I opened the January 26, 2009, issue of The New Yorker to the advertisement that sits contentedly between pages 32 and 33. It describes, in brief, events taking place throughout February at Symphony Space in their month-long “1939 Project: American Arts At A Turning Point.” The full schedule is available at www.symphonyspace.org/1939. On this page, one can see programs devoted to 1939 cinema, popular and classical music, fiction, “American culture in context,” “the pulse of 1939,” and more. Kirk Nurock, Marion Cowings, Eisa Davis, Sara Laimon, Robin Aleman, Dawn Clement, Jody Sandhaus and others will play and sing. Famous names — E.L. Doctorow, Robert Dallek, Dick Cavett, and Leon Botstein — will speak, moderate, and direct. And there’s more.
But I have to say that before I saw this advertisement, I had heard intriguing rumblings about these programs: the names of Ellington and Basie had been invoked as artists central to the culture of 1939.
But no Ellington or Basie did I see on this program. I looked closer, and found something . . . .
“JITTERBUG DANCE JAM
FEB 7 AT 7 PM FREE
Kick up your heels to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and other big band favorites at this community dance-along on the stage of the Peter Sharp Theatre.”
Forgive me if I seem ungrateful. I know that pop music of the Swing Era was transmitted for free — recordings and live broadcasts — on radio coast-to-coast in 1939, so I suppose this evening is someone’s idea of “Juke Box Saturday Night.” But to me it seems cheap and inadequate. The absence of live 1939-tinged jazz on such a program is annoying, to put it politely. I mean no disrespect to the singers and musicians Symphony Space has already hired and advertised; I am sure that they will sing and play with abandon and ambition. But . . . .
Were the project directors at Symphony Space unaware that 1939 was a watershed year in live jazz? Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman band; Jimmy Blanton joined Ellington; Lester Young was electrifying listeners in the Basie reed section. Eddie Condon was creating jam sessions at the Friday Club; Alistair Cooke was announcing other sessions for the BBC; a young Charlie Parker was finding his wings; Dizzy Gillespie was already surprising musicians; Art Tatum already had intimidated everyone; Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe and recorded “Body and Soul”; Louis Armstrong was at one of his many artistic peaks. An underfed singer from Jersey named Sinatra made his first recordings. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I know, of course, that such projects are broad in scope and often narrow in budget. But I have seen jazz concerts put on by the Sidney Bechet Society at this very Symphony Space, so I would guess that such an event was within the realm of possibility. And, to loosely paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, “I saw the best musicians of my generation playing for the tip jar, playing fifty-dollar gigs all over town.” I’m no impresario, but if you gave me a five-hundred dollar budget, I could put on the finest impromptu 1939 jam session you’d ever seen or heard. (No music stands, by the way.) I could think of twenty-five imensely talented and under-utilized instrumentalists and singers, each of whom could embody the creative pulse of 1939 in sixteen bars. But they’re not on the program.
Did the famous names on the program eat up all the funds? Did the producers decide that it was important to have live classical music and live singers, but assume that jazz could be taken care of by someone with a well-filled iPod? I don’t know.
Once again, live jazz has the door shut in its face. And, ironically, jazz of this era is often dismissed as “no longer representative of American culture,” the outdated music of white-haired folks deep in nostalgia. Surely some place could have been found for it during a month-long project.
How very disappointing.