A Chronicle of Jazz
Mervyn Cooke
  • At the turn of the century, one critic in a music magazine called it "A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cakewalk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures."
  • It was originally called "jass," but the word was quickly changed to "jazz" because jokers would erase the "j" in the hand-lettered posters hung outside night clubs.
  • The word itself probably originated from that one much beloved of pornographers, being the earliest of a byproducts of the beast with two backs, "jism."
  • The musicians whose names appear most often in A Chronicle of Jazz are Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
  • Armstrong also has the most photographs here (10). The first, from 1910, shows him as one of eighteen members of the brass band of "the Colored Waifs' Home, New Orleans."
  • Jerome Kern called jazz the "debasement of all music."
  • Scat singing --- nonsense words --- may have come about as Armstrong in performance dropped his sheet music "and continued to sing ex tempore."

Paul Whiteman said that "Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains." Cooke traces it from West Africa to North America by means of the slave trade. Slaves were forbidden to own or play drums --- white fear of a secret communication, black revolution. However, slaves managed to create their own novel instruments: the banjo (probably based on the West African lyre) along with what was on hand: spoons, jugs, sticks, string, saws, voice. Cooke traces blues directly to harmonies edged by "blue notes which probably originated in the African technique of 'bending' pitches for expressive effect."

Ragtime ("white music played black") appears as the earliest component, and with it jazz would always be lacking respectability what with its origins in the gin-mills and whorehouses of New Orleans. Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and their peers all came to us from Storyville. Duke Ellington tried to introduce propriety (he always wore a tux, and he and the members of his orchestra were always finely coiffed) but he never helped to shed its links with "sex and low living."

For most of us, Ellington's music, like his tux, seems a little distant, and Cooke also seems to be at a loss with what to do with him. On "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," he writes, "his interest in pre-composed structures produced highly original and coherent musical forms that were felt by many to warrant direct comparison with the output of classical composers."

George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland attempted to bring jazz into the concert hall, but they were mostly unsuccessful. Stravinsky wrote a piece for Woody Herman, Ebony Concerto which is coma-inducing, but our writer suggests that L'Histoire du Soldat also was directly influenced by jazz. If so, it feels a little off-the-cuff, and --- for many of us --- is a rousing success, ignored by all those proper people who merely want to go to Symphony Hall to doze a bit. Try the U-Tube version in French with Marcel Herrand. The English translation doesn't cut the mustard.

Cooke says that improvisation differentiates jazz from classical music, but he's obviously ignoring the fact that Purcell, Handel, Telemann and their contemporaries expected those performing their sonatas and organ pieces to doodle around with the notes written on the page, to interpolate and add their own riffs, to play around. It was 18th Century jazz. Cooke also suggests that in its very rhythm jazz is distinctive, but he obviously hasn't sat through a concert of Bach's English and French suites drawn directly from dances of the country folk. With some musicians, it can inspire a foot-tapping audience. For some of us, anyway. Classical music can do that.

One of my friends back in 1969 --- don't date me (and don't rat on me) --- said that that she and her love went to hear a concert of Couperin's Les Folies Francaises Ou Les Dominos while they were out of their gourds on acid and damn near fell out of their chairs laughing ... much to the disgust of the concert-going regulars. It is sort of funny.

§   §   §

When most of us think of jazz, we recall whatever it was we were doing whenever we (and it) finally got together. I recall listening to Charlie Parker in person at a joint on West 52nd Street in Manhattan in 1949 (or thereabouts), but I was less interested in his music --- which I found to be rather messy --- than I was in the fact that I could get served whiskey out there in public, despite my being sixteen at the time. The music was incidental, and the glass in the shot glasses was so thick that I had to work through quite a few of them to begin to get dizzy. As in Gillespie. The smoke and the noise were overwhelming, but so was our joy at being liberated from whatever it was we thought that was running our lives.

Our early favorites of jazz from those years has to include Fats Waller's songs with their mordant humor, like "Your Feet's Too Big." Which starts out in pure narrative,

    Who's that walkin' round here?
    Sounds like baby patter ...
    Baby elephant patter; thats what I calls it.


    Up in Harlem at a table for two.
    There were four of us,
    Me, your big feet ... and you.

    From your ankles up, I'd say you sure are sweet...
    From there down; there's just too much feet! Yes, your feets too big
    Don't want ya, 'cause ya feets too big
    Can't use ya, 'cause ya feets too big
    I really hate ya, 'cause ya feets too big...

It ends up, his voice fading, again in narrative:

    Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious ... one never knows, do one?

In those days, those of us who were still alive wanted into the world of jazz and blues and what was then called "race music." Jazz was the most accessible, with musicians both black and white. In Carnegie Hall we went for classical music, but it was open, on occasion, for the likes of Benny Goodman, way back in 1938.

I just called up "Sing Sing Sing" on my computer. It features Gene Krupa, Harry James, and the wonderful piano player, Teddy Wilson. The whole concert was recorded almost by accident by Goodman himself, using a wire recorder (this was ten years before tape recorders came into general use).

The piece was long, quite unheard of in the time of 78 rpm records with their absolute limit of three minutes. Wilson and Goodman play off against each other in a most unforgettable way. (In later film shorts of the same piece, they didn't show themselves as being so spontaneous.) We get to watch Gene Krupa bouncing all over, a whirl of drumsticks and sheer animal energy. We also remember Krupa several years later, as pictured in Life. He was being hoisted into a Los Angeles Black Maria. The police had busted him for smoking dope. If I were as jumpy as he was, I would have used it too.

§   §   §

The Chronicle of Jazz has got to be one of the best books on jazz I've ever come across. It goes everywhere, the author knows his stuff cold, and the layout --- and the feel --- is tremendous. There must be over 500 photographs, drawings, and illustrations here. The spacing is leisurely, and the device of using the chronology by years works. For each, we get one musician featured, or an instrument, or a novel historical element. There is a brief of world events off to the side so we can arrange ourselves in time and not get lost in all that jazz.

1946 - 1947, for instance, shows Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly recording together (really!), just above an article about "Reviving Ragtime." There's an appraisal of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," although like all attempts to reduce music to words, the prose gets a little wriggly: "Monk's typically spiky and angular piano technique here contrasts effectively witih the sustained backing supplied by the horns, while complex added-note harmonies and sharp offbeat dissonances alternate with filigree cascades up and down the keyboard."

Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong appear in a still from the film, New Orleans. She looking awfully unharried ... as opposed to real life: I read that she would have one of her live-in boyfriends rough her up before she went on stage to make her singing more ... real. Woody Herman is shown complete with tie and clarinet. Just so we don't forget the world out there, we learn that India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain on 15 August, and there is --- unlike today, of course --- a "Crises in Palestine." And, oh me, "Communists assume power in Hungary." "Assume" being, we trust, an understatement.

There are a few things missing from the book, but it might just be me and my experiences from back then. Harry James came to play for my high school graduation party, and we thought we were going big-time but the band turned drunker and drunker as the evening wore on. Since we were on the same binge, perhaps it made no difference. One of the other musicians (surely not James) livened up the intermission by performing, solo, one of the hoariest bits in the trumpet-and-voice song-and-dance repertoire,

    I've flown around the world in a plane
    I've settled revolutions in Spain
    And the North Pole I have charted
    Still I can't get started with you

    On the golf course, I'm under par
    Metro Goldwyn have asked me to star
    I've got a house, a showplace
    Still I can't get no place with you

    'Cause you're so supreme
    Lyrics I write of you, I dream
    Dream day and night of you
    And I scheme just for the sight of you
    Baby, what good does it do?

    I've been consulted by Franklin D
    Greta Garbo has had me to tea
    Still I'm broken-hearted
    'Cause I can't get started with you ...

The lyrics were written by Ira Gershwin (and changed around a bit to fit the times) but the guy who made it famous is nowhere to be found in Chronicle. Between Bob Berg (saxophonist, died in East Hampton, 2002) and Berlin (City of), there's no Bunny Berigan at all.

One of my favorite jazz singers, Helen Humes, doesn't appear; nor does Willis Conover, who was the voice of jazz for so many people all over the world in the 50s and 60s Voice of America (he was scarcely known in America either). He was probably the subtlest and most honest booster for democracy around that time. The CIA's Encounter Magazine ... like the CIA itself ... certainly didn't do the trick.

Harpsichord appears but once here, in 1965, in "a rare jazz use" with Albert and Donald Ayler. Completely forgotten are the recordings of Artie Shaw with his Gramercy Five, who featured a harpsichord sounding a bit heavy --- certainly no Wanda Landowski, this --- but still jazzy enough. Slam Stewart shows up here in 1943 with Art Tatum and Tiny Grimes, but no mention of his delightful habit of chanting, loudly, along with the bass as he played ... which had the effect of turning a jazz trio into a sub-rosa quartet.

In the same year we find that Django Reinhardt tried to escape from France. He was born gypsy; the Nazis were not fond of gypsies. He was stopped at the Swiss border "by a German officer who [was] an admirer of jazz." Obviously not enough of an admirer to let him cross over and go free --- but he survived anyway, somehow.

One of the surprise contributors here is the poet Philip Larkin, a jazz critic for the London's Daily Telegraph. His thoughts about John Coltrane are a bit less intelligible than his poetry:

    If Coltrane 'progressed from' (i.e., was more horrible than) Parker, who but Ornette Coleman has progressed from Coltrane? Where Coltrane has two chords, Coleman has none at all, no pitch, no rhythm, no nothing ... This is free form. Its drawback is that it all sounds alike ... in the main the effect is like watching twenty monkeys trying to type the plays of Shakespeare.

§   §   §

Cooke has done a commendable job at trying to wrap up a very messy business into a coherent fugue-like parcel, and it works most of the time. The Chronicle of Jazz managed to light up dozens of old memories for me, and my sole regret is that he couldn't come on with a full-range speaker and amplifier to resuscitate some of my favorites from back then. Which has to include one of the few jazz pieces on bombs --- done so wryly and so well by my beloved Charlie Mingus. I can print the words for you, but you have to listen to the recording yourself (at full volume) to get the flavor of that elegant blend of terror and sly wickedness that pops right out at you when Mingus cries,

    Oh Lord,
    Don't let them drop that bomb on me
    Oh no
    Don't let them drop that bomb on me
    Don't let them drop it, don't let them drop it
    Stop it
    ... on me ...

    Ooh yeah
    Oh Lord, on me
    Oh yeah

--- C. A. Amantea
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