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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948

Jazz-Our Meat or Our Poison

page 35

Jazz-Our Meat or Our Poison

Jazz is a Language—a musical language. I make no apology for using the metaphor, because it is a good one and, within the limits of analogy, teaches us some wholesome truths which would otherwise strike us as platitudes. The jazz language emerged as a distinctive tongue about fifty years ago in New Orleans, from which localized origins it has spread, often in the form of corrupt dialects, even to such unlikely parts of the world as New Zealand. It follows that the understanding of such a language requires more than the casual hearing of a few phrases, which will inevitably sound strange, absurd or meaningless. As with other musical languages, it also follows that jazz can be judged fairly only by listening to the best work of some of its experienced exponents, by trying to 'get inside' the music and arrive at the core of its meaning; a person who does this may pronounce favourably or unfavourably, but he will at least have come to grips with jazz in a genuine form.

Alas, there are few arts where the desire for such fairmindedness is apparent, whether it concerns Colin McCahon's paintings or the design for the Wellington Cathedral. In 'high places' there is a remarkable willingness to express opinions on jazz in highly-coloured terms; a member of Parliament pronounced against the evils of 'boochiewoochie', while a musical gentleman whom I once heard speaking on folk-music thought that jazz found its highest and fullest expression in Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and that it could be happily equated with 'atavistic tom-toms' (a juicy term which aroused all the perceptive approval of the audience). Anyone familiar with the actual article in question can safely ignore these uninformed opinions; but for those who are not, the underlying confusions need to be illuminated by some explanation of the content and method of jazz.

A prevalent source of confusion, for instance, is the distinction (or lack of distinction) between 'commercial' jazz, of spurious musical worth, and 'hat jazz', which is upheld by its advocates as the genuinely creative and sincere form of jazz. No doubt the latter as well as the former can be commercially successful—artists in every walk of life hope that their work will sell; but the basic issue here is one of motive, that of artistic expression or of more selling power. Unfortunately confusions is often encouraged in jazz by the use jazzmen make of commercial popular tunes of the day as a framework for their jazz musicianship; thus Benny Goodman makes an instrumental version of the 'Jersey Bounce', while Louis Armstrong transforms an equally inane lyric, 'Confession', into a brief but high-powered outburst of jazz. In such cases it is necessary to distinguish the original material from the jazz interpretation of it, and consequently to avoid the philosophical error of assuming that what grows from mud must itself be mud.

This contrast is brought out most clearly in the imported abominations of song-plugging and the hit-parade (a wonderful device for telling us what popular songs we like best in the order of preference). Yet I doubt whether such perennial jazz favourites as 'Honeysuckle Rose' or 'Bugle Call Rag' have even approached the hit-parade. A modern counterpart of these tunes, equally fertile for improvised 'jam-sessions', is a pleasant lyric 'How High the Moon' which first appeared in 1939; after a brief period of enforced popularity it faded from view until jazzmen started to realise its possibilities for development and produced a variety of worth-while interpretations, several of them recorded from concerts, in 1946 and 1947. Commercial popularity does not necessarily damn a work (indeed a long-term success would indicate some stable musical worth), but the hit-parade sort of popularity seems page 36 to bear no relation to musical content. It is far more profitable to turn to the jazzmen themselves and observe those types of popular song which have maintained a long standing in jazz.

The first main type is the 'silly' popular song, the main appeal of which lies in a bouncy rhythm and a rather crazy exuberance. Gershwin's evergreens are good samples of this type—' Lady be Goods', 'I got Rhythm' and 'Somebody loves me—I wonder who?' Equally old and equally evergreen are 'Darktown Strutter's Ball' and 'Dinah'. Some words of the latter are worth quoting :

Dinah—is there anyone finer

In the State of Carolina?

If there is, and you know her,

Then show her to me!

Like the others mentioned, 'Dinah' has provided meat for many jazzmen; the results vary from Muggsy Spanier's gentle foolery to Fat Waller's violent version and the exciting solos by a Lionel Hampton group.

In contrast to this boisterous type of song we come secondly to the romantic ballad, which lends itself to a more lyrical or rhapsodic treatment. This is more risky ground for jazz, with the ever present danger of becoming mushy 'sweet jazz'. An evergreen which adequately combines words to suit the melody, is Cole Porter's 'Night and Day':

... Night and day, under the hide of me
There's an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me,
In the roaring traffic's boom,
In the silence of my lonely room,
I dream of you—night and day....

Many other tunes of this sort have provided good material for jazz interpretation, despite frequent poverty of ideas in the matter of words. Examples are to be found in Gershwin's 'Someone to watch over me', played by Artie Shaw, or some of the tenor saxophonists' versions of 'Sweet and Lovely' (Flip Phillips) and 'Out of Nowhere' or 'Body and Soul' (Coleman Hawkins).

The third type of jazz song is most fundamental and therefore the hardest for our ears to become accustomed to. This is the savagely emotional type known as the 'Blues'. Since it contains the deepest reflection of the Negro way of life it is not easily assimilable to a European or a New Zealander whose only contact is via the medium of records—by no means a completely adequate one. In the greatest recordings of Blues singers and jazz-players the integration of words and music reaches a high level. This is the case in most of the following Blues from which I quote. In 'Backwater Blues' Bessie Smith eloquently painted the despair of Negroes rendered homeless by Southern floods:

'When it rains for five nights and the winds begin to blow
... There ain't nowhere for a poor old gal to go.'

Joe Turner expresses his affections in naively moving terms:

'I've been loving you, baby, before I learned to call your name.
Now that you've been loving someone else,
I know that you're gonna drive me insane:—(Wee Baby Blues).

Lionel Hampton indulges in ludicrous imagery in the Goodman Quartet's 'Blues in My Fiat':

'If my gal cried whisky instead of crying salt-water tears,
I would never be sober, babe, no not for another twenty-five years.'

Rosetta Crawford expounds the typically defiant attitude of Blues—singers in 'Double-crossing Papa':

'If you drink whisky, I'll drink gin:
If you cheat with other women, Ill cheat with other men.
You said you was fishin' when you stayed up late—
Any fish will bite if you've got good bait.
So I'm goin' fishin' tonight, you see—
You dirty mistreater, you can't double-cross me.'

Billie Holiday sings of Negro lynchings with a grim picturesqueness in 'Strange Fruit':

'Southern trees bear a 'strange fruit':
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.'

While the expressiveness of the Blues is deeply bound up with the feeling of the words, there are many powerful Blues instrumentals which are independent of words—indeed it is the instruments which speak. Such are Mezz Mezzrow's 'Really the Blues', Sidney Bechet's 'Blues in Thirds', Ellington's 'Creole Love Call' Teddy Wilson's page 37 'Blue Mood' and Louis Armstrong's 'Potato Head Blues', 'West End Blues' and 'Savoy Blues'. Most of these are from ten to twenty years old, yet their appeal is scarcely lessened at all by this fact. Even so, it is a far cry from the attitudes embodied in such jazz to the feelings common to the average New Zealander. It may legitimately be asked whether jazz, even if significant to the Negro, can be transplanted and appreciated in another setting. It is noteworthy that all the creative jazz-men, from the New Orleans pioneers of the 'nineties, to the Armstrong of the 'twenties, Ellington of the 'thirties and Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker of the 'forties, have been Negroes who developed some new line which was later exploited (often very ably, especially on the technical side) by white band-leaders. For New Zealanders at any rate, the question becomes: Is jazz, by origin a Negro art, one that can be borrowed by our country, and furthermore would it be healthy to do so?

This question can be answered satisfactorily only by studying both the method of jazz music and the cultural situation of New Zealand. The former aspect, at least, can be given a brief outline which may help to clear things up.

The playing of jazz has always been closely linked with the art of improvisation—an art which is not confined to jazzmen but was exhibited by virtuoso cadenza-players in 'orthodox' music, by Beethoven in his younger days, by many organists, as well as by most folk-musicians who have no written musical score to follow. In jazz, the writing down of perfected improvised solos (as with Ellington's compositions) has resulted in full written arrangements, until with recent arrangers such as Eddie Sauter, George Handy and Billy Strayhorn, modern American jazz starts merging into a species of orthodox music.

It is not so much in the method of improvisation as in the spirit conveyed by it that jazz is distinguished. Collective improvisation was the keynote of the earliest (New Orleans) jazz, although the later desire to break away from its necessarily limited repertoire of 'stomps' and 'rags' led to a more sophisticated emphasis on solo improvisation. Both the virtues and evils accompanying this step are seen in the playing of Coleman Hawkins, who, as his fame has increased, has tended more and more to overwhelm the jazz-groups which he leads. His gluttony for long tenor-sax solos produced some remarkable results but also some very tedious rhapsodizing (as for instance in his 1947 version of 'Indian Summer'); all this is in marked contrast to his confrere, Benny Carter, who rarely exceeds the bounds of good taste with his lyrical alto-sax. The moral to be drawn is that jazz must preserve both the feeling of spontaneity and a group enthusiasm expressing itself in a nice balance between ensemble playing and individual solos suitably shared out. In large modern bands, Ellington's orchestra usually does this, while several of Woody Herman's 1945 recordings—'Caldonia' and 'Blowin' up a Storm' for instance—achieve that corporate swing which is essential to all jazz (whether large or small-group).

I need hardly stress the factor of emotion in jazz—the quality without which the cleverest jazz cannot achieve greatness. It is emotion which invests so many Blues with genuine worth and which will keep alive for a long time the work of Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and, in some cases, of Artie Shaw; it is the lack of emotion which reduces much of Goodman's clarinetting to the category of ' pleasant 'rather than great'. Yet apart from these references to musicians, it is difficult to explain more fully in words the nature of this emotion, which is a personal dynamic and an integrating force in the original expression of the jazzman.

Finally 'indicating their importance as regards the method of jazz) we come to the technical factors in jazz. These are means to an end—the end of expression of the musical conceptions and feelings of the players—and are by no means invariable. The traditional jazz instruments (trumpet, trombone, clarinet plus rhythm) have been detained because of their value in 'speaking' the feelings of the players; nevertheless they have been steadily supplemented by the addition of saxophones, double-bass, vibraphone and even violins. Neither spectacular technique nor richer orchestration, of course, necessarily make for better' jazz (in the sense of achieving the end of creative expression by the performer).

Again, the rhythmic basis of jazz is only a means, and not necessarily a limited one. Thus boogie-woogie, supposedly dependent for its attractions on an unwavering ' thumpthump' (eight-to-the-bar etc.), is in reality made much more complex by cross rhythms page 38 and superimposed poly-rhythms, of which the veteran jimmy Yancey is a prime exponent. I can even conceive of the essential jazz method being applied within the framework of waltz-time. However, it remains true that jazz requires some regular rhythm as a basis. On the one hand it is a branch of folk-music derived from and dependent on the dance; if the popular form of dancing changes, the change will affect jazz. On the other hand the present-day popularity of the syncopated fox-trot rhythm has its value in providing a stimulating basis for improvisation and for rhythmic variation (to a greater extent than, say, the waltz or tango).

The remaining technical factor—harmony—is one that has led to steady changes in jazz, culminating in the extremes of the recent 'be-bop' form of jazz which utilizes the more 'advanced' harmonies of Debussy and Ravel and rejoices in the benevolent interest of Stravinsky. The result is a warfare between the 'be-hoppers' and the orthodox 'Dixie-land diehards' who prefer the New Orleans tradition in jazz—a contrast which is paralleled in 'orthodox' music by the schools of the Classical composers on the one hand and the Modernist composers on the other! if you wish to carry the analogy further, lovers of 'sweet swing' would occupy a middle position preferring (in their orthodox moments) the music of the nineteenth century Roman tics. But perhaps this factional spirit is a necessary phase in any growing art and may subside sooner or later.

The interplay of the jazz method, here described, with the various types of American popular-song has produced a folk-music which is worthy of something more than the juke-box and which is meaningful to a considerable section of Americans. New Zealanders, by contrast, are barely conscious that they lack any integrated native culture at all. True, there is a growing awareness among poets, painters, writer and musical composers of the possibilities of this country; but when we turn to popular music the outlook is dismal. The radio purveys the products of overseas recording companies, while New Zealanders who write popular songs (and there are some good ones, even in Extravaganzas) fail to get an adequate hearing. The majority of dance-bands are uninspired copyists, since they lack the essential stimuli possessed by their American prototypes—the appreciation and criticism of an interested audience who do care what sort of music is played. To those who reject jazz, the only alternative is a nostalgic return to the English folk-songs and dances of a past age. In other words, New Zealand lacks any genuine folk-music which is relevant to the life of the people.

If such a folk-music could develop gradually out of our own community-life, two musical developments might follow. Composers might use it as material in the way that Vaughan Williams and Bela Bartok have done with English and Hungarian folk-music respectively. In the dance-hall it would be perfectly legitimate to use the method of jazz (which carries on several ancient traditions in music-making) in developing genuine popular-songs by means of improvisation, a carrying-on of the creative role of the performer. This could be a healthy folk-art. No doubt it is futile to strive after something distinctively local in an immature country which naturally depends on overseas culture. Certainly folk-art cannot be manufactured overnight by a vain striving for music which somehow represents an 'N.Z. way of life'; if we have no distinctive way of life it cannot produce forms of expression. If that is the case, we had better tune in again to our English folk-songs and American jazz.