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Jazz Forum No.1 June 1946 0004

Jazz Forum No.1 June 1946 0004

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Disregarding for the moment the function of the left hand in ragtime piano as opposed to that in boogie-woogie, it is evident that in general there is far more elaboration from the right hand of those pianists whose style is based on ragtime than from that of those whose style is based on boogie-woogie. To borrow again from “The Life of Reason”, it must be said that “the degree to which music should be elaborated depends on the capacity possessed by those it addresses.” An urban folk, having greater opportunities for musical experience, develop a greater capacity and taste for elaboration than a rural folk. If elaboration be stressed rather than invention, another vexed question is arrived at—that of ‘ ‘ Europeanisation ’


Europeanisation is apparent in jazz from the outset. Although the drum is common to mankind and the banjo of African origin, the melody instruments, as used by jazz musicians, are of European development. The earliest jazz qua jazz that is known shows unmistakeably the influence of European brass band practice. The stiff, precise, yet stimulating march rhythms are broken down, Africanised in syncopation and improvisation, the melodic and harmonic form surviving loosely in what some regard as satirical parody. How much of the parody resulted from European instrumental technique being only half-grasped, is beside the point. The African accent gave flavour to this music, but its vitality —which made its appeal universal—lay in its rhythm and tempos. Swing was not its peculiar property. All good dance music swings—the waltz, tango, rumba, czardas.

At present, the majority of jazz students and critics are, unfortunately, Europeans or of European descent. However unwittingly, they tend to drift to the position Walter Starkie has described in “ Raggle-Taggle”

To civilised people music has lost a great deal of its magical fire and we listen unmoved, for our pleasure becomes intellectual as we analyse the structure of the piece as though it were a piece of architecture.

The beating heart of jazz, its rhythmic pulse, is not valued so much as the clothes its body wears. The Negro dresses jazz rhythm with whatever musical clothes are at hand and to his fancy. For the African, rhythm is the fundamental, and the sense of this is retained by the African in America. So when European critics (in Europe and America) cry out against the “Europeanisation” of jazz, which usually means scoring, it is necessary to check carefully the degree to which the rhythmic impulse is accentuated, retained or reduced. Ellington, for example, has created many arrangements of considerable brilliance in which the scoring for the horns retains perfectly the jazz rhythmic sense. In others, his acquaintance with the work of modern European composers has led to abstractions from which it is almost entirely absent.

It is fashionable to dismiss out of hand all scoring in jazz, and it is an attitude which may yet be shown to be false. In a band regularly playing and improvising together, there is inevitably a certain crystallisation. It is very probable that, when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong were playing together, their two-trumpet treatment of a favourite number played night after night did not, after a time, vary greatly. There would develop a kind of ‘ ‘head’ ’ arrangement, the trombone part becoming fairly constant through familiarity with the lead,

and the clarinet improvisation likewise resolving into a regular shape by association. What, more than anything, would make one performance greater than another, would be the emphasis and fervour with which it was played. Supposing that this ‘ ‘ arrangement” were set down on paper it would still be so shaped that only its creators would have the feeling and understanding to give it really glowing expression. Others coming to it, however sympathetically, would yet, because of personal idiosyncracies, different instrumental ability and tonal values, be unable to interpret it with the same natural sureness. The listener would sense restraint or strain. (The Jazz man records by Lu Watters offer an example.) Creative musicians can repeat their works, revealing each time fresh and charming facets. The imitative musicians may closely reproduce the masters’ work, but always something vital—often spiritual and indefinable —is missing. For instance, white groups may make a reproduction faithful from all aspects but that of tempo. But of tempo it will be necessary to speak in more detail later.

Even in big bands, arrangements can and do develop naturally and casually. Solo variations on a theme are harmonised for sections, and individual contributions built in, a climactic development depending upon the over-all arranger. Additions and alterations are made and, though the basic character be retained, to follow the band’s treatment week by week is to sense a kind of mass improvisation. When an arrangement is thus brought forth from within a band, it is usually of infinitely greater value than one created for it by an outside arranger. Yet though the innate possibilities of an arrangement be impressive, they are brought to naught in an unfeeling or disinterested performance. In the final analysis, the way a big band arrangement is performed is more important that the arrangement itself. The passion, the fire, the group feeling which a big band brings to an arrangement, compose the essential verity of it. But it is seldom that these qualities are found in agreeable quantity, owing not only to the frequent changes of personnel which occur, but also to injudicious selection of musicians. In such bands as have played together for a long time, a definite personality and unity of spirit has developed. Of this kind were the bands of Ellington and Lunceford, each playing arrangements created from within. The latter furnished a notable example of how the group will and personality can endow with power even an arrangement from outside. Benny Carter’s “Okay For Baby ’ ’, in their hands, became a warm, surging piece of dance music. Played by the composer-arranger’s own newly-organised and unsettled band, it was a superficial and quite undistinguished piece of swingfare. The more normal case, however, is illustrated by comparing Lunceford’s version of Sy Oliver’s “Stomp It Off” with Tommy Dorsey’s.

Examples of felicitously selected groups are McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and the Luis Russell band in its “Panama” period. Here, fire and unity of feeling did not have to wait on long association for development. The Russell band produced some of the most violently rhythmed performances in jazz. There was an atmosphere of great simplicitly and great enthusiasm. Solos were long and plentiful. They were backed by little figures for sections and set amidst loose and easy arranged passages. The band was composed of only ten musicians, as against (he customary
fourteen and upwards of the later big bands, but its drive and flexibility more than compensated for the richer variety of orchestral colour available to the latter.

Very little value is attached to orchestral colour in jazz. In collective improvisation and solo routines, criticism deals almost wholly with form and spirit. In big band music the conscious striving for new and appealing colour must be considered. It is not quite true, as some have claimed, that everything the jazz arranger has had to say had been said before by Europeans. His methods may have been the same, but the final result, the sound of a big jazz band without considering its peculiar mutes, was fresh and strange. The instrumental combinations are many, and they provide the means for effective contrasts which are “disturbing and highly stimulating.” The quoted words are Rudi Blesh’s and he used them in description of the rhythmic characteristics of jazz as related to African music. The colour contrasts of the big band are not, however, employed for rhythmic motives, but primarily for pleasuring the ear. They are harmless enough—enjoyable indeed— so long as the arranger’s indulgence in them does not lead to neglect of rhythmic needs.

The division between jazz as music for dancers, and jazz as musical entertainment for those whose participation is of the mind alone, is the division between vitality and decay. Jazz falls roughly into three styles—collective improvisation as of New Orleans, the solo improvisation of the latter-day jam session, and big band music. Although these styles develop one from the other and are all inter-connected by the solo, it often seems necessary to have separate standards for each. Yet by one standard of values they can all three be judged, and that is the standard of dance music.

To be continued.


Ready on May 20th :

The Night Loves Us. 32 poems by Louis Adeane.

This is the first collection of poems by this young writer whose work has appeared in most of the literary magazines in this country. We believe that this volume will help considerably to gain him the recognition that his work merits.

The volume will be 40 pages and will have a special cover designed by Stanley Jackson Price 3/- (postage extra).

Coming in the Summer :

Murder the Murderer. By Henry Miller.

An excursus on war by the greatest writer in the world.

Poems MCMXLII. By William Everson.

The first English collection by this young American poet considered by many critics to be one of the three outstanding figures in American literature today.

Homage to Greece. By Raymond Tong.

Raymond Tong, who was in Greece with the R.A.F., has written ten poems as a tribute to the Greek people which represent his most mature poetic work to date.

Jazz Directory. Compiled by David Carey, Albert McCarthy and R. G. V. Venables.

This will appear in several volumes, and will be the most complete discography ever assembled

Arthur Steig.


Jazz is our only functioning folk art—that is, our only art having a mass of skilled, intuitive practitioners and a mass audience (albeit but a hundredth as great as the bastardizing performers and bastardizing listeners). Though it has in recent years attracted the attention of a few serious critics of music and inspired amateurs (almost all of whom have written passionate Baedekers to recorded jazz) and though its history has been rather thoroughly traced—no one has yet said what jazz is. This brief paper is an attempt to define jazz and to discover the nature of its impulse. These two tasks may be distinguished only verbally, and are, indeed, one.


A man helpless, waiting, will beat his fist evenly on the table in an unpremeditated effort to give order and a sense of security to his passive expectancy. Music which is dominated by an ineluctable rhythm—the music of certain primitive cultures, for example, and jazz—is the song of a similar dread feeling of impotence.

Extreme consciousness of time is the burden of the man whose will operates only re-actively. The unanswering world surrounds him, its bewitching constancy suspect, hostile and unpredictable. He cannot alter the terrible significance of time, but he can alter, at ¡oast temporarily, the sensations it produces in him. He can alleviate the pain of waiting by creating a known expectation in time. The measured beat—the precisely repeated sounding of the drum —creates a predictable future, gives time an abstract order and an imagined benevolence. His drum purges time of the unknown devil who might bring no answer to his pain, or bring catastrophe.

The heavy percussive music of primitive societies, and of our landscaped industrial jungle, manifest qualitatively different anxieties. The anxiety of the primitives is conscious, simple as the act of vision is simple, a direct reaction to the external world. Our anxiety is not conscious, but sophisticated: fear confounded by the masque self-assurances necessary for participation in a Christian, exploitive, vitamized society. And our anxiety, and its attendant time-terror, are exacerbated by the dictatorship of the clock.

* * *

All music, the music of Mozart as well as that of Pete Johnson, places an arbitrary order on time. But the heavy, tense measure that dominates jazz is produced by a culture in which the terror of time is a major element of experience.

The heavy repetitive rhythm of the drum—the clock of anxious submission to fate—implies a pleasurable self-abnegation in the submission. For the certain rhythm produces a constant awareness of the ineluctable uncertainty that lurks behind it, that instigates it. It is ominous in that its very attack on uncertainty—the isolation