Thoughts Over Coffee

“Charleston Crazy,” by the Fletcher Henderson band before Louis Armstrong entered its ranks, is the type of performance that would likely be described by later commentators as “choppy” or “cluttered:”

A bass saxophone roars a two-beat bass line under deliciously nasal trumpets, the steady pulse continuously interrupted by exclamations of the Charleston beat as though the band is obsessed or literally “crazy” with the syncopated rhythm. It’s a musical tug-of-war, an ensemble at odds with itself. Even the textures never seem to settle in, fluctuating between smooth saxes, wah-wah trumpet and so many brief breaks. Post-bop hearing aids tell us that the chart is so concerned with ensemble tricks that it never lets the rhythm settle into a steady groove. This music would be unsuited for the soloist, the sine qua non of jazz codified years after this record stopped being pressed, let alone listened to with any regularity.

The subjects and discourses that coalesced into the term “jazz history,” including this recording, are at most little over a century old. Jazz is a baby compared to other historical subjects. Jazz history, however, moves fast. For its purposes, I might as well be looking at cave drawings with The Guggenheim only a block away. According to most jazz histories, Henderson’s band of musically proficient, well-educated, confident, popularly acclaimed and musically well-respected young men were pretty much wasting their time until Armstrong entered the group, first to mocking skepticism, even classist derision, then to awe-filled embrace. There was simply no other way to play, leaving his section mates Howard Scott and Elmer Chambers out-of-date before jazz had even begun its proper history.

Jazz has, of course, changed considerably since this performance was put to shellac in 1923. In addition to introducing the improvising soloist as its centerpiece and in turn completely redefining the scope and possibilities of solo improvisation, jazz has expanded its rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary, created its own melodic language, pushed dissonance to startling boundaries, experimented with meter and form, incorporated myriad influences from a globe’s worth of musical genres and raised standards of musicianship to incredible heights. Henderson’s three-minute number suffers by comparison: its chord changes likely hopelessly bare for generations of musicians nursed on Bird heads, its rhythm clunky and static beside the polyrhythmic careening expected just to get into Berklee.

It is easy to fall into the trap of calling these changes “progress,” but that term implies a destination, an ideal, an eventual completion of some higher goal. A practitioner of music may have some ultimate goal in mind. Maybe they want it to break musical conventions or challenge artistic standards. Perhaps they want their work to change minds, hearts, policies or Billboard charts. Yet while the music may be directed towards goals that go beyond the sound of itself, the sounds themselves can never be made more complete or brought to some conclusion. Otherwise, every single artistic work would need to be experienced as an unanswered question, an endlessly incomplete experiment constantly missing something until the next step. If you’re writing a dissertation or a New York Times column, this may be fine, but imagine if the rest of us had to listen this way?

So I can’t help treating “Charleston Crazy” as an end in itself. Ditto for the pre-Armstrong Henderson band. I keep coming back to this by turns dicty and artfully dirty nonet, with its trumpeters clearly inspired by jazz coelacanth Johnny Dunn in all of their clipped, chattering, squawking and tensely syncopated glory. Ditto the young Coleman Hawkins and his ponderous, jerky arpeggiations. Jazz historians describe the Hawkins from this period as precocious yet in need of a catalyst to become a full-fledged soloist. These records would later on embarrass Hawkins himself, but I always thought that it was unfair of that older player to belittle the work of this young musician, even if they were the same person. Howard Scott has proven more interesting to me as a musical as well as aesthetic subject than Dizzy Gillespie (who would’ve turned 101 this year) and Dixieland chord progressions much more satisfying than most multi-tonal explorations tracing their inspiration back to John Coltrane (a spring chicken at 92). Of course, I try to appreciate everything. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I said I actually did not “like” a piece of music. It is just a matter of what I purchase for my record shelf.

Crypto moldy-figgism? The fig never asked not to be an apple, and none of us are safe from mold. Either way, I suppose I could just ignore all of the discourse, like what I like, pursue what I want, “the music is all that matters,” etc. Except it is hard not to wonder why no one is writing books about that music, why the most well-respected authorities barely go near the stuff, why the things you like seem to fly in the face of the very standards established to define the world they belong to. Am I crazy? Do I have odd or bad taste? Are they the same thing? Also, who wrote the book of taste, and what was in it for them? When the team you’re rooting for never makes the playoffs, even the best of us may start to yell at the referees.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts Over Coffee

  1. Bryan Strong says:

    I listen to jazz for pleasure. I get no pleasure from dissonant machine gunners so I don’t listen to them.

  2. tronepone says:

    One important factor in the differences noted between jazz records of 1923 and even as early as 1953 is the functional aspect of the music. Like most other records of the time, the label of “Charleston Crazy” says “(Fox Trot),” and many are printed even more prominently, “For Dancing.”

    This recording (a personal favorite) was incidental to the livelihood of Fletcher Henderson as an entertainer, someone who night after night was able to keep an audience of hundreds on its feet in a highly competitive market. That it still holds up to critical listening and excites me on my duff is further credit to these musicians. They could have done much more to wow today’s scholars had that been their objective, but I don’t care, either.

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