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From Paul Whiteman piece

Tuesday 10/3/23

This is from the essay on Paul Whiteman that I'm reworking and will hopefully finish today. It's good. It'll either go in The Root of the Chord: Writings on Jazz's Essential Power and Artistry or Play the Words: Pieces of Jazz.


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 twined with technology and a sense of newness, modernity, fresh and timely possibility, a distancing from the past, and one 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 “Nothing has 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; a spritzing of the ideal, which was perfect for the new craze of jazz itself.

Years ago I had a prospective editor whom I had no interest in writing for after he told me, with that always-recognizable, smug clang 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 had been, and would always be, secondary to skin color and the personal and sociological implications therein. One started with the issues of race. Not what was in the actual grooves of the record. Not what was being put forward on the bandstand that night. Not the playing. Not the writing. Not the improvising. Not the solos that could live for all-time. The music had to be approached in the terms of black and white—in flesh tones, which smacked to me as a kind of anti-freedom, a limiting of truth and curbing of value on account of a prescriptive approach to art where the art was secondary.

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 completely appreciated until you knew about their lives and the role race played biographically speaking, 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 track—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 do either. 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 whatever you're going to do. But my singing is the show.”


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