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.

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.

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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

All That Jazz March 26, 1987