JJ 12/59: The Art Of Jazz

First published in Jazz Journal December 1959


As can be seen from the subtitle (“Essays on the Nature and Development of Jazz”), The Art Of Jazz is not a book which takes itself lightly. It is a collection of 21 previously published pieces of varying length dealing with subjects ranging from Ragtime and Sonny Terry to the MJQ and something described as “The Funky-Hard Bop Regression”. The contents are arranged chronologically according to subject-matter, which is an excellent idea. It is a sober, logically ordered survey of some 40 years of jazz music. There are musical examples, but not enough (only three pieces carry them) to frighten away the novice, although the terminology often requires a degree of musical sophistication. There is the old, the new and the middle. Apparently, The Art Of Jazz is the soberest, most objective and scholarly collection of jazz writing hitherto com­piled. And if its editor hadn’t made such extravagant claims for his volume, the reviewer would perhaps have ignored a growing feeling of discomfort experienced while reading and re-reading the book. But the introduction nurtured his suspicions. Below the surface objectivity, The Art Of Jazz is a representative sampler of the style, beliefs and outlook of an influential school of jazz writers which, for want of a better term, I shall refer to as the “New” Critics. This term is just because jazz writers like Martin Williams are in­fluenced by the school of literary criticism known as “new” although it is long since of age.

André Hodeir, the Great White Father of the New Critics, is repre­sented with a typically patronizing critique of some Tatum LPs

Williams has done a careful and conscientious job of editing. As he himself states, all the pieces contained in The Art Of Jazz are samples of “respectable” criticism. Some will be known to the seasoned reader, as they have previously been anthologized in de Toledano’s Frontiers Of Jazz some 12 years ago. These are Ansermet’s 1919 appreciation of Will Marion Cook and Sidney Bechet (abridged). William Russell’s “Notes On Boogie-Woogie’, and Ross Russell’s mainly biographical piece on James P. Johnson. The Ansermet is a classic, and the others well deserve re-anthologizing, although better work has been done on James P. Johnson since. The major pieces, both in length and importance, are Ross Russell’s 28-page analysis of “Bebop”, done for the late Record Changer in 1948 and still relevant; George Avakian’s “Bessie Smith”, culled by Williams from the liner-notes to the Columbia LP series, and Max Harrison’s lucid “Looking Back At The Modern Jazz Quartet”, from Jazz Monthly. That publication is also represented by two overlong but partly useful pieces on Duke Ellington, by Charles Fox and Vic Bellerby res­pectively, and by Paul Oliver’s excellent Big Maceo. Another long piece. Guy Waterman’s “Ragtime”, is informed but dull. André Hodeir, the Great White Father of the New Critics, is repre­sented with a typically patronizing critique of some Tatum LPs. Avakian has another long one, on Bix Beider­becke, also taken from liner-notes (a new literary form?) and largely repeating what already is known about this surely most documented of all jazz heroes.

Of the young American writers the most sympathetic is Larry Gushee. whose review of a King Oliver LP is well and warmly written. Glenn Coul­ter’s “Billie Holiday” stems from a short­lived “little” magazine published by Harvard people and has the tone of its origin, in spite of which it manages to be both perceptive and readable. Williams himself has two entries (as do the two Russells and Avakian), one a very short literary exercise on the blues which might have come from the pages of the Kenyon Review, the other the aforementioned “funky-hard bop” piece, which is a provocative glimpse of the future as Martin sees it. There are short contributions by Marshall Stearns (Sonny Terry) and by some others. Of course there is something about Jelly Roll; by Bill Russell.

So far, so good. Each piece is equip­ped with a neat little introduction by the editor, giving source and date of publication as well as a little opinion. There are useful record references at the end of each essay. The typography is clear. There is an index. What is it, then, that bothers me about this book?

Take the introduction. From the way it’s often discussed, says Williams, one would hardly think that jazz is an art. But not always, because: “… jazz has inspired, besides the enthusiasm and the sometimes valuable but naively dog­matic sifting of names, a small but respectable body of criticism – the kind that only an art can inspire and that only an art deserves.”

Having heard the startling news that respectability and inspiration walk hand in hand, and that art deserves criticism (we’d always thought that it merely suffered it), we are now told that the writings contained in this tome “were respectable enough that I would be will­ing to recommend them” and that they constitute, not a useful little book on jazz but “a kind of summary of what we know and of the various construc­tive ways of looking at what we know.” All that? Nay, more “… a summation and point of departure for comment on jazz in the future (of) a degree of critical respectability on which those of us who love jazz should be willing to present it to others…”

And there it is, in a nutshell: The fussy concern with “respectability”, the humourlessness, the slighting of enthus­iasm, and the overestimation of criticism vis-à-vis art. And that wouldn’t be so bad if it were not so clearly reflected throughout the book: In the selection of the material, in its presentation, and often in the writing itself.

…they are frequently pedestrian where the old-timers were naive, and they are full of the pseudo-objectivity and “scientific” methodology of today’s academicians

Perhaps the trouble is that I was raised wrong. I remember a time when writing concerned with jazz was often amateurish, naive, and frequently full of factual errors but also had a proselytiz­ing enthusiasm; a kind of missionary fervor best exemplified in the works of the pioneer jazz critic, Daddy Panassié. The New Critics are accurate. The facts, after all, have been uncovered in 30 years of hard work by the naive and dogmatic sifters of names. But they are frequently pedestrian where the old-timers were naive, and they are full of the pseudo-objectivity and “scientific” methodology of today’s academicians. There is not a man among them who is, as a writer, of the stature of Charles Edward Smith, Otis Ferguson, Stanley Dance or Nat Hentoff, to cite some of the few stylists jazz writing has developed. There is not one among them who would make those absurd claims for jazz that Panassié made: That it was the most original art of our time. They won’t even think it. To them, as to M. Hodeir, jazz is lucky to be granted equality: equality to Stockhausen, Ionesco and Jackson Pollock (in Hodeir this is explicit; his followers have not pro­tested). There is in this new criticism something which gives me spiritual dyspepsia. Sample: “Unfortunately, jazz musicians seem to die at the wrong time … On the other hand, from musical considerations alone, many would say that Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and some others are long over­due.” (Guy Waterman: “Ragtime”, circa 1955).

It isn’t just the sheer heartlessness of such a statement which sticks in the craw like Kruschev’s dead rat, or its questionable taste. It represents that reductio ad absurdum of “objectivity” which brings about the dehumanization of jazz writing. For whom does Mr. Waterman write such stuff? Surely not for the lover of jazz, who also loves the people who make it. Is he displaying his wit? If so, he should be more care­ful with nuances of style and meaning. “From musical considerations alone” does not mean “solely from musical considerations”. But perhaps he wished death upon these musicians for extra-musical reasons.

This is an extreme. Others psycholo­gize, indulging, in that stringing out of Freudian clichés which comes so easily to the Westerner of today. Sample: “…one gathers that aside from the usual influences of her unfortunate environment she rebelled against the basic gentleness of her own sober per­sonality. Bessie’s inner self wanted to dominate situations and people.” (Avakian). Really? The “unfortunate environment” is of course the soil in which Bessie’s art grew and was nour­ished. And why should she not have wanted to dominate? She was entitled to it. The image of a well-adjusted Bessie Smith appeals to one’s senti­mental instincts, but she would hardly have come to our attention. Here is Mr. Oliver on Big Maceo, to show that Americans have no monopoly on such wisdom: “From the blues that he sang … the impression is created of a man who canalized his emotions into words rather than actions … anxiety, in­security … are indicative of an essen­tially introvert nature.” In other words. Big Maceo was, (a) a blues singer, and (b) he didn’t actually go out and do all those things he sang about. Lucky for him. (The remainder of the essay con­tains a good deal of insight.)

Such circumstances reveal the gap between critic and artist, and also some­thing not as unbridgeable, the gap between “respectability” and a compre­hension of the sources of jazz. In areas not so personal, the New Critics manifest other idiosyncrasies. Chief among them is a neo-Spencerian faith in unilinear evolution. Louis Armstrong and the dinosaur are viewed in the same perspective: Both have contributed to the evolvement of the most recent, and therefore most significant, example of the species. Thus even Ross Russell, who bases his whole defence of Bebop on the correct assumption that it grew out of Swing, which in turn had grown from the “parent style”, denies the acknowledged innovators the right to continued growth alongside of the new style. We hear about “the eclipse of Louis Armstrong”, arbitrarily dated at 1936. We hear about Coleman Hawkins’ “machine-gun style” which was junked by Prez. Prez himself, analyzed with real insight, is also viewed as a “historic” figure, and that in 1948!

When it comes to soothsaying, Martin Williams has some pretty terrifying visions, but he is complacent about them. He sees the drummer becoming even further “liberated” from keeping time, propelling himself into the role of “inspirational accompanist”, a clanging, banging Frankenstein’s monster from which heaven and thinking young drum­mers like Oliver Jackson, Herb Lovelle, Eddie Locke and Willie Jones protect us. All this in the name of evolution, which sayeth: If you have become complex, the only road is to further complexity. The entire history of art contradicts such a view, but no matter.

But all this is secondary. The cat is let out of the bag by George Avakian, who tells us: “…no part of the American public big enough to matter can produce (another Bessie Smith), or even wants one.” This from a passage which implies that the Negro public has lost its taste for the blues. To continue: “… she has passed to the jazz collec­tors, folklorists, and just plain people of sound artistic judgment (of whom there are always more but never enough)”.

What it boils down to is that the verbal elite which has so effec­tively smothered in words all the arts of this century, and has relegated painting to museums, poetry to “little magazines” and western art music to the concert hall wishes to make jazz its property

We’ve come a long way from Ansermet, who was more than willing, in 1919 to believe that jazz was the “highway along which the whole world would swing tomorrow” (which is today). Indeed, the increasing provincialism of jazz writing is not its least significant aspect. More is written, less is said. Those of us who respond to Bessie’s message know that her art can reach out across cultural barriers, even barriers of language – and not just to folklorists, but to children, savages and poets. And to professors. What it boils down to is that the verbal elite which has so effec­tively smothered in words all the arts of this century, and has relegated painting to museums, poetry to “little magazines” and western art music to the concert hall wishes to make jazz its property. From the very best of motives it wishes to “guide” the “true artist” through the maze of contradictions which charac­terizes (as it always has) human existence. The jazz musician, who is a popular artist in the best and truest sense of that word (as were the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, Leonardo and the early, and best, film-makers, none of whom were graced with critics) is warned against “commercial concessions”. His art is seen as having arisen in spite of his background and working conditions, which is a half-truth at best. He is warned against the public, yet given no bread to replace its acceptance. He must be “profound”, for to be happy, or extroverted, is to be an anachronism. He must not play for people who drink liquor, dance and converse. He must be “dedicated”. And thus we have self-conscious jazz (for the first time) and self-conscious jazz writing. They do not go hand in hand; the artist is always miles, lightyears ahead. There is, already, something terribly old-fashioned about the New Critics. Jazz is ever growing in popularity; what will happen in the next decade is beyond facile or profound prediction. No doubt a part of the jazz fraternity will attend the academies and learn the language of “art”. But some funky little cat will come along and upset the whole apple­cart, just wait and see. And the people will dig him long before Messrs. Wil­liams et al catch up. They haven’t yet caught up with Louis Armstrong…

If it seems to the reader that I have overloaded a relatively harmless, well-intentioned and useful little book with sinister motivations let me hasten to point out that I am addressing an audience literate in the ways of jazz. I have no holy horror of those who feel that the future belongs to the Rollinses and the concert hall, or even to “atonal” jazz. There is room for all of us. My main intention has been to puncture the conceit that only one school of jazz writing is capable and competent, signifi­cant and “respectable”. None of us possess the truth. Jazz has its own sources of growth and development, its own nature. What that nature is, you won’t discover from Martin Williams’ Art Of Jazz. What you will find is some useful and interesting information about music and musicians – many things of value to the student of jazz. By all means, read it. But a “summation” it ain’t.
Dan Morgenstern

The Art Of Jazz: Essays on the Nature and Development of Jazz. Edited by Martin T. Williams. (New York, Oxford University Press. $5.00; 248 pp.)