well as being the first piece of serious jazz criticism to appear in print, it was also one of the shrewdest. For the clarinetist being praised- "this artist of genius," as Ansermet called him in another paragraph-was Sidney Bechet, who Duke Ellington acclaimed as the greatest jazz soloist of all; who was soon to become a virtuoso on the soprano saxophone, a notoriously skittish instrument to handle; and who ultimately brought a pleasing symmetry to the anecdote by deciding to settle in France. Bechet lived the last eight years of his life there, hero-worshipped by musicians young enough to be his grandsons, even having a street named after him.

There was no incongruity about the situation. Bechet had grown up within the black Creole community of New Orleans, where French ways and the French language-well, a patois version, at any rate-were all familiar. The whole episode illustrates not only how speedily jazz began to be admired outside its homeland, but also the background from which it drew vitality. Britain and Spain contributed to that network of influences as well as France, but the most vital ingredients came from Africa. The black slaves who arrived in the Americas were confronted by a totally strange environment. Adapting to it produced tensions and compromises which got reflected in music as well as in social behavior, creating those forms that can only be described as Afro-American.

It was, for example, the chafing of African modes against the harmonies of Protestant hymn tunes that resulted in the blues. Not-at first, anyway-the sort of instrumental blues that Bechet performed in Paris, but the simpler country blues, where the singer accompanied himself on a guitar. And the guitar, or else the African-inspired banjo, also provided music for dancing, syncopating behind the high-stepping cakewalk-originally intended to caricature the hoity-toity manners of white plantation owners-and eventually leading to the formality of the piano rags.

Jazz was not marching music, ragtime or blues but an amalgam of all three. The military band contributed the instrumentation, rags provided a structure, and the blues fulfilled a more impalpable role, injecting an emotional potency that made itself felt in the playing of most jazz musicians, whatever the themes they were performing. Yet while those parent styles could flourish in the countryside of the Deep South, jazz needed an urban setting, a wider audience. This was furnished by the port of New Orleans, a boom town during the 19th century, used by all prospectors moving in to open new territories.

First Spanish, then French, finally coming under the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city, for as well as black and white there were Creoles, part African as well as Spanish or French, who attended elegant balls, patronized the French Opera House and were often sent to Paris to be educated. Their prosperity declined after Emancipation, when the slaves were freed and discrimination began operating on grounds of color rather than status. This shift of fortune pushed them into an alliance very fruitful for jazz, for Creole musicians, mostly with a legitimate training (the clarinetists were especially skilled, carrying on the cherished French tradition of reed playing), began working alongside black musicians, whose use of vocalized tone, derived from Africa as much as Europe. This interchange helped create the unique timbres and techniques of jazz.

The probability is that the earliest jazz band in the history books, led by the half-mythical Buddy Bolden, actually played ragtime rather than jazz-as well as the occasional polka or mazurka. For rags were not just the province of St. Louis pianist-composers such as Scott Joplin and James Scott, but got performed by bands cashing in on the dancing craze at the beginning of the century. Dances like the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear became the rage in Paris and London as well as in New York and New Orleans. Sousa's band had introduced the cakewalk to Europe at the Paris Exposition of 1900, and the French soon devised their own name for rag music: "Les temps du chiffon."

By the time America entered World War I the continent was thoroughly indoctrinated. European composers were particularly intrigued. Syncopation itself was scarcely new-what, after all, had been going on in Handel's" Hallelujah Chorus"?-but a music founded on it was. Debussy's Children's Corner Suite. written in 1908, included "The Golliwog's Cake Walk." And towards the end of World War I, Ernest Ansermet, the man who would shortly be praising Sidney Bechet, presented Stravinsky with a collection of ragtime sheet music he had picked up in New York. Stravinsky began writing Ragtime For Eleven Instruments in October 1918, concluding it on the morning of November 11 to the accompaniment of cheering and whistling and the hooting of taxi-horns as Parisians celebrated the signing of the Armistice. Only a few years later Maurice Ravel sat in a Chicago nightclub, fascinated by the rococo patterns being woven by Jimmie Noone, yet another New Orleans clarinetist. It was a period when Picasso was discovering the vitality of African sculpture. Cocteau, Picabia, Radiguet and other young French poets even took turns at sitting in on drums at the Boeuf sur le Toit.

Paris remained at the centre of jazz activities in Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the place where American musicians were always dropping in. Its uniqueness arose from the fact that the visitors were not merely the famous-Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Coleman Hawkins-but humbler performers as well, who often stayed to work in the cabarets and nightclubs. And the absence of any color bar made France particularly attractive to black musicians. In Britain the situation evolved differently. Fewer Americans turned up en route to other places. Local musicians and fans had been influenced by the records released in Britain, mostly the work of Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Jimmy Dorsey and other white New Yorkers. Later on, from 1936 until 1956, a deadlock between the British and American musicians' unions prevented any sizable interchange of performers. This stunted the development of British players and forced the critics to depend too much on records. The best work was done by Spike Hughes, recording with his own band as well as writing about the music, who began, typically, by enthusing over the New Yorkers before recognizing the special merits of Duke Ellington.

Apart from this, little serious jazz criticism came out of Britain between the wars, although Nancy Cunard published her massive anthology, Negro, in London in 1934, and Constant Lambert, an authority on cats and the inventor of innumerable lim-ericks as well as an author and unlucky composer, contributed witty reviews to the weekly New Statesman. In his book, Music Ho!, Lambert described Duke Ellington as the most distinguished popular composer since Johann Strauss. Ellington also got dragged into the long-standing British preoccupation with the music of Frederick Delius, when the Australian composer Percy Grainger pointed out similarities in their harmonic writing. It was a feasible theory-after all, Delius had grown oranges in Florida and always doted on Negro singing -even if Ellington had to order a set of Delius records to discover what his influence sounded like.

But jazz scholarship really began in Paris. In 1934 Hugues Panassie brought out Le Jazz Hot, the first attempt at setting up an aesthetic framework for the music. It marked the onset of a tradition of French writing about jazz which interpreted the music in a more philosophical way than the plainer British school or the exuberant Americans. These critics assumed jazz to be an art form every bit as valid as painting, literature, or the madrigals of Gesualdo-and at a time when most Americans still found it difficult to regard jazz as more than high-class entertainment. It was a case of distance helping to give perspective to the view. Exactly twenty years after Le Jazz Hot appeared, the French composer Andre Hodeir published Hommes et problemes du jazz (it came out in the U.S. later under the title, Jazz: its evolution and essence), another critical landmark.

But the area of scholarship most peculiar to jazz has been discography, the assiduous marshalling of personnel’s, dates and matrix and record numbers-and sometimes the listing of soloists as well-beginning with Hilton R. Schleman's Rhythm On Record, which dealt with dance music rather than jazz in particular and appeared in London in 1936, only a few months before Charles Delaunay's Hot Discography, the real pioneering work, was published in Paris. Later discographers have had to face the problem of how to keep up with new record releases. Jorgen Grunnet Jepsen, a Dane, tackled everything from 1942 onwards, while Brian Rust, an Englishman, burrowed back to 1897. The latest entrant, a loose-leaf job, taking up a good five feet of shelf-space, has been compiled by a Belgian, Walter Bruyninckx.
If the end of World War I saw Europe overrun by jazz in general, it was New Orleans music in the purest sense that gained a victory after the second conflict. This was brought about about by the reaction In America against the cliches of commercial swing, with one cadre of players complicating the music, multiplying the challenges, inventing bebop, and the other faction glimpsing salvation in a return to the unsullied past. Not content with organizing the reissue of vintage 78s by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Armstrong's Hot Five, this fresh generation of enthusiasts brought Kid Ory out of retirement, then discovered the clarinetist George Lewis laboring as a stevedore in the New Orleans docks and the trumpeter Bunk Johnson working in the rice fields of western Louisiana and transported both of them to New York. The New Orleans revival was under way. Even more spectacularly, the classic formula got taken up by amateur musicians all round the world, but particularly in Europe, and even more especially in the heavily industrialized nations-Britain, France, the Netherlands, and later on Germany-perhaps because these were societies where the local folk music had withered and died.

At the same time Europe got its first taste of authentic vocal blues. During the 1920s, Londoners and Parisians had followed the lead of Broadway theatre-goers in being enchanted by Florence Mills singing "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." (Surprisingly enough, she never recorded this or any other song, although after her death in 1927 Duke Ellington composed and recorded "Black Beauty" in her honor.) Instrumentalists like Sidney Bechet had improvised on the twelve-bar blues. But the country blues had to wait for a growing body of European blues collectors to create a demand. In 1949, in the shadow of the Sorbonne, Leadbelly sang and played chain-gang songs he had learned in the southern prison-farms, but with a handkerchief over his left hand to keep young guitarists from copying his fingering.

Other bluesmen followed-Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, even Muddy Waters, with his amplified guitar and sex-symbol lyrics. A few stayed on, a risky business for performers so rooted in the social fabric. Memphis Slim lived in the 16th arrondissement and drove round Paris in a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, while Champion Jack Dupree, who learned to play boogie-woogie piano in New Orleans, inhabited that gritty hinterland between Bradford and Halifax and got driven to jobs by his Yorkshire-born father-in-law. The irony is that it was eventually young British performers-The Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Beatles who took the blues back to America, introducing them to audiences of young white Americans-and a few black Americans as well-who had ignored the heritage at their elbows.

It has become a truism to call jazz an international music. There is even a good case for arguing that European musicians reflect something of their own societies, even if they began, as many did, by listening to Louis or Bix on wind-up portable phonographs. Certainly Django Reinhardt, the first major jazz soloist to emerge outside the United States, always played blues like a man more familiar with the Camargue than the Mississippi Delta. There is, too, a Northern clarity about the trombone solos of the German, Albert Mangelsdorff; a hint of the Scottish pibroch in the tenor saxophone style of Bobby Wellins, that diminutive Glaswegian.

But perhaps a distinctive feature of latter-day European jazz has been its tendency to create settings for a group rather than an individual soloist. The sounds may be different but the philosophy is not far removed from that of the original New Orleans pioneers. Visitors to New Orleans could drop in to Preservation Hall and hear Jim Robinson playing trombone, just as he did with Bunk Johnson and George Lewis, or catch Kid Thomas blowing lead trumpet on "Panama Rag." And the musicians still parade on the streets, marching below concrete overpasses as well as beneath the wrought ironwork of the French Quarter. Plenty of jokes have been made over the years about the legend that on a clear night Buddy Bolden's trumpet could be heard fourteen miles away across Lake Pontchartrain. Yet that seems no more incredible than the reality-that the music created by Bolden and his contemporaries has stretched across a century, just as the blues which Sidney Bechet played in Paris in 1919 really did, as Ernest Ansermet suspected, become the highway that the whole world was to swing along one day.

Thank you professor, for allowing me to think and play outside the (sand)box, it has been fun.

Joyfully, Doris


the Professor said...

Wow, I knew you had it in you. And you are welcome.

Alan said...

You is my woman now.

Jazzman said...

NOW, we has jazz

Anonymous said...

interesting read, thanks

wolfman said...

man, great read, thanks

Stan said...

You have done your homework, as usual.

fiddle man said...

Very intertesting. Love the pic.

red hot jazz said...

check it out-

check this out said...

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd

Karen said...

where are the growing old postings?

Ms Edna said...

I have removed them. Enough of gloom and doom for this season. Will e-mail copies.

jazz fan said...

I love this picture.

Helmuth and band(still on the road) said...

Yes, it brought back many happy memories.

a NEW fan said...

I have now spent the last six hours reading your posts.
Congratulation on this truly inspired blog.
I seldom have had so much fun sitting on the computer.
Do not stop, please.

UCLA med fan said...

Fascinating morning read.
I play sax.
Cello and sax session?

Ms Edna said...


UCLA med fan said...


Ms Edna said...

check this out-
Edison Denisov's
Sonata for alto saxophone and cello

Anonymous said...

Unequivocally, a prompt reply :)

Anonymous said...

I congratulate, an excellent idea