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Book Reviews

Subversive Sounds - Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

By Published: July 20, 2008
Subversive Sounds - Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans
Charles Hersch
Hardcover; 210 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-32867-6
University of Chicago Press
2008



In avoiding any pre-planned model with which to simplify the subject of this book, Charles Hersch has produced something that's far more closely reflective of human experience and actions than it otherwise might have been. He also is clearly not an author for whom determinism serves any great purpose, and it's to his credit that he's produced a book the arguments of which are put across both cogently and persuasively.

Hersch's understanding and appreciation of the racial climate of New Orleans in the early decades of the twentieth century, and by implication the social and cultural milieu from which jazz sprang, isn't clouded by a jaundiced eye. The clarity of his thinking illuminates what was—and arguably still is—an immensely complicated situation.



In view of this—and despite the fact that there's more than a little weight to the argument that it would have taken such a state of inter-racial fluidity to produce the music at all—what emerges from his text most strongly is the idea of music as a bridge for crossing racial divides, and this despite the efforts of some of its practitioners.



The Original Dixieland Jazz Band's cornetist and leader Nick La Rocca, a white man, emerges particularly discreditably in this instance—whilst it's a measure of Hersch's value as a prose stylist that he manages to place trumpeter Louis Armstrong, one of the most visible black men of the last century, in more closely argued and sympathetic perspective over the course of a few pages than many writers have managed in the course of entire books.

Hersch shows a similar appreciation of the music's essentially low social origins, and in that respect arguably has no option but to tack closely to the time-honored but entirely spurious superiority of white over black, wealthy over poor and the like.



But he artfully avoids addressing such issues in terms dogmatic or otherwise, and in so doing also avoids the present day attitude which implies that today, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we're living in the best of all possible worlds—and that the past is not only a foreign country but also a place in which things were immeasurably worse. In short, Hersch has the grasp of time and place that is the hallmark of all the most worthwhile historians. He has brought that to bear effectively here, and the results are illuminating for anyone wanting to understand how this music called jazz came to be.



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