Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jazz: History's Healer In a Search for Meaning

By lovers of the art, jazz has long been thought of as a healing music. Steeped deeply in rural blues, field work songs, and church call and answer, it follows that within these influences come a necessary salve, especially in difficult social and economic times.

Ebony Magazine launched an article today called Rebirth of Slick: Jazz Returns to Black Popular Music and noted how young African-American artists such as Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper, two world-class artists often mentioned in this blog, have opened doors to jazz for a new generation of people.   Through its Twitter feed (@EBONYMag) and through feedback buttons on its website, I commented to the magazine that I thought its points were excellent and timely. However, the more I thought about jazz music's place in history, the more I realized that its emergence and awareness to popular culture -- black, white, all of us -- tends to surface at times when Americans are searching for deeper meaning. 

The birth of jazz coincided with not only the invention of sales of the RCA Victrola (1906) and radio (first AM broadcast, 1920), but also with the catastrophic conclusion of World War I in 1918.  At that time in history, the "war to end all wars" had been fought, with a worldwide total of more than 15 million dead and over 20 million wounded as a result.  Various intellectual movements, such as post-modernism in English-speaking countries and el vanguardismo in Latin America, seethed in the arts and carried an angry societal message that basically screamed:  if behaving in a civilized manner brought us to total World War, then what good is there in being 'civilized'?  A great example of this angst is captured in Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream".  In popular culture, partly because of this angst and fueled further by the 18th Amendment in America ("Prohibition"), the Roaring Twenties blazed ahead in earnest with devil-may-care abandon.

During the late Teens and early Twenties, even as a baby, jazz nursed wounded souls with the golden cornet sounds of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke; in the affected blues of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters; and in the next generation of Scott Joplin influences in stride piano via written compositions from Jelly Roll Morton.   With these giants at the helm and powered by the popularity of radio and RCA Victrola records, jazz became the official soundtrack of the Western world from the 1920s, 1930s, and even into the Swing Era of the 1940s.  It was a curative ointment that bonded a generation, from one World War, through the Great Depression, and into the next.

By September 1939, only a generation later, the world was again at war, led by Adolf Hitler of Germany and the Nazi party.  Jazz again sailed in as a salve to soothe frightened and wounded hearts.  This was evident in the fact that Swing music was outright banned in Germany, particularly if and when recorded by African Americans (on "race records") or Jews.  For example, Benny Goodman records continued to sell in Germany, but only under Goodman's drummer's name, Gene Krupa, a non-Jew.

In stark contrast to Nazi aims, during World War II, jazz again emerged as the era's popular music, and its commercial name (swing) is often cited in literature and on Ken Burns' Jazz as the "true welcome" and "Golden Age."  Swing was the most popular music on the radio and its success offered hundreds of jobs to musicians in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and even new points out West, such as Los Angeles.  Many music jobs could also be found in various touring and territory bands that traveled the country.

During the next few decades, aided by the birth of jazz's cousin, rock and roll, the overt popularity of jazz music would disappear for most of the record-buying teenagers, starting in the mid-1950s.  However, for a small group of authors based first in New York, then in Denver, and finally in San Francisco and beyond, it would remain the only official music of their existence.  Once again, after yet another bloody world conflict ended, these writers were a part of a new generation of young people that rebelled against conventional wisdom.  Most of these "rebels" were actually middle-class intellectuals from the suburbs, urban universities, and various literary circles that were first termed as "beat", and by 1959, with the launch of the Soviet missile Sputnik, "beatniks."

Credited to writer John Clellon Holmes in November 1952 ("This is the Beat Generation" - New York Times Magazine), "beat" had nothing to do with music; it instead referred to rebellious young people who carried themselves as though they were "beaten" or "beat up" by life and circumstances and therefore had nothing to lose.  At that time, the term simply meant socially "worn out", or more accurately, "fed up."

The Beats reveled in driving fast cars, drinking and taking anything they could get their hands on, listening to bebop jazz, and were ultimately America's first "hippies".  Instead of tie-dye and beads, they were mostly clad in dark turtleneck sweaters, berets, and horn-rimmed glasses.  Like the post-modernists and Vanguard before them of the 1920s, this group of young people again observed the senseless, socio-hypocritical norms of 1950s America and thus decided to drop out and live life on their own terms.  The famous Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, etc) opted to write about their experiences, usually while cranking bebop records during a Benzadrine-induced frenzy.  Most (black) jazz musicians were not amused at the time as the (white) Beats often attempted to emulate their troubles with heroin and speed, thinking that the drugs would improve their artistic abilities and free their minds, but in retrospect, these teenagers must be credited as jazz's biggest fans through the late 1940s to the early 1960s.  In addition to writers, artists such as the troubled Jackson Pollock angrily slung paint against a proverbial canvas in outright frustration at his times. 

The collective social kettle was slowly being turned up to a boiling point and urgently wafted the unspoken question -- how could we Americans fight for three long years against oppression overseas, European ethnic cleansing and racial inequalities, then respond by sending men of all races to war against it, and finally bear to continue with business as usual once we returned home?   The idea of "Separate But Equal" -- for blacks, whites, and women of all colors -- was a blatant and hypocritical agenda against minorities with which newly enlightened people could no longer abide.  Pandora's Box had been opened and there would be no closing it.

In addition to the Beats' professed devotion to both jazz and unfettered freedom to roam the continent, a more powerful sentiment of equality and freedom flowered in black communities, giving rise to the Civil Rights movements of the late 1940s, 1950s, and finally culminating in U.S. Federal law as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   Even though swing had long since left the radio by the late 1950s, jazz continued to heal via live music --- bebop and hard bop -- in the underground clubs and supplied the pervasive underpinning to new movements in popular music such as Rhythm and Blues and Soul. 

However, jazz music for its own sake was also never completely down for the count.  In the mid 1950's, jazz artists and composers Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck (1956 and 1954, respectively ... a feat that while Brubeck was honored, was saddened to have hit the cover before Duke ... ) both graced the cover of Time Magazine.  Brubeck also scored a major instrumental hit on the pop chart with alto saxman's angular chart Take FiveWithin devoted jazz circles, however, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the music soared to even faster, more experimental, and crazier heights, embodying a collective social frustration and its longing to fly.

Now jazz beckons a new generation of young people in America who are searching for meaning in an otherwise plastic, boring, broke, uncertain, redundant, and hollow media world.  Many Americans today have expressed in interviews that they do not feel much different from what we learned of the 'Beat Generation' rebels above; we are often tired, used, overtaxed, stressed -- beat.   Furthermore, in terms of entertainment, how can we have thousands of channels on television that offer essentially nothing of value to watch or that feature more advertising time than actual show time ... or thousands of radio and Internet stations (owned by the same handful of corporations - the same ones that own the TV giants - getting the picture yet?) that broadcast the same 10 pop songs?   Certainly we can do better than this -- and some artists have -- by embracing the power of jazz influences into their work.

In this new age of seeking meaning (i.e. movements against the eradication of racism; living in a "greener planet"; celebration of cultural diversity) it is evident to me that jazz has poked its head around in the corner starting with talents such as Spalding and Glasper, and young people have noticed.  We noticed.  Vibe noticed.  Ebony noticed.  A lot of people are starting to notice and it's about damned time.  Per the Mayan Calendar, the world is ending on December 21 of this year, so enjoy this revolution while you still can!

Best wishes always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut /shoot/
President, pianist, jazz historian
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Denver, CO, USA

Twitter: @timkatent

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