Noble Sissle On The Origins Of Bop, Rock And The Freedom Beat

Noble Sissle (left) with Eubie BlakeHere are some powerful musical and cultural insights from Noble Sissle, excerpted from a 1964 radio interview (transcribed in Record Research, issue 61, and generously reprinted on Ken McPherson’s excellent blog):

During the last [world] war, which was a long stretch, people didn’t stop to think what happened to the young boys of eighteen and nineteen. Before the war, when every thing [sic] was peaceful, all those boys thought about was baseball, basketball, football and the sportsmanship we know here in America. When you take these boys and make killers out of them for five years and then bring them back to society, for at least five years they are in a state of shock. Nothing appealed to them and above all they didn’t want any regimentation. After all, when you sing and dance, there is melody and rhythm. In the bop era, they didn’t want any melody and they didn’t want any rhythm…

Now then, what happened? The four and five year old kids who weren’t disturbed by the war still had that soulful, spiritual glow which is inborn in America. It hadn’t been damaged in them. When they came along and the bands played with no rhythm and the beat was gone and there was no melody, what did they do? They wrote their own songs and their lyrics were amateurish, of course. They weren’t Cole Porters and their melodies were built on one chord and sounded the same. But, bless their hearts, they brought the rhythm and the beat back to American expression of emotionalism.

As you know, it is the rhythm of America that has thrilled the hearts of people throughout the world. You will notice that the trend has changed: as these kids get old they want more rhythm, more melody and lyrics with more sense to them. I heard Ray Charles the other night with such a fine orchestral backing that Frank Sinatra or any other good singer would have sounded great in front of this musical setting. When that group of kids gets old enough, they will be dancing and the beat will come back. It shows what power there is to the American rhythm and our beat. I call it the Freedom Beat.

Sissle may not detect a melody or beat in modern jazz, but even bop’s most spirited advocates would agree with his description of a rebellion against regimentation, as well as the idea of a musical style reflecting its times. At the same time Sissle is refreshingly aware and even complimentary of present-day singers. Ultimately his “bless their hearts” isn’t meant to be condescending; he cares about music and he cares about people. He’s just happy the two still have something to say to one another.

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11 thoughts on “Noble Sissle On The Origins Of Bop, Rock And The Freedom Beat

  1. jazzlives says:

    Rather than being sour and bitter, he finds something to praise. I wish Sissle were around to write arts criticism today. And for those who dismiss him, he hired Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier, Buster Bailey, and even a young Charlie Parker . . . as well as helping us to hear LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, MEMORIES OF YOU, and I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY. Not a bad legacy to leave behind. Bless his heart, too.

    • Wouldn’t that be nice, if every arts/culture critic wrote with Sissle’s directness, gentleness and breadth, incorporating social and political insights as stepping stones rather than landmines?

      “Polka Dot Rag” is one of my favorite recordings. Juggernaut rhythm, Bechet’s wailing and pure joy. It’s also one of these great vestigial big band recordings, rooted in slightly older styles but doing things you just wouldn’t hear in the arrangements that would become the bedrock of the genre.

  2. It’s actually a pretty big thesis, advanced in the context of a loving-and nostalgic-perspective. But, at the risk of being churlish, I have to note that the same generation advancing bop was also laying down R&B. Also, that some of those 4 and 5 year old kids Noble mentioned grew up to be Ornette, Ayler, Taylor…

    • Good point, Steve. I think I am just more impressed by his appreciation for latter-day styles. His descriptions of “why bop” are also convincing even if his “who” is too general.

  3. I’m not so sure about his “why” either. Many of the key boppers did no WWII service. There was plenty on the home front to inspire hatred of “regimentation.”

    • I hate to say it Steve but I think we’re agreeing here. The “who” is servicemen or civilians but the “why” is that rebellion against regimentation. There’s still something to be said for Sissle’s imperfect analysis (kinda’ like a lot of cultural historians).

  4. But he directly associates the regimentation with the military experience, not with civil rights in the US.

    • In the context of discussing the Second World War, yes he does. That might have just been the example of regimentation germane to his particular topic at this time. Based on this exchange alone, I can’t say for certain if he was aware of those other forms of regimentation (I’d be willing to bet he was). Yet I can’t fault him for not listing every form of regimentation in the postwar US that might have led to a cultural or artistic backlash.

  5. Well, we don’t know Sissle’s field of vision, as it were. It’s just all too glib for me. Reducing musical trends to historical imperatives is always a tough one for me. M. Myers recent book was that, in spades. There are just too many counter-arguments and wrinkles to bite off such large chunks of certitude. http://bit.ly/TJYmkf

    • I haven’t had a chance to read Myers’ book yet, but thanks for linking to your review of the book. I look forward to reading both pieces.

      Thanks also for an interesting conversation. I guess we all just take what we can from different commentaries and continue questioning the rest. I continue to enjoy your questions.

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