Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce


How does the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker fit into the great tradition of modernist art? In this book, an eminent cultural historian provides the answer and offers a brilliant new way of understanding jazz.
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New Haven 2004 Softbound 1st Softbound New 283 pages, Many photos-black and White and Color.

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How does the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker fit into the great tradition of modernist art? In this book, an eminent cultural historian provides the answer and offers a brilliant new way of understanding jazz.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300102734
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/10/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 283
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 0.44 (d)

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Jazz Modernism

From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce
By Alfred Appel

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Alfred Appel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300102739

Chapter One


This book seeks to establish the place of classic jazz (1920-50)-especially Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Jack Teagarden, and Charlie Parker-in the great modernist tradition in the arts. George and Ira Gershwin should also be in the immediate foreground, partly because they set a swift, efficient pace for readers: "I got rhythm, / I got music, / I got my man- / Who could ask for anything more?" sang Ethel Merman in the first Broadway production of Girl Crazy (1930), stopping the show every night. The song was recorded immediately by Ethel Waters and Kate Smith, black and white benchmarks of tasteful singing. It became a standard overnight, and is alive even now, in part because Ira Gershwin's slangy lyrics avoid rhyme-a fatal Tin Pan Alley trap-and allow the woman of the song to express her unabashed egotism and unqualified satisfaction with an amusing and unusually frank concision. Could Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce ask for anything more? Yes-the assurance that their books would endure and continue to be read one hundred years later.

The millennial blather of 1999 included the selection and publication of lists of the 100 Best in most everything, from athletes to novels. As a longtime university teacher, I was frequently asked, "What will last?" Forced to the wall, I gradually formed a short list of the modern masters who were still definitely holding their own with the educated public. Accessibility turned out to be their common denominator, the paradigmatic success of "I Got Rhythm" holding the key. The title's ungrammatical turn projects the gal's unselfconscious sincerity, which points to the wide vernacular base (from language to popular culture and architecture) shared by artists whose appeal seems steady and assured: Ernest Hemingway, who draws on a high school graduate's vocabulary; F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose dark symbolism in The Great Gatsby (1925) is clear enough, especially the fixing of the 1919 World Series and the spoiled gardens throughout the book; Robert Frost, for his vernacular symbolism, too; Pablo Picasso, whose most forceful representational paintings and sculptures of the 1925-40 period and assemblages and collages across the board have a cartoonlike clarity; Joan Miró, who strove mightily to conflate caricature and a child's vision; Alexander Calder, whose playful forms charm (too easily sometimes?) like idiosyncratic dance routines and children's art; and Henri Matisse, whose colors are as pleasing as music-to indulge a cliché that brings us to musicians of the classic jazz period.

The jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, Waller, et al. is the touchstone of accessibility. To disseminate it as widely as possible, I will treat it as part of mainstream culture rather than as the insular, marginalized province of enthusiastic fans alone. In matters pertaining to race and racial politics, my comparisons and unambiguous assertions should be stimulating if not definitive. A comparison of the ways in which sex is addressed by Armstrong, Waller, Picasso, Miró, Matisse, and James Joyce will extend well beyond the purview of jazz. My musical emphasis is on singing and the lyrics of songs, because words lend themselves to discourse more readily than do musical notes: "Singing was more into my blood than trumpet," Armstrong wrote in 1970. As singers, Armstrong, Waller, Teagarden, and Holiday typically had to modify or tear apart and rebuild poor or mediocre Tin Pan Alley material in a procreative manner analogous to the ways in which modernists such as Picasso begot paper collage, wood assemblage, and metal sculpture. "I'm king of the ragpickers!" Picasso proclaimed gleefully around 1930, after he had created Woman in a Garden, his first welded tin-and-iron sculpture, proof that machines do not rule (fig. 9). Picasso's proposed memorial to the open-minded poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1928) visualizes a royal ragpicker's best weapon, its two concave frontal wire "feelers" representing a powerful antenna/radar/satellite dish/magnet combination that won't miss a thing, especially since it's grounded by six legs (frontispiece). With or without such divining rods and antennae, a King or Queen of the Ragpickers is a representative figure, confronting and ordering chaos-our goal, simply said, in life if not art. Picasso's royal metaphor is apt here because it gilds the grim reality of the day as documented by Atget (fig. 7). Picasso's classic collage Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass-dated November 18, 1912, diary-style-contains three kinds of rags, of found stuff, and is at once a manifesto, a song, and a strong opening act for this book.

LE JOU, the truncated masthead of the newspaper Le Journal, leaps out like the advertising on one of the theatrical posters that were so conspicuous on the cluttered outdoor walls and kiosks of Belle Epoque Paris. The headline reads LA BATAILLE S'EST ENGAGÉ, a reference to the start of a battle in the Balkans, the last word excised to emphasize the idea and vernacular metaphor of life as an open-ended series of wars-especially with women, in Picasso's notorious case, as documented early by works such as Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), his nightmare brothel. His truncated jou announces a course for survival by evoking the verb jouer, "to play," "to sport," "to gambol"-excellent if challenging bottom-line advice for any and all battlers, though Picasso himself seems to have followed it happily, on November 18, anyway, given the sunny depths of the two-dimensional collage whose yellowed newsprint and sheet music bits were once an even more optimistic white.

As it happens, the guitar also constitutes a trompe l'oeil woman, the turquoise guitar neck serving as an antic but fashionable hat, the white hole as a nose, the wooden hairdo on the left positioned above a black Cheshire cat grin-a cartoon configuration to be sure (Lucy in Peanuts?), but hardly a joke inasmuch as the volatile Picasso has achieved a literally perfect balance here between wine, women (he had a new love), and song. The sheet music contains a complementary verbal fragment of song that ends with "tes bel," meaning "thy beautiful"-an adjective that would modify the missing next word. But the lyric fragment suffices since everything before us does harmonize beautifully, in a modernist's unsentimental way. Picasso's jou dominates BATAILLE-the art of survival.

To call Armstrong, Waller, et al. "modernists" is to appreciate their procedures as alchemists of the vernacular who have "jazzed" the ordinary and given it new life. (In the 1920s the verb jazz also meant fornicate.) But "modernist" is too broad and loose a term, including as it does T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, among others, who cultivated and collected far fewer rags than Picasso did, and used vernacular lingo to connote vulgarity. The tag "Jazz Modernism" has more legs. It is inspired by Matisse's large-format illustrated book titled Jazz (1947). He "performed" most of it in 1944, under arduous circumstances during the German occupation of France. Because illness made easel painting difficult, Matisse cut images out of paper and arranged them as collages from which his assistant prepared stencils and then made prints. The twenty images in Jazz are nonmusical and unprepossessing subjects drawn principally from the circus and everyday life-e.g., The Clown (fig. 14) and The Swimmer in the Pool(fig. 101).Jazz as a title at once telegraphs a stalwart attitude, constitutes a synonym for "vitality" and "vernacular"-a jazz "Jingle Bells," say-and informs a helpful new generic term. The forms of "Jazz Modernism" may approach abstraction, as in Jazz, but the titles affixed to the pictures by the artist should make them accessible, as Matisse's do-a necessity if the art, literature, and music in question are to have a life beyond the classroom and required reading list. There is reason enough to be afraid of James Joyce, and to hope that Apollinaire's dynamically wired antennae system might also stand for our ability to perceive as well as receive.

Ulysses (1922) is the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and was so voted by "a panel of experts" gathered by the Modern Library to select the 100 Best Novels. The victory of Ulysses occurred in the wake of my discovery that my long-held projection of a better future for Molly and Leopold Bloom is quite wrong. Aside from Stephen Dedalus, the novel is principally about the Blooms' marital crisis. Bloom is thirty-eight years old, Molly almost thirty-three, but they haven't had complete, successful sexual intercourse for more than ten years, owing to the death of their infant son, or so close readers are led to believe-"we were never the same since," thinks Molly (Modern Library edition, 1961, page 778*). But the famous affirmative prose poetry of Molly Bloom's closing soliloquy, in which she says "yes" eighty-seven times, distributed with musical discretion across her forty-five pages (she's a singer), augurs well for their conjugal future, their marital happiness-or so most of the professors have been telling their students all these years, including Vladimir Nabokov, when he taught at Cornell University (1948-58). But bits and pieces of evidence scattered through Ulysses actually indicate that Mr. and Mrs. Bloom will remain sexually dysfunctional. Mr. Bloom (as Joyce always calls him, out of respect) is too preoccupied by thoughts of coprolagnia, masochism, sodomy, and anal eroticism, as when he places good-night kisses "on each plump meloneous hemisphere" of Molly's rump (Ulysses, page 734). By rereading Ulysses with only its problematic sex in mind, determined to connect all the blots, so to speak, I came to the conclusion, after forty years of teaching Ulysses, that vaginal intercourse is simply repugnant to Bloom-out of the question. Some schools of thought would rule him a repressed homosexual. The road to truth is a long one. Nor is this jazz modernism.

As for the students, thirty years ago I began an annual prize competition to see if anyone could identify any of the twenty-eight writers of English prose, from the Anglo-Saxons through the Victorians, who are parodied in Joyce's so-called Oxen of the Sun chapter. Not one writer was ever identified by any of the three thousand students, many of them smart indeed, as I could tell from their responses to Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nabokov (Lolita but not Pale Fire), and Hemingway especially. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) found middling to modest spots in the Modern Library's ranking (45 and 72, respectively), but who can doubt why Hemingway continues to hold the attention of enormous numbers of readers? This, from "The Killers" (1927), when they're setting up an ambush in a diner near Chicago, then the jazz as well as crime center of America:

"Talk to me, bright boy," Max said. "What do you think's going to happen?"

George did not say anything.

"I'll tell you," Max said. "We're going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?"


"He comes here to eat every night, don't he?"

"Sometimes he comes here."

"He comes here at six o'clock, don't he?"

"If he comes."

"We know all that, bright boy," Max said. "Talk about something else. Ever go to the movies?"

"Once in a while."

"You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you."

For many readers today, such syncopated dialogue beats the ruminations of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.

The appeal of Hemingway's jazz modernism is not a simple matter. His repetition of the physical verbs "come" and "go" make everything seem to move or jump, even though the two killers are usually seated or standing still. The passage's withering "bright boy" sounds twenty-nine times in the short span of six pages, like an angry drum rimshot or a "bomb," as the bebop drummers of the atomic era, 1945 on, would term their signature idiosyncrasy, delivered by the left hand-a loud, sometimes jarring asymmetrical thump that interrupts and plays off the sizzling forward flow sustained on the large ride cymbal by the right hand, creating rather than releasing considerable but exhilarating tension. The story's heady syncopated prose is morally equivocal, bifurcated, and polyrhythmic in the sense that it points to two Hemingways: first, the assertively manly male, who walked in the tracks of Al and Max as an aficionado of the bull ring and killer of big game and, as a combat journalist in Spain and World War II, was drawn compulsively to the dangers of war; and, second, the refined artist, heir of both Flaubert and Mark Twain, who lifts us in "The Killers" with his rat-a-tat-tat prose. The reader also senses that such a runaway pulse alone could kill you soon enough.

"Rhythm Saved the World" is the title of a 1936 Armstrong number, and it summarizes the cardiovascular truth and root appeal of poetry, music, and dance indulged sensibly. Machines save the world and run rhythmically, states Fernand Léger in Disks (1918), the artist's horrific experiences in World War I notwithstanding (fig. 6). As for pacemakers, Jo Jones, the drummer with Count Basie's greatest bands (1936-48), is, with Big Sid Catlett, the most important drummer of the classic jazz period (fig. 2). A well-schooled musician, singer, and excellent tap dancer who could play the piano, the trumpet, and several kinds of saxophones, Jones was the first jazz drummer to transfer the basic rhythmic pulse from the bass drum to the hi-hat, the two small cymbals that are struck by operating a foot pedal. Although Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson had greater technique than Jones, and Kenny Clarke was more radical, creating the bebop style out of Jones, Papa Jo-as he was called-possessed unrivaled imagination, developed by necessity in the 1920s, when, in addition to jazz, he also worked in vaudeville, carnival, and circus bands, learning how to introduce, accompany, accent, and improve every kind of act, from knife throwers to acrobatic, somersaulting dogs. Matisse's Interior with a Violin Case (1918-19) is a good example of a needy case (fig. 3). If the violin is being played (the case is empty), the sonic effect isn't tonic enough for Jo Jones, who is warming up in the adjoining chamber and wants to transfuse and renovate Matisse's wishy-washy interior by defining the curtains, widening the red, making the blacks on the dressing table jump and the eel-like designs really dance, preferably next to a solid blue vista, a more riveting Riviera.



Excerpted from Jazz Modernism by Alfred Appel Copyright © 2004 by Alfred Appel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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