Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman; drawing by David Levine

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 )

Few jazz fans are in a position to make films, though they have, in jazz photography, created a library of marvelous images. A number of young white men—and a small but growing number of women—also graduate from fans to players, though opinions about the musical interest of their activities have generally been divided. Fortunately a modest number have, over the years, compensated for the lack of commercial and institutional interest in jazz by turning themselves into impresarios or record producers. The recently repolished Blue Note label, founded and long maintained by two German refugee jazz fans, is a case in point. But what do they do with words?

Relatively few fans write poetry to or about the beloved, and when they do, it tends to rely excessively on the magic of names which vibrate only for other lovers. (“Oh I loved you Pete Brown. And you were a brother to me, Joe Marsala. And you too, sweet Billy Kyle.”8 ) Rather more of them, belonging to the large underground of jazz lovers in academia, now write books of serious scholarship about the object of their passion. Characteristically, most of the books noted here are published by university presses. But very few indeed practice the extraordinarily difficult art of communicating in prose what musicians are and do.

Probably the only writer who has actually succeeded is Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker, whose American Musicians collects together twenty-four years of “jazz profiles.” As a writer of New Yorker profiles he is distinguished but not exceptional. His unique strength as a descriptive writer on jazz lies in a musically informed combination of watchful, precise observation with ear and eye, a sort of Audubon-like impartiality, and an uncanny instinct for words which not only are but sound right. Very few listen and observe as exactly as he does, and nobody reports more exactly. Balliett’s descriptions of solo improvisations—he is particularly good on drummers—are, as nearly as is possible, translations of the movement of music into language; as can be verified by checking his report of, say, Jess Stacy’s famous 1938 piano solo at Carnegie Hall against the record.

After a Goodman–Gene Krupa duet, there was a treading-water pause, and Stacy, suddenly given the nod by Goodman, took off. The solo lasted over two minutes, which was remarkable at a time when most solos were measured in seconds. One wonders how many people understood what they were hearing that night, for no one had ever played a piano solo like it. From the opening measures, it had an exalted, almost ecstatic quality, as if it were playing Stacy. It didn’t, with its Debussy glints and ghosts, seem of its time and place. It was also revolutionary in that it was more of a cadenza than a series of improvised choruses. There were no divisions or seams, and it had a spiralling structure, an organic structure, in which each phrase evolved from its predecessor. Seesawing middle-register chords gave way to double-time runs, which gave way to dreaming rests, which gave way to singsong chords, which gave way to oblique runs. A climax would be reached only to recede before a still stronger one. Piling grace upon grace, the solo moved gradually but inexorably up the keyboard, at last ending in a superbly restrained cluster of upper-register single notes. There was an instant of stunned silence before Krupa came thundering back.

Unlike most jazz writers, he never gushes or conceals the weaknesses even of his favorites. His range of sympathy is unusually wide, from King Oliver to Cecil Taylor, though it does not entirely include Miles Davis and hard bop, about which (in this book) he is very reticent. In short, he is the ideal writer for the literate jazz lover who is forced to recollect emotion in tranquillity, far from records and tapes. What, except admiration for a first-class craftsman in words, he communicates to those who do not like jazz, it is impossible for a jazz lover to say.

Since so much of what we know about jazz comes to us through the selfless but not unbiased devotion of the aficionados, not least as collectors, genealogists, chroniclers, or—as in Danny Barker’s A Life in Jazz—translators of spoken reminiscence into print,9 we ought to know a good deal more about the public for jazz and its evolution than we actually do. However, writers on jazz have tended to be as incurious about the listeners as they have been endlessly fascinated by the tiniest details about the musicians. The reception of jazz, especially in the US, still has to be seriously studied, although several of the books under review do provide incidental materials for such a study.

And yet, the future of jazz depends almost entirely on what happens to the public for it, as was clear during the fifteen or so years from the early 1960s on, when this public virtually vanished as the mass of the young stampeded to follow the rock fashions, in this as in several other respects a disaster decade for Western culture. (The rhythm-and-blues of the 1950s had still allowed a kind of amicable symbiosis between jazz and pop.10 ) The best that could be said about jazz in the early 1970s, even in New York—as usual it was said by Whitney Balliett—was that it had stopped collapsing. Its condition was “parlous but persuasive.”11 Once again, this is jazz as seen by fans or critics. For musicians who could no longer make a living by playing jazz it was the first rather than the second.

In spite of the (qualified) gloom of Francis Davis, whose In the Moment reports on the jazz scene of the 1980s, interest in jazz began to revive in the late 1970s with the visible exhaustion of rock music, and has been growing at an impressive pace recently. “The bins are bursting with reissues and clubs are suddenly doing record business,” wrote a jazz journal at the end of 1986,12 and the phenomenon appears to be international. It is once again becoming possible for more than a handful of musicians to earn a living playing jazz. Long-dissolved groups are reconstituted, musicians return from California studios and European exile and answer the question, “Where is jazz going right now?” with, “I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s healthy.”13 Even if the revival lasts, jazz will certainly not be more than a minority taste, like reading poetry, as it has generally been; but it may once again be an economically workable one.

Given our ignorance of the public which is now turning to jazz, little can be said about it except that, as is obvious, “jazz audiences are generally up-scale in income, well-educated and more white than black.”14 Nevertheless, the growing body of middle-class and professional blacks may now also consider, as their fathers did not, an educated admiration for jazz as a badge of race pride as well as of cultural status.15

Apart from the nucleus of gnarled long-time jazz buffs, this is a new and relatively young audience, often strikingly ignorant, but, in a peculiar way, highbrow. The one branch of jazz which seems to have been left out of the revival is the simple fun music that once appealed so powerfully, especially to white youth, and that resisted the decline of jazz longest: Dixieland. In New York itself, those strongholds of white middle-class males recalling their youth, Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, have now gone even as new locations for more advanced live jazz multiplied and flourished.

The decline of Dixieland is clearly not due to a lack of audience appeal, but to critics’ and musicians’ combined boredom with, and contempt for, “the same old ninety-three tunes in the standard early repertoire” of New Orleans and Chicago, played in unvarying versions by “fourth-rate musicians.”16 Moreover, to many young black musicians, traditional New Orleans music was uncomfortably close to Uncle Tom. Only perceptive and openminded jazz lovers like Balliett and Carruth are today prepared to say a good word for Dixieland music, or rather for jazz played in pre-1940 style. Carruth (who incidentally suggests, with some exaggeration, that “the number of inferior imitators of post-bop jazz today is greater by far than the number of Dixie landers”) reminds his

younger friends that when they hear records…made by real jazz musicians trained in the modes that came before bop, whether black or white, northern or southern, they are hearing jazz, not Dixieland, and it makes no difference whether the opening and closing choruses are played in harmonic riffs or contrapuntal improvisations.

Nor does he exclude the possibility that even “work taken verbatim, so to speak, from old records” could be “done with such purity of musical devotion and such sensitivity to phrasing” that it could be taken for real jazz.

Indeed, Berry, Foose, and Jones’s learned and instructive study of New Orleans music since 1945 goes so far as to omit all mention of what most of the world, including the tourists visiting the French Quarter, would regard as the typical sound of New Orleans. Theirs is New Orleans as represented by the Marsalis family (one of the clans of practitioners on which the popular musical life of the city is still based17 ) rather than the New Orleans of Buddy Bolden’s ghost, Preservation Hall, and ceaseless clones of South Ramparts Street Parade. And the success of ‘Round Midnight, epic of bebop, underlines the failure, a few months earlier, of The Gig, a charming film about that characteristic phenomenon of the older jazz scene, the white middle-class amateur Dixieland musicians enjoying themselves, a species still occasionally represented by Woody Allen. It came and went, not of course silently, but rather unperceived. (It is mentioned in passing in Davis’s book on page 86.)

The fact that the repertoire of the jazz revival now looks like including the noises people are told by the arbiters of jazz taste to enjoy, as well as some they actually do, may at last give a chance to the young avant-garde musicians who slogged their way despairingly through the darkness of the 1960s and 1970s, and to whom Francis Davis pays particular attention. It is at least possible that bookers will no longer give automatic priority to any of the diminishing band of veterans who can be associated with some remote and prestigious name of which even the johns have heard, even though their only obvious merit is physical survival. And it is certainly the case that jazz musicians like the pianist Ellis Marsalis, who brought up their sons in the true faith of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane while unbelief raged all round them, are now indirectly coming into their own.

But it is also possible that the revival of some public interest in jazz has had the effect of leading some of the musicians who, in the dark years, made themselves even more inaccessible (to spite those who refused to listen to them anyway), back toward a mainstream music genuinely capable of appealing to audiences, or at least not actively alienating them. Such integration of musical revolutionaries in the mainstream was what created the last golden age of jazz between 1955 and 1960. Francis Davis notes, not without melancholy, that the flag carrier of the 1980s revival, the young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, is a “resolutely conservative” musician. There are times today when the World Saxophone Quartet not only sounds like Ellington, but actually tries to. Some will welcome this development.

In these circumstances it is possible that jazz may finally be adopted into the postmodernist American establishment as part of the cultural ambiance of the new graduate professional classes. It has become intellectually respectable. Its players are likely to be formally trained in music, or even, like Wynton Marsalis, equally distinguished as classical and jazz performers. It can be readily combined with other consumer expenditures, as has been recognized in the now familiar bonding of jazz and cookery in Manhattan supper clubs and restaurants. Practicing gastronomy to the accompaniment of what good authorities claim to be the classical music of the twentieth-century US is culturally reassuring, even when one is not listening to it closely. It is even, in a modest way, a guarantee of economic exclusiveness, at least so long as the size of the jazz public and the capacity of clubs make it cheaper to buy a modest opera seat than to hear a live set in the Village.

However, among the many whom the new respectability of jazz excludes are those who made this music in the past, and on whom its creative future must rest: young men and women from the black ghetto. Not many of the very young have yet been drawn into the jazz revival in its native country. The degree in Jazz and Contemporary Music recently inaugurated at the New School in New York is now taught by a predominantly black faculty of distinguished older musicians to a largely white student body. For every black student who has joined the course so far there are six whites. Jazz may have established its cultural credentials, but the real rejuvenation of the music has a long way to go.

This Issue

February 12, 1987