The previously mentioned Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb, has me up late in what has turned into absorbing the book from cover to cover, which at roughly 1,100 pages is somewhat ridiculous. But the great fact that is emerging from the Reportage and Criticism sections is perhaps somewhat best summed up by two quotes. "To the outsider, the aggressiveness with which the aficionados of one school of jazz attack another school may appear silly, a tempest in a teapot. It is far from this. Beneath the surface it is a defense, whether well- or ill-advised, of an attitude toward life." (William Grossman, Jazz Review, 1956). "After all these years, I find myself unable to avoid an unhappy conclusion: jazz criticism is a bad idea, poorly executed." (Orrin Keepnews, 1987)
For the moment, I'm still reaching for a broader understanding of the culture wars of the 1940's:
Leonard Feather's writing about the Esquire jazz polls of the mid-40s and the uproar between the "moldy figs" and the "progressives," yet another reminder that the lines were clearly drawn in the years before bop, even though it is now the fashion to point to jazz controversy as first arising with Parker, Gillespie, Monk. The black vs. white lines were clearly drawn as well. Here's a quote from Feather talking about the reaction to the first Esquire poll in 1943 in The Jazz Record, a specialty publication co-edited by white pianist Art Hodes: "But the most memorable statement was (the writer's) complaint that Joe Stacy, Joe Sullivan, and Art Hodes received only four, three, and two votes respectively. 'These men,' he wrote, 'are the three greatest small-band piano men on wax. To mention Art Tatum in the same gasp with them is blasphemous!'" Another quote from the same article: "If this isn't inverted Jim Crow, what is?"
The winners in 1943 (who went on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House) were: Louis Armstrong, Teagarden, Goodman, Hawkins, Tatum, Al Casey, Pettiford, Catlett, Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw. The second place winners were Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Earl Hines, Oscar Moore, Milt Hinton, Al Morgan, Cozy Cole, Leo Watson, Mildred Bailey, saxophonist Willie Smith and Dave Tough.
So these are the musicians signifying something catastrophic, impure, degenerate or at least questionable to an entire camp of jazz writers who seemed to have seen jazz's salvation at the time in Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davidson. Is it any wonder that when Bird and Dizzy et al were heard, a very few short years later, the reaction was what it was?
Also, coincidentally I just bought a copy of the recording of the concert at the Metropolitan in 1944, originally produced by the US Army and only available on shellac V-Discs. My first few listens reveal that something was going on among these highly disparate musicians within the supposed confines of...whatever genre they were supposed to be confined by. Partly I'm sure it's the "jam session" atmosphere, partly the "superband" syndrome, just too many voices trying to get heard. But even beyond these circumstantial reasons, I hear a music definitely in transition already. It's struggling with two competing organizing principles, for one thing (perhaps three): collective improvisation versus comping behind the individual soloist. The intense irony is that the radio announcer insists on saying the name of the individual soloists while they are playing, in the manner of a sports broadcast. The third conflicting strain on the efforts of the musicians is the "swing" style itself, which lends a kind of war-time desperation and frantically happy, happy, happy (who put the benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?) energy. There's more concatenating throughout the proceedings, including strange versions of "the blues," highly divergent instrumental styles, and probably more that I'm not even aware of.
Yet there are revealing moments from individual musicians. Lionel Hampton's extended solo over Flying Home is most amazing for the intense presence of his vocalizations, especially in the rests between his phrases. (Compare with Cecil Taylor's, on for example, The Great Concert of, Side 3, or less pleasantly, with Jarrett). Are there shades of bop already emerging from Hawk and Tatum? Absolutely. Could there be any starker contrast than that between Billie Holiday singing "I'll Get By" and Mildred Bailey "singing" "Squeeze Me"?
It's a terrible stew, really, and I can see why the moldy figs had an opening to be aghast, but only now that I am listening with an awareness of the turf wars and infighting that had everyone up in arms. What I heard before this was quaint, occasionally brilliant, energetic, but hearing with bop-through-21st Century ears meant feeling grateful that the music soon found more consolidated and "sophisticated" organizing principles. I have too often bought hook, line and sinker the "official" stories of whatever jazz is, and, lately, every time I turn around, I'm encountering new awareness of a much broader and much more messy picture.