Can I Put This Soapbox Here?

Here’s a completely “irrelevant” musical short from Ben Pollack’s band:

Pollack was an admired drummer in his time, who started a big band filled with topflight jazz talent.  As this clip shows, Pollack kept his music fairly commercial, and allowed such legendary names as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller only brief room for their creativity.

On its surface, there’s very little that’s socially or politically relevant about this music.  It won’t continue the dialog on gay rights, and the faux-Hawaiian clichés of “Song of the Island” or the arrangement of a “Negro spiritual” aren’t exactly sterling examples of musical multiculturalism.  It’s not until Jack Teagarden’s trombone solo that the world seems to open up before us.

“Jazz” has about as many definitions as “democracy,” “indecency” or “fine dining,” but here’s my definition of the “jazz effect.”

The jazz effect is the feeling of individuality and spontaneity sneaking into the predetermined, of the individual’s beautiful chaos defamilarizing the order of the collective.  It’s the way Ray Bauduc digs in on his drums when Teagarden blows, or the sudden lift that Benny Goodman’s piping clarinet break adds to an otherwise stodgy “My Kind of Love.”  It could also be Elvis Presley dancing in front of a unique blend of rhythm & blues and country, or the anguish and intellect of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.  The jazz effect is oddly not limited to jazz, but it did start there, and it is a very American invention. Americans didn’t invent spontaneity, but they have a peculiar taste for spontaneity that takes pleasure in shaking things up.  Some Bostonians dressed as Native Americans while chucking tea into the harbor also understood the jazz effect.

Political columnist Frank Rich recently shook things up by leaving the New York Times.  Rich actually got his start as a theater critic at the Times, and a journalist I know once suggested that Rich’s switch from arts to political journalism was a result of his getting “sick of reading and writing reviews.”  Neither this person or I are mind-readers, and Frank Rich is an insightful commentator and stirring writer; we are fortunate to have him writing anything, period.  Yet this person’s tone was telling: like a good rhythm section, the word “mere” before “reviews” was felt but not heard.  Rich will now write for New York magazine, where he will continue to comment on politics and culture, topics much “larger” than any single performance or artist.

The arts are often interrogated regarding their “relevance” in a way that current events and sports don’t have to deal with.  Yet creativity that embraces or overcomes the collective is about as relevant as it gets. In fact, allowing an artist to be creative and follow their inspiration may have the most potentially world-altering effects imaginable.

A lecture by Ricky Riccardi at the Louis Armstrong House Museum discussed how Armstrong (who was criticized for his supposed lack of political engagement by the younger, politically-outspoken generation of Charles Mingus and Max Roach) was in fact extremely politically conscious.  Armstrong just also happened to be practical with his political engagement, and also very grateful for making people happy while playing music:

(Thanks to Michael Steinman for his coverage.  You can watch the entire lecture on his blog.)

A recent article in Greg Thomas’s “Race and Jazz” column on All About Jazz sheds light on the power of Louis’s alleged political detachment.  At an October 12, 1931 performance by Louis Armstrong at the Driskill Hotel in Texas, a sixteen year old boy named Charles L. Black, Jr. was in attendance.  As Thomas explains:

[N]othing prepared Charles for what Louis Armstrong represented: “He was the first genius I had ever seen… It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black…”…He recalled that back in those Depression-era days some black folk “were honored and venerated, in that paradoxical white-Southern way” but as for genius—”fine control over total power, all height and depth, forever and ever? It had simply never entered my mind, for confirming or denying in conjecture, that I would see this for the first time in a black man. You don’t get over that.”

Did Louis’s music have much of an effect on Charles?

Charles L. Black, Jr. became a constitutional law professor who, for a half century, helped shape the legal minds of students at Columbia and Yale law schools…as remembered in his New York Times obituary on May 8, 2001, [Black] helped “Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and others, to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kan., whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, became the Supreme Court’s definitive judgment on segregation in American education.”

I haven’t researched the set-list from that evening’s performance, but even if Armstrong didn’t play such socially-conscious numbers as “Black and Blue,” his creativity and confidence were enough to enlighten at least one person.

Simply by doing what he loved, naturally, brilliantly, “trumpeter, singer and entertainer” Louis Armstrong helped change civil rights and American history.  What an act!

As someone who cares about music and cares to write about music, many of my tastes lack overt political content.  Boccherini’s spacious, witty chamber works, or Eddie Condon’s freewheeling ensembles don’t comment on anything outside their music.  They do speak volumes about the condition inside the human heart and mind, and it’s safe to say that every political movement, legal decision and humanitarian goal starts there.  “Mere” reviews of music with beauty, brains and balls will always be relevant, because relevance is creativity.

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