I’ve been reading liberally in the jazz-fan groups on Facebook, which (as I’ve suggested in an earlier post) might be my first error. But several reactions to the music I and others love caught my eye and I could not walk away from them. I characterize these reflex actions as ENTHUSIASTIC “ANALYSIS”.
A recent example: a fan posted a YouTube video of a band performing and recording in New Orleans, c. 1928, with this commentary: Surely this is how a true vintage New Orleans band sounds. Later, a second fan responded: As I understand it, with bands started soloing like that they started calling at Chicago Jazz [.] Fortunately, I no longer teach English for a living and thus would not comment “PROOFREAD!” on the second fellow’s analysis, but the first fan wanted to straighten the second one out: This band never left N.O. Chicago Jazz really started with the white groups that played in Chicago in the 30’s line Muggsy Spanier.
At this point the room started to spin in a most unpleasing way. Rejecting my usual prudence, I wrote: So musicians who played jazz in Chicago in the Twenties weren’t playing “Chicago jazz”? Music is larger than labels. The musicians themselves never called what they were playing these names: these names are inventions of fans and critics, and they are artificial. And to label “schools” of music by race is really not a good idea and never was. My prose was not greeted with shouts of “Yeah you rite!” No one offered to buy me a drink.
But I think the first few assertions are so restrictive that they deserve a few perhaps didactic sentences. I do not set myself up as an Oracle, mind you, but I find narrowness of perspective troubling.
If I were to expand on the original assertions above, they might be:
Authentic New Orleans jazz was an ensemble music performed in that city by Black musicians. Solos were not part of it. When the music opened up to solos, it conveniently changed its name from “New Orleans jazz” to “Chicago jazz.” Then, the final metamorphosis happened when White people who lived in Chicago — including Mr. Spanier — started playing “Chicago jazz.”
I find several problems here, as my comment indicates. First, as someone before me wisely said, it is unlikely that any group of jazz musicians went into a recording studio, and before the downbeat, heard the leader say, “Well, fellows, now we are going to play a piece of music that will define ‘New Orleans jazz’ for all time.” I presume it is more likely that they said, “Let’s try that new tune, and don’t mess up the breaks in the first chorus, all right?”
Musicians play, and played MUSIC. Fans and journalists and “critics” invented names for the ways they thought the music sounded, and from that impulse came divisiveness, theorizing, and other expenditures of energy that may have diverted people from actually listening to the music.
Second, we must acknowledge stylistic cross-pollination. “White Chicago jazz” comes directly from “Black New Orleans jazz,” and Mr. Spanier would tell you that his inspirations were King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. He openly acknowledged his reverent debt to them, by the way, so this is not about Muggsy the Cultural Pillager.
Third, jazz lends itself to wonderful examples of creative people who went their own way. An electric guitar on a 1941 Sidney Bechet record? Louis Armstrong recording popular songs and comic numbers in 1926? And, going back to the asphyxiating categories of New Orleans and Chicago jazz . . . Jelly Roll Morton, a self-defined Creole who, according to his sister Frances, was Jewish, would have been classified as “colored,” He came to Chicago and recorded his Red Hot Peppers with a preponderance of New Orleans musicians — Chicago jazz or New Orleans jazz? They had solos AND they had written passages. They are larger than any category, except if you want to have a large box labeled EXTRAORDINARY MUSIC?
I offer a musical example, and I wish people could listen to it blindfolded.
If you had to characterize or anatomize this, say, for a prize on a quiz show, what would you call it? The gracious gentleman who posted it describes it thusly: Early NO revival recorded in NY in 1946 and played in the true original No style some lovely mortonesque piano by Don Ewell with Bunk on trumpet and Alphonse Steele drums [.]
Again, it’s slippery. IN THE GLOAMING is an Irish song from 1877: perhaps someone wants to call this “folk-jazz”? Bunk Johnson, Black, from New Orleans: if you give the horn player primacy, this is “New Orleans jazz.” But it was recorded in New York. The annotator wants it both ways — it’s “Early NO revival” “in the true original No style.” But there are solos: the trio does not play ensemble throughout. The pianist, White Don Ewell from Baltimore, plays “lovely mortonesque piano,” but does that make the record less “authentic” because of the White Maryland infusion? I confess that I could not find out where Alphonse Steele was born — my books ignore him — but I am guessing he was Black, and he recorded in New York with Henry “Red” Allen and Billie Holiday. So was he a New York Swing Era jazz musician?
From whence comes this intense urge to classify, to label, to dissect?
Digression: I won’t even touch the vitriolic discussions of “authenticity” and which “style” of playing — insert beloved and vilified band names here — people prefer. Very few people seem willing or perhaps able to distinguish between “I like this band. They sound good to me.” and “This is the best band that ever was and anyone who doesn’t like them is an ignorant moron” (Facebook encourages the highest kind of discourse, such as — a direct quote, “Lol u are insane.”)
Could all the jazz fans who have this urge to stuff the music in airless labeled boxes learn this 1906 Bert Williams song and let it guide them?
Ultimately, I think this slicing-and-dicing, weighing and measuring, does the music no good. I think of Lennie and the mouse in OF MICE AND MEN.
But of course I am wrong: I accept that. I will sleep better knowing it.
May your happiness increase!