Friday, November 16, 2007

A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed

Thus Orrin Keepnews on the fine art of "jazz criticism."

Case in point: a fascinating volume published in 1952, written by Rex Harris (no, not Rex Harrison) titled quite simply, portentously and of course arrogantly, Jazz.

Harris was an intense British dude, born in Kent in 1904. The author blurb indicates that he was introduced to ragtime at the age of 8. There's this unintentionally hilarious sentence: "...he has achieved the seemingly impossible by combining a professional career of consulting optician with that of a jazz authority." One of his ambitions is to "help dispel the prevalent misconceptions regarding the word 'Jazz.'"

Whether fair or not, I'll be spending some time in Rex's world as a way of highlighting the absurdities in "jazz" writing: the anachronisms, howlers, ax-grinding, cultural misconceptions, time lags, racism, cultural imperialism and demonstrably just plain ignorant judgments. This spotlight isn't poor Rex Harris' fault, really. I could have chosen Stanley Crouch...who, by the way, really is a terrible writer. Have you read any of his editorials lately? (From his New York Daily News editorial of November 5: "Instead, American Gangster proves, yet again, that Hollywood is much less interested in aesthetic grandeur than it is in profits. In that sense, it is often no better than the lousy gangsters it makes into well-dressed entrepreneurs rather than the glittering spiritual vomit that they actually are.")

But I digress.

In a strange inside cover blurb, the joys that lie ahead in Rex's book are immediately revealed:

"After the long and wearisome years of 'swing' which overlaid the traditions of jazz there has arisen a new generation which is anxious to learn of the roots and growth of this fascinating folk music. So much confusion exists in the public mind regarding the word 'jazz' that it was felt necessary to trace its ancestry and present a genealogical table which would make the subject clear."

Oh man.

Let's skip the several prefaces to *three editions* of this book between 1952 and 1954 (noting only in passing the charming holdover from salad days of yore: "My thanks also to my wife Mary for her attention to the tedious work involved in checking the index") and jump instead to the foreword.

"Some of the conclusions I have reached after many years of interest in jazz will no doubt cause lifted eyebrows among some of my friends in the dance-band world, but I would hasten to assure them that I have no wish to denigrate their valuable and excellent work in that sphere: it is only in the use of the word 'jazz' to label their music that I have any difference of opinion. Many of them hold the same opinion on the subject as I do, and some few have sturdily tried to live up to their principles....This book is an attempt to vindicate the integrity of those who have kept jazz alive during the long years of its eclipse behind the meretricious blaze of artificially exploited swing."

In love with longer titles as I am (One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, for example) may I add, entirely as a good natured aside, hopefully without causing any eyebrow strain, that perhaps the next Marsalis or Brookmeyer or Charlap or Krall outing could be titled The Meretricious Blaze of Artificially Exploited Swing? I'd buy it.

Get ready for eyebrow altitudes perhaps hitherto unprecedented as Rex concludes his foreword:

"Whether jazz musicians are able to read music or not is immaterial. Whether they gain financially by playing jazz is beside the point. The vital and essential crux of the whole question is whether they express themselves in their music because they have something which they must express. In other words it (sic) must be an art rather than a craft."

There seems so much unspoken counterargument behind this last salvo. As always when a passionate author is arguing against ghosts and absent interlocutors, there's a lot of rail jumps. One of the aspects of Rex's prose that immediately seduced me was his obvious, burning passion and sense of righteousness. I enjoy reading books that have an ax to grind, especially when the author is unabashed about his or her florid indignation. It's refreshing to read someone who isn't at all tainted by the meretricious blaze of Universal Approbation that has descended on much critical writing these days. "It's all good" can hardly be a motto to sustain the well-honed critical mind.

Jaw dropping spectacles of masturbatory vapidity have recently passed before this writer's eyes, such as people who know better defending Norah Jones (against whom?) or presenting a distinctly brown proboscis after sniffing the latest wunderkind's derivative hindquarters or arguing that the Pulitzer Prize winning Blood on the Fields (which has all the punch of a B-section news story about the groundbreaking for a new commemorative plaque) would have fared better with critics if it had featured David Murray. These are merely innocent examples, mind you. I don't want to stir up old bitterness. Let me hasten to assure my friends in the "jazz blogosphere" that I don't mean to denigrate their important and valuable work. My only objection is in the application of the label "criticism" to such efforts.

But, again, I digress.

Clearly, the central thesis of Rex's book is that there is a Real Thing deserving of the label "jazz," and that there are those who have struggled valiantly to keep the Real Thing going against the odds, and that there is an emerging generation of young musicians who want to revive The Real Thing in the midst of a disturbing cultural trend that is meretricious, artificial, exploitive and definitely *not* the Real Thing.

(A brief etymological aside on the delicious word "meretricious." It's one of those words that originally had a very narrow meaning, deriving from the Latin "meretrix," i.e., "prostitute." By extension then, courtesy of

1.alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions; tawdry.
2.based on pretense, deception, or insincerity.
3.pertaining to or characteristic of a prostitute.

How Rex gets away with fawning over his friends in the "dance-band world" yet essentially calling them whores says more about his rhetorical skills as a consulting optician, and an acidulously polite Brit, than anything else. Perhaps.)

Moreover, the Real Thing is quite separate from techne (Reading music? Immaterial) and economic factors (Making a living? Beside the point...perhaps it's only those rarefied few who have achieved the seemingly impossible, such as combining being a consulting optician and jazz authority, who can so boldly assert that the exigencies of the marketplace are unessential). The Real Thing is, in fact, Art. Which Rex defines as "expressing oneself in one's music because one has something which one must express." A quaintly Romantic formulation for Art Music. Quaintly tautological, charmingly both obfuscatory and completely empty of any content whatsoever. But the Jazz Hero (a figure who will appear time and again in Rex's narrative) is a distinctly Romantic, spontaneous and brilliantly untutored fellow.

My central thesis is that Rex's book gathers energy from exactly identical underlying assumptions, prejudices and shrouded ideologies that continue to fuel "jazz criticism" right now. The hilarious juxtaposition of The Real Thing against whoreish "swing" only serves to highlight how equally absurd is the current wave of self-appointed Jazz Saviors and Jazz Police. The great service my careful analysis of Rex's book will provide to you, dear reader, will be that you won't have to wait 55 years to enjoy the ironies.


Mwanji Ezana said...

I look forward to the rest of the series!

"the next Marsalis or Brookmeyer or Charlap or Krall outing could be titled The Meretricious Blaze of Artificially Exploited Swing"

A Brookmeyer album with that title would be a knowing, ironic gesture. For Marsalis a combative one (a bit like "Black Codes (From The Underground)"?). For Krall, I guess you intend the joke to be on her. Where does Charlap fit in?

Dan said...


Encore! Encore!

Brent said...

Very interesting stuff. Looking forward to seeing what else comes out of the archive.

In the mean time, I just picked up Andrew Hill's *Change* (aka Sam Rivers' *Involution*).

Blue Note.

Man, I am your spiritual brother here, but ya gotta pick a different label or a different year, b/c for a brief moment Blue Note was smokin'.

peter breslin said...

Hi all, thanks for stopping by. More dusty yet intensely relevant jazz crit coming soon. Brent, I agree, I'll find another way to summarize what I'm referring to. It's stuff I actually really like, but don't see any particular reason to promote now as an archetypal imrpovisational/creative music form, stuff like Jackie Mac's New Soil, Jimmy Smith's The Sermon, Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, Booker Ervin's TexBook Tenor, that stuff.