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Excerpt from Play the Words: Writings of Jazz

Friday 3/24/23

Whiteman was mainstream America’s jazz-tinged go-to during those times, a purveyor of airs who got a country dancing and young people embracing what was a new model of youth, with an edge, albeit a benign one.

To flirt and dance to Whiteman was to break with one’s parents—also in an innocuous way—by cultivating a corner of the world that at least in part originated with a gramophone, just as a generation would come along and do the same with swing, then with bebop, then another with blues and rhythm and blues, and of course the rock and roll kids of the Elvis era.

Whiteman was no Elvis, but to flappers and philosophers—to borrow a phrase from Fitzgerald—he may as well have been during his time. He soundtracked a love bound up with technology and a sense of newness, modernity, a distancing from the past, that must have felt differently than at any time in America’s history.

There was a perceived whirr to life. The Fitzgerald stories from the early 1920s crackle with an excitement that hadn’t been experienced previously in American letters, outside of the primeval, wild world-Republic of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But Huck was primordial, a character that bounded in from a kind of hirsute soup and plucky ooze; whereas, the Whiteman-enthused Jazz Age was all about “It has never been like this before!” and “Let’s cut loose!” It wasn’t nearly as free as it seemed, but there was a real spirit of freedom; an effervescence of freedom, which was perfect for jazz itself.

Years ago I had prospective editor once whom I had no interest in writing for after he told me, with that always-recognizable tang of entitlement in his voice, that jazz, ultimately, is about race and nothing more, nothing less. This struck me as not only deeply and dangerously wrong, but anti-jazz ideologically, and certainly musically. In his view, the music was secondary to race. You had to start with issues of race—not what was in the actual grooves of the record. Not the playing. Not the writing. Not the improvising. Not the solos that could live for all-time. The music first had to be approached in the terms of black and white—in skin color terms, which resonated with me as anti-freedom, a fall-out of the prescriptive martinet approach to art.

There is no jazz musician who has ever lived who has not wanted their music to be regarded as what they are “most” about creatively. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington knew racial prejudice in the extreme, but if you told them that their music couldn’t be fully appreciated until you knew about their lives and the role race played, they’d think you just didn’t get it, and were better off spending your listening time elsewhere. Or that you needed to listen harder and better, with a greater degree of openness so that you wouldn’t miss out on just how good they were at their art, which they, of course, fully knew.

To rob a jazz musician of the central importance of their music as music, is to deny them a portion of their identity. It also doesn’t work—Ellington, Armstrong, and Holiday, were unconditional musical forces. The art of each is an absolute endemic to them. You cannot undercut Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with what you don’t know about history. The art provides. It can’t not work. It requires no “leg up.” It is the leg up, the body up, the soul up, if you will.

But we can lose sight of the central functionality of that art—with its peak efficiency—in a culture that now often wants to relegate the music that a Billie Holiday made to the sidelines, so that all of the emphasis is on her plight as a Black woman in America during the years she was alive.

By definition, that makes the music a secondary consideration, and I can’t think of anything that Billie Holiday and her music deserves less, or that prospective listeners deserve less. If you’ve read her autobiography, you have a pretty good sense of her views on the matter, and also how she’d likely put it: “Listen to me sing, bitches. Then do other stuff. But my singing is the show.”

None of this means that the biographical stories of jazz musicians throughout history aren’t important. One couldn’t be a Duke Ellington authority without knowing all about his life and times and how he fit in and didn’t fit in with the America in which he lived—and what he created, of course, as a result. But to be blown away by Ellington’s musical creations? All you need are them and you. Start there, end there. Return to there most often.

Jazz musicians have always had this great gift that is an integral aspect of being a jazz musician, and it is the gift of hearing. If you can do your thing at a commanding level, that’s what a jazz musician is most interested in. Can you play? Can you write? What is your tone like? Are you the real deal or a pretender? Can you out-solo my man over here, or is he going to make you look like you’ve never played your horn before?

Jazz is about race, yes, in the historical sense; but jazz also embodies a post-race art form, which is to say, an embodied solution, a level playing field within the context of the sound itself, and pure artistic freedom, utilized to the best of one’s abilities and effort.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t other aspects to the story. A sonic radical like Albert Ayler, for instance, didn’t make his jazz in a colorless vacuum in the 1960s, and certainly not on a level cultural playing field. But if we have a brother alien on another planet where issues of race don’t exist, we should be able to shoot them a copy of Ayler's Spiritual Unity and later receive their favorable report over just how amazing that record is.

Nothing changes or burnishes or makes Spiritual Unity better than what it is as musical art. Its’s too good. Again, it’s the absolute. If you need to read some sociological treatise to better experience Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, then Dickens let down the squad in some way, which would be the case with Ayler here. And he flat out did not. We can better inform ourselves. We can learn backstory. We can be hip-deep in historical realities. But it’s the art that has both first and final say.

The best jazz artists require no qualifiers. Jazz is about the fashioning of oft-extemporized art from the talent and drive one possesses, has built up over years of hard work, cohesion with bandmates, cohesion of myriad factions of self. It’s about chops and soul, and no form of music—or art—unifies the mind-body split better than jazz. The body needs to be able to do, as a player, what the mind wills. Race can often actuate the creation of jazz music, but the music is the music and its terms as art and entertainment are self-contained; the music speaks for itself, and it needs no propping up, no “well, you have to read this historical account to fully get it” assistance.

Jazz connects a listener to art, and all are welcome in the process. More than anything, what jazz says is, “What have you got? Let’s hear it.” That’s not just a great art form. It’s a great way to be, and a great way to experience and hear the world.


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