Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class


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Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class
David Savran
Hardcover; 336 pages
ISBN: 978-0-472-11692-8
University of Michigan Press

Jazz was blamed for many of the societal ills of the 1920s, and with Highbrow/Lowdown David Savran considers, with intelligence, one particular supposed victim: the theater. Jazz, as a music and also as a broader cultural force, became during the decade a handy bellweather for determining the merit of a stage work. If a script or production was even remotely influenced by jazz, then it wasn't considered high art and therefore not worthy of attention. Thus vaudeville and the new musical comedies from the likes of George Gershwin and Jerome Kern were shunned by the upper class elite, who sought to distance themselves from the working class by calling their forms of entertainment vulgar and of little substance.

One of the major factors in the demise of the theater was, of course, the advent of movies, which quickly became the most popular source of entertainment for America. As Savran points out, however, movies actually played a larger role in the demise of vaudeville, a similarly cheap form of entertainment. The so-called "literary" plays of William Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O'Neill were clung to by the upper class as a handy means of social division, and were a more expensive leisure pursuit.

In essence, Savran has written a book about the fracturing of the theater audience in the 1920s using jazz as a lens. He points to jazzy composers such as Gershwin, who never got his due while he was writing because of his embrace of jazz, along with other composers who were influenced by jazz who included elements of popular music in their works and were greeted with indifference or hostility.

Savran ends his book with a chapter on O'Neill, who was lauded as the writer who most firmly announced that America had arrived as a serious literary force. Predictably, O'Neill had no use for jazz in his works, and thus became exactly the type of hero the upper class was looking for to solidify their status.

What is intriguing about Savran's book is how these class distinctions still hold true today. There is no more vaudeville, of course, but musical comedies, which were requisitioned by a middle class looking for a means of upward mobility, are still largely patronized by the same types of people; while true theater is held to be only for a distinguished minority, who probably look down upon stuff like Legally Blonde as junk. Also, as Savran points out, jazz has all but disappeared from contemporary musicals, where it has now been replaced by rock and R&B, which are themselves used as indicators for the elitists to discriminate the worthwhile from the frivolous.

Since Savran's focus is on the theater, he doesn't make the obvious point that jazz has suffered the same sort of fragmentation today. Throughout history there have been those who have favored a certain type of jazz (such as the "moldy figs"), who would always claim that the newest thing is a perverted watering down of the best or "real" stuff. Today "true jazz," for lack of a better phrase, is appreciated best by a small minority who look down upon smooth jazz musicians and crooners like Harry Connick, Jr. as frauds. It's also possible to see the same sorts of battle lines being drawn over rap today, another form of music whose fate as a cultural artifact is still being written.

Kudos to David Savran for taking such an interesting point of view on this topic. Also noteworthy is his prose style: it's readable, something that many University Press authors can't claim. He writes for a wider audience than just academia, and this, given the premise of his book, is appropriate.

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