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Jazz And Death: Reception, Rituals And Representations


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Jazz and Death: Reception, Rituals and Representations
Walter van de Leur
200 Pages
ISBN: 9781138553422

The title might seem a tad non-felicitous, but it surely invites reflection. How do we respond to and commemorate jazz musicians' deaths? In what ways do these rituals manifest themselves from one place and from one culture to another? Most significantly, what do the various responses to jazz deaths reveal about wider jazz culture—the traditions, heritage, commercialization, historicizing and mythologies?

Walter van de Leur, Professor of Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Amsterdam, unpacks these weighty questions in a revealing study that, in the way of the best academic works, invites a serious rethink on the meanings underpinning behaviors and beliefs surrounding jazz and death.

It is fitting that van de Leur begins with New Orleans globally famous jazz funerals, as bound up in this musical, socio-cultural practice—whose modern roots lie in benevolent societies—are overlapping ideas of tradition and heritage, religiosity and commercialism, authenticity and cultural appropriation—themes that reoccur throughout the book.

Few outside New Orleans will likely be aware that—citing author Louis H. Levy—"the jazz funeral was nearing extinction by the mid-'70s." What saved the jazz funeral, van de Leur states, was tourism.

Although the author makes no claim that the rise in tourism had anything to do with the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973)—whose famous opening scene [see YouTube clip below] portrays a jazz funeral in the French Quarter—his mention of it as a global window onto the jazz funeral practice somewhat obliquely makes that suggestion.

The scene's violent denouement, where a Federal agent is murdered, and his body mysteriously disappears into the parade coffin, chimes with the author's repeated observation that jazz/black culture is typically portrayed in popular white culture as inherently dangerous.

Jazz tourism in New Orleans, we learn, has proven a double-edged sword. Whilst undoubtedly strengthening and preserving brass band culture, it has at the same time helped change the jazz funeral practice from a local carnival of reverence, mourning and jubilation, to one of "outward spectacle for consumption by outsiders."

That the New Orleans jazz funeral has been adopted by Preservation Hall and the city's principal jazz festival—where "predominantly elderly whites" [tourists] sporting decorated umbrellas, dance in programmed second-lines—underlines the dichotomy between community-based tradition and staged heritage performance.

New Orleans heritage funerals are also held "out of town," for non-musicians, in other US cities, in Canada and in the UK, where Stratford-on-Avon celebrated the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death with a jazz funeral. Such developments, van de Leur suggests, run the risk of "carnivalizing death."

Elsewhere in this highly readable book, the author examines the hoary old trope that has depicted jazz from its earliest times as a dangerous music belonging to the devil. Mythologies of musicians making pacts with the devil or selling their souls are part of jazz and blues lore. Most of the early bruhaha surrounding jazz, however, was moral outrage fueled by racism, and driven by fear of the races mingling, though quite how Norwegian newspapers came to report American deaths caused by people dancing the Charleston is anybody's guess.

But as the chapter titled "The Devil's Music: Jazz in Hell" reveals, jazz musicians, fans and the music's chroniclers have played no less a part in perpetuating myths of musicians cozying up to ol' Beelzebub and selling their souls in return for rare musical prowess. The author cites the examples of Buddy Bolden, Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker, often depicted as geniuses consumed by their talent.

Jazz likes to have it both ways, and another chapter discusses the polar opposite notion of jazz as heavenly music, inspired by God and played by his emissaries. Marketing has helped contributed to this perception, with Louis Armstrong's sound often described by critics as otherworldly, his genius as God-given.

The deification of John Coltrane—personified in the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, to give this San Franciscan church its short name—and the contradictory narratives surrounding A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) also come under the spotlight, with van de Leur drawing on Tony Whyton's ground-breaking book Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane And The Legacy Of An Album (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Inevitably, Ken Burn's documentary Jazz (PBS, 2001) and its artistic director Wynton Marsalis come in for some piercing scrutiny. The author rebukes Marsalis' claim that jazz is profoundly bound up with Christianity, pointing to its "much more pluralistic heritage." Like America itself, van de Leur states, jazz simply does not have unified values.

The commercialization of death in jazz, seen in the never-ending stream of "last concert" recordings, warrants a full chapter. Many of these swan-song recordings, we learn, are not what they seem. It should come as no surprise to read that record companies will knowingly spin a lie to sell records, but what is perhaps more interesting are the ways in which such highly mediated recordings can inform people's memories, and jazz historicizing to boot.

Elsewhere, chapters on responses to the deaths of Chet Baker and Duke Ellington, and the battles and controversies that accompanied the erecting of memorials to these revered, though quite different figures, says much about the politics involved in the assertion of dominant jazz narratives.

In contrasting the hugely different reactions in Europe and America to both Baker's music and his death, the author lays bare the crudity of jazz politics, while championing the historical value of local histories for the greater nuance they can provide.

The concluding chapter, "Funky Odors: Is Jazz Itself Dead?" is a reminder that jazz's death knell has been sounded repeatedly, and almost right from the music's inception. It is easy to forget that many accused bebop of killing swing. Similarly, each subsequent development in jazz, each side-branch, has been blamed in some quarters for wrecking what went before.

But the "Is jazz dead?" question, as van de Leur astutely notes, is not an innocent one, for behind both the question and the varied answers lie competing cultural and political agendas, that is to say, control of jazz's historical narrative.

In his authoritative interrogation of a complex and overlooked aspect of jazz culture, van de Leur brings sharp analytical insight. Jazz may or may not be dead, depending on who you listen to, but jazz academia has never been more relevant.



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