All That Jazz

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All That Jazz

Post by pizza » Sun Mar 04, 2007 1:46 pm

All That Jazz
Terry Teachout

March 2007

Rare are the writers willing to undertake large-scale histories aimed at a general audience. Yet when such books are engagingly and accessibly written, sufficiently comprehensive, and animated by a strongly personal point of view—as are H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (1983)—they can become both popular and influential.

When it comes to jazz, comparatively few attempts have been made to write a general history that fulfills these requirements, and only a half-dozen such books have appeared since World War II. The most ambitious of them, Alyn Shipton’s A New History of Jazz, was not widely noticed in this country on its original release in 2001.1 But it has now been reissued in an expanded and extensively revised edition. At over 800 closely packed pages, this is the most detailed historical survey of jazz yet to be published.2

Like all such books, A New History of Jazz has its share of errors and other flaws, and its length will no doubt prevent it from being taken up by the public at large. Yet Shipton, an English broadcaster and musician whose previous books include biographies of Dizzy Gillespie (1999) and Fats Waller (1988), has done more than any previous commentator to cut through the thick underbrush of unsubstantiated opinion and provide a clearly written, factually trustworthy account of jazz’s complex and controversial history. If A New History of Jazz is not the ideal single-volume chronicle for which lovers of this music have been waiting, that is in part because jazz itself is peculiarly resistant to such concise treatment.

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Why have so few general histories of jazz been produced? In addition to being a relatively young art form, jazz is also a vernacular music that is usually (though not always) played in commercial settings. For this reason, scholars in America and elsewhere were long reluctant to take it seriously. Academic research into its origins and early development did not begin in earnest until after most of its founding figures were dead. This meant that, for much of its century-long history, jazz was written about mainly by enthusiasts whose technical knowledge of music was limited or nonexistent. As Gunther Schuller observed in Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968), the first full-length historical-analytic study by a scholar with professional performing experience:

The majority of [jazz] books have concentrated on the legendry of jazz, and over the years a body of writing has accumulated which is little more than an amalgam of well-meaning amateur criticism and fascinated opinion.

By 1950, “legendry” had hardened into a widely accepted narrative not unlike a creation myth. In the baldest form of this myth, jazz was created at the turn of the 20th century by a group of black New Orleans musicians descended from slaves who “Westernized” the polyrhythms and microtonal melodic inflections of their African ancestors, thereby bringing into being a new form of improvised folk music played by small instrumental ensembles. After World War I, the most gifted of these men emigrated to Chicago and (later) other American cities, where their music was embraced by progressive-minded musicians and listeners.

One uniquely talented émigré by the name of Louis Armstrong (the myth continues) broke with the ensemble tradition of his youth to forge a virtuoso solo idiom that became the font of all subsequent stylistic developments in jazz. Armstrong in turn was followed by a series of black innovators who, building on his achievements, expanded the language of jazz still further. Thus, every major jazz musician can trace his stylistic descent through Armstrong to the black ur-jazz of New Orleans, which is the sole source of the music’s authentic mainstream.

Virtually all of the earliest general histories and analytic studies of jazz—including Robert Goffin’s Aux Frontières du Jazz (1932), Wilder Hobson’s American Jazz Music (1939), Frederic Ramsey and Charles Edward Smith’s Jazzmen (1939), Hughes Panassié’s The Real Jazz (1942), Marshall Stearns’s The Story of Jazz (1956), and Martin Williams’s The Jazz Tradition (1970)—took the broad accuracy of this myth more or less for granted. Even though it simplified and misrepresented history in any number of significant ways, the absence of serious primary-source research into the origins of jazz made it inevitable that “legendry” would get the better of fact. Indeed, to this day the creation myth continues to be espoused (albeit in a more subtle form) by amateur historians like Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns.3

This picture began to change with the appearance of such musically trained commentators as Schuller, Richard M. Sudhalter, and Max Harrison. Schuller’s Early Jazz and Sudhalter’s Bix: Man and Legend (1974, co-written with Philip R. Evans and William Dean-Myatt)—the first primary-source biography of a major jazz musician—set new standards for jazz historians, while the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) included a highly sophisticated key article on jazz written by Harrison.4 By the 90’s, serious scholarship had started to come into its own, and factually reliable books like Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 (1992), Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (1997), and Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 (1999) were becoming common, if not commonplace.

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The first “modern” survey histories of jazz, Frank Tirro’s Jazz: A History (1977) and James Lincoln Collier’s The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History (1978), came along too soon to profit from the new jazz scholarship. But by 1997, when Ted Gioia published The History of Jazz, it was possible for such authors to draw on a substantial body of primary research untainted by starry-eyed legendry.

Gioia himself succeeded to a considerable degree in breaking away from the tattered remnants of the creation myth. Still, his discussion of jazz in the 20’s and 30’s was too superficial to give a clear picture of the music’s growth (he was much stronger on post-1945 stylistic developments). Moreover, he failed to define his intended audience with sufficient precision, meaning that his book, for all its considerable virtues, fell between two stools. As I wrote in a review of The History of Jazz in the Wall Street Journal, “Fans would have been better served by a book half as long, musicians by one twice as long.”

For whom, then, is Shipton’s A New History of Jazz intended? Like Gioia’s book, it is written in (mostly) non-technical language and contains no musical examples, suggesting that it is meant for the general reader. But it is twice as long as The History of Jazz, and my guess is that untrained amateurs will also be put off by its proliferation of detail. On the other hand, its great length is precisely what enables Shipton to avoid oversimplifying the story of jazz’s development.

Most historical surveys, by focusing on a restricted number of major figures, give the false impression that jazz was invented ab ovo by a handful of creative giants, and that its history can be correctly understood as an unbroken mainstream of progress running from New Orleans in 1900 to the present day. In fact, however, nobody “invented” jazz, and its “mainstream” is a series of parallel lines of development that converge in some places but diverge in others.

As Shipton explains, popular musicians throughout America, many of whom had “little or no first-hand exposure to New Orleans musicians,” were experimenting at the turn of the 20th century with new styles of dance music in which syncopation played a prominent part. It was out of this widespread musical ferment that jazz emerged, and while it appears to have first taken recognizable shape in New Orleans, it was being played in other cities around the same time or shortly afterward.

What was true in the beginning remained true thereafter. Jazz has been played in many different ways throughout its history, and, as Shipton makes clear, there has never been a single “authentic” style conclusively superior to all others. Louis Armstrong is the only figure whose stylistic innovations achieved anything like universal currency, and Armstrong himself, for all his extraordinary originality, was only one of a number of musicians who helped shape the language of early jazz. Accordingly, Shipton presents his history not as a lineal succession of great men but as an overlapping series of stylistic movements, each of which he describes with a catholicity of taste unusual among jazz commentators.

Time and again Shipton steers clear of the errors that have tripped up so many of his predecessors—especially those who have insisted on viewing jazz through a racial prism. White ensembles and players like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Paul Whiteman, and Woody Herman are taken as seriously and treated as fairly in A New History of Jazz as are Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and Count Basie. Nor is this fair-mindedness limited to the case of white artists, as can be seen from Shipton’s thoughtful discussions of figures whose popular success caused them to be inadequately appreciated by critics: among others, Cab Calloway, the John Kirby Sextet, and the Mills Brothers.

Above all, Shipton has a gift for crisp, vivid summary without which it is impossible to write an effective survey history—a gift rooted in the fact that while he is a performing musician, he has also spent much of his career working as a journalist. A case in point is his treatment of the sharply contrasting styles of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, the two most influential saxophonists of the swing era:

However brilliantly and rhapsodically Hawkins built his solos, such as on “Body and Soul,” he usually did so by moving away from the composer’s original melody as quickly as was practical to do so, after milking it for the dramatic effect of his opening statements, and then relying almost totally on the harmonic framework of the piece. Young, however, was much more of a melodist . . . and he preferred to superimpose the logic of his melodic lines over an underlying chord structure, even when those chords were more complex than his melodic ideas.

No less striking is the ease with which Shipton negotiates the great stylistic divide that separates pre- and post-1960 jazz. Most authors of survey histories in any field of art come to grief when writing about movements for which they feel no sympathy. Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History (2003), for instance, is willfully, almost obsessively dismissive of modern art. In A New History of Jazz, by contrast, the avant-garde jazz of the 60’s is described with a relish rarely to be found among performers who, like Shipton, have been closely identified with traditional jazz.5

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Still, despite its author’s wide-ranging sympathies, the last quarter of A New History of Jazz, which carries the story from 1960 to the present day, is far less confident than that which precedes it, while the final hundred pages are scarcely more than a hectic, ill-sorted catalogue of present-day performers in which many major figures (like the guitarist Bill Frisell) are mentioned only in passing or (like the composer-bandleader Maria Schneider) are omitted altogether.

Part of Shipton’s problem is that he appears to subscribe to the idea of aesthetic progress. As a result, he has little interest in conservatively-inclined younger players, like the guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli, who seek to explore and revitalize older styles. Their work, he claims, “does not have the sense of adventure or excitement that has generally been associated with the cutting edge of jazz.” (The cant phrase “cutting edge” suggests that Shipton is here bowing to conventional critical wisdom rather than thinking for himself.) Nor does he consider the later careers of important older artists, like the guitarist Jim Hall and the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who came to prominence in the 50’s but have done their most original and distinctive work in the past quarter-century.

To be sure, it may be that contemporary jazz simply does not lend itself to the narrative style employed so effectively in the earlier sections of A New History. Prior to 1970, jazz’s fast-growing stylistic diversity had not yet compromised the underlying integrity of its common musical language. Even the truly radical innovations of avant-gardists of the 60’s like the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman were rooted in a body of performance practices known to all musicians and listeners. Not only did the quartet that recorded such early Coleman albums as The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Change of the Century (1960) feature a conventional instrumentation—saxophone, trumpet, bass, and drums—but its members played in a style self-evidently related, however distantly, to traditional jazz. Coleman’s solos, for instance, contained the same “vocalized” inflections heard in the playing of Charlie Parker; and Charlie Haden, his bassist, accompanied them with walking-bass lines similar to those used in swing and bebop. To put it another way, many people doubted that Coleman’s music was good jazz, but because it sounded like jazz, few refused to admit that it was jazz.

After 1970, though, this commonality of practice began to grow increasingly tenuous, ultimately to the edge of nullity. In “Postmodern Jazz,” the final chapter of A New History, Shipton admits that while his pre-1970 history appears to be “a straightforward narrative” marked by “a clear sense of development,” contemporary jazz can no longer be described in such terms. Thanks to “the virtual availability, in recorded form,” of jazz’s entire history,

t is possible for a musician to embark on a career at the beginning of the 21st century and choose to assimilate elements from almost any style in the history of jazz as a starting point. . . . The days when musicians learned at the knees of older players, served their apprenticeships in big bands, participated in after-hours jam sessions, congregated in dressing rooms for impromptu opportunities to play, have all largely gone.

The result, as Max Harrison presciently noted in his 1980 New Grove article, is that “jazz no longer has a lingua franca. . . . There is instead an extreme diversity of styles and methods, and this situation is international.” If anything, this diversity has grown more pronounced since 1980. A postmodern group like the Bad Plus, for instance, uses the same instrumentation as the Bill Charlap Trio—piano, acoustic bass, and drums—and most musicians consider it to be a jazz ensemble. Yet its blunt, explosively loud versions of such rock-and-roll songs as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” appear at first glance to have nothing in common with Charlap’s elegantly subdued yet swinging interpretations of standard ballads like Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away.”

Does the Bad Plus (which is not included in A New History) play jazz, or some other, newer kind of music? And does the fact that the music of Charlap (who also goes unmentioned by Shipton) is less obviously original than that of the Bad Plus somehow make it less good? Or was Max Harrison right to claim that in the brave new world of postmodern jazz, all styles are equally valid and equally “jazzy”?

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In recent years, many jazz musicians have looked for the answers to such questions in a famous remark made by the pianist Bill Evans and quoted in A New History:

Jazz is not a what, it is a how. If it were a what, it would be static, never growing. The how is that the music comes from the moment, it is spontaneous, it exists in the time it is created. And anyone who makes music according to this method conveys to me an element that makes his music jazz.

Alyn Shipton clearly understands the implications of this remark, and the catholicity with which he describes pre-1970 jazz promises an equally clear understanding of later styles. “In what follows,” he writes in his introduction, “I have attempted to examine what was being described as jazz throughout its history, and I have taken a very broad view of how jazz should now be defined.” But, despite this broad perspective, he does not succeed in integrating postmodern jazz into his narrative.

His failure to do so reinforces my own belief that it is not yet possible to write a coherent historical survey that includes post-1970 stylistic developments. Not only are we too close in time to the jazz of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to write about it with detachment, but it is by no means clear that postmodern jazz is itself sufficiently coherent to be grasped as a unified phenomenon continuous with pre-1970 predecessors.6

Still, even if the many kinds of music that we continue to call “jazz” no longer have enough in common to be discussed collectively, most listeners and critics, myself included, stubbornly persist in viewing them as parts of a whole, unified (in Bill Evans’s words) not by their “whatness” but by their “howness.” Perhaps some jazz scholar as yet unborn will be able to explain to our children why we were right to do so.

Footnotes

1 Richard M. Sudhalter reviewed it in the March 2002 COMMENTARY.

2 Continuum, 832 pp., $34.95.

3 For a discussion of the amateur tradition in jazz writing, see my essay "Jazz and Its Explainers" (COMMENTARY, February 2001).

4 A revised version of Harrison's article was reprinted separately in the one-voume New Grove Gospel, Blues, and Jazz (1986).

5 In his zeal for the 60's, Shipton unfortunately short-changes or omits discussion of such admired earlier players as the clarinetist Pee Wee Russel, the trombonist Jack Teagarden, and the drummers Sid Catlett and Dave Tough.

6 For this reason, my three-part survey of the history of recorded jazz (published in COMMENTARY in November and December 1999 and January 2000) came to a close with Weather Report's "Birdland," recorded in 1977.
About the Author

Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’s regular music critic and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is writing Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.

© 2007 Commentary


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