“It seems quite clear today in retrospect,” writes Gunther Schuller, who was at the time entering his teens, “that the Depression years and their aftermath were culturally and artistically the richest this nation has experienced in this century.” Probably many more people would today agree with this proposition than would dissent from it, but not many would be convinced by the author’s comment that this was so because
with financial and material acquisition virtually at a standstill, those lean years forced most Americans to turn to themselves—to rely upon and appreciate more their own creative imaginative instincts and impulses. Self-expression, whatever personal form it might take, became almost of necessity more important than commerce and career.
For the American arts and culture that in retrospect we regard as the glory of the Thirties were essentially commercial, if only because the huge apparatus of patronage and public subsidy, which has made so many writers and composers into dependents of the system of higher education in the late twentieth century, was not yet in place. Federal money undoubtedly became important in the Roosevelt years, but how much of the extraordinary achievement of that period would be lost if we imagined that everything financed, say, by the WPA, suddenly disappeared from the record? True, the work it sponsored was substantial, and the creative talents it helped to keep alive were numerous and impressive; but even in the field in which public patronage made its greatest impact, in the recording of folk culture and folk music (notably by Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress), its essential function was conservation and salvage rather than construction. Even so, if we would not have the work of Leadbelly but for Alan Lomax, and his father, John Lomax, who found him serving his prison sentence in Angola, Lousiana, we would still have the likes of Robert Johnson, who was recorded by a commercial company.
The major cultural achievements of the 1930s undoubtedly belong essentially to a box-office culture, if only because in the US there was no alternative to it. This applies not only to the arts for which Variety made itself the spokesman, then as now concerned with grosses rather than immortality, but to serious literature, to an extent that surprises observers accustomed to the self-contained literary milieus of the old world and of contemporary America. Moreover, whatever the state of the US economy, show business generally was anything but depressed, though like American society as a whole, it rested (and still rests) on an unusually deep foundation of marginal, insecure, expendable men, women, and styles. Since students of jazz history have been largely concerned with black performers, most of whom, by the nature of their skin, lived, as Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues put it, in permanent danger of submersion, incidents like the temporary collapse of the jazz and race-record market in the early 1930s have attracted much attention. Nevertheless, by and large, as readers of Studs Terkel’s marvelous Hard Times will recall, poverty, and insecurity, and prosperity for entertainment went together.
This does not mean that the box office can claim responsibility for the cultural accomplishments of the period, some of whose most striking glories Gunther Schuller analyzes in the second volume of his history of jazz, The Swing Years. The net effect of subordinating creation to commerce, then as now, was to degrade, to corrupt, and to infantilize, as a product of the search for what would appeal to the widest public. That is no doubt the reason why jazz ceased to satisfy both its creative musicians and its devoted lovers almost from the moment it briefly became mass popular music as “swing”; the most interesting musicians, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk among them, advanced toward what would become bebop; many jazz lovers (barely noticed by Schuller) retreated to Dixie.
Schuller, who notes how the swing bands succumbed more or less rapidly to the lures or pressures of the market, knows better than most what that sort of market does to art. As he points out, strings in commercial music do not have to sound “soggy and syrupy,” but in jazz/commercial arrangements they do, unlike any of the “several 100,000 classical symphonic pieces from Corelli to the present, none of which—even those by, say, Rachmaninov, Ravel [and] Delius,” sound remotely like that. It is no mystery why even writers who were quite happy to write for less money for commercial magazines apologized to each other for accepting the gold-lined degradation of Hollywood scriptwriting.
Yet this does not explain why serious and self-respecting work emerged on this commercial scene or was compatible with it, i.e., why artists found themselves able, with all qualifications, to do their thing at least partly within the system. They had not yet accepted its incompatibility with artistic creation by the public gestures of defeatism and abdication that pictures of Campbell Soup cans, and indeed all Warhol’s career, exemplify. Here Gunther Schuller provides some more positive if imprecise suggestions. What he detects in this era is the “special identity between a people and its music,” which, he argues, has since been fragmented by the complexities of the postwar period, “not to mention the disunity and strife brought into our national experience since then by a cold war, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, various crises relating to minority self-identity.” This former unity he associates not only with past innocence, that familiar illusion of those who are growing old, but also with the fact that “the thirties were for many people a new beginning,” not least for black musicians, who could, for the first time, see jazz as a profession.
On the reason for this sense of new times, the author is nebulous, except for the suggestion that the vogue for “swing” attracted a good many talented musicians. Did the growth of jazz and its audience in the 1930s take place “despite the Depression—or perhaps because of it?” Where does the Roosevelt era fit in? Nevertheless, it is clear to him that this remarkable period in the development of American jazz, with its “unexpected musical-sociological alliances,” cannot be adequately analyzed in purely musicological terms. Mr. Schuller’s book is an implicit call for a social, economic, and cultural history of jazz in the New Deal years.
However, this is not where the author’s heart lies. Though his book derives its value from his own theoretical and practical expertise as an instrumentalist and composer, he approaches the subject mainly as a fan. Those whose memory of jazz enthusiasts goes back to the years when this young classical horn player acquired his passion will recognize the characteristics of the period to which he belonged and about which he writes. Aficionados were and had to be self-taught, or taught from one or two books, like Hugues Panassié’s Hot Jazz, which “introduced many an American to this music, this writer included.” They developed their often impressive erudition by talking at length to musicians or anyone else connected with the business, by unceasing and sometimes polemical debate with other real jazz fans—the ones who would not be seen dead dancing to a jazz orchestra—but above all by concentrated and repeated listening to every 78 rpm record available. No “close reading” of poems in English literature classes can compare in intensity with the scrutiny of every moment of those magic three-and-a-half minutes.
Like its distinguished predecessor Early Jazz, The Swing Era will bring back the mood of early jazz writing and criticism of jazz: the weighing of bands and soloists against each other, the attention to every line written by other pioneers, the preoccupation with impassioned debates about what exactly “swing” is, and precisely how vital blacks or African influence are to jazz. Above all, like the earlier literature (but on an incomparably higher level of musical competence), the book is addressed to a readership as passionately involved in the subject as the author, and ready to follow him through more than 850 pages.
Essentially Schuller has written a series of monographs of bands and artists under classificatory headings (The Great Black Bands, The Great Soloists, The White Bands, Small Groups, etc.). They range in length from the 111 pages devoted to Ellington; through the forty or so for Basie, Armstrong, and, more surprising, if historically justifiable, Goodman; to ten to twenty each for most of some fifty others. The general format is a chronological critical commentary on the recorded oeuvre, preceded by general observations, and concluding with a brief and firm judgment. The argument is addressed to the musically literate.
Some readers may be tempted to regard this book as a work of critical reference for the moments when one is expected to show more knowledge of the likes of Claude Hopkins, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and the Casa Loma Orchestra than is reasonably expected in anyone not yet a senior citizen. (A work that fails to take an interest in boogie-woogie, country and city blues, and gospel can hardly claim to be encyclopedic.) Certainly this is not a volume likely to be read at one sitting, or designed for this purpose. The numerous musical illustrations are ideally intended to supplement the actual records from which they are transcribed. Yet The Swing Era should not be interred on the reference shelf with the fanfares, in this case justified, that usually greet the publication of any musically literate book about jazz.
For what makes this book important is not the author’s erudition—there are others who are equally learned about jazz—or even his critical discrimination, formidable though that is. There are other musically expert critics, even though few will want lightly to disagee with Schuller’s considered judgments, even when, as in the case of Art Tatum, he shows less enthusiasm than most of us. What makes Schuller invaluable is, first, that he writes as a man equally versed in classical music and jazz—after all, he is best known for championing a fusion of both in the Sixties under the name “Third Stream”—and, above all, that he is a lifelong, professional, practicing instrumentalist mentalist as well as a composer. (He played the French horn with the Miles Davis Nonet of 1949, which recorded The Birth of the Cool.)
The uniqueness of Schuller’s books lies in his awareness, based on his practical experience, of what musicians actually do on the bandstand and how they see their problems. The insight is central, since it is the democratic community of musicians that, after all, made and developed jazz, powered, as Schuller sees so well, by each artist’s “desire to learn and improve,…so powerful that new ideas…were gobbled up and digested in no time, everyone eager to push ahead to still newer discoveries.” He knows how much work was necessary to reach competitive instrumental supremacy, and what a strain the high Fs were on even Armstrong’s embouchure. He appreciates the desire to excel, to reach unclimbed peaks of virtuosity, and at the same time to create, the basic problem of the improviser being that he cannot command the highest flights of his imagination, but can only “bring his capacity for instantaneous invention to such a high level that it is never less than adequate unto the task, all the while hoping for (and occasionally being able to count on) those special days when he is particularly articulate.”
It takes a practicing musician to recognize what it means for a creative jazz singer to learn, rapidly and impeccably, hundreds of songs, most of them—in the 1930s—hot off the press. For “it is not possible to so thoroughly recompose and improvise upon that many songs without knowing them completely. You can only intelligently deviate from something…if you know it deeply.” How does the repertoire of “standards” for improvising musicians come into being? Schuller immediately shows, by listing the songs Armstrong recorded in 1930–1931, that his taste “was virtually infallible, considering the temptations to be otherwise; and apparently his choices were made rather instantaneously.” Of the “right” songs he missed a few—Gershwin’s “But Not for Me” and “Embraceable You” and Porter’s “Love for Sale”—but not many.
Only musicians do not need to be told that “by playing virtuoso eighth-note solos at top tempos, one can hide one’s tone deficiencies,” which explains why excellent saxophonists who wanted, to play like Coleman Hawkins but couldn’t were tempted to become “speed” players. Schuller’s experience in the business enables him to show that many stylistic characteristics of early jazz were imposed by the technical limitations of recording, or ballroom acoustics and noise. The sharp ear of the bandstand readily tells the difference between players with a genuine bent for improvisation and those who, having created a satisfactory composition, stick to it. Billie Holiday “did not really improvise, in the truest sense. Her performances were fixed beforehand…. Deviations from a first take will invariably be infinitesimal, cosmetic.”
Such observations, often incidental or even in footnotes, not only are among the chief pleasures of Schuller’s book, but give it its special value. Hardly anyone else can write on jazz with this authority. The Swing Era is indispensable to serious jazz lovers. If any are in doubt about this, Schuller’s twenty pages on Billie Holiday, a model of what first-rate jazz criticism should be, will decide the matter. However, the book is not what it claims to be, namely a study of the development of jazz from 1933 to 1945, though it contains a good deal of material for such a study. For this we would need to be told much more about the music business and its changes, the transformation of the record industry, including the rise of specialized aficionado labels, about the college and noncollege dancing public, the rise of the specialist jazz/pop press, and a number of other matters which are assumed as background information by those of Mr. Schuller’s generation, but cannot be taken for granted—perhaps even by those who rely on their memory. Above all, such a study calls for an inquiry into the political and cultural milieu of the Roosevelt era, which shaped the development of jazz to a considerable extent, often in a concrete way.
Take, for instance, the late John Hammond, “the most influential (non-performing) individual in the field…[whose] name—and good deeds on behalf of jazz—will run like a constant thread through this entire history.” And so they should. But how was it possible for any single person, however devoted to the Negro cause and to jazz, however well-connected and with however amazing a nose for talent, to exercise so much influence single-handedly? Because Hammond placed himself at the point of intersection of four forces: black popular music; the New York–centered (and politically open) music and record industry and its associated structure of bookers and agents; the Europeans, who formed the first nucleus of a specifically jazz record market; and above all, the culture of the New Deal progressives and the left to which he passionately assented.
For Hammond unquestionably saw his major contribution as bringing black talent out of the ghetto, and to win for it not simply the honor that was its due, but work and careers in a white, or ideally an integrated, world. But to convince white musicians to play or even record publicly with black ones, to open integrated clubs like Café Society as metropolitan showcases for (black) talent, even to get a roughneck band from Kansas City like Basie’s accepted by a major agency, took more in the 1930s than merely artistic or commercial decisions, even once it had been demonstrated that black swing was saleable. (And even this, as Schuller shows, had been partly engineered by Hammond, who persuaded Benny Goodman—whose band became the show window of so many later discoveries—to take over the material of the Fletcher Henderson band, which was to help make his fortune as the “King of Swing.”)
For jazz to go so far, it needed impresarios and entrepreneurs also committed to a cause, like the late Barney Josephson of Café Society (later driven out of business by the witch hunt). It required a certain public relaxation of an apartheid far stronger than we can now imagine. It needed the political and cultural populism so characteristic of the New Deal era, which generated a paying public for what could be publicized as coming from genuine poor folks: the musical equivalent of Steinbeck’s readers. It needed both selfless and expert enthusiasts, and welcoming receivers of the gospel like those who filled Carnegie Hall for the famous “Spirituals to Swing” concert.
In short, as the career of Billie Holiday demonstrates, the artistic development of jazz in the Thirties cannot be separated from its political and social setting, and Schuller’s book itself makes this clear. For whatever the mass success of a few big bands and singers, most jazz appealed to a specialized minority.
But for John Hammond’s commitment (and, of course, discernment), Billie Holiday would never have been discovered in a Harlem dive singing for tips in the intervals between hustling. But for disinterested guidance and help from sympathizers, she would not have been recorded adequately, or perhaps at all. But for a New York middle-class public with intellectual and populist inclinations, she would never have become a cabaret star in a politically hip Greenwich Village room run by the brother of a Comintern agent, and attended by the sort of writers who asked her to sing about lynching, a subject every commercial agent would have warned her against. “Strange Fruit,” which haunts everyone who has ever heard her sing it, may have tempted her into excessive later mannerisms. (Here Schuller and Hammond agree.) But it transformed her standing in the world, as well as among the “Leftwing and Park Avenue liberals, Greenwich Village intellectuals and bohemians” who idolized her, while “most Middle-America white swing fans never heard it and went on discovering Glenn Miller instead.” Which discovery has lasted better? If this unique artist is today universally recognized as a genius, it is in part because of the particular constellation of political and social tendencies of the late 1930s, without which none of us would even know that such a woman had ever lived.
Gunther Schuller, of course, knows all this. He has simply chosen to write about something else. To say that The Swing Era is not much of a contribution to the social and cultural history of the US or of jazz is not to criticize it, though one hopes that the author may one day find time to recall his memories and impressions of the musicians he plainly knew and observed so closely. The genre of the “jazz profile” has its pitfalls, such as the temptation to string together anecdotes, but such a book by Schuller would be enormously rewarding. In the meanwhile Gene Lees’s lively Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s, though dealing mainly with a later period, overlaps with The Swing Era with its portraits of Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington, the latter exceptionally perceptive.
No doubt others will write the history of the Swing Era, on which much remains to be said. Others will provide the balanced encyclopedic survey to which this author, with all his knowledge, prefers his personal choices. (In deference to critics who pointed out the virtual omission of Red Nichols’s kind of jazz from Early Jazz, Schuller has added some appreciative but anachronistic pages to the present volume.) The Swing Era is a labor of learning, of critical discernment and respect, of profound knowledge of how jazz and jazz musicians work. Together with the volume on jazz since the bop revolution that Schuller is now preparing, Early Jazz and The Swing Era will stand as a monumental contribution to jazz literature. What more, except readers, can any author hope for?
April 13, 1989