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Some Thoughts on Jazz
as Music, as Revolt, as Mystique

One night, while I was doing poetry and jazz concerts at the Five Spot Café in New York, an unusually large number of old friends from my “other life” as a literary man happened to turn up — editors, poets, novelists, journalists. They were polite and attentive, even appreciative — but they fell into two sharply distinguished classes: those who understood what was going on, musically, and those who did not understand at all — to whom it was all a closed door on a closed book in an unknown language. The latter could appreciate the poetry, they were musically literate, and could, to greater or less degree, get something out of Webern or Orlando de Lassus, and presumably they were not put off by the combination of recitative and music. They had all probably heard and liked Façade, Persephone, Joan of Arc, and other modern combinations of the spoken word and orchestral music. What was shutting them off was specifically jazz. They were a small minority, but the absoluteness of their reaction gave them a disproportionate importance, that and the fact that their positions in the intellectual life of the city would lead normally to the assumption that they would be accessible. The two most uncomprehending were both on the staffs of important magazines, highbrow men-about-town who must have been exposed to jazz off and on for thirty years, and most of whose friends are jazz buffs of varying degrees of sophistication. One thought a long flowing samba was “boogie-woogie.” The other objector thought it was all just a lot of discords with no rhythm at all.

This led to one of those discussions of fundamentals that get nowhere — least of all in night clubs. Arabel Porter, who seemed to be enjoying it, suggested that I write a sort of primer of jazz for the next issue of New World Writing, since there must be a lot of otherwise well-informed people to whom jazz was just as incomprehensible as it was to our two friends. So here it is.

At first we talked about a sort of expanded glossary. But this approach has a serious fault. It starts in with the very thing which prevents a simple, empirical beginning, the mysterious but utterly unimportant argot of the jazz mystique. Some of the audience were hip. Some weren’t. Some dug the scene. Some didn’t dig. What do these terms mean? This question just distracts from the simple musical experience, the ordinary empirical event which is going on.

What is jazz? First off, it is music, not a voice of revolt, not a social mystique, a “way of life.” It is music of a rather simple kind as music goes in the twentieth century, and so it should be fairly easy to define and describe. But there are almost as many answers to the question “What is jazz?” as there are jazz critics — not widely different answers, except for a few cranks, but varied, and clustered around a sort of loose consensus of definition. This is as it should be. General questions in the arts should not admit too specific answers. If you were to ask a committee of experts “What is Cubism?” or “What is Baroque music?” you would get similarly varied answers. Furthermore, take the question “What is Cubism?” If you had never seen a Cubist picture, the most expert answers would not help you to visualize a picture that had much resemblance to the real thing. The ultimate appeal in criticism is always to the direct experience of the work of art itself. So it is best first to listen attentively to the music of a first-rate jazz band or soloist. Instead of doing that, let’s take the wrong way first. Take a typical list of the characteristics of jazz:

It employs dance forms, until recent years almost exclusively in 4/4 time.

Its material comes from folksong, mostly Negro and Southern white, religious, secular, and work songs, especially the spiritual and the Negro blues.

It usually has a limited and very characteristic harmonic and melodic structure which it shares with blues and spirituals.

Its rhythmic devices are derived from the same sources and from earlier band music.

Melody, rhythm, dynamics, ornamentation, tone color, sonority — all owe a great deal to imitation of the human voice.

Although some jazz was written out, even in the earliest days, and most that gets to records is at least “arranged,” almost all jazz leaves a great deal of freedom for improvisation.

Six points on which practically all critics would agree. There is only one trouble. If you drop the words Negro (blues-spirituals) and substitute French or German, all six apply equally well to the music of Couperin or Bach. Does this mean that the essence of the question is the Negro origin of jazz or that something has been omitted in our definition? Perhaps it would be best to start over and listen to some music first. Here are three moderately unrare old 78’s that have, in their separate ways, long been favorites of mine:

Myra Hess, Gigue from the Fifth French Suite [Bach], Columbia, D 1635
Jelly Roll Morton, Tom Cat Blues, Gennett, 5515B
Thelonious Monk, Ruby, My Dear, Blue Note, 549.

Is there any immediate and obvious difference? I think there is, one that no one could possibly miss. They all have, in different ways and to different degrees, something that was left out in our six points. (It so happens that they do meet, in addition, all six requirements too.) They swing. But they swing in different ways and each, in order, swings more than the one before. What is this swing? Listen again. It is an organic, flexible, fluctuating (one could go on adding adjectives of the same sort) treatment of the rhythms of a fairly simple dance form.

Contrast these, including the Myra Hess, with any readily available reading of the Beethoven Contradances. They don’t swing at all, although they are based directly, at first hand, on German folk dance music. Back in the days of the “Swing Craze” and Maxine Sullivan’s It Was a Lover and His Lass, and Benny Goodman’s Mr. Bach Goes to Town, it was common to “swing the classics.” Probably it could be done with the Contradances, but they are extraordinarily resistant to such treatment. Like doggerel in poetry, in German folk material as reworked by the composers of the Classical and Romantic periods, all the rhythmic elements tend to coincide. Accent, beat, time division, phrasing, all fall on the same notes, which gives that easily recognized Staten Island Ferry, Ach Du Lieber Augustin, Where Oh Where Has Mine Leedle Dog Gone?, mechanical jump to so much of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and the rest, and to the playing of Baroque composers by musicians who knew only the methods of the nineteenth century. By the time we get to Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, any sort of natural rhythm has vanished altogether.

Although Myra Hess was certainly one of the freest interpreters of Bach — she had a peculiar art nouveau rhythm that makes Bach sound like Debussy — she sounds incomparably more rigid than Morton, let alone Monk. What is this swing? It is always treated as a great mystery by critics who don’t play music and by jazz musicians for whom it is a valuable trade secret. It is a pretty simple secret. It is, of course, the organic rhythm with which the music is executed. Jazz is played music, it is never written music. Improvised or not, its essence lies in the shared spontaneity of performer and audience. Take the most expert musicological transcription — changing time signatures, triple dotted eighth notes, asterisks above quarter tones and all the rest — give it to conventional musicians who have never heard jazz, and it won’t come out jazz.

Taking the long and wide view of all the world’s music, there is nothing new or strange about organic rhythm. It is the Western music of the past few hundred years that is new and strange. It was only in the eighteenth century that rigorous interpretation of our method of scoring became common and eventually universal. Few people who listen to music are aware that our musical notation dates back only to the early Renaissance and that at first it was looked on only as an approximation, a kind of shorthand to be interpreted with great freedom. Oswald Spengler had the ingenious idea that the rigorous equivalence of time in Western music from 1700 to 1900 went with the dominance of Newton’s physics. Maybe he had something. To write music at all, it must be schematized and made mechanical. To play it as written reduced it to a relatively few simple elements. Given the same metronome beat, one measure is interchangeable with any other in the same time signature and key. This has led some critics, or rather musical aestheticians, to compare the fluent rhythms of “ethnic,” pre-Bach, modernist, and jazz music to Bergson’s organic time — as contrasted with the classical time of strictly ticking exactly equivalent instants.

There is really no need to turn to philosophy. All we need to do is listen to the records of acknowledged skilled interpreters. Take the simplest possible rhythm, Dave Tough giving the beat to Jack Teagarden in Swinging on the Teagarden Gate, Columbia 35323. If this was transcribed, it would just be “Thump, thump; thump, thump.” Anybody could do it, a metronome would do just as well. But Dave Tough is not considered by many critics to be one of the few really great musicians in jazz for nothing. (Almost all of his work is, if scored, rhythmically very simple. Although he made the transition from traditional to modern jazz, he died before he was able to develop a full modern style and it is in his simplest period that he is greatest.) Those thumps are not the blows of a machine, but echoes and variations of the human pulse; each thump is special and unique, and like a heart beat, never to be repeated.

So the larger units of rhythmic pattern are referable to other activities of the living, functioning human body, singly, in pairs, in groups. Thus the elementary phrase or cadence reflects and varies the ebb and flow of the breath. Sometimes, in certain folksongs, it is a specific kind of work — the capstan walk of the chantey, hammer drive songs like John Henry, or As I Walked Out in the Streets of Laredo or I Ride an Old Paint — which are rhythmically right only when they recall the motion of a night-walking horse. Anybody who has ever worked on the range knows that not only does the true cowboy ballad swing in “horse time,” but that you can change the pace of your horse by changing the rhythm of your song.

In every case, the materials of natural rhythm continually vary. This does not mean after the fashion of the scored or indicated variations of a set rhythm — rubato, anticipation, suspension, syncopation, and so on, but in essence and by nature, as each step or motion of the hand is different from every other. Of course the typical expression of the union of music and the human body is the dance. Although now it is fashionable to listen and not to dance, jazz is first and foremost dance music.

Dance music enters us, becomes part of us, more than most other kinds, but music as such is the most kinesthetic of all the arts. Sound seems to take place inside, sight we think of as “out there.” So we manipulate by sight and touch, we communicate by sound. “Jazz,” of course, whatever the square etymologists may say, originally mean sexual intercourse, as either noun or verb, and still is immediately understood by almost anyone in America if used in that sense. And jazz, the music, grew up with dancing that was felt to be extremely erotic.

Curiously, for the past 150 years every new foreign importation into first popular and then symphonic music has been felt to be especially sexy. Music critics, like bad poets with imprecise vocabularies, have practically made the equation exotic = erotic. Tolstoy, as is well known, thought there was something very lewd about The Kreutzer Sonata and equated it with the dangers of canoeing and primitive sweater girls. Conversely, in the West, the folk material of Tchaikovsky was considered aphrodisiac. Polish dance patterns in Chopin, Russian folk music from Moussorgsky to the early Stravinsky, even the artificial exoticism of Debussy with its limp, art nouveau lassitude, every new rhythm has been rejected with the same censure, or, by the more sophisticated, welcomed with the same approval. To this day the French, more than any other people, go into raptures over Wagner, whose turgid, beery eroticism is so utterly foreign to the clarté and wit of the French boudoir. He still seems to send the audience of the Opéra like Katherine Dunham used to send the early audiences of Café Society Downtown. The entire history of the introduction of new folk material into the armamentarium of cultivated music is the story of the slow sublimation or etherealization of what was originally felt by the more conventional to be purely pornographic musical composition. Early nineteenth-century tirades against the waltz or the mazurka are almost incomprehensible today. Is this, and only this, what goes on in the social acceptance of jazz?

I think not. Most jazz critics are primarily discographers. They are anxious to present jazz as “pure music” for listening, in concerts or in small jazz night clubs with no dance floors. Nobody ever says that Kenton, Herman, let alone Basie, make most of their money — not by playing for Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic — but playing dance dates at the Elks’ Club in Dallas and such like places. Presumably they have never been to such dances. I suddenly realized that if I am not careful in this article I will be lending myself to this ignorance or this hoax. After all, I was there. I danced at 63rd and Cottage in the Twenties in Merry Gardens, Midway Gardens, the Trianon, over on State Street in the Sunset, the Dreamland, the Fiume, at Ike Bloom’s Midnight Frolics, over West at Marigold Gardens. I knew the musicians, the girls in the chorus line. I can assure you that we used to dance stuck together like postage stamps and squirming like electrocuted limpets. The dancing of the Jazz Age was as close to public copulation as you could get without being arrested. As a matter of fact, every Saturday night lots of people did get arrested, or at least put off the dance floor.

Why pretend differently? That famous article in a bygone Etude that all the jazz historians quote as a scandalous misunderstanding of jazz is perfectly correct as to facts. The only answer is not denial but “So, what’s the matter with it?” Until this is admitted, discussions of the essence of jazz are going to get nowhere. Jazz is dance music. It is exceptionally erotic dance music, and in its evolution it has always been subject to the demands of a powerful pressure group — the people who spend the money — the dance lobby. Does anybody ever listen? “Jelly roll,” and still earlier and more folkloristic, “hog-eye” are both euphemisms for the female pudendum. Here are two titles, pulled at random from my collection: Georgia White, “Let My Love Come Down,” and “Strewin’ Your Mess.” How about the words of a song like “Spike Driver,” or “If You Want It, You Got to Buy It, ’Cause I Ain’t Givin’ Nothin’ Away”? How about the “dirty dozens,” any verse of which would make this publication unmailable? I went to rent parties where Jimmy Yancey played. What is the commonest boogie-woogie verse? “Boogie to the left, boogie to the right, when I get to boogying, gonna boogie all night./Boogie down the hall, boogie out the door, when I can’t stand no more, we boogie on the floor.” I ask you!

Now it is true that, just like the waltz or the mazurka, the dance forms of jazz have tended, in the hands of some musicians, to grow more and more etherealized. Also, and perhaps more important, it seems that the aphrodisiac effects of all but the most obvious music tend to wear out. Could it be that the rhythms of the source activity itself change? Certainly The Merry Widow Waltz no longer arouses the passions as it did at the beginning of the century — even so late as John Gilbert and Mae Murray.

To many people traditional jazz doesn’t sound “hot” at all but like merry-go-round music. But jazz certainly still has its roots in erotic dance and the further it gets away from these roots the less jazzy it becomes, the more it loses the distinguishing jazz “swing.” It is the specific dance forms which also, in the first instance, distinguish different kinds of jazz. It is the way people responded that made the initial difference. The kind of smooth, sophisticated, satiny rhythm which we think of today as especially Ellington’s first came into public notice with the dance revolution led by Vernon and Irene Castle. And who was the Castles’ band leader? Jim Europe — with James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Willie the Lion Smith, a founder of the Clef Club — the first place where people like Huneker, Ben de Casseres, Paul Rosenfeld, Carl Van Vechten used to go, hold their heads in their hands, and make like Die Kunst der Fuge — long before a single Club Hot had appeared in France. The Castles invented a silky, slinky elegance that has never died out. Perhaps they reflected the first awakening of a barbarous land to the possibilities of relaxed, conscious, erotic control. Who can say? Certainly the motions of the human body — any part of it — governed by Kid Ory’s Muskrat Ramble are far more direct and instinctive. Jim Europe never recorded any jazz, as Buddy Bolden never recorded anything, and so he is just a legend.

Early jazz from the middle states of the Mississippi Valley also shows strong traces of its origins in local styles. The stomp and sand-shuffle still to this day linger in the characteristic Kansas City swing — still throbbing in the music of the latest Count Basie band, and giving a distinct rhythmic sense to all of his important former side men, however far they may have wandered from the original Moten-Kirk-Basie style. Listen to any record of the Basie band and notice how easy it is to isolate the guitar-bass-piano — the living voice of a thousand bygone blues guitarists of the old Southwest.

Recently there has been a sort of revolt against the “New Orleans Myth” of the origin of jazz — a revolt led by Leonard Feather. Duke Ellington shocked many old jazz buffs by saying that Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t as good as many piano teachers around Baltimore and Washington in the early days. I think they have something. Jazz wasn’t invented in New Orleans, but it wasn’t invented by the Jenkin’s Orphanage Band in Charleston, either, or by W. C. Handy in Memphis. Dozens of local schools and styles, hundreds of anonymous musicians all over the country from Oklahoma to New York helped to form the jazz that came into public notice in the Caucasian world just prior to the first World War. To a certain extent it is still possible to sort out some of these strains by studying the more “ethnic” folk music of the countryside — country blues, ring shouts, worksongs, wandering primitive guitarists and piano players — all of whom have been recorded extensively.

New Orleans did contribute certain definite things. In the first place, the dispossession of the well-to-do colored families, many of them educated in Paris and unusually cultured for Southerners, and the driving of them into the Negro ghetto which took place towards the end of the century with the wrecking of all the benefits of Reconstruction — this forced mixing of two vital but disparate cultural groups led to a kind of explosion in the Negro community. It was not that they had more white blood, it was that they had more French civilization. “All my folks was Frenchmens,” says Jelly Roll Morton rather pathetically. It is a commonplace of history that such forced mixtures usually lead to considerable social and artistic activity. Another thing — it is curious that the only two peoples in the Western world with a strong popular tradition of the prostitute’s song, which is what the “city blues” is, are the French and the American Negroes. Germaine Montero singing Rôdeuse de Berges, Edith Piaf singing L’Autre Côté de la Rue — take away the folksong background that shaped the specifically musical idiom and what is the difference between them and hundreds of blues? There existed, at the end of the nineteenth century, and still persists in a weakened condition today, an entertainment business circuit, including everything from prostitution to opera, throughout the French colonial and former colonial world. I would not be so bold as to say that the café chantant had a direct influence in New Orleans, but no one else has ever suggested it and it is worth a thought.

The sources of a local style or a whole period may not be purely “folk” at all. James Reese Europe, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington — somewhere along this line “commercial dance music” stops and a definite New York style emerges in jazz. The rather commercial, square, even Uncle Tom, greatest-of-all Negro revues, Shuffle Along, is still reverberating in jazz history.

Rhythmic and melodic patterns, even certain social attitudes (the High Society Glide versus boogie-woogie) vary with the folksong background and the demands of the dancing audience, but the kind of rhythm remains the same. The sprung rhythms, jumped beats, 5-, 7-, or 9-beat recurring accents can be found in a Gullah ringshout or, as a matter of fact, even in the preaching techniques of certain famous storefront or peasant preachers. Nobody has ever proved the blue scale, the flatted third and seventh, a bona fide African importation. Jazz buffs are infuriated by the suggestion that it might be the Dorian mode, the scale in D on the white keys. But the most popular Southern hillbilly and old Scotch and English folksong scale is the Dorian mode, and many blues — for instance, Careless Love, are simply Negro renditions of white Southern Dorian folksongs. Of course the “altered” notes are imprecise, but so are they in white folksong, and still, they certainly can’t be when played on the piano, whatever the player’s color.

Whatever the origin of the scale, this similarity made it very easy for tunes to be assimilated by Negro singers. Careless Love demonstrably did not come from Dahomey. So, too, with rhythmic patterns. Polkas and schottisches, let alone ragtime, can still be heard in the background of the earliest jazz pianists — even, I believe, the special grace notes and riffs of the French low life piano and accordion from urban sources and French Cajun material from the country.

In passing — ragtime is not jazz, although it is possible to “jazz” ragtime. Scott Joplin playing Maple Leaf Rag recorded from a piano roll sounds very mechanical compared with even the earliest jazz piano. This is not due, as most people seem to think, to the mechanical piano; actually a good player piano can transmit quite a range of dynamic subtleties. That is the way ragtime pianists wanted it. The whole point is the smooth efficiency, the precision with which syncopation, suspension, anticipation, is managed and the sharp definition of ornamentation, glissandos, and tremolos. As W. C. Handy says, “Ragtime was played as written.” And some of it was anything but “primitive piano.” Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime, his book of études, could well be restored to the modern jazz repertory. The pieces should be quite spectacular in the hands of a real swinging pianist. Jelly Roll Morton has a long discussion with Lomax about how the ragtimers played ragtime and how he played it. The whole thing is a question of organic rhythm — the specifically jazz “swing” — and of course, behind that, the demands of Jelly Roll’s dance audience, who wanted a more erotic style of dancing. Fats Waller covers the whole field — there are Waller rolls which are pure ragtime, others which start the development toward jazz, and records which cover the whole rhythmic gamut, ragtime, show tunes, jazz, night-club music, sentimental ballad accompaniments, cocktail piano. If Mary Lou Williams had been recorded as early in her life and as much, we would have an even more extensive coverage, stretching down to the modern, post-bop period. Nothing pays better than the study of one artist, like Mary Lou, or Duke, or Tough, or Basie, whose work has kept alive to changing styles and grown through the years. You can sit down and give yourself a chronological record concert which will pretty well answer the question “What is jazz?”

The folk material flows in, the dance figures go by — Bunny Hug, Castle Walk, Hesitation (producing a very erotic lyric for Hesitation Blues which remained the standard “dirty dozen” chorus for years), tangos, Boston, Lindy Hop, various fox trots, the cakewalk, the Charleston, the Shimmy (originally the Shimmy Shewabble, a shake dance of African origin), the Black Bottom, and, with the swing era, the return of open dancing and elaborately patterned steps, the jitterbug revolution and the accompanying breakthrough of the music into new rhythmic complexities. For many years the only white dancing that resembled the open dramatic dancing that came in with the swing period was that of Joe Frisco, first called “The American Apache,” later billed as “The Jazz Dancer,” a perennial favorite of the Orpheum Circuit and Ziegfeld’s Follies. The more sophisticated youngsters of the Twenties idolized him, and an imitation of his routines was sure to get you thrown off the dance floor, even of Merry Gardens or the toughest South State Street joint . . . as would, for that matter, a good hot Valentino tango. Frisco had quite a tango of his own — the first “air steps” I ever saw, and, alas, could never imitate successfully! (When I think of the innocent girls that risked their lovely necks in these capers!) Frisco claimed to be the first white entertainer to put a jazz band in Palace Time — Jimmy Durante must have run him a close second. It was the dancing, not the music, that attracted the most censure in the Jazz Age. Criticism of the music could not have been more wrong. “Shrieking discords,” “insane rhythms,” back in the days when what was most characteristic of jazz was its rhythmic simplicity — 4/4 time — and its elementary harmony — the use of only a few basic chords. It was the erotic pulse of the rhythm, the swing, and not the strangeness nor the complexity, that the editorial writers and preachers objected to, just as they had objected to Dance du Ventre Polka, The Authentic Coochi Coochi as danced by Little Egypt. Jazz was a music of revolt — but it was the music of revolt against Puritanism, not against Capitalism.

Nothing is more absurd than the balderdash so common amongst Crow Jim French and British critics, that jazz is “the voice of the downtrodden Negro people.” True, many spirituals are practically code songs of slave protest; Miles Mark Fisher’s Negro Slave Songs in the United States demonstrates this very cogently, and many blues singers, especially males, have scant shrift for the values of white society. The sources of jazz are influenced by racial and social conflict, but jazz itself appears first as part of the entertainment business, and the enraged proletariat do not frequent night clubs or cabarets.

One of the most ridiculous things I ever read was a description, by some French aesthete, of the old Sunset, made immortal by Armstrong, as though it was some sort of musical tempestuous Unit Meeting of the “exploited Negroes of Chicago’s stockyards and steel mills.” I have read similar things about the Cotton Club. Now I almost never went to the Sunset because, although I knew the owner, it cost in the neighborhood of thirty dollars to take a girl and dance or sit through a couple of sets. As for the Cotton Club — lest I be thought chauvinistic, let me quote Langston Hughes’s autobiography, from his chapter entitled in bitter irony “When the Negro Was in Vogue” and which you should certainly read:

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and moneyed whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles (Robinson).

I have been to the Cotton Club, and let me say that in addition the acts were vulgar and chauvinistic past belief. If one of them were put on today the NAACP would have a picket line which would fill the block in front of the place. On the platform above the horrors of chorus and comics was the Ellington band, imperturbable, elegant, and infinitely contemptuous. Duke earned that famous dignity the hard way. As a matter of bitter literal fact it was cheaper to dance or listen to a white jazz band than to the more famous colored ones. I think it cost fifty cents to go to White City and enjoy the music of McPartland, Tough, Teschemacher, and Bud Freeman, and even the Coon-Saunders Band at the Blackstone was cheaper than the Sunset. Obscure gutbucket bands played places like the Fiume where only very bohemian whites ever dared to go.

The notion that jazz is social protest music is the product of the systematic anti-American paranoia of French intellectuals and the Friends of the Soviet Union folk culture of a couple of Greenwich Village night clubs of the Thirties. The protest was sexual and unconscious, practically automatic. It is simply that a natural expression of courtship, the oldest, the most anthropological function of music and dance, returned to American culture. It was part of the general overthrow of the English, New England Puritan tradition and the reassertion of the powerful French and Negro elements of our culture. And it is for this reason, if any, that its central nervous system, its main arteries and veins, were the rivers of the drainage of the Mississippi, that French and Negro river.

Of course it is true that no protest is more profound and more vital than a sexual one, for the simple reason that it involves the very vitals of the members of society. So, if it meets with repression and gives rise to social conflict, as jazz certainly did and still does, it soon involves a whole overturn of all the values of conventional society. This is the source of the jazz mystique, jazz as a “way of life,” the hostility to “square society” now systematized in the antics of the hipster.

The natural response to my line of argument here is “What has this got to do with modern jazz, with bop, with cool or progressive jazz, with the quiet, calm complexities of Pacific jazz, with the intricacies of the Modern Jazz Quartet or the modernist adventures of Charles Mingus?” Here the temptation is very strong to take refuge in the well-worked quotation from Lester Young, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Can you dance to Mingus or Milt Jackson or Thelonious Monk? Well, yes, I guess you could if you had to, but that is the point. Can you dance to a Chopin waltz? What you are witnessing is the etherealization of form which takes place with all similar introductions of folk material into the mainstream of music. You can, I guess, if you want, dance to the most modern jazz, but you don’t have to. The same effects are obtained by more subtle means. And unlike Hungarian music in the hands of Liszt, the jazz heritage is much more resistant. It can only be etherealized just so much. It still swings or it ceases to be jazz. Charles Mingus may sound less funky than Oscar Pettiford to the layman, but Pettiford has a trained ear. He recognizes the continuity. Just as you can tell the difference between a Florida orange and a California orange, there is an indisputable difference between Harlem 1958 hard bop and Pacific jazz. But it is a difference of mood, not of essence. Possibly California, with its notorious sophistication, has developed a more relaxed and imaginative sexual technique.

If jazz is music of revolt, it is a revolt towards more natural, wholesome, normal human relationships. A whole generation of novelists, not just D.H. Lawrence, drove home the point that a pig roast on Papeete is a more healthy human get-together than a literary cocktail party on Madison Avenue. This is hardly in need of laboring today. Who doubts it? Jazz returns social music to the role that it has played in all human societies from time immemorial and which was only forgotten for a brief period in Western civilization. This is why it is of such tremendous importance, why it is America’s greatest contribution to twentieth-century culture, and, if not the only serious music we have, our only music which anybody outside the country takes seriously. After all, a revolution in basic human relationships is a very important revolution indeed. Just incidentally, nothing shows better the way in which the arts play a social role — secretly, behind the scenes, seldom understood by the official critics of art and literature, and, eventually, totally subversive.

So to come to the jazz “mystique.” Does the hipster with his green beret, black glasses, and embouchure whisker, the band rat with her Theda Bara makeup and dirty feet in Jesus sandals, the amateur dope fiends with their adulterated marijuana, the Beat Generation, do these people represent “jazz as a way of life”? God forbid! Marx said of Bakunin that he suffered from furor aristocraticus. The hipster is the furious square. The Beat novelists and poets and their camp followers are debauched Puritans. They agree with the most hostile critics of jazz, or for that matter with the most chauvinistic slanderers of the American Negro. They just like it that way. In their utter ignorance they embrace the false image which their enemies the squares have painted.

As Charles Mingus once said to me, “We didn’t evolve the new forms of modern jazz in dirty cellars full of dope peddlers. We worked it out in people’s homes, which we didn’t call ‘pads’ either. And our families stood around and listened and approved.”

Jazz musicians are entertainers and the entertainment business is terribly hard work, with awful hours and long weeks spent lonely on The Road. It is true that they relax in rather unconventional ways and keep different hours from the majority, but that grueling experience, which everybody hates, “The Road,” is a far different thing from the car-wrecking, switchblade orgy of a popular novel with the same name. It is true that Harlem is a hell of a place and warps the lives of everybody who lives there, not just of musicians. But even in Harlem, and far more so in the rest of the country, and, I suppose, most of all on the Pacific Coast, most of the musicians I know are devoted artists — interested primarily in their work, in their wives and children, and, like all of us, in the hard job of keeping a home going in spite of the conspiracy of the society in which we live to destroy it.

Norman Mailer has spoken of the hipster as an imitator of the Negro, but it is imitation characterized by total ignorance of its model. A well-known Beat Poet recently told an interviewer for United Press that “Bird [Charles Parker] couldn’t have blown such beautiful notes if he hadn’t taken heroin.” I knew Bird pretty well, and he sure as Hell didn’t think so — he didn’t like it at all. Possibly the Beat Poet wouldn’t recognize “beautiful notes” if he heard them, and I am sure he would not know how to conduct himself if invited to dinner in the home of a jazz musician, assuming that anybody would be so foolish as to invite him. Hipsters are the parasites on the body of jazz, and the sooner they are got rid of, with a good dose of Larkspur Lotion and blue ointment, the better.


This essay was published in New World Writing (1958) and reprinted in Bird in the Bush (1959). Copyright 1958. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Five More Articles on Jazz]

[Jazz Poetry]

[Rexroth reading four poems to jazz]

[Other Rexroth Essays]





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