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Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

Edited by Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin

(Columbia University Press, New York, 2004; 544 pp.; $24.50 paperback)

                                                                                                                     Reviewed by Anne Farnsworth


           “Pieces of the jazz experience are picked up and passed around like bits of colored glass.”

       The Jazz Study Group is a collective of academics and artists that for the last eight years has been meeting at Columbia University to discuss its members’ scholarly investigations. They liken themselves to musicians in a band, what they call a “scholarly jazz orchestra.” But instead of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements woven into a cohesive and mutually supportive tapestry, their “sections” consist of journalists, college professors of varying disciplines, social historians and actual musicians (who can actually write). In 1998, their collaboration produced The Jazz Cadence Of American Culture (Columbia University Press), a compendium of mostly previously published essays on jazz and jazz culture.

          Uptown Conversations continues the Jazz Study Group’s work with new critical studies, theses and historical “snapshots.” What they call the “New Jazz Studies” differs from the “old” (theory, history, blowing?) in the broader scope of their interest. Their aim is to look at jazz not only from the inside—its music and musicians—but to situate jazz in our culture as a whole and explore the ways in which the music has informed and been informed by society.

              This book, a natural choice as a jazz history textbook, will also find its way into African-American Studies, sociology and history departments as well as the backpacks of students looking to fill their diversity course requirements. For a scholarly work, it is mercifully almost free of the parched format of stated-thesis-followed-by-catalog-of-proofs and the self-conscious affect of academese, where a five-cent word is never used when a five-dollar one would do.

              Opening with George Lipsitz’s “Songs Of The Unsung...” we are introduced to Darby Hicks, a mythical jazz musician who loomed large in the informal initiation of new players by the veterans in traveling big bands. Darby Hicks (dere be hicks?) is the protean trickster who has slandered the names of these gullible newbies and stolen their girls, yet plays so brilliantly he can never be matched.

              Lipsitz moves on to assign the Hicks phenomena to the already gnawed corpse of Ken Burns’ Jazz and the series’ fostering of the “great artist” theory of musical evolution. Lipsitz fills in the blanks as he sees them with sharp and witty profiles of Sun Ra, Horace Tapscot and others, arguing for a broader, more community-based source of the music than the three-rung Satch/Bird/Miles ladder of jazz history.

              The essays flow into each other, adding depth and nuance according to each author’s perspective and interests. Salim Washington writes about Mingus’s relationship to the jazz avant-garde, followed by a George Lewis essay on experimental music and the AACM. As a trombonist and composer, Lewis is himself a subject in subsequent essays, adding to the layering effect of the conceptual whole.

              In “Hipsters, Bluebloods, Rebels, and Hooligans...” John Gennari recalls the tribulations faced by the Newport Jazz festival organizers in the ’50s as disparate social and racial groups rubbed elbows. From the discomfort of the African-American musicians being hosted by the wealthy in their grand summer homes to the drunken street rioting by young white Ivy Leaguers out on a tear, Newport quivered under the strain of an instantaneous melting pot. In protest of the politics, both racial and economic, some black musicians presented an alternative Newport Festival on the other side of town, and here Mingus appears again, threatening to beat up George Wein. It's a rollicking read: social history as soap opera, and the bombastic cast of characters never disappoints.

              “Mainstreaming Monk: The Ellington Album” is Mark Tucker’s fascinating account of Riverside Records’ attempt to gain Monk a wider audience by recording an album of Ellington standards. Hmm… jazz musicians doing a theme album to increase their commercial viability—sounds vaguely familiar. Tucker hints that Monk may have been playing a passive-aggressive game with Orrin Keepnews, feigning little familiarity with Ellington’s work and spending expensive hours in the recording studio picking out the melodies of “Sophisticated Lady” and “Caravan” as if he had never heard them, while drummer Kenny Clarke impatiently read the Sunday comics.

              Speaking of iconoclasts, John Szwed profiles Miles and digs under the bespoke suits and sunglasses to find he was shy! Oversensitive! Fighting the adoration of the crowd even as he wooed them with his music, Miles’s gruffness was only compensation for his innately tender nature. Szwed builds such a thorough argument that it actually seems plausible.

              Penny Von Eschen looks at the State Department’s use of jazz stars to tour the globe as reluctant cold warriors while the government supported a Jim Crow society on the home front. In response to the hypocrisy, Iola and Dave Brubeck wrote “The Real Ambassadors,” a satirical combination of music and spoken word that featured their fellow traveler Louis Armstrong. That and Von Eschen’s documentation of Armstrong’s forceful declarations to the press and to President Eisenhower gives lie to the “Tom” accusations leveled against Louis. Von Eschen developed this argument further in her book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press).

              Robert G. O’Meally digs deeper into the controversy fomented by racially sensitive observers over Armstrong’s relationship with his white audiences. In the engagingly titled “Checking Our Balances: Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison, and Betty Boop,” he bolsters the claim that Armstrong was the ultimate trickster. The ever-present smile and stagy affectations considered latter-day minstrelsy by some was in fact a mask that allowed Louis to disarm the establishment while he “project[ed] his complicated cultural message.” O’Meally illuminates the subversive elements of Armstrong’s public persona, leaving us to wonder who, indeed, had the last laugh.

              Although the aim of this anthology is to provide a broader look at jazz’s influence on society at large, it is gratifying to read an account from the inside. Musician, author and critical theorist Vijay Iyer takes us into the thought processes of the improviser by “Exploding The Narrative in Jazz Improvisation.” All contemporary jazz musicians, for whom Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is a challenging rite of passage, will find comfort knowing that Trane himself struggled to “tell a [coherent] story” over his own complex harmonic progression.

              Musicians will also find unintended humor in some of the assertions made in support of an academic premise. The author who wrote that “big bands nevertheless provided for black men ... an equally disciplined ... alternative to militarism and military service” has obviously never played in a touring big band. “Missing the bus” (AWOL in the armed forces and a serious crime) is a comically common part of the jazz lore of road veterans, often caused by a musician losing track of time as he pursued sideline interests in  drinking, drugging or lovemaking. Though punishable offenses in the military, these lapses were often tacitly condoned by bandleaders, as long as the musician delivered the goods on the stand.

              Space constraints prohibit commentary on all of the worthy essays in this book. There are moments of brilliance in each one, as pieces of the jazz experience are picked up and passed around like bits of colored glass. And like the viewing of a mosaic, the discrete elements that create the whole come into view as we step in for a closer look. Uptown Conversations gives us that crystallized vision and is destined to become an important source of research and reflection for many years to come.


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