Jazz history is often written as a sequence of decades described by each period’s instrumentation, rhythm, and harmonic derring-do. Combined with the human tendency to treat the present as preferable to the past, more recent styles that built and expanded on earlier ones tend to be positioned as the more complex and therefore “advanced” music. Jazz is hardly the only site of such temporal prejudice; just ask nine out of ten classical critics whether Vivaldi or Brahms was the better composer or a record store owner whether Elvis Presley wrote better love songs than The Beatles.
For many of the most passionate listeners in any genre, some sounds are just doomed. At best, stylistically outmoded music earns the label “of historical value,” the aesthetic equivalent of saying a neighborhood is nice because it’s near a train station.
That’s why a recording as Platonically outdated as Pail Gason’s “Steamboat Sal” is something of a miracle. It’s a compendium of pre-Armstrong, para-Ted Lewis techniques and textures. There’s a squawk trumpet that owes more to Earl Oliver than King Oliver, a wah-wah trombone closer to the barnyard than Basin Street, a deliciously reedy sax section, a tenor with neither the brawny finesse of Coleman Hawkins nor fleet introspection of Lester Young, and a proudly nasal soprano sax crying over the ensemble.
The feel is tense nearly to the point of discomforting; things race ahead over a two-beat rhythm that either impressed or scandalized contemporary brass bands. There isn’t a hint of the relaxation that would start to define jazz from less than ten years after this recording. Even at their most driving, Kansas City groups still seem to sail. Gason’s band moves like a kid splashing puddles. They shout with the happiness and pride of the present and none of the future’s judgments.
Paris-based alto saxophonist Gason and his band of French and Belgian musicians toured throughout Europe. They made just thirteen sides over five sessions in October 1924. The only known remaining copy of “Steamboat Sal” was discovered in 1999. That’s quite a discovery for record collectors. As a sonic artifact, the record is like jazz from a parallel universe.
It embeds itself so definitively in a time that it now seems like an overt rejection of jazz’s sleek textures, complex rhythms, and experimental dissonances. The past has become its own avant-garde. Imagine listening to this record as anything other than something that happened before musicians knew better? If the present wasn’t a higher peak and was just another hill, could anyone still call this style “outdated, corny” or other labels still accepted as historical or critical terms?
For the record, in many cases, the present simply is preferable to the past. Try treating an infection with medieval medicine and you’re bound to be disappointed. Romanticized historical fiction falls apart if you consider it from the perspective of anyone who needed a law passed to ensure they don’t get fired or literally set on fire because of who they are. Yet creative products don’t have the same impact. Preferring Mitch Miller to Beethoven just won’t affect your life or liberty. As for the pursuit of happiness, it depends on which message boards you frequent.