Bullshit That Gets on My Nerves: Historical Half-Truths, Distortions and Outright Lies (part one)

Bessie-master675
Queen Latifah playing what she thinks is Bessie Smith. From HBO disaster-bio “Bessie.” Note the string-bassist to the left. String-bassists were extremely rare in 1920s jazz and took a back-seat to the more powerful tuba.

“None of us were supposed to know how to read music. They wanted folk stuff. If we could read, we had to pretend we couldn’t. The day before a show opened  we’d get the music. They’d come to the spots after the show and hear us playing the tunes and say: ‘Aren’t they marvelous?'”

–Eubie Blake, They All Played Ragtime

The narrator to this cute little film clip–taken from Robert Altman’s film flop Kansas City–is bullshitting. Virtually ALL this stuff was fucking written DOWN–whether in their heads* or on paper. That’s another stupid stereotype about black musicians–that they were just a bunch of naturally-inspired, naturally-rhythmic darkies who operated by instinct. People like Mezz Mezzrow (as much as I admire his book Really the Blues) were big proponents of this lie. In fact for decades nobody knew that Louis Armstrong’s solo on Cornet Chop Suey was written down NOTE FOR NOTE in 1924 and copyrighted at the Library of Congress that year, a full two years before he recorded it for Okeh!

People need to stop lying about the history of jazz music–black Americans included. The recent HBO disaster “Bessie” is another case in point. In fact the dance hall scenes from “Bessie” are almost indistinguishable from “Idlewild,” another disaster, and Altman’s “Kansas City”. A bunch of loud, rowdy negroes in big hats which, somehow, with the exception of “Idlewild,” they never take off–and which is belied by actual film footage from black nightclubs from that era (naturally, the conk-haired hipsters of the twenties, thirties and forties never wasted a moment showing off their conks in public spaces!). They are always dancing APART and rarely together, and doing the wrong dances altogether:

“Bessie”

Furthermore, the music, with very few exceptions, is bland and toothless, with none of the fire of the old heads such as Charlie Shavers, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and naturally Louis Armstrong, to name a bare handful. The next time they decide to make a jazz film in America they ought to hire some French trad musicians such as what’s left of Charquet and Co. At least they sound more or less like the real deal–unlike these wanna-be boppers in the US who can’t tell the difference stylistically between Sonny Stitt, Marshall Allen and early Benny Carter.

*unwritten arrangements were known as “head arrangements.”

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