Wednesday, November 29, 2006

story ville

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.


the improvising guitarist said...

“…every time I turn around, I'm encountering new awareness of a much broader and much more messy picture.”

I got a similar feeling going through The Cambridge History of 20th Century Music (not an experience I would recommend, and as for why I read it, it’s a long story…). I got this strange feeling that history was being erased before my eyes—a certain loss of complexity.
For example, when I was a kid, I was told that the European, high avant-garde was basically Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono and Penderedski (which was already a simplification). The Cambridge… pretty much simplifies that down further to Boulez, Stockhausen….

Anyway, now I want to get hold of this 1944 recording—sounds fascinating.

S, tig

peter breslin said...

Hey- I found it in a used bin; the version I have is on Laserlight. It's up at Amazon, just search "first esquire concert."

As for the history of jazz, it seems, as in everything else, the more you study it the fewer definitive statements you can make. It's a cumulative effect, because many if not most of the individual writers make all sorts of definititive statements...

The Word-Drum said...

Git Man, Boulez is France.
Stockhausen is Germany. The
Italians came to Darmstat
and Paris. Reduction is cold.
What about Bruno Madderna
or (our own) Morton Feldman?
(who sounds better than Cage)
When I was into it, I loved
Berio and the rest you
mentioned. Penderedski
changed drastically.(I
studied couterpoint with
him -funny guy)
Peter you are a serious
jazz fan and musician.
I enjoy your posts. I have
been working on The Word-
Drum and hope you drop by
and see that it's better.

The Word-Drum said...

Peter, I would like to send you
some improvised music.
The Word-Drum is not wise
in the ways of the internet.
Can I beam it to you? or
some other magic?
Do this because when I
met Cecil Taylor he knew
my name. Did you ever talk
to him?

peter breslin said...

Hello Word-Drum- you can email me at and we can figure out a way for you to get me some music. Or yeah you can just beam it to me, although lately it feels like I might have an astral ear infection.

I met Mr. Taylor in April of 2004 and he didn't already know my name. My colleague Chris Jonas who worked with Taylor in the '90s introduced me after Taylor played in Albuquerque. We went to Taylor's hotel room and listened to him tell amazing stories for about 5 hours.

Anonymous said...

HELP requested from anyone familiar with old " Dixieland " music. Probably recorded in the '20's was a melody featuring what may have been a coronet/trumpet introducing the tune. It almost sounded like a Jack Teagarden slide trombone followed by the ensemble. Could the song have been titled " the Story of Storyville ", if there even is such a song title ?