The study of jazz comes of age with this anthology. One of the first books to consider jazz outside of established critical modes, Jazz Among the Discourses brings together scholars from an array of disciplines to question and revise conventional methods of writing and thinking about jazz.
Challenging "official jazz histories," the contributors to this volume view jazz through the lenses of comparative literature; African American studies; music, film, and communication theory; English literature; American studies; history; and philosophy. With uncommon rigor and imagination, their essays probe the influence of various discourses—journalism, scholarship, politics, oral history, and entertainment—on writing about jazz. Employing modes of criticism and theory that have transformed study in the humanities, they address questions seldom if ever raised in jazz writing: What are the implications of building jazz history around the medium of the phonograph record? Why did jazz writers first make the claim that jazz is an art? How is an African American aesthetic articulated through the music? What are the consequences of the interaction between the critic and the jazz artist? How does the improvising artist navigate between chaos and discipline?
Along with its companion volume, Representing Jazz, this versatile anthology marks the arrival of jazz studies as a mature, intellectually independent discipline. Its rethinking of conventional jazz discourse will further strengthen the position of jazz studies within the academy.
Contributors. John Corbett, Steven B. Elworth, Krin Gabbard, Bernard Gendron, William Howland Kenney, Eric Lott, Nathaniel Mackey, Burton Peretti, Ronald M. Radano, Jed Rasula, Lorenzo Thomas, Robert Walser
About the Author
Krin Gabbard is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. He is the editor of the companion volume, Representing Jazz, also published by Duke University Press.
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Jazz Among the Discourses
By Krin Gabbard
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
"Moldy Figs" and Modernists: Jazz at War (1942–1946)
The historical transformation of jazz from an entertainment music to an art music, initiated by the bebop revolution in the mid-1940s, represents arguably one of the most significant cultural shifts of this century.
Mass culture and modernist high culture, it is now agreed, have been in constant communication since both their inceptions sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. But, for a long while, this interchange was decidedly one-sided, as modernists eagerly appropriated materials and devices from a more passive mass culture for the purposes of formal experimentation, parody, and shock—such as Dada's exploitation of the cabaret form and Stravinsky's use of ragtime and the tango.
With the bebop revolution, and since, mass culture has been more the aggressor in this interchange. Rock music, films, MTV, and advertisements have liberally scavenged from a whole storehouse of avant-garde devices and practices, though no form of mass culture seems to have crossed the boundary between "entertainment" and "art" as decisively or irreversibly as jazz.
This is the first of three essays that will deal with the bebop revolution as a major nodal point in the history of interchanges between mass culture and modernist art. In this essay I reconstruct the discursive changes in the jazz community that immediately antedated the bebop revolution and made possible its reception as an avant-garde music.
The jazz world in the 1940s was embroiled in two major factional wars, two schisms in which spokespersons for the new were set off against those for the old. During a period spanning less than a decade the centuries-old battle between ancients and moderns so endemic to Western culture was twice reenacted. Swing music, the music of the big bands which had dominated jazz and the popular sales charts since 1935, was deeply implicated in both disputes, in one case supported by modernists and in the other by traditionalists. The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz, which it had supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.
The seeds for the first jazz war were sown in the late 1930s when a few nightclubs, defying the big band boom, began to feature small jazz combos playing in the abandoned New Orleans style of the 1920s, today popularly referred to as "Dixieland." Such a mild turn of events would not have led to a Dixieland revival without the enthusiastic participation of the aficionados and cultists of the old jazz, who collected out-of-print records and exchanged arcane discographical information.
These purists were driven not only by nostalgia but by a revulsion toward the swing music industry, which by shamelessly pandering to the mass markets had in their eyes forsaken the principles of "true" jazz. A spate of small sectarian journals appeared on the scene to give vent to these revivalist views and concerns. They set themselves off as the only authentic alternatives to the two dominant mainstream jazz journals, Down Beat and Metronome, which were altogether beholden to the swing phenomenon.
In 1942 Metronome fired the first shot of the modernist-revivalist war with a vigorous attack on the exclusionary purism and incessant carping of the revivalists, whom it derisively labeled "moldy figs" (Ulanov 1942). Over the next four years, in a continuous barrage of editorials and articles, Metronome would castigate New Orleans jazz as technically backward and "corny," and the writers of the revivalist journals as hysterical cultists and musical ignoramuses, against whom it positioned itself as the defender of modernism and progress in jazz. The revivalists counterattacked with charges of crass commercialism, faddism, and Eurocentrism.
By 1946, just as this war was scaling down, a second battle of jazz ancients and moderns was beginning to heat up. Modernism was now being represented by the bebop school—most notably Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell—while swing music suddenly found itself relegated to the company of New Orleans jazz, on the side of the traditional and the tried-and-true. Bebop's opponents complained about the inaccessibility and undanceability of the music, the "wrong notes" and excessive musical acrobatics, the elitism, hostility, and avant-garde posturing of the musicians, their unconventional dress and morally suspicious life-styles.
As a jazz movement, bebop triumphed in 1948 and died in 1950, only to be reclaimed later in the canon of jazz history. It was abandoned even by its modernist supporters, who laid in wait for the next phalanx in the triumphal march of modern, experimental jazz.
Aesthetic Discourses and Musical Revolutions
The bebop revolution has since been enshrined in the jazz canon as a contest of epic proportions, occurring at the major fault line of jazz history. Bebop is given credit for having transformed jazz from a popular dance music, firmly ensconced in the Hit Parade, to a demanding, experimental art music, consigned to small clubs and sophisticated audiences. In contrast, the Dixieland war is usually construed as a retrograde sideshow, a rearguard skirmish that temporarily delayed the avant-garde advances initiated by bebop.
I will be contesting this too tidy a view of what admittedly has turned out to be the most significant permutation within jazz history. What will especially have to be rejected is the severe contrast drawn between a backward-looking Dixieland war and a forward-looking bebop war. In point of fact, both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain—the same field of concepts, issues, aesthetic standards, and opposing theories. Indeed, the Dixieland war, as it waned, transposed itself so subtly into the bebop war that many contemporaries failed to distinguish between them.
This suggests that the apparently retrograde Dixieland war played a significant role in the transformation of jazz from an entertainment music to an avant-garde music. I am not asserting, however, that the New Orleans revival was, or was ever meant to be, an avant-garde musical movement, nor am I denying that bebop made the key musical innovations that ushered in the era of modern jazz. What I am accentuating, rather, is the crucial role that the Dixieland war played at the level of discourse, of talk and patter in magazines, books, and radio shows, in preparing the way for the emergence and acceptance of a jazz avant-garde.
The debates between swing modernists and New Orleans revivalists sufficiently reconstructed the issues, alternative characterizations, and standards for discoursing about jazz to make it possible, and indeed to make it seem very natural, to refer to jazz as an "art" music and to construe certain genres of jazz as "modernistic," "experimental," "formally complex," and "avant-garde," even before bebop made its appearance. In effect, what was being constructed in these debates was an aesthetic discourse for jazz, which was later to legitimate its breaching of the "great divide" between mass culture and art.
By "aesthetic discourse," I mean here not a set of agreed-on claims about the artistic merit of various jazz styles, but rather a grouping of concepts, distinctions, oppositions, rhetorical ploys, and allowable inferences, which as a whole fixed the limits within which inquiries concerning the aesthetics of jazz could take place, and outside which the claim that jazz is an art form would be merely an abstraction or an incantation. The revivalists and modernists were slowly and collectively shaping and honing this new aesthetic through their acrimonious disagreements rather than in spite of them.
Thus, my purpose is neither to contest the canonical accounts of the revolutionary changes in jazz musical form in the 1940s, nor to rehabilitate the Dixieland revival, but rather to highlight the crucial role of what Michel Foucault has called "discursive formations" in the constitution of jazz modernism. I will show how the Dixieland war, as a war primarily of words, indeed a profusion and superabundance of words, engendered a new mapping of the terrain on which jazz was debated—a new construction of the aesthetic discourses of jazz—which was only to be amended, rather than radically transformed, by the bebop revolution.
The new aesthetic discourses, by no means pure, were laced with the idioms of commerce, politics, gender, and race. These idioms must be treated as integral to the newly emerging jazz aesthetic rather than as mere intrusions or add-ons. Any attempt to extirpate them in order to reveal the "pure" jazz aesthetic of that period would leave us only with a uselessly inchoate and abstract residue, shorn of any historical specificity.
This integral treatment applies especially to the issue of race, which constantly surfaced in jazz writing during the 1940s, despite, or because of, the fact that virtually all jazz journals in that period were owned, edited, and composed by whites and were sold primarily to a white readership. At this time, blacks entered into the revivalist-modernist field of discourse primarily in the role of musician-subjects, interviewed to settle some score between white critics. Clearly, the newly emerging "official" discourses of jazz aesthetics only codified the preferences, styles, and practices of the primarily white sector of the jazz world. But these codifications were nonetheless skewed, in very intricate ways, by the pressing anxieties of racial contact.
In the following sections I will reconstruct the new discursive formations generated in the Dixieland-swing debates—in effect, the new official jazz aesthetic—by examining in sequence the following clusters of concepts, networks of arguments, and groups of oppositional terms that played key roles in these debates: (1) genres and brand names; (2) art and commerce; (3) folklore and European high culture; (3) progress and the new; (4) technique and schooling; (5) affect and antics; (6) fascists and communists; (7) black and white.
Genres and Brand Names
Wanting the word "jazz" all to themselves, the revivalists sought to hammer out a precise formula that would clearly oppose jazz to swing. Though the revivalists bickered incessantly about the fine details of the proper definition, they agreed that no music could be called "jazz" that was not collectively improvised and whose melodies, rhythms, phrasings, and timbres were not primarily derived from Afro-American sources. The not-so-subtle upshot of this definition was virtually to identify jazz with the New Orleans style of the 1920s and to treat it as the very antithesis of swing, which replaced collective improvisation by written arrangements or by head arrangements, and African American folk themes by "poorly invented" Tin Pan Alley tunes (Borneman, 1944a: 38).
Metronome's two ideologues of swing, Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov, responded to this "moldy fig" charge in a surprising manner, by saying, not that the umbrella of jazz is broad enough to cover the admittedly distinct genres of New Orleans and swing music, but that the two terms "jazz" and "swing" actually refer to the same thing, "the same musical idiom, the same rhythmic and harmonic characteristics, the same use of syncopation." In short, "swing" is "just a different word" and "not a different music from jazz" (The Two Deuces 22; Feather, 1944a).
In a deft tactical ploy they interviewed a number of musicians who concurred with their view—most notably Louis Armstrong, a favorite of the revivalists, who jocularly entered the fray (Feather, 1945a: 26-27): "To me as far as I could see it all my life—Jazz and Swing is the same thing.... In the good old days of Buddy Bolden.... it was called Rag Time Music.... Later on in the years it was called Jazz Music—Hot Music—Gut Bucket—and now they've poured a little gravy over it, called it Swing Music.... Haw Haw haw.... No matter how you slice it—it's still the same music."
This strange debate—with one side claiming that swing and jazz are completely identical and the other that they are completely opposite—was rooted, not in any factual dispute, but in two very different construals of the semantics of the term "swing." For the revivalists, "swing" was a generic term denoting an easily definable species of popular music. The Metronome modernists, on the other hand, seem unreflectively to have been using it as a brand name.
Brand names differ from generic names in not being susceptible to definitions, because their meanings are determined less by the class of objects they refer to than by the necessarily hazy, unarticulated, and frequently revised imagery with which they are irretrievably associated in advertisements and promotions. The word "swing," in its 1930s' beginnings, also exhibited the nebulous, inarticulable suggestiveness typical of brand names.
Even before Benny Goodman's legendary performance at the Palomar Ballroom in December 1935, which inaugurated the Age of Swing, the word "swing" was already gaining currency in the midst of hype and euphoria as an oblique signifier for the anticipated boom in the music industry that would follow the already achieved repeal of prohibition and the anticipated upswing out of the depression. In a somewhat convoluted and inchoate way, "swing" was the new word being associated with a revival, and modern updating, of the more "torrid" and "brassy" "hot jazz" of the past, to suit the lively and fun-loving urges of a new affluent generation, who in their "celebrating mood" would naturally "want to pep things up" ("Is Dixieland Stuff Coming Back?" 25).
At the peak of the swing craze, the media were predictably seeking, but failing to find, a definition for this elusive brand name. From musicians and aficionados they elicited answers to the question "What is swing?" that ranged from the silly to the empty, such as, "syncopated syncopation," "rhythmically integrated improvisation," and "two-thirds rhythm and one-third soul."
Meanwhile, the word "jazz" fell into temporary disuse, stigmatized as a "corny word" standing for a music whose "time had passed" (The Two Deuces 33). Indeed, what had previously been called "jazz" was now being reclassified as "early swing."
Thus, like a brand name, the word "swing" originally had no clear denotation, being associated with a whole variety of hazy images and allusions about markets, fashions, attitudes, emotions, entertainment, Weltanschauungen, musical tradition, and musical innovation. But the brand name would soon evolve, at least partly, into a definable generic name. For, at the same time that the music industry was pursuing change in its incessant attempts to tailor the product to new audiences, it was also attempting to stabilize these new consumption patterns by seeking to standardize and congeal the new musical styles. As standardization gradually overcame change, the generic functions of "swing" would overtake its brand-name functions, making it more open to definition and categorization.
The revivalists would contribute to this process of standardization and codification by reintroducing the word "jazz" in the discursive stream as a definitional counterpoise to "swing." Meanwhile, the Metronome modernists, harking back to the days when "swing" functioned more as a brand-name replacement for "jazz," resisted any such attempts at definition, precise categorization, and conceptual contrast.
However, the revivalist-modernist debate over the question, "Is swing jazz?"—though floundering on semantic confusions—did reflect real differences. Whereas the revivalist "moldy figs" wanted to identify jazz with particular musical structures and practices that would set the standards for all its future developments and evaluations, the swing partisans, in their unremitting commitment to the new and up-to-date, did not want to be associated with any particular genre or style and expressed no particular undying commitment to big bands over small combos, or arrangements over improvisations. Metronome was first and foremost committed to "modern" jazz, and to swing only so long as it remained modern.
Art and Commerce
Nothing seemed to offend the sensitivities of revivalists more than the enormous commercial success of the swing bands and the blatant spirit of commercialism with which Down Beat and Metronome happily contributed to this success. No previous form of jazz had come even close to the immense popularity of the swing bands, which thoroughly dominated the hit charts during the years 1936 through 1945, to an extent rarely if ever equaled by any other subgenre of popular music.
For the "moldy figs," this was a sure sign of the impurity, corruption, and mediocrity of swing as a jazz form. They further looked upon the modernist critics as mere "stooges" of this commercial music, who could not help acquiring the "crass and callous" values of the "whole stinking commercial structure." Metronome, in particular, despite its pretensions, had "no more critical significance than a publicity blurb."
The modernists made no apologies about either the commercial success of swing or their own complicity with it. In a 1944 editorial, Metronome admitted that indeed it is "commercially minded" and asserted "furthermore that the best in jazz has been and always will be successful, commercial" ("Jazz of Yesteryear" 8). This happy coincidence between art and commerce means that "much music that finds popular approval will find critical acclaim in Metronome and that by critical acclaim in Metronome more jazz will meet with popular approval" (Ulanov 1944: 31).
Excerpted from Jazz Among the Discourses by Krin Gabbard. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction: The Jazz Canon and Its Consequences / Krin Gabbard 1
Rethinking Jazz History
"Moldy Figs" and Modernists: Jazz at War (1942–1946) / Bernard Gendron 31
Jazz in Crisis, 1948–1958: Ideology and Representation / Steven B. Elworth 57
Other: From Noun to Verb / Nathaniel Mackey 76
Historical Context and the Definition of Jazz: Putting More of the History in "Jazz History" / William Howland Kenney 100
Oral Histories of Jazz Musicians: The NEA Transcripts as Texts in Context / Burton W. Peretti 117
The Media of Memory: The Seductive Menace of Records in Jazz History / Jed Rasula 134
Jazz Artists Among the Discourses
"Out of Notes": Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis / Robert Walser 165
Critical Alchemy: Anthony Braxton and the Imagined Tradition / Ronald M. Radano 189
Ephemera Underscored: Writing Around Free Improvisation / John Corbett 217
The Essential Context: Jazz and Politics
Double V, Double-Time: Bebop's Politics of Style / Eric Lott 243
Ascension: Music and the Black Arts Movement / Lorenzo Thomas 256