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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Pokémon Gone: why the summer’s most popular app lost over 12 million users in a month

Four ex-players of Niantic's record-breaking game explain why they stopped trying to Catch ’Em All. 

Drowzees. That’s the short answer. The tapir-like psychic Pokémon wiggles its short trunk and stubby yellow fingers all across the land, meaning anyone on a mission to Catch ’Em All inevitably encounters hundreds of the critters. Wherever you go, whatever you do, they are waiting. They are watching. And they are part of the reason the biggest US mobile game ever has lost 12 million users in a month.

According to a report by Bloomberg, based on data from Axiom Capital Management, Niantic's Pokémon Go has seen a rapid decline in the number of users and user engagement. The game has dropped from nearly 45 million players in July to just over 30 million now.

Of course, like Team Rocket in a hot air balloon over Cerulean city, Pokémon Go had a long way to fall. After the initial frenzy and hype, it makes sense that the next set of headlines about the game would be exposing a decreased number of downloads and active users. No one can keep up chart-topping and revenue-grossing world records forever. But why has it faced such a steep and rapid decline?

The most common answer is that it was all a fad. Brenda Wong, a 23-year-old social media manager from London explains this is why she stopped using the game. “Like most fads, the interest slowly died over time. Life caught up with me and I started playing less and less,” she says. “Maybe it's sad that I now prioritise saving my battery over hatching an Ekans. Maybe.”

This partially explains the decline, but it isn't the whole story. Another argument is that the app is buggy, but considering it managed to maintain its popularity after multiple server crashes in July, that doesn't hold up either. Sure, Pokémon Go is being constantly updated and yes, it does drain your battery – but these aren’t the fundamental issues with the app. The fundamental issue is this: the game just isn’t very good.

Feeling drowzy

This is where the Drowzees come in. Although there are a 150 Pokémon to catch, most users end up catching the same species over and over, as there simply isn’t a wide enough range commonly available (hence any memes you might have seen about Pidgeys and Rattatas). The other main aspect of the app, battling in gyms, has no real endgame and gameplay is mostly aimless.

“I don't have the patience to wade through all the crap Pokémon that are everywhere in order to eventually hope to find something I don't already have,” says Alex Vissaridis, a 26-year-old graphic designer from London.

“I used to play Pokémon Go pretty religiously. I used the App Store hack to get it from the US store before it was released in the UK. I'd turn it on as soon as I'd leave home in the morning. I'd go on PokéWalks by myself, too, around the local area. I swear I've played it when I'm supposed to be out with friends, you know, socialising. The novelty's worn off now, though.”

Vissaridis’ complaints echo those made on one of the largest online communities of Pokémon Go players, reddit.com/r/pokemongo. Despite remaining loyal to the app, the 806,175 Redditors on this forum frequently suggest ways the game could improve, and bemoan its features such as the lack of meaningful player interaction, no daily log-on bonuses, and a lack of other in-game incentives.

“I'm level 21, and once you get to level 20, the XP points you need to level up are astronomical, and where it used to take a day of solid use to go up one or two levels, it now takes about a week or so. I can't be bothered anymore,” says Vissaridis.

These little town blues

For some users, the game is even worse. Pokéstops are locations in the game where players can pick up items and gain points, and they are found at real-world places of significance. This means users in rural areas, where there isn’t a monument or museum every five metres, are at a disadvantage. There are also fewer gyms – the places where you battle – and fewer Pokémon in general.

“I downloaded Pokémon Go the minute it came out in the UK,” says Amy Marsden, a 22-year-old student from Lancashire. “My friends and I would go off on bikes and try to catch Pokémon, which is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever done in my life. In the end, living in a small town was what killed Pokémon Go for me - there are only so many Pidgey and Rattata a person can take before the game just becomes boring.”

It's just a load of Pokéballs

Daniel Jackson, a 25-year-old journalist from Scotland, also became frustrated by the mechanics of the game. “The novelty wore off when I realised how shallow the experience is. There's not very much to do,” he says.

“I think it would be far more interesting if each species lived within a radius that it roamed around, rather than appearing in a location for a set amount of time before vanishing. I think being able to genuinely hunt for them would have been more engaging.

“When my kids were with me over the summer holidays I was able to convince them to get out more. They usually act like they're allergic to grass and air. So although it was a bit of a disappointment I think the concept is sound and that when it's eventually done well, location-based gaming could become an industry in itself. There are so many possibilities.”

The possibilities are indeed endless, and developers Niantic might still redeem themselves and the game in one of their frequent app updates. Despite Pokémon Go's rapid decline, it's also worth remembering that the app still has an incredible 30 million users. As far as mobile marketing goes, Niantic really did Catch ’Em All. Now they just have to figure out how to keep them. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.