This Thing Called Jazz
|Jazz Development in Britain|
What an amazing resilience has this thing called jazz— it simply refuses to die! From its earliest days it has suffered abuse, critical attack, and misunderstanding, all based upon the ignorance of those responsible, plus the effect of preferential commercial support for other forms of music. Yet still its greatest performers and composers demand and receive attention, respect and admiration— including those who have died, through the medium of recordings they left behind them. Addressing the Fifteenth Biennial Delegate Conference of the Musicians' Union in April of this year, Mr. John Cruft, the Music Director of the Arts Council of Great Britain, stated that although there had been a time when jazz had been ignored by the Council, it was now regarded as an important form of modern music and, as a result, jazz performances had benefited from the result of Arts Council grants.
Just after the first World War, jazz in its crudest form became the popular music of the day in Britain, and it was the desire of every dance musician to play it— though only a minority could. Around 1925, however, a certain snobbery became apparent among musicians themselves, who appeared to reach the conclusion that the name "jazz" was undignified. It became a dirty word: if you dared to use it you were regarded as old- fashioned or "corny". All manner of alternatives were found. Bands were described as "syncopated" orchestras or worse still, "symphonic syncopated" orchestras, or alternatively were named after the towns and cities of the USA. These were groups with such titles as "The Pasadena Serenaders" or "Billy Bloggs and his Californians", the members of which had in all probability never been further West than Hounslow! Jazz solos were described as "hot' or "dirty", though why either of these descriptions should have been considered more dignified than "jazz" I shall never know! Not that I regard the latter as being ideal but I have never been able to think of a better name, neither have I heard of anyone else doing so although in itself, the term is meaningless.
But those who appreciate this form of music, immediately recognise it for what it is, and are able to discriminate between the genuine and the false. As Fats Waller is alleged to have said (or was it Louis Armstrong?): "If you don't know what it is, you ain't got it!". Around the early '30s we saw the arrival, popularity- wise, of the big Swing bands and orchestras of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Shaw, the Casa Loma, Webb, Henderson and many others of equal or considerably lesser repute. By the mid- 'thirties the soloists were referred to by the musicians as "playing the jazz". In other words, where an arranger left eight or sixteen bars of chords upon which a soloist was expected to expected to extemporise, you would hear a bandleader ask the question of one of his saxophone or trumpet players: "Will you play the jazz at letter D?" So gradually jazz was again accepted as a suitable description for this particular kind of music, and, although there are still many who would like to find an alternative, I doubt whether they ever will.
By the end of World War II, with the traditional and Dixieland revivals, the term "jazz" was once again widely in use, and it was, of course, attached to all the other various labels such as "Cool", "Modern", "West Coast" and, ultimately, to forms that appeared to have no connection with genuine jazz. For my part, I am much more concerned about what is perpetrated in the name of jazz than I am by the fact that it is called jazz, for, in my view, much harm can be and has been done to this particular art form by abuse.
I can remember arguing with some of the traditional revivalists during the late '40s who seemed to think that, because many of the pioneer musicians in this field had played with poor intonation, overwide vibratos, and other crudities, those who were copying them should also copy their faults.
They thought me some kind of "square" because I considered that traditional jazz players should, like the rest, take an "A" before commencing a performance! My simple theory was, of course, that no music suffered through being played in tune! Then with the early records of Gillespie and Parker we found ourselves in the midst of bop, and the technical advance was revolutionary. The scene was entirely different to what had gone before, but although one had to develop an ear for the then new harmonic structure of the solos it was still good jazz. Unfortunately, many of its best exponents allowed themselves to be carried away by the new techniques to a point where concert audiences were left way behind, and, what was worse, regarded as ignoramuses for not immediately appreciating stratospheric extemporisations around the second and third triads! Worse still, it became the thing never to finish a phrase where the audience felt it ought to finish!
When the Bil1 Haley group, with their elementary "sledgehammer" ' style of rock arrived, it was easy for them to win many youngsters away from jazz, many of the performers of which, they felt, had turned their backs upon them. But even the Haley music was better than much that was to follow! Despite all this, however, jazz, whilst being with a few exceptions no longer box office, continues to flourish as a music form, even though its demise has been periodically forecast by the prophets of doom on numerous occasions during the past forty years. More weird sounds are again being perpetrated in the name of jazz by some of the avant garde school who, excellent technicians as most of them are, fail to understand that, whilst it may have a place in some category, music without feeling can never be jazz, and again we are faced with the danger of jazz's popularity being seriously damaged because listeners will learn to hate that which they are told is jazz but which is not. We can nevertheless be thankful for and place our confidence in its resilience to withstand all the effects of this erosion— although it would be disastrous if the time came when those who appreciate and enjoy jazz were dependent only upon the record album for the opportunity.