Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What I Took from the History Jazz

            My knowledge of jazz before taking this course was minimal. The only jazz that I had ever listened to was on the local “smooth jazz” radio station that my dad would tune into every morning while he drank his coffee and read the newspaper. I knew that African and African American culture was tied up with the history of jazz, but I never knew to what extent. Coming into this course, I was expecting to learn about jazz and its styles and technical developments over time rather than the history of the people and places behind it – I should have read the course description more carefully! What I am taking away from this course is a better understanding of the narrative of different black populations in a white-controlled America, and how they were able to create a new way to be American through jazz – the first true, modern American art form that united different races and classes.
            Other than my effective ignorance of almost all of the history of jazz, I cannot say that I had many more assumptions about this course than the generalities I discussed above. I still do not know enough about music in general or have enough interest in learning the technicalities of playing music to have truly known what jazz was before this class. I still do not understand most of the technical portions of the readings we have been assigned (such as when an author would describe the workings of an entire piece over the course of two or three pages. I can, however, discuss some aspects of the history of jazz that truly surprised and fascinated me.
            The first specific portion of the class that was very interesting to me was the section about Chicago and the Chicago “plantations.” The fact that mobsters were able to control so much about someone’s life was frightening. I knew that such things had occurred during the 1920s, but I did not know that they occurred to such an extent – I thought a lot of the mobster tales were fictional. It distresses me that the mob had so much control over these artists – artists who could have been so much more than they were if they had been allowed to follow the natural course of where their music was taking them, rather than being scheduled out to work specific hours at specific venues for the mob’s profit.
            The other major portion of the class that was truly fascinating was the history of Thelonious Monk. I think I will remember his unique persona for a long time, and I hope to find time to listen to some of his music on my own. Part of me wishes that he could have been bigger and greater than he was, but perhaps if he had been, he would not have been as artistic. I only hope that maybe I can meet a contemporary artist like him one day. I would have liked to learn more about Monk and other bebop artists.
            Overall, the entire scope of what the history of jazz encompassed amazed me, especially musically. I did not know that blues and ragtime and big bands and bebop and all really counted together under the title of jazz (or at least were very closely related to jazz). I have never been very musically inclined, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to participate in this course. It allowed me to explore a subject that I would have never decided to explore simply on my own.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Race: Monk as Mediator

          Thelonious Monk came from a neighborhood in San Juan Hill that was constantly fighting to maintain its equilibrium. In Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography Thelonious Monk, he devotes most of a chapter to the history of racial violence in San Juan Hill, noting that “San Juan Hill’s reputation as a violent community was as strong as ever by the time the Monks settled there” (2009, 19). As he grew up, Monk dealt with this violent community, watching both interracial and intraracial conflicts, saying “besides fighting the ofays [whites], you had to fight each other. You go in the next block and you’re in another country” (19). In spite of his racially-charged upbringing, Monk helped to create a musical community that was one of the most ethnically diverse. In my opinion, Thelonious Monk had seen so much racial conflict that he was able to speak about this conflict through his music – an unbiased language that everyone could understand.
          In an interview with Frank London Brown, Monk was quoted as saying: “My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty of the like. I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro” (Kelley, 2009, 249). Kelley goes on to characterize this as the epitome of Monk’s worldview when it came to race, but carefully points out that this was not “a complete rejection of politics,” but rather “a defense of artistry” (249). This shows that Monk had opinions, but rather than speaking out one way or the other, he was a mediator, a balancer, through his music. As seen in the Clint Eastwood film “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” Monk was usually a calm, mellow, confident, and playful individual who expressed many different emotions and themes through his music. The jaggedness of “Bright Mississippi,” the rolling shakes of “Rhythm-a-ning,” and the frenetic “Trinkle Tinkle” contrast with his “Ugly Beauty” and “Ask Me Now,” which are more representative of his everyday demeanor. The more dissonant sounds of the former pieces sound urban – they are reflections of his rougher urban upbringing, something that his softly jocular personality rarely, if ever, expressed.
          Normally, Monk may have been low-key when it came to matters of race, but he certainly was not unconcerned. When he was a victim of racism by the Delaware police in 1958 (Kelley, 2009, 253-256), Monk physically fought the officers in order to stand up for himself. His actions during this episode are, clearly, not passive or pacifist. Some might criticize Monk’s actions, saying that he ignored race only when it suited him, but Monk’s violent reaction to the police was not hypocrisy. He did not need race to enter into his musical realm, but when race entered his world, violently, he fought back even if it meant facing dire repercussions. Monk actions were, in my opinion, completely justified.
          Rather than live in a world where race existed as a dividing factor, Monk and his colleagues created a community, a world of their own, where race was not important. Monk did not ignore racial injustices when he truly needed to address them, as seen during his encounter with the police in 1958. However, when Monk was playing his music, race did not need to exist, and so in that world, the world of the Five Spot, race did not exist. During a set, Monk was master of all dissonances and conflicts – he harnessed what he saw in the world and manifested it in his sound. Monk did not merely “try to transcend racial politics” – he transcended race itself.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Racializing Jazz in the Swing Era: Culture and Commerce

          By the mid-1930s, the United States had passed through many crucial moments in its history. It had fought a World War, gave women the right to vote, battled corruption throughout Prohibition, and was recovering from the Great Depression. Throughout the 1920s, culture and commerce had been dominated by mobsters and speakeasies, but in the 1930s that was beginning to change. Regular people of all kinds were becoming more socially and politically active, finally able to realize their potential as citizens as the nation was becoming more progressive. As it pertains to jazz, this progressive attitude allowed for race to actually begin to be discussed in a serious manner, and more publicly than ever before. However, in my opinion, it was not solely progressive culture that brought this change, but also the pressures of a changing commercial landscape, where there were larger numbers of both black and white jazz bands vying for control of the volatile entertainment market. Closer together than ever before, black and white artists were simply unable to ignore the comparisons between the abilities and styles of their respective musical icons – comparisons that many believed correlated with race.
          It is where culture and commerce intersect that we find the most interesting examples of the racial discussion of jazz. Duke Ellington’s gig at the Cotton Club in Harlem lends us insight to a tough question that Ellington had to face: culture or commerce? As Professor Stewart explained, Ellington’s playing at the Cotton Club made his band elite, but the club’s racial policy didn’t allow black patrons in, which meant only whites could watch Ellington. Ellington mastered how a black band should play for a white audience (Lecture, Oct 26). It would seem that Ellington chose commerce over culture – he chose to survive the Depression while many other musicians failed by making music that a larger white audience would listen to – music that may not have always held to the unspoken standards of black jazz culture. As highlighted in David W. Stowe’s book, Swing Changes, white jazz critic John Hammond later called out Ellington, writing that Ellington “shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and original class” (51). Hammond is a quintessential example of the aforementioned growing progressive culture in mainstream America. He was descended from the wealthy Vanderbilt family and yet was incredibly devoted to the plight of the working class and an outspoken critic of the darker side of capitalist practices – and of Duke Ellington (54-55). However, Hammond’s point of view is not necessarily the most accurate. As Stowe points out, he ignores “the fact that Ellington came form a middle-class Washington family” (51). But class aside, race was still a big issue for Hammond. He also wrote that “the best of the white folk still cannot compare to the really good Negroes in relaxed, unpretentious dance music,” a view that was actually widely accepted by many: musicians and critics, blacks and whites alike (60).
          In my opinion, there is no possible biological or even plausible social explanation for why black musicians should be better at jazz than white musicians. However, from what we have read so far in class, I believe I have decided on my own explanation for the apparent differences. It was not the quality of the black or white musician, but who his audience was. White musicians could have played improvisational, “hot” jazz just as well as a given black musician could have, but their audience – a white audience – was not looking for that. It works both ways. People started to talk about race because there was this “color line” in developing jazz. There were differences: not natural, but man-made. Whites tended to choose to play a certain style that catered to their audience, and blacks tended to choose to play for their audience. It was this choice that was the difference, not differing musical quality. Forerunners like Ellington were not betraying their race as Hammond seems to imply, but were actually bridging the gap of racism through their art and thereby highlighting the necessity of future racial discussion.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Apple Bears Fruit: Modern Jazz

            The story of jazz is the story of people and the cities they live in. New Orleans contributed most to the beginnings of jazz in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but which city holds the title of “Most Important Jazz City” by the 1920s is slightly unclear. Certainly, the contest is between Chicago with its South Side clubs and New York with its Harlem and Times Square clubs. Although Chicago did contribute a lot to the development of jazz in the 1920s, New York helped jazz to mature much more than Chicago ever could have. Essentially, both cities were fertile lands for jazz, but New York had a richer musical history, a unique socioeconomic situation for the black population, and the attention of the nation and the world – all extra fertilizers for growing jazz.
            The social landscape of 1920s New York for blacks offered a distinct opportunity: the Harlem Renaissance, a milieu of new black culture, art, literature, and music, but also representative of a divide between the black upper and lower classes living in Harlem, the largest black population in the nation. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he points out that “Jazz was very much a part of this second Harlem – more at home here than in the “other” Harlem of high culture and higher aspirations. True, the Harlem Renaissance created an ideology, a cultural context for jazz. But the Harlem of rent parties and underground economies created music (94, emphasis added). It was this cultural context that New York possessed and Chicago lacked – although Chicago’s South Side had a thriving jazz scene, the eyes of the nation and the world were set on New York. Whether or not the literary elite of Harlem liked it, lower class Harlem, including jazz, was a crucial part of their Renaissance.
            Before Harlem, the largest black community in New York was San Juan Hill, and sure enough, the history of jazz is tied to this location as well. This is also something Chicago lacked: an older foundation of black musicians who created this cultural context in New York early on. As Professor Stewart pointed out in lecture, James P. Johnson and his predecessors had been making music even before New Orleans jazz took hold, developing the famous stride piano style that would be crucial to the growth of jazz when it reached New York (Oct 21). Using the piano, Johnson was able “to bridge [the] gap between highbrow and lowbrow” in black culture, as the piano was both “a calling card of lowbrow nightlife” as well as “a symbol of middle-class prosperity” (Gioia, 95-6). Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars such as Willie “the Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, and more, making stride piano the true musical landmark of New York jazz.
            With New York being New York, the new jazz styles that grew out of the art being formed in San Juan Hill and Harlem soon became part of the cultural dialogue in the wider urban community. Jazz truly became part of the club scene in Times Square when artists such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson began to perform there. Henderson’s arranger, Don Redman, essentially gave birth to the modern saxophone there (Discussion, Oct 25), and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra commercialized jazz for a larger white population (Lecture, Oct 21). The list of famous artists and bands goes on.
Chicago may have helped the roots of jazz to spread, but New York is where jazz blossomed into a mature and recognized art form.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

New Orleans Jazz

Courtesy of Wikipedia
There are many factors that contributed to the creation of jazz music in New Orleans: the roots of different cultures intertwining, several evolutions of musical forms leading up to what we know as jazz, socioeconomic reasons, the hard-pressed but thriving slave culture – the list is effectively endless. However, no factor is more important than the factor of the city itself. This key factor, it seems to me, is really two combined in one: not just “New Orleans,” but the “multicultural location” of New Orleans. Having been situated on a nexus of French, Spanish, and British territory as well as having been controlled by all three powers at least once over its history created a truly unique environment for people of different cultural backgrounds to interact. With the addition of African culture through the slave trade, New Orleans became unlike any other city in the world. The fact that these four major cultures (and doubtless, other cultures of the world had smaller footholds in New Orleans) were centered on the Mississippi River would have created, quite literally, a vortex of people and their cultures trading and traveling up and down the Mississippi, with New Orleans being the terminus through which everyone must pass. This is what I mean by multicultural location. The location of the city and its mix of cultures are codependent factors in the creation of jazz. Jazz could not have been synthesized without them. I picture the creation of jazz like a jigsaw puzzle: location and historical circumstance make up the borders, the edges that hold the puzzle together, while the different people and cultures make up the center pieces, the mass of the puzzle.
But what is in this mass of puzzle pieces which make up the image of jazz? As we have read about and discussed in class, this puzzle’s composition is richly diverse. The multicultural roots of the city allowed for a more tolerant atmosphere towards the African slaves and their everyday lives, including their self-expression through music, song, and dance. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he opens his chronicle of jazz by introducing us to Congo Square, a place designated by the city of New Orleans for the purpose of allowing slaves to gather and perform (3-5). This tolerant (compared to most other cities) view of the slaves allowed for a more dynamic cultural mixing to occur. As Professor Stewart put it, “You just know there is someone [a non-slave] standing back, tapping their foot [to the music at Congo Square].”
Storyville 1907, Wikimedia Commons
Gioia also notes the role of two very different institutions, the Storyville brothels and the churches of New Orleans, in the creation of jazz. Stereotypically, jazz has been tied up with the “contagion of vice” in New Orleans, but as Gioia shows, the “ties with the house of God” were just as important, if not more so (31). He goes on to elaborate on all the general occasions that jazz performances occurred at, such as community activities and fundraising events, clarifying that the two extremes of the bordello and the church were not key factors in themselves (32). As I have already stated, it is my opinion that there is no small, local-scale, specific, key factor in the creation of jazz, but rather it was the large-scale, unique situation of New Orleans that created an environment which allowed for jazz.
So, like a puzzle’s center, the people of New Orleans who make up the picture of jazz are not simply a jumbled mess – the people, their art, and their lives have to fit together just right to make the image come together.