Monday, June 11, 2007

Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop

In my previous post ("Vitriol and Jazz"), I addressed among other things what I see as inaccurate characterizations of bebop and later jazz in Clive James’ recent book Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.

At the same time, James does have some interesting arguments about the motivations behind the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop musicians during the 1940s.

James rightly points out that these musicians were concerned with producing music that could be taken seriously as art. Also, given the realities of race in America at the time, and given the perception at the time and now of jazz as “black music,” they were also concerned to produce a legitimate black art. James sees all of this as important, good, and laudable.

James deals adeptly with something that requires a certain sensitivity and care. On the one hand, jazz is black music in the sense that historically the vast majority of prominent jazz musicians have been black, and the individuals who most profoundly shaped and transformed the music have been almost exclusively black. My own highly partial (in both senses of the word) list would include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. There have been prominent and important white jazzmen (and it has been mostly men’s music) – Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and Jaco Pastorius just to get started – but the names on the second list don’t carry quite the same historic weight as those on the first. On the other hand, jazz has no color. After all, it’s comprised of sound. As James points out, Armstrong recognized Beiderbecke not as a good white trumpet player, but simply as a good trumpet player. There’s nothing inherently racial about the music itself – and to go that route leads to a reduction of art to racial essentialism and stereotype.

So, jazz has been simultaneously black music in a sociological or historical sense and without essential or inherent basis in race in an ontological sense. It’s easy to over- or under-emphasize either point.

To get back to an earlier point, James rightly points out that among the concerns of Parker, Gillespie, et al. was to produce music that was art and music that was black art. James is ambivalent about the results. He sees the price of legitimacy as art being a seriousness to the music, with a loss of joy and spontaneity.

I have two reactions to this. The first was a major topic of my previous post. I don’t think this accurately characterizes bebop. While Parker, Gillespie, and others were clearly serious about making music, this doesn’t mean they did so without a sense of humor and that their music is all work and no play. Again, song titles like “Scrapple from the Apple” or “Disorder at the Border” should tip us off, and if that’s not enough, listen to the music. As I’ve written about before (see "Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz" and "The End of the History of Music"), one of the qualities of bebop, especially embodied in a soloist the caliber of Parker, is that the individual soloist, by improvising using the notes of the chord changes rather than embellishing and varying a more structured melody, is even more freed in improvisation than in previous forms of jazz – and joy and spontaneity were a big part of this in the hands of Gillespie and Parker.

Second, while the characterization of the beboppers as concerned to produced art is accurate, it does beg the question why jazz musicians would suddenly be concerned with producing art. The unstated implication is that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington weren’t trying to make art – they were just making entertaining dance music. Well, they were concerned with making entertaining dance music, but they were also concerned with artistry – and it’s for their superior artistry that they’re important in the history of jazz and art. (Just think how many swing band leaders made entertaining dance music that is barely remembered if at all now.) Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were interested in making art, but they were also interested in making entertaining music (albeit not so much dance music). There are clear and important differences in the music of Armstrong and Ellington and the beboppers, but their motivations as artists and entertainers doesn’t seem so distinct to me.

Which brings us to another point James argues. James sees bebop as the beginning of the erosion of the popularity of jazz – again because they became such serious artists. However, if earlier musicians were also seriously interested in artistry (and I think it’s clear they were), and if the beboppers weren’t actually so stern and serious (and they clearly weren’t), then this starts to seem not so convincing.

I’d say that James is here confusing correlation and causation. The bebop period of the mid-1940s into the 1950s is associated with a period of waning popularity for jazz (even though it remained a fairly popular genre).

Part of the wane in popularity may have stemmed from the new sound and “difficulty” of bebop (I've written before about the topic of "difficulty," though with regard to ethnographic writing. See "Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing." In that post, I was largely drawing upon "Defining Difficulty in Poetry" on "Reginald Shepherd's Blog."). Certainly more difficult music will tend to appeal less broadly. The music of Harry Partch or Karlheinz Stockhausen will probably never have a very large audience. During the 1960s, the more accessible music of Cannonball Adderley had a much larger audience than that of the more difficult Cecil Taylor.

But there are other, more important, causes for the ultimate decline in jazz’s popularity. Swing jazz had been the music of youth throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. By the mid-1940s, swing was identified by youth as the music of the previous generation. It was no longer hip and young and was giving way to newer genres, such as rhythm and blues, and ultimately rock and roll.

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