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.

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)

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

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.