Swing- From Verb to Noun” is the title Leroi Jones gives to his chapter on swing music in his 1963 book Blues People. In a 5-7 page paper, explore what Jones means by this formulation– swing as a verb, as a noun, swing going from verb to noun– and how he uses it to make arguments about music as an expression of race, capitalism, and power in the United States. Why is swing music such an apt style for this set of arguments? How does his formulation further the larger goals of his book? After your discussion of swing, discuss two other musical examples–styles, genres, specific artists/songs– from Blues People or any of the other readings so far this semester, where we might apply Jones’ formulation (bebop, rock, the career of Charles Mingus, etc). Lastly, do you think his formulation is still relevant to discussions of contemporary popular music?
In writing your essay, be sure to clearly state your thesis and to develop your argument with evidence clearly cited from the texts at hand. Papers will be evaluated on the strength of their arguments and the extent to which those arguments are developed and supported with properly cited textual evidence. You may refer to ideas presented in lecture, but these ideas cannot stand in for or replace your engagement with the readings. All papers must be proofread, spell-checked, double-spaced, and printed in an appropriate font and font size. For in-text citations and works cited, please follow MLA guidelines.
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The blues was conceived by freedmen and ex-slaves–if not as the result of a personal or intellectual experience, at least as an emotional confirmation of, and reaction to, the way in which most Negroes were still forced to exist in the United States. The blues impulse was a psychological correlative that obscured the most extreme ideas of assimilation for most Negroes, and made any notion of the complete abandonment of the traditional black culture an unrealizable possibility. In a sense, the middle-class spirit could not take root among most Negroes because they sensed the final fantasy involved. Besides, the pay check, which was the aspect of American society that created a modern black middle class, was, as I mentioned before, also available to what some of my mother’s friends would refer to as “low-type coons.” And these “coons” would always be unavailable both socially and culturally to any talk of assimilation from white man or black. The Negro middle class, always an exaggeration of its white model, could include the professional men and educators, but after the move north it also included men who worked in factories and as an added dig, “sportsmen,” i.e., gamblers and numbers people. The idea of Negro “society,” as E. Franklin Frazier pointed out, is based only
on acquisition, which, as it turns out, makes the formation of a completely parochial meta-society impossible. Numbers bankers often make as much money as doctors and thereby are part of Negro “society.” And even if the more formal (“socially responsible”) Negro middle class wanted to become simply white Americans, they were during the late twenties and thirties merely a swelling minority.
The two secularities I spoke of are simply the ways in which the blues was beginning to be redistributed in black America through these years. The people who were beginning to move toward what they could think of as citizenship also moved away from the older blues. The unregenerate Northerners already had a music, the thin-willed “society” bands of Jim Europe, and the circus as well as white rag had influenced the “non-blues” bands of Will Marion Cook and Wilbur Sweatman that existed before the migration. But the huge impact the Southerners made upon the North changed that. When the city blues began to be powerful, the larger Negro dance bands hired some of the emigrants as soloists, and to some degree the blues began to be heard in most of the black cabarets, “dance schools,” and theaters. The true jazz sound had moved north, and even the blackest blues could be heard in the house parties of Chicago and New York. But for most of America by the twenties, jazz (or jass, the noun, not the verb) meant the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (to the hip) and Paul Whiteman (to the square). Whiteman got rich; the O.D.J.B. never did.
The O.D.J.B. was a group of young white men who had been deeply influenced by the King Oliver band in New Orleans; they moved north, and became the first jazz band to record. They had a profound influence upon America, and because they, rather than the actual black innovators, were heard by the great majority of Americans first, the cultural lag had won again.
A Negro jazz band, Freddie Keppard’s Original Creoles, turned down an invitation to record a few months before
the O.D.J.B.; Keppard (myth says) didn’t accept the offer because he thought such a project would merely invite imitation of his style! That is probably true, but it is doubtful that Keppard’s band would have caught as much national attention as the smoother O.D.J.B. anyway, for the same reason the O.D.J.B. could never have made as much money as Whiteman.
It is significant that by 1924, when Bessie Smith was still causing riots in Chicago and when young Louis Armstrong was on his way to New York to join the Fletcher Henderson band–and by so doing, to create the first really swinging big jazz band, the biggest names in “jazz” were Whiteman and the Mound City Blue Blowers, another white group. Radio had come into its own by 1920, and the irony is that most Negroes probably thought of jazz, based on what they had heard, as being a white dilution of older blues forms! It was only after there had been a few recordings sufficiently distributed through the black Northern and urban Southern neighborhoods, made by Negro bands like King Oliver’s (Oliver was then in Chicago with his historic Creole Jazz Band, which featured Louis Armstrong, second cornet), Fletcher Henderson’s, and two Kansas City bands–Bennie Moten’s and Clarence Williams’, that the masses of Negroes became familiar with jazz. At Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens Cafe, Oliver first set the Northern Negro neighborhoods on fire, and then bands like Moten’s and Williams’ in the various clubs around Kansas City; but Henderson reached his Negro audience mostly via records because even when he got his best band together (with Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, etc.), he was still playing at Roseland, which was a white club.
The earliest jazz bands, like Buddy Bolden’s, were usually small groups. Bolden’s instrumentation was supposed to have been cornet, clarinet, trombone, violin, guitar, bass
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(which was one of the first instrumental innovations for that particular group since most bands of that period and well after used the tuba) and drums. These groups were usually made up of musicians who had other jobs (like pre-classic blues singers) since there was really no steady work for them. And they played most of the music of the time: quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, ragtime tunes, like many of the other “cleaner” groups around New Orleans. But the difference with the Bolden band was the blues quality, the Uptown flavor, of all their music. But this music still had the flavor of the brass marching bands. Most of the musicians of that period had come through those bands; in fact, probably still marched with them when there was a significant funeral. Another quality that must have distinguished the Bolden band was the improvisational character of a good deal of their music. Charles Edward Smith remarks that “The art of group improvisation–like the blues, the life blood of jazz–was associated with this uptown section of New Orleans in particular. As in folk music, two creative forces were involved, that of the group and that of the gifted individual.” 1 “New Orleans and Traditions in Jazz,” in Jazz, p. 39.
Most of the Uptown, bands were noted for their “sloppy ensemble styles.” The Bolden band and the other early jazz groups must have sounded even sloppier. The music was a raw mixture of march, dance, blues, and early rag rhythm, with all the players improvising simultaneously. It is a wonderful concept, taking the unison tradition of European march music, but infesting it with teeming improvisations, catcalls, hollers, and the murky rhythms of the exslaves. The Creoles must have hated that music more than anything in life.
But by the time the music came upriver along with the fleeing masses, it had changed a great deal. Oliver’s Creole Band, the first really influential Negro jazz band in the
North, had a much smoother ensemble style than the Bolden band: the guitar and violin had disappeared, and a piano had been added. In New Orleans, pianists had been largely soloists in the various bawdy houses and brothels of Storyville. In fact, pianists were the only Negro musicians who worked steadily and needed no other jobs. But the early New Orleans jazz groups usually did not have pianos. Jelly Roll Morton, one of the first jazz pianists, was heavily influenced by the ragtime style, though his own rags were even more heavily influenced by blues and that rougher rag style called “barrelhouse.” As Bunk Johnson is quoted as saying, Jelly played music “the whores liked.” And played in a whorehouse, it is easy to understand how functional that music must have been. But the piano as part of a jazz ensemble was something not indigenous to earlier New Orleans music. The smoother and more clearly polyphonic style of Oliver’s band, as opposed to what must have been a veritable heterophony of earlier bands like Bolden’s –Kid Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, the first black jazz band to record (Los Angeles, 1921), gives us some indication– showed a discipline and formality that must certainly have been imposed to a large degree by ragtime and the more precise pianistic techniques that went with it.
Oliver’s band caused a sensation with audiences and musicians alike and brought the authentic accent of jazz into the North. Garvin Bushell remembers: “We went on the road with Mamie Smith in 1921. When we got to Chicago, Bubber Miley and I went to hearing Oliver at the Dreamland every night. [This was before Armstrong joined the band and they moved to Lincoln Gardens.] It was the first time I’d heard New Orleans jazz to any advantage and I studied them every night for the entire week we were in town. I was very much impressed with their blues and their sound. The trumpets and clarinets in the East had a better ‘legitimate’ quality, but their [Oliver’s band’s] sound touched you more. It was less cultivated but more expressive
of how the people felt. Bubber and I sat there with our mouths open.” 2 “Garvin Bushell and New York Jazz in the 1920’s,” Jazz Review (February, 1959), P. 9.
Louis Armstrong’s arrival at twenty-two with Oliver’s band had an even more electrifying effect on these Northern audiences, which many times included white jazz musicians. Hoagy Carmichael went to the Lincoln Gardens with Bix Beiderbecke in 1923 to hear that band:
“The King featured two trumpets, a piano, a bass fiddle and a clarinet … a big black fellow … slashed into Bugle Call Rag.
“I dropped my cigarette and gulped my drink. Bix was on his feet, his eyes popping. For taking the first chorus was that second trumpet, Louis Armstrong.
“Louis was taking it fast. Bob Gillette slid off his chair and under the table … Every note Louis hit was perfection.” 3 The Stardust Road (New York, Rinehart, 1946), p. 53.
This might seem amusing if it is noted that the first and deepest influences of most white Northern and Midwestern jazz musicians were necessarily the recordings of the O.D.J.B., who were imitating the earlier New Orleans styles, and Oliver, who had brought that style to its apex. Thus, this first hearing of the genuine article by these white musicians must have been much like tasting real eggs after having been brought up on the powdered variety. (Though, to be sure, there’s no certainty that a person will like the original if he has developed a taste for the other. So it is that Carmichael can write that he still preferred Beiderbecke to Armstrong, saying, “Bix’s breaks were not as wild as Armstrong’s but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care.” 4 As quoted in The Story of Jazz, p. 128.
Blues as an autonomous music had been in a sense inviolable. There was no clear way into it, i.e., its production, not
its appreciation, except as concomitant with what seems to me to be the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black man in America. The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer. The materials of blues were not available to the white American, even though some strange circumstance might prompt him to look for them. It was as if these materials were secret and obscure, and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood.
The classic singers brought this music as close to white America as it could ever get and still survive. W. C. Handy, with the publication of his various “blues compositions,” invented it for a great many Americans and also showed that there was some money to be made from it. Whiteman, Wilbur Sweatman, Jim Europe, all played Handy’s compositions with success. There was even what could be called a “blues craze” (of which Handy’s compositions were an important part) just after the ragtime craze went on the skids. But the music that resulted from this craze had little, if anything, to do with legitimate blues. That could not be got to, except as the casual expression of a whole culture. And for this reason, blues remained, and remains in its most moving manifestations, obscure to the mainstream of American culture.
Jazz made it possible for the first time for something of the legitimate feeling of Afro-American music to be imitated successfully. (Ragtime had moved so quickly away from any pure reflection of Negro life that by the time it became popular, there was no more original source to imitate. It was, in a sense, a premature attempt at the socio-cultural merger that later produced jazz.) Or rather, jazz enabled separate and valid emotional expressions to be made that were based on older traditions of Afro-American music that were clearly not a part of it. The Negro middle class would not have a music if it were not for jazz. The white
man would have no access to blues. It was a music capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well.
During the twenties, serious young white musicians were quick to pick up more or less authentic jazz accents as soon as they had some contact with the music. The O.D.J.B., who came out of a parallel tradition of white New Orleans marching bands, whizzed off to Chicago and stunned white musicians everywhere as well as many Negro musicians in the North who had not heard the new music before. Young white boys, like Beiderbecke, in the North and Midwest were already forming styles of their own based on the O.D.J.B.’s records and the playing of another white group, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, before Joe Oliver’s band got to Chicago. And the music these boys were making, or trying to make, had very little to do with Paul Whiteman. They had caught the accent, understood the more generalized emotional statements, and genuinely moved, set out to involve themselves in this music as completely as possible. They hung around the Negro clubs, listening to the newly employed New Orleans musicians, and went home and tried to play their tunes.
The result of this cultural “breakdown” was not always mere imitation. As I have said, jazz had a broadness of emotional meaning that allowed of many separate ways into it, not all of them dependent on the “blood ritual” of blues. Bix Beiderbecke, as a mature musician, was even an innovator. But the real point of this breakdown was that it reflected not so much the white American’s increased understanding of the Negro, but rather the fact that the Negro had created a music that offered such a profound reflection of America that it could attract white Americans to want to play it or listen to it for exactly that reason. The white jazz musician was even a new class of white American. Unlike the earlier blackface acts and the minstrels who sought to burlesque
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certain facets of Negro life (and, superficially, the music associated with it), there were now growing ranks of white jazz musicians who wanted to play the music because they thought it emotionally and intellectually fulfilling. It made a common cultural ground where black and white America seemed only day and night in the same city and at their most disparate, proved only to result in different styles, a phenomenon I have always taken to be the whole point (and value) of divergent cultures.
It is interesting that most of these young white musicians who emerged during the early twenties were from the middle class and from the Middle West. Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa; that town, however, at the turn of the century was a river port, and many of the riverboats docked there–riverboats whose staffs sometimes included bands like Fate Marable’s, Dewey Jackson’s, and Albert Wynn’s, and musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Beiderbecke’s first group, the Wolverines, played almost exclusively at roadhouses and colleges in the Midwest, most notably at Indiana University.
A few years after the Wolverines had made their reputation as what George Hoefer calls “the first white band to play the genuine Negro style of jazz,” another group of young white musicians began to play jazz “their own way.” They were also from the Midwest, but from Chicago. Eddie Condon, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, PeeWee Russell, Dave Tough, and some others, all went to Austin High School and became associated with a style of playing known as “Chicago jazz,” which took its impetus from the records of the O.D.J.B. and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings dates on the North Side of Chicago.
Chicago and nearby parts of the Midwest were logically the first places where jazz could take root in the North (although there were some parallel developments in New York). In a sense Chicago was, and to a certain extent is now, a kind of frontier town. It sits at the end of the riverboat
runs, and it was the kind of industrial city that the first black emigrants were drawn to. It had many of the heavy industries that would employ Negroes, whereas New York’s heaviest industry is paperwork. And in Chicago, during what was called the “Jazz Age,” there was an easiness of communication on some levels between black and white that was not duplicated in New York until some time later. Chicago at this time was something like the musical capital of America, encompassing within it black emigrants, white emigrants, country blues people, classic stylists, city house-party grinders, New Orleans musicians, and young Negro musicians and younger white musicians listening and reacting to this crush of cultures that so clearly typified America’s rush into the twentieth century.
The reaction of young white musicians to jazz was not always connected directly to any “understanding of the Negro.” In many cases, the most profound influence on young white musicians was the music of other white musicians. Certainly this is true with people like Beiderbecke and most of the Chicago-style players. But the entrance of the white man into jazz at this level of sincerity and emotional legitimacy did at least bring him, by implication, much closer to the Negro; that is, even if a white trumpet player were to learn to play “jazz” by listening to Nick LaRocca and had his style set (as was Beiderbecke’s case) before he ever heard black musicians, surely the musical debt to Negro music (and to the black culture from which it issued) had to be understood. As in the case of LaRocca’s style, it is certainly an appropriation of black New Orleans brass style, most notably King Oliver’s; though the legitimacy of its deviation can in no way be questioned, the fact that it is a deviation must be acknowledged. The serious white musician was in a position to do this. And this acknowledgment, whether overt or tacit, served to place the Negro’s culture and Negro society in a position of intelligent regard it had never enjoyed before.
This acknowledgment of a developed and empirical profundity to the Negro’s culture (and as the result of its separation from the mainstream of American culture) also caused the people who had to make it to be separated from this mainstream themselves. Any blackness admitted within the mainstream existed only as it could be shaped by the grimness of American sociological (and political) thought. There was no life to Negroes in America that could be understood by America, except negatively or with the hopeless idealism of impossible causes. During the Black Renaissance the white liberal and sensual dilettante “understood” the Negro. During the Depression, so did the Communist Party. The young white jazz musicians at least had to face the black American head-on and with only a very literal drum to beat. And they could not help but do this with some sense of rebellion or separateness from the rest of white America, since white America could have no understanding of what they were doing, except perhaps in the terms that Whiteman and the others succeeded in doing it, which was not at all–that is, explaining a bird by comparing it with an airplane.
“Unlike New Orleans style, the style of these musicians –often and confusingly labeled ‘Chicago’–sacrificed ease and relaxation for tension and drive, perhaps because they were mastering a new idiom in a more hectic environment. They had read some of the literature of the 20’s–drummer, Dave Tough, loved Mencken and the American Mercury— and their revolt against their own middle-class background tended to be conscious. The role of the improvising–and usually non-reading–musician became almost heroic.” 5 The Story of Jazz, p. 129.
Music, as paradoxical as it might seem, is the result of thought. It is the result of thought perfected at its most empirical, i.e., as attitude, or stance. Thought is largely conditioned by reference; it is the result of consideration or speculation against reference, which is largely arbitrary.
There is no one way of thinking, since reference (hence value) is as scattered and dissimilar as men themselves. If Negro music can be seen to be the result of certain attitudes, certain specific ways of thinking about the world (and only ultimately about the ways in which music can be made), then the basic hypothesis of this book is understood. The Negro’s music changed as he changed, reflecting shifting attitudes or (and this is equally important) consistent attitudes within changed contexts. And it is why the music changed that seems most important to me.
When jazz first began to appear during the twenties on the American scene, in one form or another, it was introduced in a great many instances into that scene by white Americans. Jazz as it was originally conceived and in most instances of its most vital development was the result of certain attitudes, or empirical ideas, attributable to the Afro-American culture. Jazz as played by white musicians was not the same as that played by black musicians, nor was there any reason for it to be. The music of the white jazz musician did not issue from the same cultural circumstance; it was, at its most profound instance, a learned art. The blues, for example, which I take to be an autonomous black music, had very little weight at all in pre-jazz white American culture. But blues is an extremely important part of jazz. However, the way in which jazz utilizes the blues “attitude” provided a musical analogy the white musician could understand and thus utilize in his music to arrive at a style of jazz music. The white musician understood the blues first as music, but seldom as an attitude, since the attitude, or world-view, the white musician was responsible to was necessarily quite a different one. And in many cases, this attitude, or world-view, was one that was not consistent with the making of jazz.
There should be no cause for wonder that the trumpets of Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong were so dissimilar. The white middle-class boy from Iowa was the product of a
culture which could place Louis Armstrong, but could never understand him. Beiderbecke was also the product of a subculture that most nearly emulates the “official” or formal culture of North America. He was an instinctive intellectual who had a musical taste that included Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Debussy, and had an emotional life that, as it turned out, was based on his conscious or unconscious disapproval of most of the sacraments of his culture. On the other hand, Armstrong was, in terms of emotional archetypes, an honored priest of his culture–one of the most impressive products of his society. Armstrong was not rebelling against anything with his music. In fact, his music was one of the most beautiful refinements of Afro-American musical tradition, and it was immediately recognized as such by those Negroes who were not busy trying to pretend that they had issued from Beiderbecke’s culture. The incredible irony of the situation was that both stood in similar places in the superstructure of American society: Beiderbecke, because of the isolation any deviation from mass culture imposed upon its bearer; and Armstrong, because of the socio-historical estrangement of the Negro from the rest of America. Nevertheless, the music the two made was as dissimilar as is possible within jazz. Beiderbecke’s slight, reflective tone and impressionistic lyricism was the most impressive example of “the artifact given expression” in jazz. He played “white jazz” in the sense I am trying to convey, that is, as a music that is the product of attitudes expressive of a peculiar culture. Armstrong, of course, played jazz that was securely within the traditions of Afro-American music. His tone was brassy, broad, and aggressively dramatic. He also relied heavily on the vocal blues tradition in his playing to amplify the expressiveness of his instrumental technique.
I am using these two men as examples because they were two early masters of a developing American music, though they expressed almost antithetical versions of it. The point
is that Afro-American music did not become a completely American expression until the white man could play it! Bix Beiderbecke, more than any of the early white jazzmen, signified this development because he was the first white jazz musician, the first white musician who brought to the jazz he created any of the ultimate concernNegro musicians brought to it as a casual attitude of their culture. This development signified also that jazz would someday have to contend with the idea of its being an art (since that was the white man’s only way into it). The emergence of the white player meant that Afro-American culture had already become the expression of a particular kind of American experience, and what is most important, that this experience was available intellectually, that it could be learned.
Louis Armstrong’s departure from the Oliver Creole Jazz Band is more than an historical event; given further consideration, it may be seen as a musical and socio-cultural event of the highest significance. First, Armstrong’s departure from Chicago (as well as Beiderbecke’s three years later, in 1927, to join the Goldkette band and then Paul Whiteman’s enterprise) was, in a sense, symbolic of the fact that the most fertile period for jazz in Chicago was finished and that the jazz capital was moving to New York. It also meant that Louis felt mature enough musically to venture out on his own without the presence of his mentor Joe Oliver. But most important, Armstrong in his tenure with Fletcher Henderson’s Roseland band was not only responsible to a great degree for giving impetus to the first big jazz band, but in his capacity as one of the hot soloists in a big dance (later, jazz) band, he moved jazz into another era: the ascendancy of the soloist began.
Primitive jazz, like most Afro-American music that preceded it, was a communal, collective music. The famous primitive ensemble styles of earlier jazz allowed only of
“breaks,” or small solo-like statements by individual players, but the form and intent of these breaks were still dominated by the form and intent of the ensemble. They were usually just quasi-melodic punctuations at the end of the ensemble chorus. Jazz, even at the time of Oliver’s Creole Band, was still a matter of collective improvisation, though the Creole Band did bring a smoother and more complex polyphonic technique to the ensemble style. As Larry Gushee remarked in a review of a recent LP of the Creole Band (Riverside 12-122) “… the Creole Jazz Band … sets the standard (possibly, who knows, only because of an historical accident) for all kinds of jazz that do not base their excellence on individual expressiveness, but on form and shape achieved through control and balance.” 6 Jazz Review (November, 1985), P.37.
The emergence of this “individual expressiveness” in jazz was signaled impressively by Armstrong’s recordings with a small group known as the Hot Five. The musicians on these recordings, made in 1925 and 1926, were Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet and alto saxophone; Lil Hardin, now Mrs. Armstrong, piano; and Johnny St. Cyr, banjo. On these sides, Armstrong clearly dominates the group, not so much because he is the superior instrumentalist, but because rhythmically and harmonically the rest of the musicians followed where Louis led, sometimes without a really clear knowledge of where that would be. The music made by the Hot Five is Louis Armstrong music: it has little to do with collective improvisation.
“The 1926 Hot Five’s playing is much less purely collective than King Oliver’s. In a sense, the improvised ensembles are cornet solos accompanied by impromptu countermelodies [my italics], rather than true collective improvisation. This judgment is based on the very essence of the works, and not merely on the cornet’s closeness to the microphone. Listen to them carefully. Isn’t it obvious that Armstrong’s personality absorbs the others? Isn’t your attention spontaneously
concentrated on Louis? With King Oliver, you listen to the band, here, you listen first to Louis.” 7 André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence (New York, Grove Press, 1956), pp. 50-51.
The development of the soloist is probably connected to the fact that about this time in the development of jazz, many of the “hot” musicians had to seek employment with larger dance bands of usually dubious quality. The communal, collective improvisatory style of early jazz was impossible in this context, though later the important big jazz bands and big “blues bands” of the Southwest solved this problem by “uniting on a higher level the individual contribution with the entire group.” 8 Jazz, A People’s Music, p. 206.
The isolation that had nurtured Afro-American musical tradition before the coming of jazz had largely disappeared by the mid-twenties, and many foreign, even debilitating, elements drifted into this broader instrumental music. The instrumentation of the Henderson Roseland band was not chosen initially for its jazz possibilities, but in order to imitate the popular white dance bands of the day. The Henderson band became a jazz band because of the collective personality of the individual instrumentalists in the band, who were stronger than any superficial forms that might be imposed upon them. The saxophone trio, which was a clichéed novelty in the large white dance bands, became something of remarkable beauty when transformed by Henderson’s three reeds, Buster Bailey, Don Redman, and Coleman Hawkins. And just as earlier those singular hollers must have pierced lonely Southern nights after the communal aspect of the slave society had broken down and had been replaced by a pseudoautonomous existence on many tiny Southern plots (which represented, however absurd it might seem, the widest breadth of this country for those Negroes, and their most exalted position in it), so the changed society in which the large Negro dance bands existed represented, in
a sense, another post-communal black society. The move north, for instance, had broken down the old communities (the house parties were one manifestation of a regrouping of the newer communities: the Harlems and South Chicagos). Classic blues, the public face of a changed Afro-American culture, was the solo. The blues that developed at the house parties was the collective, communal music. So the jam sessions of the late twenties and thirties became the musicians’ collective communal expression, and the solo in the large dance bands, that expression as it had to exist to remain vital outside its communal origins. The dance bands or society orchestras of the North replaced the plot of land, for they were the musician’s only means of existence, and the solo, like the holler, was the only link with an earlier, more intense sense of the self in its most vital relationship to the world. The solo spoke singly of a collective music, and because of the emergence of the great soloists (Armstrong, Hawkins, Hines, Harrison), even forced the great bands (Henderson’s, Ellington’s, and later Basie’s) into wonderfully extended versions of that communal expression.
The transformation of the large dance bands into jazz bands was in good measure the work of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, aided largely by the arrangements of Don Redman, especially his writing for the reed section which gave the saxophones in the Henderson band a fluency that was never heard before. The reeds became the fiery harmonic and melodic imagination of the big jazz bands. And it was the growing prominence of the saxophone in the big band and the later elevation of that instrument to its fullest expressiveness by Coleman Hawkins that planted the seed for the kind of jazz that is played even today. However, it was not until the emergence of Lester Young that jazz became a saxophone or reed music, as opposed to the brass music it had been since the early half-march, half-blues bands of New Orleans.
Louis Armstrong had brought brass jazz to its fullest
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flowering and influenced every major innovation in jazz right up until the forties, and bebop. Earl Hines, whose innovations as a pianist began a new, single-note line approach to the jazz piano, was merely utilizing Armstrong’s trumpet style on a different instrument, thereby breaking out of the ragtime-boogie-stride approach to piano that had been predominant since that instrument was first used in jazz bands. Coleman Hawkins’ saxophone style is still close to the Armstrong-perfected brass style, and of course, all Hawkins’ imitators reflect that style as well. Jimmy Harrison, the greatest innovator on the trombone, was also profoundly influenced by Armstrong’s brass style.
With the emergence of many good “hot” musicians from all over the country during the mid-twenties, the big jazz bands continued to develop. By the late twenties there were quite a few very good jazz bands all over the country. And competent musicians “appeared from everywhere, from 1920 on: by 1930 every city outside the Deep South with a Negro population (1920 census) above sixty thousand except Philadelphia had produced an important band: Washington, Duke Ellington; Baltimore, Chick Webb; Memphis, Jimmie Lunceford; St. Louis, the Missourians; Chicago, Luis Russell and Armstrong; New York, Henderson, Charlie Johnson, and half a dozen more.” 9 Hsio Wen Shih, “The Spread of Jazz and the Big Bands,” in Jazz, p. 161.
So an important evolution in Afro-American musical form had occurred again and in much the same manner that characterized the many other changes within the tradition of Negro music. The form can be called basically a Euro-American one–the large (sweet) dance band, changed by the contact with Afro-American musical tradition into another vehicle for that tradition. Just as the Euro-American religious song and ballad had been used, so with the transformation of the large dance band into the jazz band and the adaptation of the thirty-two-bar popular song to jazz purposes, the music itself was broadened and extended even
further, and even more complex expressions of older musical traditions were made possible.
By the late twenties a great many more Negroes were going to high school and college, and the experience of an American “liberal” education was bound to leave traces. The most expressive big bands of the late twenties and thirties were largely middle-class Negro enterprises. The world of the professional man had opened up, and many scions of the new Negro middle class who had not gotten through professional school went into jazz “to make money.” Men like Fletcher Henderson (who had a chemistry degree), Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmie Lunceford, Sy Oliver, and Don Redman, for example, all went to college: “They were a remarkable group of men. Between 1925 and 1935 they created, in competition, a musical tradition that required fine technique and musicianship (several of them were among the earliest virtuosi in jazz); they began to change the basis of the jazz repertory from blues to the wider harmonic possibilities of the thirty-two-bar popular song; they created and perfected the new ensemble-style big-band jazz; they kept their groups together for years, working until they achieved a real unity. They showed that jazz could absorb new, foreign elements without losing its identity, that it was in fact capable of evolution.” 10 Ibid., p. 164.
These men were all “citizens,” and they had all, to a great extent, moved away from the older lowdown forms of blues. Blues was not so direct to them, it had to be utilized in other contexts. Big show-band jazz was a music of their own, a music that still relied on older Afro-American musical tradition, but one that had begun to utilize still greater amounts of popular American music as well as certain formal European traditions. Also, the concept of making music as a means of making a living that had developed with the
coming of classic blues singers was now thoroughly a part of the constantly evolving Afro-American culture. One did not expect to hear Bessie Smith at a rent party, one went to the theater to hear her. She was, at all levels, a performer. The young middle-class Negroes who came into jazz during the development of the show bands and dance bands all thought of themselves as performers as well. No matter how deeply the music they played was felt, they still thought of it as a public expression.
“If so many musicians came to jazz after training in one of the professions, it was because jazz was both more profitable and safer for a Negro in the 1920’s; it was a survival of this attitude that decided Ellington to keep his son out of M.I.T. and aeronautical engineering in the 1930’s.” 11 Ibid., p. 164.
Just as Bessie Smith perfected vocal blues style almost as a Western artifact, and Louis Armstrong perfected the blues-influenced brass style in jazz (which was a great influence on all kinds of instrumental jazz for more than two decades), so Duke Ellington perfected the big jazz band, transforming it into a highly expressive instrument. Ellington, after the Depression had killed off the big theater-band “show-biz” style of the large jazz bands, began to create a personal style of jazz expression as impressive as Armstrong’s innovation as a soloist (if not more so). Ellington replaced a “spontaneous collective music by a worked-out orchestral language.” 12 Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, p. 33.
Ellington’s music (even the “jungle” bits of his twenties show-band period, which were utilized in those uptown “black and tan” clubs that catered largely to sensual white liberals) was a thoroughly American music. It was the product of a native American mind, but more than that, it was a music that could for the first time exist within the formal boundaries of American culture. A freedman could not have created it, just as Duke could never have played like Peatie Wheatstraw. Ellington began in much the same
way as a great many of the significant Northern Negro musicians of the era had begun, by playing in the ragtime, show-business style that was so prevalent. But under the influence of the Southern styles of jazz and with the growth of Duke as an orchestra leader, composer, and musician, the music he came to make was as “moving” in terms of the older Afro-American musical tradition as it was a completely American expression. Duke’s sophistication was to a great extent the very quality that enabled him to integrate so perfectly the older blues traditions with the “whiter” styles of big-band music. But Ellington was a “citizen,” and his music, as Vic Bellerby has suggested, was “the detached impressionism of a sophisticated Negro city dweller.”
Even though many of Ellington’s compositions were “hailed as uninhibited jungle music,” the very fact that the music was so much an American music made it cause the stir it did: “Ellington used musical materials that were familiar to concert-trained ears, making jazz music more listenable to them. These, however, do not account for his real quality…. In his work all the elements of the old music may be found, but each completely changed because it had to be changed…. Ellington’s accomplishment was to solve the problem of form and content for the large band. He did it not by trying to play pure New Orleans blues and stomp music rearranged for large bands, as Henderson did, but by re-creating all the elements of New Orleans music in new instrumental and harmonic terms. What emerged was a music that could be traced back to the old roots and yet sounded fresh and new.” 13 Jazz: A People’s Music, p. 192.
For these reasons, by the thirties the “race” category could be dropped from Ellington’s records. Though he would quite often go into his jungle things, faking the resurrection of “African music,” the extreme irony here is that Ellington was making “African sounds,” but as a sophisticated American. The “African” music he made had much
less to do with Africa than his best music, which, in the sense I have used throughout this book, can be seen as a truly Afro-American music, though understandable only in the context of a completely American experience. This music could, and did, find a place within the main culture. Jazz became more “popular” than ever. The big colored dance bands of the thirties were a national entertainment and played in many white night clubs as well as the black clubs that had been set up especially for white Americans. These bands were also the strongest influence on American popular music and entertainment for twenty years.
The path of jazz and the further development of the Afro-American musical tradition paradoxically had been taken over at this level to a remarkable degree by elements of the Negro middle class. Jazz was their remaining connection with blues; a connection they could make, at many points, within the mainstream of American life.
The music had moved so far into the mainstream, that soon white “swing” bands developed that could play with some of the authentic accent of the great Negro bands, though the deciding factor here was the fact that there were never enough good white jazz musicians to go around in those big bands, and most of the bands then were packed with a great many studio and section men, and perhaps one or two “hot” soloists. By the thirties quite a few white bands had mastered the swing idiom of big-band jazz with varying degrees of authenticity. One of the most successful of these bands, the Benny Goodman orchestra, even began to buy arrangements from Negro arrangers so that it would have more of an authentic tone. The arranger became one of the most important men in big-band jazz, demonstrating how far jazz had gotten from earlier Afro-American musical tradition. (Fletcher Henderson, however, was paid only $37.50 per arrangement by Goodman before Goodman actually hired him as the band’s chief arranger.)
The prominence of radio had also created a new medium
for this new music, and the growing numbers of white swing bands automatically qualified for these fairly well-paying jobs: “The studio work was monopolized by a small group of musicians who turn up on hundreds of records by orchestras of every kind. One of the least admirable characteristics of the entire arrangement was that it was almost completely restricted to white musicians and it was the men from the white orchestras who were getting the work. The Negro musicians complained bitterly about the discrimination, but the white musicians never attempted to help them, and the contractors hired the men they wanted. At the Nest Club, or the Lenox Club the musicians were on close terms, but the relationship ended when the white musicians went back to their Times Square hotels. A few of them, notably Goodman, were to use a few of the Harlem musicians, but in the first Depression years the studio orchestras were white.” 14 Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt, Jazz, A History of the New York Scene (New York, Doubleday, 1962), p. 262.
So the widespread development of the swing style produced yet another irony–when the “obscurity” of the Negro’s music was lessened with the coming of arranged big-band jazz, and the music, in effect, did pass into the mainstream of American culture, in fact, could be seen as an integral part of that culture, it not only ceased to have meaning for a great many Negroes but also those Negroes who were most closely involved with the music were not even allowed to play it at the highest salaries that could be gotten. The spectacle of Benny Goodman hiring Teddy Wilson and later Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, and Cootie Williams into his outrageously popular bands and thereby making them “big names” in the swing world seems to me as fantastically amusing as the fact that in the jazz polls during the late thirties and early forties run by popular jazz magazines, almost no Negro musicians won. Swing music, which was the result
of arranged big-band jazz, as it developed to a music that had almost nothing to do with blues, had very little to do with black America, though that is certainly where it had come from. But there were now more and more Negroes like that, too.