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The Jazz Comeback

Sitting In: Selected Writings on Jazz, Blues and Related Topics

by Hayden Carruth
University of Iowa Press, 192 pp., $22.50

His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra

by Kitty Kelley
Bantam, 575 pp., $21.95

Round Midnight

a film by Bernard Tavernier

La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Jazz Under the Nazis

by Mike Zwerin
Beech Tree Books/William Morrow, 197 pp., $16.95

American Musicians: Fifty-six Portraits in Jazz

by Whitney Balliett
Oxford University Press, 415 pp., $22.95

In the Moment: Jazz in the 1980s

by Francis Davis
Oxford University Press, 258 pp., $18.95

A Life in Jazz

by Danny Barker, edited by Alyn Shipton
Oxford University Press, 223 pp., $19.95

Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II

by Jason Berry, by Jonathan Foose, by Tad Jones
University of Georgia Press, 272 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Until recently jazz has occupied a curiously marginal position in the official culture of its native country, and even within the black community. The public for it has been tiny: far smaller than the public for classical music. Record producers, who probably contain a much higher proportion of jazz buffs than the American people at large, can hardly be expected to invest much in music that nowadays sells less than 4 percent of discs and tapes.1

The jazz public is enormously serious, even a public of connoisseurs. Since the 1930s it has certainly contained a considerable number of intellectuals with wide cultural interests. And yet official high culture in the US was extraordinarily slow to take note of what is probably the most serious home-grown American contribution to the twentieth-century arts. Hayden Carruth, poet, professor, and, since the early Thirties, an informed and thoughtful jazz enthusiast, observes that

as a poet I never met another poet older than I who understood jazz as music…. Among poets of my own age I have met one or two who love and understand jazz, but none who has written intelligently about it. Most of my contemporaries have only a kind of nostalgic feeling for the “swing era.”…Only when I come to poets whose musical education began after 1945, do I find any number, though still comparatively few, who write about jazz with understanding…. For some in the baby-boom generation the beginning of jazz is the work of Charlie Parker. For most it is the work of Miles Davis.2

Not that jazz was hard to find for twentieth-century urban or, through radio, any, Americans. Its sound was familiar and not difficult of access, at any rate for those who first heard it in their teens. The problem was exactly the opposite. Jazz, or more generally the music of North American Negroes, was and is so deeply embedded in popular entertainment in the cities of the US that it was almost impossible to separate it out as a special kind of art.

Even in the black ghettos it had no separate existence, except for the communities of professional players who, like all professionals, whether physicists, economists, or musicians, live by and for peer judgment, even when they are being paid by people who cannot tell the difference between trumpet and trombone, or who think Kenneth Arrow makes shirts. As Carruth observes, even the late Malcolm X, who was a champion ballroom dancer in Boston and New York in the late 1930s, does not in his autobiography speak of the jazz to which he danced as music. He treats it as “a cultural adjunct.”

A striking example of the impossibility of recognizing the jazz threads within American popular culture is Kitty Kelley’s scandal-mongering biography of Frank Sinatra, who was in his day undeniably an excellent jazz singer. This is not surprising, since he learned his craft in the big-band “swing” era, when jazz briefly became the mainstream of youthful pop music, and began his career as a vocalist in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands. In fact Ms. Kelley, though primarily interested in her subject’s nonmusical activities, is sufficiently conscientious to record how Dorsey instructed him in jazz phrasing.

Yet it is evident that Sinatra, raised among New Jersey working-class Italian immigrants, came from a milieu that had about as little relation to black music as it was possible to have in urban America. He showed no interest in jazz as such: few jazz names appear in the ample index of His Way. He was simply a young Sicilian of some talent and boundless ambitions who wanted to make the big time as a singer of sentimental songs, and did so, thanks not least to a sexual magnetism that attracted audiences at all distances. Luckily for him (and for Sinatra’s admirers) the jazz idiom, to which a young man in the Hoboken of the Forties took as naturally as he would to the company of Italian mobsters, gave sentimentality an interesting musical edge, and a sort of offhand distancing. Ten years older, and he might with equal conviction have sung “O Sole Mio.” Moreover, for all his immersion in jazz, for most of us Sinatra is no more primarily a jazz artist than was Bing Crosby, whose superb and relaxed jazz phrasing Dorsey urged Sinatra to imitate. His phrasing survived and protected him to some extent from the vocal erosion of age. He deservedly became and remains a star of show business, and his songs have probably accompanied and subsequently recalled more seductions than any other singer’s. But his relation to jazz is peripheral.

The very omnipresence of the jazz element in American popular music, and especially dance and show music, after the First World War meant that for most Americans it had no precise location or independent existence. It also meant that jazz was more easily recognized as an original form of art, and its practitioners as original artists of serious stature, by a public which came to it as to a foreign land: the Europeans.

The fact that jazz was thus taken seriously in Europe earlier than in the US has always rankled in its native country. It still does, if the American critical reception of Bernard Tavernier’s moving film ‘Round Midnight is anything to go by. Pauline Kael’s grumpy reaction (“The French are pretty hard to take when they celebrate just how much they love American art”) is not uncharacteristic. But what is hard for Americans to take is not the self-congratulation of Europeans, but that in this instance they have something to congratulate themselves about.

For it is undeniable that, from the early 1930s on, musicians who were seen by official high culture in their homeland as vaudeville acts or something to dance to were in Europe acclaimed by intellectuals, artists, and high society. Hitler destroyed the Central European avant-garde that was attracted by jazz, and the early links between Soviet culture and jazz have only lately been disinterred by the scholarly labors of the president of Oberlin College.3 But nobody who knows anything about French culture will be surprised that Cocteau compared jazz to Stravinsky, while Stravinsky drew on jazz, that the man who started the world’s first pure jazz magazine, Charles Delaunay, was the child of Cubist painters in the heyday of the Ecole de Paris, and that Jean-Paul Sartre, though seeming no more likely to tap his feet than his cousin Albert Schweitzer, knew that he ought to take jazz seriously. Perhaps because Boris Vian, as avant-garde as the next man, doubled as a Dixieland trumpeter in Paris clubs.

It is equally undeniable that the first book to survey and assess the leading jazz artists and “put jazz on the map in Europe and in its own country”4 was written by a twenty-two-year-old Frenchman, Hugues Panassié, in 1934; or, for that matter, that then as now the European public, small as it was, could at times be the only public for which it was worth producing American jazz. A leading producer of the stateside jazz avant-garde’s records today is in Milan, and 70 percent of his modest sales go outside the US.5 For that matter, why did we have to wait for a Frenchman to make the first full-length feature film which takes a black musician seriously as a creative artist, and, what is more, casts a black jazz musician in this role—Dexter Gordon, whose performance in ‘Round Midnight is astonishing, more moving than his music?

None of this alters the fact that, then as now, the US is where the action is, and where a jazz musician would want to be, appreciated or not, so long as he could earn a living there.

As it happens, Tavernier’s film raises a more interesting question. Like almost all we know about jazz except the sounds themselves, it is jazz from the fan’s point of view: naturally enough, cameras are not instruments through which musicians express themselves. Indeed, Gallophiles will recognize the special flavor of the French intellectual jazz fan, always ready to discover a poète maudit even in blackface, loving jazz not only for itself but because it leads him to Rimbaud, and flattered by the proclaimed taste of older jazz musicians for Debussy.

No musician would make a film essentially about his relation with an admiring fan, but that is the central theme of ‘Round Midnight. It is based on the case of a real Frenchman who did his best to protect the great but declining bebop pianist Bud Powell against himself in Paris. Tavernier’s protagonist takes in a famous but alcoholic sax player, briefly nurses him back to respect and creativity through selfless care and immersion in the slow rhythms of French family life, perhaps seen here as unduly reticent and gentle; but he cannot prevent him from returning to New York where he dies. It is almost certainly the best feature film made about jazz, and illuminating both about the people and the music—for jazz fans are equally interested in both.

However, the fan sees his hero in a retrospective sentimental haze. Bud Powell in Paris was an altogether more frightening and inaccessible phenomenon than the gentle somnambulist self-destroyer whom Dexter Gordon plays so well. (The present writer, who saw Powell in Paris, speaks from personal memory.) The film combines the fans’ resentment at the world’s failure to accept the greatness of jazz with their reluctance to share it with outsiders. It is full of esoteric references—to Charlie Parker’s wife, to Lester Young’s tricks of language—whose very opaqueness confirms the aficionado’s monopoly. Tavernier, justifiably, makes no attempt to distance himself from sentiment and cliché which are essential to fandom. (But then, neither did he do so in that other splendid film about art, artists, and, not incidentally, fathers and daughters, A Sunday in the Country.)

But the jazz fan, however knowledgeable, is fundamentally a lover. While oldstyle pop music, as everyone knows, crystallized and preserved the relation of human beings in love (“They’re playing our song”), jazz, more often than not, is itself the love object for its devotees. The Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky has compared its initial impact to the first love of teen-agers in the era when such emotions, however fleeting, were still supposed to be unforgettable. “It had begun as a love affair like the others.” This is the description of how jazz was discovered by Dr. Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, who occupies a small niche in the informal pantheon of jazz lovers’ history as the German officer captured at St. Nazaire in 1944, whose first question to his American captors was: “Do you have any Count Basie records?” 6 The metaphor of love or falling in love keeps pushing its way into Mike Zwerin’s enthusiastic but superficial account of jazz in Nazi-occupied Europe, itself a work of autobiography, sentiment, and piety rather than scholarship. (“Accuracy came first, but when there was a choice between poetry and journalism, I picked poetry.”7 )

  1. 1

    Francis Davis, In the Moment, p. ix.

  2. 2

    Hayden Carruth, Sitting In, p. 176.

  3. 3

    S. Frederick Starr, Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1917–1980, (Oxford University Press, 1983).

  4. 4

    Whitney Balliett, American Musicians, p. 3.

  5. 5

    Davis, In the Moment, pp. 206–213.

  6. 6

    Mike Zwerin, La tristesse de Saint Louis, p. 3.

  7. 7

    La tristesse de Saint Louis, p. 1. For the metaphor, see e.g. pp. 19, 46, 61.

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