JJ 09/59: Benny Green – Is Jazz an Art-form?

First published in Jazz Journal September 1959


For every word of good sense that has been written about jazz there are half a dozen pages of flapdoodle, rich, imbecilic stuff that can become most diverting

The question of whether or not jazz is an art form must be answered by each man according to his lights, but there is no doubt that even if jazz is not in the final reckoning an art form after all, it is certainly misunderstood enough to be one. For every word of good sense that has been written about jazz there are half a dozen pages of flapdoodle, rich, imbecilic stuff that can become most diverting provided one can cultivate the right attitude of looking at it.

The old schoolboy howler about a polygon being a dead parrot fades into insignificance in the face of the madnesses committed by the writers of books on jazz and the jazz life. Everybody has his favourites, and mine are stamped indelibly on my incredulous mind, deli­cate lunacies whose piquancy never dies.

Take Mr. Harold Flender’s little gem of ineptitude, “Paris Blues”, in whose opening phrases we can see the dilemma into which the unsuspecting novelist is thrust by the duality of meaning of certain words in the jazz context — “Every Monday they jammed into Marie’s Cave on the left bank for the jam session” — which reads like a serious case of what Lewis Carroll would have described as jam yesterday, jam tomorrow and even jam today, in fact jam all over the place.

Then there was Miss Dorothy Baker who, in writing the least bad jazz novel to date, described her hero, by Huckle­berry Finn out of Bix Beiderbecke, as a man with a musical talent equal to “oh, say Bach’s” which is about as relevant to Bix as my describing Dorothy Baker as a novelist with a talent equal to, oh, say Tolstoy’s. I think we reached the climax of this sort of thing a couple of years ago with Stanford Whitmore’s classic, “Solo”, which is a highly credible story about the Greatest Pianist in the World who won’t talk to anybody about anything, won’t play with anybody, goes deaf and plays a stringless piano in a darkened room in the last chapter, all good strong realistic stuff. In “Solo” was contained the most superb specimen of pseudo-scholastic gibberish ever committed to print—

“Instead of conventionally flattened thirds and sevenths, Jones was dropping the remaining notes a half-pitch and wrenching the blues notes to normal Es and Bs, inverting the whole pattern of the blues. And in addition he was lagging a halfbeat behind the normal rhythm, moving smoothly and consistently, bouncing along in a private beat with terrific poise and confidence”.

The reference elsewhere in the book to the fact that the hero played the chords in the bridge passage of “Yesterdays” thirty-two different ways becomes even more imaginative when one remembers that there isn’t any bridge passage in “Yesterdays”. This most credible novel also has a character who, when he dis­covers that the hero plays piano better than he does, proceeds to do the logical thing and attempts to kill himself. Sup­pose the world were really like this. The would be suicide is talking to his girl about how good the hero is. The con­versation goes as follows—

Screwball. As good as Crawford?

Mad Chick. I guess so.

Screwball. Who else?

Mad Chick. I’m only a listener. I can’t rate him.

Screwball. Not Lennie?

Her eyes burned and she wanted to cry, “No, not Tristano”.

Hands up all those whose eyes burn at the thought of somebody being better than Tristano. Fiction, you can see, is in a bad enough way, but when you recall the technical treatises on jazz, the possibili­ties become even more priceless. The biggest trap the layman-writer on jazz (for some reason most of them are laymen-writers) can and does tumble into is his unawareness of the fact that words in a specialist context usually have a specialist meaning, and that to use words like “augmented” and “diminished” as though they meant what the dictionary says they mean is to court disaster of the most highly comical kind. A score is not a piece of music composed for twenty musicians, a key signature has nothing to do with the missing name on a vital contract, dynamics in music have no connection with fulcrums and pressures, nor are they to do with dynamic performances. It is another of the curious idiosyncrasies of musical terminology that it is very possible for a man to play in a sharp key and still be very flat, or to blow a C Natural in a very unnatural manner. Diminished chords are not chords with all their notes taken away, and accidentals are always intentional.

It may seem ridiculous of me to hand on such elementary tips to would be writers, but I have seen in print with my own tired eyes many howlers not a whit less improbable. Small wonder that so many jazz critics have evaded the problem by dispensing with technicalities altogether and issuing bald aesthetic judgments instead. Even this method, however, requires an elementary know­ledge of the English language, an ear for its nuances and a passing acquaintance with grammar and syntax, and one remembers with special affection Rex Harris’s wonderful fragment of un­conscious humour, “Chicago lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan”.

Then there was Martin Lindsay’s delicious little homilectic in “Teach Yourself Songwriting”—

“You will derive great benefit from working at songwriting regularly each week for a certain number of hours. This will get you into good habits of mind”.

Mr. Lindsay does not say what these good habits of mind are, but he does say in a further masterpiece, “Teach Yourself Jazz”,

“Jazz musicians tend to be more liable than other professions to die early deaths from drink, drugs, women or overwork”.

Only the other day a further addition was made to our heritage of gaucherie. In a book called “Bugles for Beider­becke” the author said,

“By the end of 1927 all that was of intrinsic merit ever to be said in jazz had already been said”, and followed it up with another collec­tor’s item, “As a performer on the alto and baritone saxophone, Jimmy Dorsey has never acknowledged a superior”.

…if anybody ever tells you jazz literature is not worth reading, don’t you believe it. Jazz writ­ing contains more laughs than a cageful of hyenas

Then there was our old friend Harris again with “It needed only a spark to set Simeon’s instrument afire” and “Marable’s bands were composed of rolling stones”.

But perhaps the most diverting ap­proach of all is the Goneworthy Method by which the writer invents his own vocabulary. Sentences like, “Max’s long lines are dug by this cat beatwise, but jazzically the jump-worthy will find a mean scene for funky wailing, man” besides being enlightening to the un­informed, have the added advantage of having skirted the problems of language, logic and commonsense altogether and entered the realm of semantic invention.

However, there are more ways than one of swinging a cat, and if anybody ever tells you jazz literature is not worth reading, don’t you believe it. Jazz writ­ing contains more laughs than a cageful of hyenas.