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YES. BUT IS IT ART?

John Dunton 

 

Just over fifty years ago, when I first started to listen closely to jazz, it never occurred to me to insist that it was an art form. I liked it, wasnít bothered if other people didn't, and went out to buy the records that seemed to me to have the music I wanted This wasn't always easy because few jazz records were released in those days, but I got Charlie Parker's Stupendous, Dizzy Gillespie's Anthropology, Charlie Venture's Boptura, Gene Krupa's Lemon Drop, and others of the same sort. I enjoyed them all and the fact that most people hated that kind of music was of no great consequence to me. I knew what the worth of this music was and could pick out the cool tenor-sax solo on an otherwise commercial big-band disc and the modern piano fill-ins by a jazz musician earning a living accompanying a singer. There were few jazz programmes on the radio so it was necessary to take what I could from the broadcasts by bands that might have a couple of jazzmen in their ranks and give them a solo or two. The same applied with records and tracking down the jazz bits on otherwise mundane discs was part of the game. I still find it fascinating to come across a chorus or two by a long-forgotten trumpeter or saxophonist on a big-band disc that has finally been issued again or even for the first time. The CD revolution has meant that material from the past is often much easier to obtain, but there is always a thrill in hearing something Iíve never heard before.

But this piece is not intended as an exercise in nostalgia. The point I want to make is that I still feel no need to think of jazz as an art form. I always knew that some jazz was, but it was also part of a musical scene which included small groups, singers, big-bands of varying kinds, and other outfits playing varieties of music which were sometimes straight jazz but could equally be popular music with a small jazz content. The Melody Maker didn't think it necessary to discriminate too closely and neither did I. But my ear was always waiting for that jazz element to appear. And I gradually managed to work out a system for evaluating what I heard. Woody Herman's Lemon Drop was a better record than Gene Krupa's version of the same tune, but even the latter had a tenor solo by Buddy Wise that made it well worth hearing.

My reason for thinking of all this and the question of how I viewed jazz all those years ago is that I've recently been reading The Immediate Experience, a collection of essays by Robert Warshow. For the record, Warshow was one of the group known as New York Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, and he wrote for Commentary, Partisan Review, and similar magazines. He's not the best known of the group because he died in 1955 when he was 37 and his only book, the one Iíve referred to, was published in 1962. It has just been reprinted by Harvard University Press.

Warshow was one of the few critics in his day who seriously tried to get to grips with what are usually referred to as "the popular arts," meanings films, comic books, and the like, though as far as I know he never wrote about jazz or popular music. Remember, this was long before the rise of cultural studies and the often spurious attempts to apply a seriousness to pop music that it simply doesn't deserve. Which isnít to say that Warshow lacked seriousness when he looked at popular culture, but I somehow cant imagine him accepting that pop music is necessary to the health of the nation, "that our essential liberties are somehow guaranteed by it," and that it can "free man from oppression or unlock the secrets of the human soul." (Iíve used a couple of phrases from a humorous article by Howard Jacobson in which he mocked the importance some people attach to pop music.)

Warshow did think that a critical vocabulary could be developed to provide a framework for acknowledging and understanding the popular arts, but at the same time he wasnít in any doubt about the different values that come into play when appreciating popular and high art. I doubt he'd have got away with that sort of attitude now and he'd be promptly condemned as an elitist. But he had a point and could be amusing about the kind of people who want to read significance into (to take an example he uses) the Krazy Kat cartoon strips. The best things about Krazy Kat, he says, are that it is "pointless" and "silly" and comes from "the peripheral world where the aims and pretensions of society are not regarded." He contrasts it favourably to the kind of cartoon strips which do try to say "serious" things about contemporary society. Krazy Kat, at the end of the day, "is about a cat who gets hit on the head with bricks."

I'm not trying to review Warshow's book, simply trying to point out that his approach to popular culture was probably healthier than we get now from critics. But perhaps popular culture was itself healthier and not saddled with inflated ideas of its own importance? A comment Warshow made about his film-going (he was "compulsive" in his attendance at the cinema) is worth considering: "I have seen a great many very bad movies, and I know when a movie is bad, but I have rarely been bored at the movies; and when I have been bored, it has usually been at a 'good' movie."

What Warshow said struck a sympathetic chord with me and not only in relation to the movies. It occurred to me that it could just as well apply to my feelings about jazz. Iíve heard a lot of bad jazz, both on record and in person, but the few times Iíve been really bored have been when the music falls into the "good" category and has often received critical acknowledgement. A Gil Evans concert I attended is an example. A lot of Miles Davis's later work, especially with rock groups, leaves me cold. Those dull "suites" commissioned by arts associations and other worthy bodies from musicians like Stan Tracey are boring. So are John Coltrane's later ramblings and Courtney Pine's thirty-minute solos; they sound like they're thirty minutes long even if they're not I could carry on listing, and the conclusion might be that as critics, musicians, and listeners have "intellectualised" the music it has tried to take on levels of length and depth that it canít handle. As Gene Lees said, "One of the worst things that happened to jazz was its definition by intellectuals or would-be intellectuals as an 'art-form.'"

So why this need for people to intellectualise jazz and insist on it being seen as an art form? If anything it has possibly led to the music becoming even more of a minority taste. Real jazz always was, of course, but audiences were often prepared to accept some jazz within the context of their listening when big-bands provided popular musical entertainment. This is a contentious area, I agree, with all kinds of musical, social, and economic factors affecting what audiences want and get, and I donít intend to explore it here. My curiosity is about the need for jazz to be seen as an art form.

The answer may be in what Gene Lees calls "status seeking." But let me quote him direct: "In a steady and determined kind of status seeking, jazz fans tried to claim for the art all the attributes of depth and emotional range that are to be found in classical music. This was the result of their own aggravated need to be thought of as having highly developed taste and profundity. The reasoning ran: Jazz is great art and full of depth; I dig jazz; therefore I am a lover of great art and full of depth."

I think he's right. As the audience for jazz shrank and it increasingly became the province of the middle-class university-educated, and spread into the world of the intellectual weeklies, posh Sundays, and such places, it had to be seen as an art form in order to justify its existence in that world. The same thing happened with pop music, of course, with the result that academics solemnly analysed the lyrics of third-rate songs and critics hailed every passing musician as a genius. That way the academic or critic thinks he's doing something serious, the musician is given licence for pretentiousness, and the audience can tell itself that it's experiencing great art. When this kind of thinking by all concerned is applied to jazz it usually results in long, boring solos, pretentious compositions, and general self-indulgence. But no amount of boosting will ever give the music more values than it has, and may well lead to it losing its real virtues of spontaneity, humour, and rhythm. Personally, it doesn't interest me whether or not jazz is thought of as an art form. I just like it and that's enough. And I'm still determined to