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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain