Representing Jazz

Representing Jazz

by Krin Gabbard

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Traditional jazz studies have tended to see jazz in purely musical terms, as a series of changes in rhythm, tonality, and harmony, or as a parade of great players. But jazz has also entered the cultural mix through its significant impact on novelists, filmmakers, dancers, painters, biographers, and photographers. Representing Jazz explores the "other" history of jazz created by these artists, a history that tells us as much about the meaning of the music as do the many books that narrate the lives of musicians or describe their recordings.
Krin Gabbard has gathered essays by distinguished writers from a variety of fields. They provide engaging analyses of films such as Round Midnight, Bird, Mo’ Better Blues, Cabin in the Sky, and Jammin’ the Blues; the writings of Eudora Welty and Dorothy Baker; the careers of the great lindy hoppers of the 1930s and 1940s; Mura Dehn’s extraordinary documentary on jazz dance; the jazz photography of William Claxton; painters of the New York School; the traditions of jazz autobiography; and the art of "vocalese." The contributors to this volume assess the influence of extramusical sources on our knowledge of jazz and suggest that the living contexts of the music must be considered if a more sophisticated jazz scholarship is ever to evolve. Transcending the familiar patterns of jazz history and criticism, Representing Jazz looks at how the music actually has been heard and felt at different levels of American culture.
With its companion anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses, this volume will enrich and transform the literature of jazz studies. Its provocative essays will interest both aficionados and potential jazz fans.

Contributors. Karen Backstein, Leland H. Chambers, Robert P. Crease, Krin Gabbard, Frederick Garber, Barry K. Grant, Mona Hadler, Christopher Harlos, Michael Jarrett, Adam Knee, Arthur Knight, James Naremore

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397847
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/12/1995
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
Lexile: 1490L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Krin Gabbard is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Read an Excerpt

Representing Jazz

By Krin Gabbard

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9784-7


Jammin' the Blues, or the Sight of Jazz, 1944


... music is heard and seldom seen.... –Ralph Ellison (1952)

W. H. Auden says of music ... that it "can be made anywhere, is invisible, and does not smell." But music is made by men who are insistently visible, especially, as in jazz, when the players are their music–Nat Hentoff (1961)

Last year some twit in a British jazz rag proclaimed the music has never been a particularly visual medium.... What music has this motherfucker been looking at?–Greg Tate (1992)

In his "Jazz Symposium" column in the July 1944 issue of Esquire, Leonard Feather, critic, impresario, and sometime composer of "modernist" jazz, asked an eclectic group of jazz musicians and aficionados, "If you had a million dollars to spend on jazz, how would you use it?" Sam Donahue, "Musician Third Class, U.S. Navy; tenor saxman, trumpeter and leader of the Navy band," answered this way:

Well, I'd like to make an educational film, debunking the average movie musical. I'd tear down the studios' haphazard method of sloughing off good music. Instead of having some chick bursting into song somewhere in the middle of a forest, accompanied by an invisible fifty piece band from out of space, I'd work the music in logically and give the musicians a break. If I could get Duke Ellington or any great colored band, I'd fix it so you could really see the band and get to know it, instead of covering it up with a lot of jitterbug dancing and stuff.... I'd have all the recording done simultaneously with the shooting of the pictures, instead of having it dubbed in separately the way they do now. That would help make the music real and spontaneous. Listen, after I got that movie on the market, all the musicals after that would just have to be legitimate! ("Jazz Symposium" 95)

Clearly, Donahue was aware of the conventions for representing musical performance in Hollywood musicals. He was also aware that those conventions depended on and played with the audiovisual split made possible by sound film's dual recording technologies. Further, he understood that these conventions and the technologies they drew on had racial-political implications. Hearing jazz, Donahue's comments suggest, was only part of the experience of jazz; "really see[ing] the band and get[ting] to know it" was another. But, especially if the band was "colored," really seeing and getting to know it was an experience that Hollywood conventionally denied its customers. Donahue felt confident that altering these conventions and letting audiences see as well as hear the music, no matter what color, would be "educational."

In August and September 1944 the recording and photographing were done at Warner Bros, studios for Jammin' the Blues, a ten-minute musical short that seems nearly, if imperfectly, built on Donahue's debunking model. Produced and distributed by Warners, Jammin' the Blues was created by a group of people whose relationships with Hollywood were either unusual or nonexistent. It was directed by Gjon Mili, a Life photographer, coordinated by Norman Granz, an apprentice film editor who was also a jazz fan just starting a career as an activist entrepreneur, and featured performances by jazz musicians of varying degrees of fame: Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry Edison, Marlowe Morris, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Jo Jones, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, and Marie Bryant. Jammin' the Blues was what would later be labeled a consummate "crossover" product. It combined small group "hot jazz" and "art" photography, inserted them into the mechanisms and forms of Hollywood, and distributed the results to theaters everywhere.

Most shorts came and went without much notice, but after it was released late in December 1944, Jammin' the Blues attracted positive reviews from Time, Life, Esquire, Theatre Arts, Down Beat, the Chicago Defender, and Ebony. Walter Winchell acclaimed it on his radio show, and James Agee gave it an equivocal, though finally negative, review in the Nation. It was also nominated for an Academy Award in the one-reel short subject category. In other words, the Hollywood industry establishment, the mainstream press, and a variety of specialty presses all found Jammin' the Blues worthy of special note.

If he was paying attention, Sam Donahue must have been pleased; a version of his proposed education and legitimation project seemed to be working. But very quickly his satisfaction would have turned to disappointment. Jammin' the Blues may have crossed over, but it did not start any trends. Hollywood musicals, whether feature-length or short, did not become any more "legitimate" from the jazz fan or player's perspective after Jammin' the Blues than they had been before it. Instead, Jammin' the Blues passed into jazz lore as an anomaly: "one of the few honest motion pictures about jazz" (Balliet 6), "a landmark" (Smith 382), "probably the most famous jazz movie of all" (Meeker entry 1637), and "the greatest film to depict jazz musicians in their natural habitat" (Driggs and Lewine 268).

Why was Jammin' the Blues so successful as an individual film and so unsuccessful in inspiring similar films? This essay will analyze Jammin' the Blues within the multiple, overlapping contexts of its production and reception in the mid-forties: the jazz scene, Hollywood, and the audiovisual politics of the representation of race in the arena of American culture. Jammin' the Blues provides a unique, densely encoded site for exploring the connections that music–and particularly jazz–was thought to provide between hearing, seeing, and "getting to know" other Americans. It provides an opportunity to explore the relations of peripheral and central, repressed and ascendent discourses, discourses about Hollywood film, jazz, entertainment, art, race, and American culture–discourses which standard Hollywood practice worked to control and hold separate but which, as Jammin' the Blues shows, sometimes overlapped, sometimes competed, and often were contradictory. Finally, Jammin' the Blues, when considered in this context, reveals the possibilities and limits of "education" and "legitimation" through crossover products, products in which the sight of music becomes the object of industrial mechanisms and forms.

What music looks like relates crucially to how it sounds and what it can mean. Whether viewed in performance, depicted on the cover of a score or record, or suggested by program notes or the words of a radio announcer, the "look" of music influences how listeners categorize what they hear. Is it "art" or "commercial claptrap"? Is it music or noise? What is its relation to me, to us? Music's look helps define and answer such questions.

In the United States especially, a key determinant of the look of any music has long been the race–the "color"–of the musicians who play it. A legal and social construction, built on a physical trait, color suggests where a music comes from, who it "belongs" to, and who its "natural" consumers are. At the same time, and especially in the ages of mechanical and electronic reproduction, music can seem to float free of its players; through imitation, notation, recording, broadcasting, and marketing, music can separate from "colored" social bodies. Music arises out of the material circumstances of the people who make it and can work profound changes in those circumstances, yet music–most oddly, recorded music, "music as a thing" (Eisenberg 11)–seems immaterial, audible but invisible. It is intimately bound to the cultures that color represents in the United States and, at the same time, easily appropriable, deracinated, dis-colored.

This dynamic makes music an especially complex cultural expression and an especially charged intercultural terrain. In the United States it has resulted in what Andrew Ross has described as a "long transactional history of white responses to black culture, of black counter-responses, and of further and often traceless negotiations, tradings, raids, and compromises," not to mention "thefts," and has made music the site of intense scrutiny of and anxiety about color (67-68). Consequently, music has become a many-faceted symbol–and a debating ground–for how color is defined and represented, where it belongs in and how it affects American society and culture. Control of the visible in and around music, in all its forms, has become a critical issue.

Jazz was the first indigenous, (semi-(vernacular music in the United States to wrestle explicitly with representing, visually and aurally, its origins and its transactional quality. It generated scenes, groups of like-minded musicians, critics, impresarios, and fans, which developed discourses for debating competing (though often contiguous) visions of the music, for clarifying views of jazz history, and for struggling with the music's value and status: Was the music black, white, or "mixed," and what would it mean to call a music "colored"? How transactional was its history? Was it art or entertainment? Unique, live experience or mass, recorded object? These discourses welded the aesthetic to the political and the cultural to the social across the sound and sight of the music and, in the process, influenced the way jazz was seen and heard–and how color was perceived–in the United States.

When Jammin' the Blues was created late in 1944, jazz and its discourses were undergoing profound shifts. The end of the big-band swing era was at hand, and its replacement, small-group Bebop, was percolating "underground" (in Harlem, of course), soon to surface. Mediated by the phenomenon of "hot jazz," a small-group genre that was itself split between "Dixieland" traditionalists and swing-inflected "modernism," the shift from swing to bop marked a change in jazz from a mainstream popular music to an explicit art music, which was (at least initially) assertively black and (at least nascently) cultural-nationalist. In Blues People, Amiri Baraka tells the story this way: "Philosophically, [late-] swing sought to involve the black culture in a platonic social blandness that would erase it forever, replacing it with the socio-cultural compromise of the 'jazzed-up' popular song ..." (181). In Baraka's account, "[t]he willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound of bebop" was the reaction to this malaise (182). It was also, as Eric Lott has noted, the music of "a moment ... in which unpaid historical bills were falling due" (597). According to Lott, the consequent African American "(m)ilitancy and music were undergirded by the same social facts; the music attempted to resolve at the level of style what the militancy combatted in the streets" (599).

A considerable component of bebop's "politics of style" was visual and stemmed, Baraka argues, from "young Negro[es]" realizing that color was irreducible, "that merely by being a Negro in America, one was a nonconformist" (188; Baraka notes that young whites were also nonconformist but that they always had a choice). Still, while bebop could react against swing, it could not entirely escape (white) swing's "involvement of black culture." Swing was wildly popular, tremendously "commercial," yet some of its most successful proponents–most notably the Benny Goodman band–had worked to use their success to slowly alter the racialized, segregated look of jazz. This process influenced jazz discourse in general during the swing era and directly involved many of the people who collaborated to make Jammin' the Blues. Before analyzing Jammin the Blues and its representation of jazz at the transition from swing to bop, it is worth detailing the development of the look of swing–especially insofar as that look was figured as both interracial and "artistic."

Writing in the summer of 1945, the blues poet and scholar Sterling A. Brown revealed how high the stakes of the look of jazz were and how complex that look could be in a racist, industrial culture:

Of all the arts, jazz music is probably the most democratic. Mixed units of Negroes and whites have recorded for well over a decade, and most of their records are jazz classics.... The mixed band meets up with difficulties, especially in the South. But completely democratic are the jam sessions, both public and private, where Negro and white musicians meet as equals to improvise collectively and create the kind of music they love. Here the performer's color does not matter; the quality of the music he makes is the basis for comradery and respect. (26)

For Brown, visible racial mixing on the bandstand best indicated the democratic quality of jazz. At the Utopian moment of the jam session, the performer's color does not matter–and, at the same time, it matters entirely. Jazz is democratic because it mixes races and because that mixing makes no difference. In Brown's vision, because music is simultaneously colored and colorless, it can become a "gift" (W. E. B. Du Bois's word) given back and forth between cultures, binding them, assuring the humanity of all parties to the exchange, and ultimately leading to a truly shared culture where each contribution is acknowledged by all. Brown is not explicit, but he seems to believe such cultural democracy will lead to social democracy: The attraction of the sound of colored people leads to an acceptance of their sight–an acceptance of them.

However, for all the Utopian qualities of his vision of jazz democracy, Brown was also a pragmatist. He recognized his vision as a vision–as specifically reliant on the visible aspects of the music–and recognized the less-than-utopian circumstances that effected the dissemination of jam session democracy. On the one hand, Brown argues, despite the excellence of the sound, some people will resist the sight of mixed jazz. On the other hand, others will be distanced from this sight by the mediation of private, consumer objects–records shorn of visible information to become commodified "classics." The tension between performance, which forcefully connects sight and sound but which is relatively exclusive and can lead to "difficulties," and recording, which shears sight from sound but is relatively available and safe, is a genuine one. Though Brown chose not to address them, the other major music media–radio, print, and film–complicated his categories. Radio gave "live" sound but no sight. Print could provide sight but no sound. Film could reconnect sight with sound and could be distributed as widely as the other media, but, as Sam Donahue pointed out, the reconnection of sight to sound in film was not innocent or transparent. Together, all of these media, including a wide variety of performance situations, formed the territory for the segregated look of swing, and the people dedicated to changing that look to reflect something like Brown's vision carefully exploited each medium's unique qualities.

Precisely because they did not make the "mix" visible, records were the initial step toward institutionalizing mixing in swing. In 1933 the independently wealthy record producer, critic, and social activist John Hammond set up his first recording dates with Benny Goodman, then a well-respected freelance musician. According to Hammond's autobiography, "the most effective and constructive form of social protest" he could think of was "[t]o bring recognition to the Negro's supremacy in jazz" (68). Consequently, he wanted Goodman to record with a mixed band. Hammond recalls Goodman responding: "If it gets around that I recorded with colored guys, I won't get another job in this town [i.e., New York]" (136).

Hammond acquiesced to Goodman's fears, which he felt were well-founded, but after producing enough successful records in the depression- stunted market, Hammond collected the power in the industry to arrange mixed sessions, including dates with Goodman backing Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters and playing with pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. That one of Hammond's mixed sessions was released under the imprimatur of "The Chocolate Dandies" indicates the vestigial power of the visible in sound recording. From a present-day perspective this naming may seem "ironic," but in 1933 it had multiple, non-ironic purposes (Collier 107). It invoked what Theodor Adorno derided as "'black jazz' as a sort of brand-name" (52) and avoided the possibility of invoking anxiety about cultural miscegenation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Writing the Other History / Krin Gabbard 1

Jazz in Literature and Film

Jammin' the Blues, or the Sight of Jazz, 1944 / Arthur Knight 11

Improvising and Mythmaking in Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" / Leland H. Chambers 54

Fabulating Jazz / Frederick Garber 70

Signifyin(g) the Phallus: Mo' Better Blues and Representations of the Jazz Trumpet / Krin Gabbard 104

Jazz Autobiography: Theory, Practice, Politics / Christopher Harlos 131

Excursus: Cabin in the Sky

Uptown Folk: Blackness and Entertainment in Cabin in the Sky / James Naremore 169

Doubling, Music, and Race in Cabin in the Sky / Adam Knee 193

Jazz and Dance

Divine Frivolity: Hollywood Representations of the Lindy Hop, 1937–1942 / Robert P. Crease 207

Keeping the Spirit Alive: The Jazz Dance Testament of Mura Dehn / Karen Backstein 229

Picturing Jazz

Jazz and the New York School / Mona Hadler 247

The Tenor's Vehicle: Reading Way Out West / Michael Jarrett 260

Vocalese: Representing Jazz with Jazz

Purple Passages of Fiestas in Blue? Notes Toward an Aesthetic of Vocalese / Barry Keith Grant 285

Contributors 305

Index 307

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