Too cool

Jazz in the 1950s produced few musicians of stature.

The "We want Miles" exhibition in Paris. Photo: Getty Images

From 1956 to 1966, the historian Eric Hobsbawm moonlighted as the New Statesman’s jazz critic, writing under the pseudonym “Francis Newton” (he borrowed the name from a communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). Hobsbawm’s musical tastes were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, which might explain his disdain here for the sterile, “aimless” experiments of the “young modernists”. Hobsbawm returned to this theme in his valedictory column, in March 1966, expressing his bafflement at the “nonsense manifestos” of the new jazz avant-garde.

For those of us who are Hindus, Jews or (like so many American jazz modernists) Muslim, the 1950s did not exist. By our own calendars we have a few more years to wait before generalising about the “character” of the past decade. Still, as we are surrounded by men trying to sum up the past ten years, it is perhaps impolite to advertise our heterodoxy. Very well: what, from the jazz critic’s point of view, has been happening since 1950?

Let me make no bones about it. Artistically the 1950s, though producing a far greater quantity of jazz in a far greater number of countries than in any previous decade, were disappointing. American jazz, which is still the only one that really counts, remained parasitic on the achievements of earlier years.

The young modernists experimented aimlessly and eclectically, with the incidental result (familiar to students of modern painting and poetry) of making one “cool” experimenter indistinguishable from several dozen others; but the only innovations that retained their power were those of Parker, Gillespie, Monk and the men of the 1940s. The most important jazz player of the decade and the one who best typifies it – Miles Davis – is an altogether lesser man than those who dominated earlier: an Armstrong or a Parker. He is a beautiful, melancholy, technically rather limited individualist but no chef d’école, though the leader of an exceptionally fruitful small group.

The most talented composer-leader of the period, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, has confined his great gifts to the interior decoration of a few musical drawing rooms. Compared to the vast mansions that were still being built and furnished by that old lion of the 1920s, Duke Ellington, and the ruthless Bauhaus explorations of that pioneer of the 1940s, Thelonious Monk, Lewis’s structures look pretty flimsy.

The 1950s did not even produce many new musicians of stature, a fact underlined by the long list of eminent obituaries during the decade: Bechet, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Tatum, Big Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, among the older styles; Parker, Navarro, Clifford Brown among the moderns. Old talents were rediscovered or appreciated – Monk among the moderns, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson and several veterans of the 1930s – but there were few genuinely new faces.

Most of this sterility was due to a wholly disastrous desire to intellectualise jazz, to make it academically respectable, and at ease among the conservatoires, summer schools and the biennales. Respectability is the death of a music that exists because it is a protest against artistic and social orthodoxy, and which operates in a way wholly different from “straight” music. (Respectability does not even pay dividends: the man who, in the 1950s, became – with Paul Robeson and Kwame Nkru­mah – the best-respected Negro in the world, was an old-fashioned jazz entertainer, Louis Armstrong.) Fortunately for jazz the musical failure of status-seeking became steadily more obvious. The jazz tradition, expelled by the front door, re-entered by the back. The reputation of the 1950s has been at least partly saved by what will, in retrospect, seem the most important phenomenon of their jazz history: the return to the blues.

Unlike the “revival” movement of the 1940s, which petered out in the 1950s (except among the young European public), this was no archaeological reconstruction of the past. The blues that fertilised jazz, including the most experimental and “far out”, was the contemporary urbanised Negro folk-music and gospel song that, thanks to the vast teenage commercial boom of the middle 1950s, enjoyed a fantastic popular vogue in the debased form of rock’n’roll. It is no accident that many of the “hard blowers” among the modern saxophonists play close to this style, that new musicians (such as Coltrane and Ray Charles) have been drawn from the rhythm-and-blues field, and that connections with hot gospelling sects are today a valuable qualification for a jazz player.

Jazz is when men blow out their souls and not merely musical figures. That is why Bix Beiderbecke is remembered, not because he “used higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backed them with appropriately related changes”, thus anticipating Bird Parker. It is to the credit of the 1950s jazz that, while not abandoning any of its technical sophistication, it began to rediscover this fact.

This article appeared in the New Statesman of 16 January 1960