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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser