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Book Reviews

Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matissse and Joyce

By Published: January 15, 2003

Jazz Modernism is a book that will befuddle and frustrate jazz critics, scholars, and historians more than it will satisfy them. It is written in a style meant more to bedazzle than to explain and validate hypotheses. Like a jazz musician, Appel plays the theme and then leaps into many variations long into the night. He "riffs" what comes to mind and what fits the mood more than striving to develop his points in a linear, logical manner. He "imagines" a particular musician like drummer Jo Jones looking at a painting when, in reality, that may never have happened. He strikingly compares the background color in Matisse's "The Red Studio" with the almost identical color of an Okeh record label. He correctly perceives that Rauschenberg's collage/painting "Monk" is more akin stylistically and dramatically to the music of John Coltrane: "Retitled 'Coltrane,' Rauschenberg's 'Monk' becomes an epochal masterpiece." In other words, like jazz, Appel is irreverent (think of Fats Waller's interpolated lyrics and Monk's off-centered rhythm and habit of spinning himself around on the stage- which we now suspect may have been the result of a neurological disorder!).

But, again like jazz, Appel is irreverent in order ultimately to bring out the holiness of the music and the art. In other words, for Appel, "Ryhthm Saved the World," as the title of a Louis Armstrong track reminds us and as the black dialogue (black in the sense both of “dark side” and African American) in Eudora Welty's novel, "Powerhouse," manifests. For Appel, the same rhythm-a-ning that characterizes jazz is also present in Mondrian's parallel lines and squares, Matisse's cutouts and colors, and Calder's dancing mobiles. Jazz rhythm serves the same purpose for Appel as does the River Liffey for Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake: it is the dark source of all that exists. Appel is a kind of metaphysician of jazz music. Appel, a professor of English at Northwestern University, intimates in his memories of New York jazz clubs during the 1940’s and 1950’s, that jazz is his first love. He wants to give it the dignity and meaning it deserves.

Serious music scholars, however, will want to send Appel back to graduate school to find out how to document and justify his points! (Did the graphic artist for Okeh records in fact study Matisse's paintings? Did Louis Armstrong enjoy an occasional visit to his red-hot MOMA (Museum of Modern Art?) (Doubtful, but not impossible, on both counts!) How do we know that these comparisons and synchronicities are not more in the eye and ear of the beholder than in the historical reality? Yet Appel manages successfully to pull off his elaborate “hat trick” in a way that is typical more of postmodernism than modernism. In the end, he creates an illusion that is more convincing than “reality.” And we are richly rewarded all the more for being taken in by the illusion! For it is an illusion that betokens a deeper level of truth. That truth is to be found in the connection of sensory experience and the reality behind appearance. Appel articulates that jazz and modern art, expressions respectively of the auditory and visual senses, articulate the same underlying essences of chaos and complexity that characterize universal human self-expression, whether “primitive” or “modern.”

Indeed, when it comes down to it, this book is really about "synesthesia," a tendency, considered by neurologists to be a brain malfunction, in which the stimulation of one sense (for example, sound) arouses experiences in another (like vision). Thus, to a "synesthete," the “bright” sound of a trumpet might hypothetically trigger the visual experience of white or yellow, while a cello might evoke a red or a purple sensation. And so on. Jazz Modernism, a book about music, is thus filled with fine reproductions of art, sculpture, posters, photographs. The visual images are as central to the argument as are the discourses on jazz recordings, tunes, vocalizations, etc. As you read and "hear" and "view" this book, you begin to "see" sounds and "hear" colors and lines, etc. It becomes clearer and clearer how twentieth century society and culture constructed a world of the senses, of the sensuous and erotic, of sounds and sights flashing like the neon lights on Broadway. It was as if, in the midst of crisis, "Rhythm Saved the World." Jazz was our way of suriviving racism, the Great Depression, genocide, the atom bomb, the Korean War, the Vietnam Era, and Two World Wars. We danced, listened to deep music in dark nightclubs (or earlier than that, on the plantations, at funerals, in the bayous), "heard" primitive drumbeats around Picasso, Mondrian, and Brancusi- works that borrowed from African tribal art. I was interested to learn- and think it no accident- that the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, about whom Appel - a professor of English at Northwestern University- wrote extensively, suffered from "synesthesia" as a child. Obviously, such an "illness" (synesthesia isn’t always pathological) can be put to good use. Nabokov wrote memorable, sense-filled novels. Appel awakens for us the work of great artists and musicians of an era in our history.

This book resembles the jazz video series of Ken Burns in that it emphasizes cultural and historical forces- especially American racism, its impact on jazz, and the absolutely crucial, although often unrecognized, role of jazz in bringing about desegregation. Unlike Burns' epochal videos, however, Jazz Modernism is genuinely stimulating and informative about jazz as a complex musical form. To begin with, there are Appel's examples of Fat's Waller's interpolated remarks on recordings and Armstrong's gravelly voice as exemplars of jazz “philosophy,” if you will- a way of bowing to white audiences while at the same time parodying them, and more importantly a way of lightening up the music in order to take freer liberties with a tune and eventually break it apart like a cubist painting, or change its form, say from a dirge to a dance to a fugal counterpoint, as Miles Davis did with his nothing short of miraculous renditions of "Bye-Bye Blackbird," “My Funny Valentine,” and the entire album of “Porgy and Bess.” More fundamentally, Appel shows us that jazz is an art form, a "modern" art form (at its inception, well before "modern" jazz), that has constituted a particular kind of expression in which wholes are broken into parts while retaining the whole, and reality is transformed by imagination, while remaining reality.

Thus, when Coltrane recorded his avant-garde "Meditations" or Ornette Coleman forayed into the frontiers of "free jazz" or Dave Liebman created musical poetic variations on elements of nature, they struggled with the limits of what constitutes jazz as distinct form, in contradistinction to "post-modern" forms where the known and the familiar are deconstructed in order to create something new. Is jazz still jazz when it is no longer in the vein of the culture in which it emerged? Is it just our lack of musical insight that prevents us from seeing the jazz essence of a piece that has no tune, meter. or chordal structure? If the African American culture which produced the beautiful and rich art form called jazz becomes assimilated into the new cybernetic and cyberspace melting pot of twenty-first century America, will jazz itself be able to survive? These are the ultimate questions which Jazz Modernism leads us to contemplate. I know that Don Byron answers his critics by saying that “God doesn’t care whether it’s jazz or not.” But mere mortals need some definition in order to “get into” the music subjectively and be moved by it. Certain features constitute what J. J. Johnson called “jazz syntax,” the “grammar” of jazz, which gives the music a recognizable form and structure. How do we know when a musician has gone beyond or outside that syntax? Every jazz innovator has initially been accused of violating the tradition. What epiphany told each of them that they were advancing the cause rather than demolishing it?

Alfred Appel wisely offers no solutions to such problems. He is too in love with a time in history and art, with memories of New York jazz clubs and VJ Day celebrations, with guiding us on a metaphorical walk through once revolutionary and now familiar "pictures at an exhibition," to worry himself about futures and radical revisions. Yet his extraordinary quickness of thought and ability to make daring and interesting comparisons, as if on the run from falsehood and hypocrisy, somehow give greater definition to the music that we have ourselves loved and gone out of our way to hear, whether at war or during peace, in our homes or traveling to a jazz festival, or in the dark, rathskellery Birdlands across the country and, more and more, across the Atlantic and Pacific. And with such definition we can even more respect and admire contemporary musicians like Dave Liebman, Uri Caine, and the groups at the Knitting Factory, who are working to stretch the envelope, almost, it would seem to us acolytes, beyond recognition. As they proceed in these new and uncharted directions, we will hopefully learn to hear jazz in new and interesting ways, just as Jazz Modernism, by focusing on the more familiar "standards", paradoxically does the same.

Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matissse and Joyce
By Alfred Appel, Jr.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
ISBN 0-394-53393-3.



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