Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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4. The Jazz Age (1920–30).

‘Jazzin', everybody's jazzin' now’, sang Trixie Smith in The world's jazz crazy and so am I (1925, Paramount). The song attested to the fever generated by jazz during the 1920s as it spread throughout North America to Europe, Latin America and distant parts of the globe. This expansion occurred in two concurrent phases. First, American jazz was exported overseas in the form of recordings, published sheet music and arrangements and by travelling ensembles. As early as 1918–19 Louis Mitchell and his Jazz Kings performed in Paris and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band undertook a long residency in England. They were followed in the 1920s by Benny Peyton, Arthur Briggs, Sidney Bechet (who returned after his first trip in 1919) and other American musicians scattered throughout Europe. Europeans could also hear jazz interpreted by orchestras touring with such black musical revues as From Dover to Dixie (1923), Plantation Days (1923) and Chocolate Kiddies (1925–6). The market for jazz extended beyond western Europe: Sam Wooding's orchestra appeared in Hungary, Russia and Argentina, while the pianist Teddy Weatherford travelled with Jack Carter's orchestra to East Asia in the late 1920s.

At the same time as American jazz reached new listeners abroad, those living in different parts of the world began to perform, record and write about the new syncopated music. Local jazz bands sprang up everywhere, from those led by Bernard Etté in Germany and Fred Elizalde in England to Dajos Bela in Hungary and Eduardo Andreozzi in Brazil. A number of these ensembles recorded for major labels like Columbia, Decca, Odeon and Victor. Jazz also made an impact on European composers of concert music, just as ragtime had done earlier. Attempts to incorporate (or parody) the rhythmic patterns, harmonic vocabulary and sonorities of jazz were undertaken in France by Milhaud (La création du monde, 1923) and in Germany by Hindemith (Suite ‘1922’, 1922) and Krenek (Jonny spielt auf, 1925). During the same period, writings on jazz began to proliferate in newspapers, periodicals and literary magazines. The German periodical Der Querschnitt published articles on jazz in 1922–3, and in Leipzig Alfred Baresel turned out pedagogical materials and Das Jazz-Buch (1925), which Bradford Robinson called the first comprehensive textbook on jazz in any language.

Public reaction to jazz varied widely in the USA during the 1920s. Early on some condemned the music as improper, even immoral. Jazz ‘excite[s] the baser instincts’, according to John Philip Sousa (Ogren, E1989, p.56). It ‘offends people with musical taste already formed’, charged an editorial in the New York Times (8 Oct 1924), ‘and it prevents the formation of musical taste by others’. Jazz had supporters, too. Carl Engel, head of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, noted that ‘jazz finds its last and supreme glory in the skill for improvisation exhibited by its performers … [good jazz is] music that is recklessly fantastic and joyously grotesque’ (G1922, p.187). For some, jazz symbolized the spirit and temper of contemporary American life, whether it was F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tales of the Jazz Age (1923) describing the rebellious hedonism of the younger generation or the music critic W.J. Henderson claiming in 1925 that jazz expressed ‘ebulliency, our carefree optimism, our nervous energy and our extravagant humour’ (New York Times Book Review, 8 Feb 1925). Not everyone linked jazz exclusively with the USA. For the American cultural critic Waldo Frank (In the American Jungle (1925–1936), New York, 1937, p.119), jazz was emblematic of the ‘Machine’ and symbolized the diseased condition of industrialized society, ‘the music of a revolt that fails’. In 1921 the British critic Clive Bell (‘Plus De Jazz’, The New Republic, 21 Sept 1921, pp.92–6, esp. 93) equated jazz with artistic modernism, identifying such figures as Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot and Woolf with the ‘jazz movement’, noting in their work an underlying quality of ‘impudence in quite natural and legitimate revolt against Nobility and Beauty’.

Notwithstanding the varied associations that jazz took on in the 1920s, the music itself served two primary functions. First and foremost it accompanied dancing, as jazz bands supplied lively, syncopated rhythms that set people in motion; recordings issued by jazz groups often identified on their labels the particular dance step for which the music was suitable: Oliver's Chattanooga Stomp (1923, Col.) was a ‘Shimmy One Step’, Ellington's East St Louis Toodle-00 (1926, Voc.) a ‘Fox Trot’. James P. Johnson's ‘Charleston’, written in 1923 for the show Runnin' Wild, inspired a popular craze for this dance, and its characteristic rhythmic motive (related to the tresillo; ex.2) turned up in individual solos and arrangements played by jazz orchestras. Many jazz instrumentals referred to specific dances or implied dance movement in their titles, among them Doin' the New Low Down, St. Louis Shuffle, Birmingham Breakdown, Hop Off, 18th Street Strut and Moten Stomp. Jazz musicians accompanied not just social dancers but professional dance acts in vaudeville and musical theatre. When Coleman Hawkins performed in 1921–2 as one of Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, he and other band members accompanied both the singer and various dancers appearing on the same bill. Similarly, Count Basie joined the vaudeville act of Gonzelle White (1926) in which fellow band members danced and performed stunts onstage. The drummer Freddy Crump, Basie recalled, ‘used to come dancing back in from the wings and hit the drum as he slid into a split. He used to grab the curtain and ride up with it, bowing and waving at the audience applauding’ (Basie and Murray, F1985, p.86).

Basie's recollection of Crump points up the second main function of jazz in the 1920s: to provide entertainment that often had a comedic flair or novelty component. Jazz bands were often visually stimulating, with players throwing objects such as hats and drumsticks in the air, striking dramatic positions while performing and taking part in stage business. Theatres provided a common venue for presenting jazz musicians on bills with other performers. As a result, jazz bands were often judged by the quality of their visual presentation or act. Duke Ellington's band once performed a routine at a Harlem theatre in which the set resembled a backwoods church and Bubber Miley dressed as a preacher to deliver a musical sermon on his trumpet. Louis Armstrong had a similar preacher's act, calling himself Reverend Satchelmouth, when he played in New York with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra and in Chicago with Erskine Tate and the Vendome orchestra. These theatrical aspects of jazz were carried on by Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s, avoided by most after World War II, and revived years later in a different guise by the avant garde, as in the work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor.

A concert staged by Paul Whiteman at New York's Aeolian Hall on 12 February 1924 crystallized conflicting views of jazz in the 1920s. Titled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, Whiteman's event sought, among other things, to suggest that the old ‘discordant Jazz’ (the New Orleans small-group style identified with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) was being replaced by ‘the really melodious music of today’, namely ‘Modern Jazz’. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, arranged by Grofé and first performed on this occasion, was referred to in the press as a ‘Jazz Rhapsody’. For Whiteman and others, then, jazz was a form of American popular music, not necessarily racially marked, suitable for polite dancing by urban sophisticates or adaptable by composers for use in the concert hall. This perspective on jazz also dominated Henry O. Osgood's So This Is Jazz (Boston, 1926), the first book-length study of the subject in English. The main figures profiled by Osgood were all successful white bandleaders or composers, among them Whiteman, Gershwin, Berlin and Ted Lewis.

Jazz in the 1920s was a fluid, unstable construct. Depending on who used the term, it could refer to Jelly Roll Morton, Vincent Lopez and his Hotel Pennsylvania orchestra, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The breadth of its semantic range is demonstrated by the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, in which the lead character, played by Al Jolson, is a white Jewish singer who performs in blackface, employs jerky body movement and does trick whistling. Jolson's taut delivery and histrionic mode of ‘jazz’ singing contrasted sharply with the work of other contemporary musicians, such as the proud, joyful strains of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in Struttin' with some Barbecue (1927, OK.) and the stark tonal portrait sketched by Duke Ellington and his orchestra in Black and Tan Fantasy (1927, Bruns.).


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