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Princeton University Press
Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

by David Yaffe
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691123578
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/27/2005
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 434,145
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

David Yaffe's writings have appeared in many publications, including the New Republic, The Nation, the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice, Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University.

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Fascinating Rhythm

Reading Jazz in American Writing
By David Yaffe

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12357-8


In Donald Barthelme's short story "The King of Jazz," attempts to describe a trombone solo by Hokie Mokie demonstrate the folly of jazz writing. The story narrates a cutting contest between Mokie, the former "King of Jazz," and his Japanese contender as onlookers grasp for superlatives. The dethroned trombonist, whose playing had earlier been described as having an "epiphanic glow" with a style known as "English Sunrise," emerges with a solo so thrilling that it inspires a series of questions that build to their own absurdist crescendo:

You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mount Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witch grass tumbling or a river meandering?That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas?

Barthelme famously observed that "the principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century," but these descriptions, even when patched together, do not add up to much-and that is Barthelme's point. Hokie Mokie might be blowing his trombone with superb virtuosity, but the act of matching it to language is, to paraphrase Barthelme, about as elegant as a herd of musk ox in full flight. With each simile more useless than the last, Barthelme demonstrates the pomposity, hubris, and failure of language when it is applied to jazz.

Since "The King of Jazz" is a parody, Barthelme offered no alternative to a jazz writing built on ridiculously insufficient similes. In recent years, jazz and literature scholars have been attempting to do just that. Some of the most important work now being done in jazz studies engages in research that says as much about what jazz musicians thought of themselves as it does about the writers who were inspired by them. Recent examples would include John Szwed's anthropological journey into the minds of Sun Ra and Miles Davis (Space is the Place and So What); Krin Gabbard's shrewd scholarship of the cinematic, psychoanalytic, and racial terrain of the jazz canon (Jammin' at the Margins and his anthologies Representing Jazz and Jazz Among the Discourses); Robert O'Meally's and Farah Jasmine Griffin's demystifications of Billie Holiday (O'Meally's Lady Day and Griffin's If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery); Ingrid Monson and Paul Berliner's semantics of improvisation (Monson's Saying Something and Berliner's Thinking in Jazz); Scott DeVeaux's rewriting of the history of bebop (The Birth of Bebop); Eric Porter's account of jazz musicians as critics and activists (What is this Thing Called Jazz?); Fred Moten's theoretical investigations into African American Aesthetics (In the Break); Brent Hayes Edwards's international inquiries into improvisation's syntax ("Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat," "The Literary Ellington"); Michael Jarrett's demonstrations of jazz as a pedagogical model (Drifting on a Read); Aldon Nielsen's limning of postmodernism and postbop aesthetics (Black Chant); Eric Lott's narratives about America's ongoing minstrel show and bebop's social consequences (Love and Theft and "Double V., Double Time"); and Scott Saul's historical narrative about how jazz musicians pressured the social upheavals of the 1960s (Freedom is, Freedom Ain't). These are among the many scholarly studies that have been important for this one, and the interdisciplinary work on this subject is just getting started.

Fascinating Rhythm builds on these scholarly conversations, using narrative, anecdote, and musical analysis to unravel what has often been a convoluted interaction between jazz and American writing. Throughout this study, when I describe performances by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, or Miles Davis, I hope that I have used literary devices with more precision than have Barthelme's commentators. Part of what makes "The King of Jazz" funny is that the arcane similes are doled out as part of a conversation between effete jazz snobs who know all the rules. The musicians, meanwhile, are oblivious-they are too mired in a cutting contest to pay attention to prattle-and the uninitiated are left out in the cold. If mystification is inevitable, demystification is, on its own, sterilizing. The purpose of this study is not to dismiss the inspiration that jazz provided for novelists and poets, but to see if literary writing about jazz can hold up to a serious historical, aesthetic, and biographical investigation of the music and the artists who made it.

The jazz fan is such a marginal cultural figure that he-and it is, alas, often "he"-spends a considerable amount of energy identifying the places where the music is misrepresented when it does make it into cultural arenas outside clubs, festivals, and reissue packages. Sometimes, these arguments are about trivial carelessness: how could Cameron Crowe misidentify the year of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane Stockholm concert in the film Jerry McGuire as 1963? (It was 1960.) But getting jazz wrong can also have more troubling implications. When Norman Mailer claimed that "jazz is orgasm" in "The White Negro" (1957), he was not simply off base in his conflation; the word "jazz" has been associated with everything from an African word for "jism" to a synonym for "fuck"-a meaning upheld even by Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis. And yet in the year when Mailer wrote this, Coltrane was famous for practicing so extensively that he could spend an entire day on the same scale. His regimen was so demanding, he would even practice using harp and violin books, too, insatiably reaching beyond what his instrument was designed to produce. What Coltrane produced might have sounded like ecstasy to Mailer, but it was rehearsed and thought out with a religious devotion. In the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and other figures Mailer revered, that orgasmic sensibility was expressed with a level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication he never recognized. Because improvisation was not notated, it was often confused with mere unrestrained id, and forty years after Mailer's essay, Allen Ginsberg still claimed of bebop that "anyone can pick up an axe and blow." Mailer's and Ginsberg's characterizations of jazz as noble savagery are not that different from a statement overheard by Miles Davis on a night when he was sharing the bandstand with Charlie Parker: comedian Milton Berle referred to the band as "headhunters," a derisive epithet reclaimed by bop musicians who spoke of "cutting heads" in jam sessions, and revised generations later as the name of Herbie Hancock's wildly successful fusion band. Getting jazz wrong in literary writing has often been a case of underestimating the complexity of jazz musicians-even in intended admiration.

I would be equally remiss if I did not take these levels of understanding into account. If this study does not offer a single unified theory that can explain representations of jazz in writing, it is because the music itself has steadfastly eluded stable definition. "Jazz is only what you are," said Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Anthony Braxton, to name only a few, have all expressed misgivings with the word. This study will not attempt to impose order where it does not exist. Nor will it attempt to be an exhaustive account of jazz's representations in the history of American writing-a work that would necessarily span volumes.

Jazz fans are often notorious completists, but the musicians often resist the whims of collectors and requesters. I remember seeing Hancock playing a trio gig at the Blue Note in 1995, accompanied by Ron Carter on bass and Gene Jackson on drums. At one point, a white man of advanced years began calling out for a Vincent Youmans number. "More Than You Know!" the patron called out. "More Than You Know?" Hancock replied. "You see, we only rehearsed certain songs. If we had anticipated every song you were going to call out, that ... would have been a long rehearsal." There will be readers of this book who will wonder why certain authors are not discussed at length here. This study is neither an encyclopedia nor an attempt to uncover every last reference to jazz in American letters. That would have been a long rehearsal.

And there are plenty of texts that made it into my rehearsal but not the final cut, and this is not because I am unaware of them, but because they simply did not fit into my rhetorical strategy. So while, for example, the first chapter examines the relationships between blacks and Jews in jazz and literature, there is no discussion of Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues. Why? Mezzrow was a friend of Armstrong, a hepcat, pothead, and Virgil through the jazz matrix-a Jew who actually believed he had physically turned black. All this is of tremendous interest, but since this is a book that examines writers on the level of Philip Roth or Ralph Ellison, or musicians as vital as Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus, Mezzrow, a mediocre clarinet player and entertaining, if sentimental writer, could neither write like Ellison nor wail clarinet like Sidney Bechet. His importance, in other words, resides more in the realm of anthropological interest than aesthetic exactitude, and thus does not fit with the figures examined in depth here. Other modes will reveal much about ethnic appropriation in his wild narrative. There are many other writers that merit attention in this book but do not get it, and an entire study could be written about what is not included here-including William Carlos Williams's "Old Bunk's Band," Toni Morrison's Jazz, Elizabeth Bishop's "Songs for a Colored Singer," and William Melvin Kelley's A Drop of Patience, in which the music is never described, but the metaphor of the struggling performer is depicted with harrowing immediacy. These out-takes deserve to be polished off and appreciated, but they simply did not fit into the narrative I was weaving here. A study of equal length could certainly be written about the writers I did not include.

What this book does examine is a series of crucial moments when jazz has surfaced in the work of major American novelists, poets, and playwrights, and how, in turn, the musicians chose to represent themselves in autobiographies. The movement of this book is more thematic than it is historical or syllogistic. Jazz history is an unstable mass of recordings, liner notes, reviews, biographies, documentaries, and endless arguments. I have used that history-a history that is itself still in revision-as the basis for what Ralph Ellison would have called a "jazz-shaped" reading of some American literary texts.

This book tells a story of how Ellison's description of a Louis Armstrong record led to a jazz repertory movement labeled as "neoconservative"; how Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus's distinct aesthetics clashed in the recording studio; how a Billie Holiday performance left Frank O'Hara's muse breathless; how a Bessie Smith-inspired record saved Salinger's Holden Caulfield from phonies; and how autobiographies by Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis both reinforced and redeemed jazz's red-light district origins. I have let jazz history-more nuanced, distanced, and researched now than it was for many of the writers discussed in this study-serve as a background for the texts, often allowing it to demonstrate how literary writing can be both dated and prophetic. The distinct role jazz played in ethnic relations, the Ellisonian formation of the jazz canon, the collision between the poetics of jazz and jazz-inspired poetry, and the revelations and mystifications surfacing in jazz autobiography-all of these subjects will be given close attention in this study.

In attempting to describe jazz, writers have used the technical language of musicology, the contextual devices of history, the complex dialogue of race, or resorted to figurative language, using those very images, metaphors, and similes parodied in "The King of Jazz" to describe rhythms, chords, tones and the ephemeral drama of improvisation. When Ellison wrote about the music, he took all of these factors into account. In the prologue to Invisible Man, Ellison balanced literary devices, harmonic insight, and history when he used a metaphor to describe how Louis Armstrong "bent that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound." Ellison's image is as ambitious as one of Barthelme's absurdist similes. It simultaneously addresses the "bent" thirds of the blues with a reference to Armstrong's early cornet training at the Colored Waif 's Home. And yet it is also steeped in Armstrong's technique, idiom, and biography, as well as a metaphysical conceit indebted to T. S. Eliot. For jazz to be a guiding principle for a major modernist novel was a remarkable achievement indeed. It was a turning point in the middle of a trajectory that this study follows from Hart Crane's 1923 attempt to "transform jazz into words" in his poem "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" to Richard Powers's 2003 novel The Time of Our Singing, in which the biracial Strom brothers discover jazz with the discipline of prodigies.

It has been difficult for writers to approach an art form that confounds Western principles of notation and empirical analysis. In the heart of the so-called Jazz Age-a term F. Scott Fitzgerald used as a generational signifier more than a specific discourse about a musical art-jazz music was either mystified by white writers like Crane or set to mellifluous verse for those already in the know by Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes. The music itself, though, remained as indeterminate as a modernist poem. What, after all, is jazz? Is it a radical rejection of popular music or is it just more popular music? Is it about improvisational audacity or structural intricacy? Does it embody racial strife or transcend it? Is jazz about being in the moment or does it make a self-conscious statement about that moment? The answer to these questions would turn out to be "all of the above," but it was midway into the music's rapid-fire development before Ellison could catch up with it.

Ethnic strife obfuscated an understanding of jazz among many writers during its most fertile moments of development, but among the musicians themselves, interethnic dialogue happened much sooner. The first chapter, "White Negroes and Native Sons," shows that the story of black-Jewish relations is one of opposition in the literary texts of Bellow, Mailer, and Baldwin, but one of collaboration in the music of George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman, and others. Ellison lamented on PBS that there was no equivalent of an Alfred Kazin of jazz, and as a Century Club member in the 1960s, he found looking for New York Intellectuals who took the music seriously to be a lonely business. The Jews who learned to read in a different way were jazz musicians like Red Rodney, Benny Goodman, and Stan Getz. If literary texts were the only evidence of black-Jewish relations, there would be J. D. Salinger admiring Bessie Smith from afar, Amiri Baraka concocting versified conspiracy theories about Israel, Saul Bellow wondering if there could be a Zulu Tolstoy, Mailer's "jazz is orgasm." The collaborations of blacks and Jews tell a different story: when George Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm" was hermeneutically developed at Harlem's Minton's under the aegis of "rhythm changes"and by artists including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, the idiom of bebop was invented partly as the result of an inter-ethnic exchange. These "rhythm changes" were flying around decades before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but when it came to the music that was produced, who could ask for anything more?


Excerpted from Fascinating Rhythm by David Yaffe Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Notes 199
Bibliography 215
Index 225

What People are Saying About This

Harold Bloom

David Yaffe's Fascinating Rhythm is a marvelously evocative celebration of the interrelationships between modern American writing and jazz, which is in itself the outstanding American contribution to the arts, at least since Walt Whitman. I find particularly poignant the understanding that Ralph Ellison's true sequel to his Invisible Man was his poetics of jazz.

John Szwed

Yaffe is one of the best informed—probably the best—of the younger scholars working in the relationship of jazz and the arts. His writing is clear, his descriptions evocative, and his comments judicious and shrewd. This is a book that should be read by serious students of America's arts, including the jazz scholars, and those in literature, American history, and American studies.
John Szwed, Yale University

Scott Saul

Written with a combination of vigor and shrewdness that is rare in jazz studies, Fascinating Rhythm possesses a clarity of argument that is both inviting and provocative. Yaffe captures the flavor of the jazz musicians and writers he covers—something of the elegance of Ralph Ellison, the saltiness of Miles Davis, and the bristle and energy of Charles Mingus.
Scott Saul, University of California, Berkeley

Cornel West

This is a fascinating and formidable response to Ralph Ellison's famous call for a 'jazz-shaped' reading of American literature. Yaffe's bold and often brilliant treatments of black-Jewish relations in twentieth-century U.S. culture, Ellison's own seminal works, poetry and jazz influences, and the autobiographies of Mingus, Holiday, and Miles Davis are major contributions to American and Afro-American studies.
Cornel West, Princeton University

Krin Gabbard

David Yaffe's Fascinating Rhythm does not simply fill a gaping vacuum in contemporary literary studies. It is likely to become the canonical text on jazz and literature, radically influencing all future writing on the subject. Each chapter is unique in its approach and sheds new light on books and poems we thought we knew.
Krin Gabbard, State University of New York

Eric Lott

Fascinating Rhythm is an extremely absorbing and compelling demonstration of the key part jazz played in the construction of literary modernism. The book demonstrates an unusually mature intellectual self-possession and great analytic insight into U.S. cultural history, particularly the area of race and music. Yaffe is on his way to becoming one of the most notable public and scholarly writers of his generation.
Eric Lott, University of Virginia, author of "Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class"

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