Jazz: the transformation from subversive expression to mainstream entertainment

Sarah Churchwell reviews <em>Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties</em> by Robert Nippoldt and Hans-Jürgen Schaal.

Duke Ellington plays the piano at the Cotton Club in 1930. Photograph: Frank Driggs / Getty Images

Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties
Robert Nippoldt, Hans-Jürgen Schaal
Taschen, 144pp, £34.99

In February 1924, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra debuted a symphony in jazz at the Aeolian Hall in New York City by a young composer named George Gershwin. The piece was called Rhapsody in Blue and was an instant triumph. At some point over the next two months, F Scott Fitzgerald seems to have heard it (he was a regular at the Palais Royal, where Whiteman headlined) and it made its way into The Great Gatsby, which he wrote in 1924, as Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World, the jazz composition that is played at Jay Gatsby’s first party.

An earlier draft of the novel included a long description of the music, which was clearly based on Gershwin’s experimental new composition. One of the moments that reviewers have enjoyed mocking in Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of Gatsby is when we finally meet our hero, in the familiar form of Leonardo DiCaprio, while the soaring strains of Rhapsody in Blue reach a crescendo behind us, but it’s one of the more historically authentic details in the film.

A less authentic detail in Luhrmann’s depiction of the New York jazz scene in 1922 (the year in which Gatsby is set) is when Gatsby takes Nick Carraway to a speakeasy in midtown Manhattan and they descend into a glamorous, mixed-race world in which black and white audiences cheerfully mingle, drinking, dancing together, listening to black jazz musicians and watching black dancers. This affable scene makes jazz-age New York look very jolly but the reality was less comradely. There is a reason why Whiteman’s orchestra and audience were all white – although the bandleader’s name is presumably just a coincidence. Even in the comparatively cosmopolitan New York, life in the jazz age remained strictly, often violently, racially segregated. In October 1922, a black man had to be rescued from a lynch mob of nearly 2,000 white people for allegedly trying to kiss a white girl – an incident that occurred in midtown Manhattan, only a few streets away from where Fitzgerald located his cellar speakeasy (just off Times Square).

A month later, America’s first woman senator was sworn in. Her name was Rebecca Latimer Felton, she was 87 years old and she was a former slave-owner, white supremacist and proponent of lynching. Happily, the repellent Felton only served as a senator for one day. The idea that the racist Tom Buchanan, who spouts theories of Aryan supremacy when we first meet him, would be hanging out at a mixed-race speakeasy in midtown (had such a thing even existed) is preposterous.

In 1923, a gangster named Owney Madden opened a nightclub in Harlem called the Cotton Club. It featured black jazz musicians and entertainers and black staff. The Cotton Club was immensely popular – but even in African American Harlem, it catered only to white customers. Had black customers been admitted, most would not have been able to afford its prices.

In his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, Fitzgerald explains the evolution of the term “jazz”: “The word jazz in its progress toward respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music.” He fails to mention that its putative origins were in the slang term “jism”; he also fails to mention that its progress towards “respectability” had to entail its progressive whitening, its transformation from a black subcultural and subversive expression to a mainstream entertainment.

This process forms a subtext of Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties, by Robert Nippoldt and Hans-Jürgen Schaal. Newly translated from the German, it promises the story of 24 influential musicians who shaped the jazz age in what is touted as “a scrupulously researched page-turner”. Like most books produced by Taschen, it is a handsome, visually striking and hefty volume (both in weight and in price). Unlike most, it also comes with a curated CD of original recordings.

Jazz sounds very exciting but calling it a “page-turner” is misleading, to say the least, since it has no narrative arc except what is implicitly created by a chronological sequence. It reads instead like a mammoth book of liner notes (some quite abbreviated), somewhat disjointed and at times anticlimactic, interspersed with enormous, often double-page ink drawings that some will enjoy more than others.

After a potted history of the great migration of black southern workers to the north at the beginning of the 20th century, it is, in essence, a catalogue of vignettes about a handful of great musicians. Some of these descriptions turn usefully towards musicology; others are content with light-hearted anecdote. Learning that Fats Waller once ate nine hamburgers at a sitting is rather less edifying than the explanation of “cutting contests”, the epic dance hall duels between piano players.

Some notes are less “scrupulously researched” than others. For example, the authors declare that Whiteman “refused on principle” to hire black musicians but other jazz historians hold that Whiteman was blocked by his management from creating the racially integrated band he wanted but continued to hire black arrangers and to promote and support black musicians when he could.

The tracks on the accompanying CD are number-coded in the text, so that each recording is provided with a narrative context. Unfortunately, about half of these are misnumbered, which is surprising not only because Taschen usually produces books to a very high standard but also because there are only 20 tracks on one CD, so they shouldn’t have been very hard to count.

The recordings are well chosen but, at close to £35 for the book and compilation, the reader might be hoping for something more comprehensive. We get Jelly Roll Morton pounding out stride piano in “Freakish” and Fats Waller’s improvisational piano in a duet with Alberta Hunter singing “Beale Street Blues” (misspelled as “Beal” in the text, it is the song that Daisy Buchanan and her friends dance to in The Great Gatsby). Hunter, for one, is given short shrift: a mere 100-word precis of her extraordinary life and career.

There’s a very early recording of James P Johnson playing “The Harlem Strut” in 1921 and Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, which included a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong and a saxophonist called Coleman Hawkins, performing “Money Blues” in 1925. A recording of “One Hour” by the Mound City Blue Blowers in the same year turns out to have a certain Glenn Miller on the trombone. Bessie Smith and Armstrong sing “Saint Louis Blues” and Bix Beiderbecke plays “Big Boy” in 1924. There’s “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” by Duke Ellington with Ethel Waters and we end with the slick showman Cab Calloway singing his trademark “Minnie the Moocher”.

Fitzgerald’s books offer impressions of life in New York during the Roaring Twenties, with a smattering of references to its soundtrack. Nippoldt and Schaal offer a soundtrack with only a smattering of New York. A truly page-turning narrative account that combines the city with the music that shaped it – a jazz history of its streets – remains to be written.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’” is published by Virago (£16.99)