Read an Excerpt
The Jazz Book
From Ragtime to the 21st Century
By Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Günther Huesmann, H. and B. Bredigkeit, Dan Morgenstern, Tim Nevill, Jeb Bishop
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2005 Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH., Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
The Styles of Jazz
Jazz has always been the concern of a minority — always. Even in the age of Swing, the thirties, the jazz of creative black musicians was — except for very few recordings — recognized by only a few. Still, taking an active interest in jazz means working for a majority, because the popular music of our times feeds on jazz: all the music we hear in TV series and elevators, in hotel lobbies and in ads, in movies and on MP3 players; all the music to which we dance, from Charleston to rock, funk and hip-hop; all those sounds that daily engulf us — all that music comes from jazz (because their beats came to Western music through jazz).
Taking an active interest in jazz means improving the quality of the "sounds around us" — the level of musical quality, which implies, if there is any justification in talking about musical quality, the spiritual, intellectual, human quality — the level of our consciousness. In these times, when musical sounds accompany the takeoff of a plane as well as a detergent sales pitch, the "sounds around us" directly influence our way of life, the quality of our lives. That is why we can say that taking an active interest in jazz means carrying some of the power, warmth, and intensity of jazz into our lives.
Because of this, there is a direct and concretely demonstrable connection between the different kinds, forms, and styles of jazz on the one hand and the periods and spaces of time of their creation on the other hand.
The most impressive thing about jazz, aside from its musical value, in our opinion is its stylistic development. The evolution of jazz shows the continuity, logic, unity, and inner necessity that characterize all true art. This development constitutes a whole, and those who single out one phase and view it as either uniquely valid or as an aberration destroy this wholeness of conception. They distort that unity of large-scale evolution without which one can speak of fashions, but not of styles. It is our conviction that the styles of jazz are genuine and reflect their own particular times in the same sense that classicism, baroque, romanticism, and impressionism reflect their respective periods in European concert music.
Let's suggest one way of getting an impression of the wealth and scope of the different jazz styles. After reading about the early styles, ragtime and New Orleans, skip a few chapters and jump into the one on free jazz, listening to some of the characteristic records as well (which can easily be found with the help of the discography at the end of the book). What other art form has developed such contrasting, yet clearly interrelated, styles within a span of only fifty years?
It is important to be aware of the flowing, streamlike character of jazz history. It certainly is no coincidence that the word stream has been used again and again by jazz critics and musicians in connection with different jazz styles — interestingly enough, as "mainstream" first for Swing jazz, later for the main tendency of today's jazz, or as in "third stream." There is one mighty stream that flows from New Orleans right up to our contemporary music. Even breaks or revolutions in this history, such as the emergence of bebop or, later, free jazz, appear in retrospect as organic or even inevitable developments. The stream may flow over cataracts or form eddies or rapids from time to time, but it continues to flow on as ever the same stream. No one style "replaces" another; one isn't "better" than another. Each incorporates what went before — everything that went before.
Many great jazz musicians have felt the connection between their playing styles and the times in which they live. The untroubled joy of Dixieland corresponds to the days just prior to World War I. The restlessness of the Roaring Twenties comes to life in the Chicago style. Swing embodies the massive standardization of life before World War II; perhaps, to quote Marshall Stearns, Swing "was the answer to the American — and very human — love of bigness." Bebop captures the nervous restlessness of the forties. Cool jazz seems to reflect the resignation of men who live well yet know that H-bombs are being stockpiled. Hard bop is full of protest, soon turned into conformity by the fashion for funk and soul music. This protest gains uncompromising, often angry urgency in free jazz, which characterized the period of the civil rights movement and the student revolt. In the seventies there was a renewed phase of consolidation. Some aspects of jazz-rock went along with the age's faith in technology. The jazz of the eighties, on the other hand, expresses much of the skepticism of people who live amid affluence but also know where ongoing unquestioned progress has brought them. In its pluralism and its aggressive multistylistic tendencies, the jazz of the nineties is a reaction to the data explosion of the information age. What has been said in such a generalized and simplified way here is even more applicable to the many different styles of individual musicians and bands.
Many jazz musicians have viewed attempts at reconstructing past jazz styles with skepticism. They know that historicism runs counter to the nature of jazz. Jazz stands and falls on being alive, and whatever lives, changes. When Count Basie's music became a worldwide success in the fifties, Lester Young, who had been one of the leading soloists of the old Basie band, was asked to participate in a recording with his old teammates for the purpose of reconstructing the Basie style of the thirties. "I can't do it," Lester said. "I don't play that way any more. I play different; I live different. This is later. That was then. We change, move on." Obviously, this is also true about contemporary reconstructions of historical jazz styles.
Around 1890: Ragtime
Jazz originated in New Orleans: a truism, with all that is true and false about such statements. It is true that New Orleans was the most important city in the genesis of jazz. It is false that it was the only one. Jazz — the music of a continent, a century, a civilization — was too much in the air to be reducible to the patented product of a single city. Similar ways of playing evolved in Memphis and St. Louis, in Dallas and Kansas City, in other cities of the South and Midwest. And this, too, is the hallmark of a style: different people in different places making the same (or similar) artistic discoveries independently of each other.
It has become customary to speak of New Orleans style as the first style in jazz. But before New Orleans style developed, there was ragtime. Its capital was not New Orleans but Sedalia, Missouri, where Scott Joplin had settled. Joplin, born in Texas in 1868, was the leading ragtime composer and pianist — and thus we have made the decisive point about ragtime: It was largely composed, primarily pianistic music. Since it was composed, it lacks one essential characteristic of jazz: improvisation. Yet ragtime swings, at least in a rudimentary sense, and so it is considered part of jazz. And the practice of not only interpreting rags but also using them as themes for jazz improvisations began quite early.
What today seems the epitome of ragtime — the piano rags of Scott Joplin and others — is in fact a late peak in a long development involving an abundance of ragtime forms: vocal ragtime songs, Texan banjo rags (which musicologists assume served as the basis for piano ragtime), ragtimes for brass bands and rags for strings, and ragtime waltzes written by composers who were often more popular than Joplin, even though today they are only known to specialists.
Posterity only remembers the "classic" piano ragtime. Justly so, since it crystallized not only the most artistically valuable aspects of ragtime but also the elements that were to influence jazz most (whereas ragtime songs became important for the tradition of the popular song).
"Classic" ragtime seems to be composed in the style of nineteenth-century piano music. Sometimes it appears to adhere to the trio form of the classical minuet; at others it consists of several successive formal units, as in the waltzes of Johann Strauss. It is, however, important to realize — and this characterizes the complexity of the development of African American music — that the forms of ragtime also have African origins. Additive forms are even more important in African than in European music. In ragtime, European music and African music met as equals for the first time in America.
Pianistically too, ragtime reflects much of nineteenth-century music. Everything of importance at that time can be found there, from Chopin and above all Liszt to marches and polkas, all recast in the rhythmic conception and dynamic way of playing of African Americans. And that was also how it was perceived: ragtime is, as the name suggests, "ragged time." Unlike in European music, rhythm dictates the melody.
Ragtime was particularly popular in the camps of workers building the great railroads across the American continent. Ragtime was heard everywhere — in Sedalia and Kansas City, in St. Louis and Texas, Joplin's home state. The composers of rags hammered their pieces into player-piano rolls, which were distributed by the thousands.
That was way before the time of the phonograph, and at first little was known about all this. Only in the fifties were substantial numbers of the old piano rolls rediscovered, sometimes quite accidentally in places like antique stores and junk shops, and transferred to records.
Aside from Joplin, there were many other ragtime pianists: Tom Turpin, a St. Louis bar owner (particularly melodically inventive); Joseph Lamb, a textile merchant (celebrated for the complex motivic interweavings in his rags); Louis Chauvin; May Aufderheide; and, above all, Eubie Blake. At the age of ninety, Blake made a spectacular comeback at the great 1973 Newport-New York Jazz Festival and even had his own Broadway show in the late seventies. Blake made thousands of young people who no longer knew what ragtime was "rag conscious" once again. He died in 1983, just a few days after his hundredth birthday.
There were several whites among the great rag pianists around the turn of the century, and it is significant that even experts were not able to detect differences in playing style between blacks and whites. Ragtime, as Orrin Keepnews once put it, is "on the cool side."
Scott Joplin was a master of melodic invention. He was amazingly productive, and among his more than thirty rags are such melodies as "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer" (which became immensely popular in 1973, almost sixty years after Joplin's death, through the motion picture The Sting). In Joplin, as in ragtime per se, the old European tradition merged with the black rhythmic feeling. Ragtime, more than any other form of jazz, may be described as "white music, played black." How much Joplin was at home in the European tradition is apparent not only in the construction of his rags, but also in the fact that he composed a symphony and two operas.
Among the first musicians to liberate themselves from the strictures of the composer-imposed interpretation of rags and take a freer and more jazzlike approach to melodic material was Jelly Roll Morton, one of the important musicians with whom the New Orleans tradition begins. "I invented jazz in 1902," he once claimed, and on his business card he described himself as "creator of ragtime." Both statements are hyperbole, but Morton is important as the first known jazz pianist who truly improvised on themes, mostly his own, that were rags or derived from ragtime music.
In Morton we recognize for the first time the decisive fact that the personality of the performing musician is more important in jazz than the material contributed by the composer.
Jelly Roll carried the ragtime tradition to the Chicago of the Roaring Twenties, and even to California. Other pianists — James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and young Fats Waller — kept ragtime, or at least the ragtime tradition, alive in New York during the twenties. At that time, apart from the "boogie-woogie" musicians, there was scarcely a jazz pianist whose origins could not be traced, in one way or another, to ragtime.
Turn of the Century: New Orleans
At the turn of the century, New Orleans was a witches' cauldron of peoples and races. The city had been under Spanish and French rule prior to the Louisiana Purchase. French and Spaniards, followed by English and Italians, and lastly joined by Germans and Slavs, faced the descendants of the countless Africans brought here as slaves. And among the black population as well there were differences in nationality and culture no less significant than those, say, between the whites from England and the whites from Spain.
All these voluntary and involuntary immigrants loved first of all their own music: what they wanted to keep alive as sounds of home. In New Orleans, people sang British folk songs, danced Spanish dances, played French dance and ballet music, and marched to the strains of brass bands based on Prussian or French models. Hymns and chorales of Puritans and Catholics, Baptists and Methodists could be heard in the churches; mingled with all these sounds were the "shouts" of the black street vendors, and the black dances and rhythms. As late as the 1850s, blacks congregated periodically in Congo Square to perform voodoo rites, thus preserving a cult with origins in ancient African traditions. Recent converts to Christianity, they celebrated the new god in song and dance much as they had honored the deities of their native land. Old New Orleans must have been an incredibly musical city. We know of some thirty orchestras from the first decade of the twentieth century. To appreciate what that means, you have to know that the Crescent City had little more than two hundred thousand inhabitants then. And in a city of that size, there were thirty orchestras, playing a vital, new kind of music.
All this created an atmosphere that made the New Orleans of those days a symbol of strange, exotic romanticism for travelers from all parts of the earth. It is certainly a myth that this city in the Mississippi River delta was the sole birthplace of jazz, but New Orleans was indeed the point where many important aspects of the music first crystallized. New Orleans was a watershed — for the music of the countryside, such as the work songs of the black plantation laborers; for the spirituals that were sung during the religious services for which they gathered under open skies; and for the old "primitive" blues-folk songs. All these things merged in the earliest forms of jazz.
W. C. Handy, the blues composer, related that the music played in Memphis around 1905 was not very different from that of New Orleans. "But we didn't discover until 1917 that New Orleans had such music, too," Handy said. "Every circus band played this way." The entire Mississippi delta was full of the new sounds — all rising independent of each other. "The river and the city were equally important to jazz."
New Orleans, in spite of this, held a special place. Well into the thirties, more than half of the important jazz musicians came from there. Four reasons may have been decisive:
First, the old French-Spanish urban culture of the Crescent City, favoring cultural interchanges, unlike other American cities where Puritanism and Victorian values predominated.
Second, the tensions and challenges arising from the fact that, as we shall see, two decidedly different black populations confronted each other here.
Third, the intense musical life of the city in terms of European "serious" and popular music, to which the blacks were constantly exposed.
And finally, the fact that all these varied elements came together in Storyville, the city's red-light district, relatively free of prejudice or class consciousness.
The two African American populations of New Orleans were the Creoles and the "American Negroes." However, obviously, the Creoles, in the geographical sense, were just as "American" as other blacks — perhaps even more so. The Creoles of Louisiana emerged from the old French colonial culture. They were not, like other blacks, descendants of slaves who had gained freedom at the end of the Civil War. Their ancestors had been free much longer. Many of them had been freed by rich French planters or merchants for reasons of distinguished service. The term Free Negro was an important one in old New Orleans.
The Creole African Americans had made French culture their own. Many were wealthy businessmen. Their main language was not English but Creole, a French patois with admixtures of Spanish and African words. Their names were French: Alphonse Picou, Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard, Albert Nicholas, Buddy Petit, Freddie Keppard, Papa and Louis deLisle Nelson, Kid Ory, etc. It was an honor to be a Creole. Jelly Roll Morton took great pains to make clear that he was a Creole and that his real name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe.
Excerpted from The Jazz Book by Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Günther Huesmann, H. and B. Bredigkeit, Dan Morgenstern, Tim Nevill, Jeb Bishop. Copyright © 2005 Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH., Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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