When I think of the word “Jazz” I am reminded of the music I love the most, which is why I generally have a positive reaction to the word. Not that I have really cared too much about the word in and of itself. It is a very silly word. Actually, it’s stupid and insulting. Imagine someone referring to Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as “fancy-schmancy” or “longhair” music, and you get the idea. Admittedly some of this Music, because it really is cheap, superficial, flashy and overblown for its own sake really does deserve the childish moniker of “Jazz.” Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, on the other hand, or Miles Davis’s Tempus Fugit, or Sidney Bechet’s Summertime, or Gillespie and Parker’s Groovin’ High (1945) however, simply do not deserve to be categorized by such a word. Many of the greatest practitioners of this music have always detested it. “It’s a nigger word,” railed Miles Davis, in a rare 1980 radio interview. “While (we were) playing in St. Louis, the white folks wouldn’t even listen to so-called ‘jazz’ because they thought of it as niggers fuckin’ and all that shit. So since then, that’s a nigger word, a nigger thing.” Clarinetist and soprano saxist Sidney Bechet considered the word to be superfluous; he preferred to call the music “ragtime” throughout his life. To him Jazz was just “a name the white people have given to the music. There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…But Jazz, Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass…”.
Duke Ellington (with whom Bechet played briefly in 1925) himself said as much concerning “Jazz.” The word seems to have rubbed him the wrong way and he used it reluctantly, out of lack of choice for a better word. “By and large, (this music) has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with,” he once wrote. “The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem.”°
Indeed. “Jazz” has the stink of Storyville all over it. Since its closing in 1917 a huge amount of legends and fantasies have grown up around Storyville, fed in large part by the embellishments of musicians who once played in its establishments. For the record let it be known that, aside from solo pianists such as Tony Jackson, Kid Ross or Ferdinand Mouton (or LaMothe or LeMott) no jazz band (nor any other band) ever played in a Storyville brothel: most whorehouses were ill-equipped to house a six or seven-piece band on their premises. Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Manuel Manetta, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Peter Bocage, Henry Zeno, George “Pops” Foster, Alphonse Picou, Armand Piron, Sidney Bechet and their ilk plied their trade in grungy cafes and dance halls such as Pete Lala’s, The Big 25 or Tom Anderson’s cafe for distressingly long hours and for insultingly low pay. These establishments were often hot, sweaty and stinking of armpits, bad breath, wet farts and God knows what else–which explains why New Orleans’ Union Sons Hall, a popular dance hall among black New Orleanians, was cheekily referred to as the “Funky Butt Hall.”
In any event, the music that the above musicians were shaping between roughly 1890 and 1915 was very rarely, if at all, referred to as “jazz,” let alone “jass.” To Sidney Bechet and Louis Nelson DeLisle, it was always “ragtime music.” To others it was simply “The Music.” The shady origins of the word jazz–indeed, the very cheapness of the word itself–appeared to impress even in the minds of its creators that what they were doing was cheap, dirty, and disreputable–“jungle music,” as Rudy Vallee once insinuated on his radio program. If early jazz musicians plied their trade in ratty joints, it was certainly not out of choice.
“Who draped those basement dens
With silk, but knaves and robbers
And their ilk?
Who came to prostitute your art
And gave you pennies
for your part?”
–Duke Ellington, excerpt from text of Black, Brown and Beige
There are dozens upon dozens of other explanations for the origins of the J-word and all of them are rather ridiculous. Jazz, in 1912, was simply an adjective used to describe something spunky (as was jasm, a word dating to at least 1860) screwy and off-the-wall–the way Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson described his latest (and unsuccessful) method of pitching. As for “jass,” speculations abound as to whether or not it is a derivation of “jaser” (the French verb to jabber on and talk shit) or a reference to the scent of jasmine (which the whores of Storyville allegedly wore) or whether it was simply cooked up by white New Orleans musicians (such as Tom Brown¹) once they made their way out of the South and towards Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
The truth is that “Jazz” was slapped on The Music as a way of selling it to the broader white American mainstream. The earliest known reference to “Jazz” in a musical sense dates from July 11, 1915. This very revealing article, written by Gordon Seagrove for the Chicago Tribune, features a caricatured “darkie”² alto saxophonist woo-wooing away on his horn. So it is perfectly clear that as early as the summer of 1915 The Music–a potent mixture of blues, ragtime and secularized spiritual harmonies–was already being referred to as “Jazz.” The word was insulting, but it sold the music and helped to get some of these musicians out of Funky Butt Hall. (Note the two Z’s and not two S’s. It is not entirely clear as to how or why Tom Brown, Johnny Stein or Dominic La Rocca came up with “jass.” In my opinion, Jass sounds a lot like Ass–indeed, most of the records put out by the Original Dixieland Jass Band and its many imitators (between 1917 and 1920) sound like “ass,” and certainly not in a good way.)
I have already noted that New Orleanians generally disliked the term. Northerners were not much different. To James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake it was still Ragtime. Ellington’s own preference was for the term Negro Music. “I am not playing jazz,” he stated in 1930, in reference to his musical ambitions, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.” Ellington had once counseled bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson on the matter. “Why don’t we drop the word ‘Jazz’ and call what we are doing ‘Negro Music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Reportedly, Henderson was not too keen on dropping the “J” word, assuming he himself had ever used it.
Of course, negative reaction to the J-word was not always limited to black musicians.³ Much of this resentment was echoed even by white musicians themselves, such as Red Norvo, who once said in 1944 “I certainly hope it isn’t jazz we’re playing, because jazz to me represents something obnoxious, like that Dixieland school of thought…the musicians it stands for are corny by today’s standards.”
Dave Tough, one of the core members of the white Austin High Gang, eventually gravitated to more modern sounds and remarked of Dixieland that it was “nowhere,” requested by slumming “snobs” on a nostalgic kick in 1940s Manhattan. “Those Dixieland characters come here to live their youth all over again,” Tough railed. “They like to think it’s still Prohibition and they’re wild young cats up from Princeton for a hot time. All they need is a volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald sticking out of their pockets.” Tough dismissed “Hot Jazz” as harmonically infantile, “a bad copy of the music that white Chicago musicians played who were in turn doing bad imitations of the music that they heard from the musicians who came from New Orleans.”
Charles Mingus, in 1969, said: “Don’t call me a jazz musician. The word ‘jazz’ means nigger, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit.” John Coltrane, a few years before his death, told an interviewer that “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” Anthony Braxton (like the late Ornette Coleman) will tell you the exact same things, and not mince words about it. In fact Braxton is deeply skeptical of many of the current trends in “Jazz,” particularly those inaugurated by the Marsalis Brothers under the tutelage of Stanley Crouch and the late Albert Murray; he sees in the current “Jazz” revival a “freezing” of what was once an innovative and living musical language in stoneª so that it remains locked forever in an American (and in this instance, Southern) past which we ought to have placed far behind us. Braxton assumed that Marsalis’s music was simply a comfortably nostalgic accompaniment to the increasingly toxic racism and reactionary politics of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush “administrations,” and on a very real level he is right: as pleasant as Marsalis’s music can be at times, it speaks very little–if anything–of our contemporary world; the harshness and dissonance that one can find in his music is the harshness and dissonance of another, simpler time. Sadly, even in that “other time” (say, the 20s and 30s) much of the music did not reflect the temper of that time but simply glossed over it with the phony 23-Skidoo slush of The Clambake Seven or, God forbid, the horror that was the Andrews Sisters.
Today, the most vociferous opponent of the word “Jazz” is trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has made it his mission to assassinate not merely the J-word but everything else associated with it.† To this end he has promoted the term #BAM, short for Black American Music. “There is no such thing as jazz,” he wrote in April of 2014, completely negating the idea of any sort of “Jazz tradition.” “(A)ny idea of what that might be is false. It’s impossible to build a tradition upon something that was never a designed to be a true expression of a community. The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie, just like racism.”
The lie being, of course, not merely that “Negroes” are a simple, funky, sexual, violent and primitive people without a history, without traditions, without art, without minds and so on and so fourth–no point in repeating oft-repeated lies–but also the very lie that any such creature called a “Negro” exists. When Duke Ellington spoke to Fletcher Henderson of the need to create a “Negro Music” he was simply utilizing the current and frankly most socially progressive language of that time. Duke Ellington’s “Negro” was not the Negro of Tom Brown, Stephen Foster, Joel Chandler Harris, or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nor even, for that matter, Mezz Mezzrow. Ellington rejected that image of the Negro publicly and was even more vehement in his rejection privately: “And was the picture true/Of you? The camera eye in focus…./Or was it all a sorry bit/Of ofay hocus-pocus?”
Ofay hocus-pocus, properly translated, is essentially what mainstream jazz or jass was and quite frankly, still is. Today that hocus-pocus (better known as bullshit) is simply dressed up in the robes or respectability and topped with a tasseled hat. But even the squarest of the super-squares, the rank-and-file men on the street, know that the vast bulk of contemporary jazz is remote, effete, elitist and un-listenable and that the back-asswards racism of many a “jazz classic” make even some of the best of jazz unendurable. Louis Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” for instance–a lovely melody marred by idiotically trite lyrics–was straight Stephen Foster, a fact he himself knew quite well and seems to have performed the tune largely in a satirical manner: On one early rendition of “Sleepy” (from December 1932) he twists the lyrics and sings, “when it’s slavery time down South.”
“To speak of ‘jazz tradition’ is like to speak of ‘racial justice,'” Payton continues. “It’s not possible to have justice within the confines of race because race was specifically designed to subjugate certain people to an underclass so that the “majority” thrives. Injustice is inherently built within the racial construct. There has never been any tradition within jazz other than to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.”
As a staunch anti-fascist, I share both Braxton’s and Payton’s concerns about this thing called “Jazz.” I hate to look at The Music–my music–through the ugly prism of politics. Yet at some point such skepticism becomes inevitable. As much as I enjoy vintage jazz–I have to confess that it is the virtual soundtrack to my life–I see ugly political trends running in tandem with the current enthusiasm for ragtime, “hot jazz” and “swing.” It is a disturbing thought that the music of Blind Boy Paxton, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Craig Ventresco, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres and innumerable other trad jazz and ragtime bands both in the U.S. and elsewhere could serve as a musical soundtrack to something else: the rise in far-right nationalism across the globe. Fortunately, it ain’t necessarily so: there is a German swing society located in Berlin which is vociferously anti-fascist and even Socialist in outlook. But I’m afraid that their progressive politics are, generally speaking, not shared by those who enjoy their music.
°‘I was recently held up again at a Dublin street corner by a small crowd who were listening to a young man with a strong North of Ireland accent who was aloft on a little Irish scaffold. / “Glun na Buaidhe,” he roared, “has its own ideas about the banks, has its own ideas about dancing. There is one sort of dancing that Glun na Buaidhe will not permit and that is jazz dancing. Because jazz dancing is the product of the dirty nigger culture of America, the dirty low nigger culture of America.”’ Myles na gCopaleen, from an extract of his Irish Times “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns (1944)
¹Tom Brown (1888-1958) was a tailgate trombonist who brought his band to Chicago in 1915, billing it as “Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland.” Brown was the brother of pioneering slap-bassist Steve Brown and a pathological racist and anti-Semite who once confided to journalist Al Rose that Europeans and Asians (“them foreigners”) refused to listen to jazz unless “niggers” were playing it, that “niggers” weren’t smart enough to discern any sort of harmony because, well, they were “just niggers.” As a side comment Tommy also noted that these same “niggers” were riding on previously all-white tramlines, that “dagos” were getting all the good hotel jobs in New Orleans and that “Jews” were taking over Uptown–three notable developments in late 50s New Orleans which disturbed him somewhat.
²Gordon Seagrove, writing in the Chicago Tribune (1915), begins his article by asking a young lady “what is the blues?” The young lady answers, loudly and enthusiastically, “Jazz!”
“A blue note is a sour note,” explains an unidentified Chicago pianist in Seagrove’s article. “(Blue notes) aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the South a half-century ago and are the interpretations of darkies (sic) originally. The trade name for them is Jazz.”
³Much of the resentment on the part of Black American musicians to the word “Jazz” is due to racist assumptions concerning the true nature of The Music. Even to supposedly liberal and sympathetic minds (such as John Hammond or Patrick “Spike” Hughes, himself a superb jazz arranger) jazz was essentially a happy, primitive, supersexual party music where bored upper-class whites violated their sense of propriety by getting drunk, getting high, or giving or receiving a blow job under a cafe table. Leftist jazz critics (such as Rudi Blesh) read into The Music an expression of Negro misery, anger and resentment of the Jim Crow status quo. While this is true to an extent it does not give the whole picture of what The Music is about, and in fact is simply the white left’s paternalistic vision of Black “jazz” as a proletarian, anti-elitist folk music–a vision which is just as limiting as the right-wing “happy darky” caricature of “jazz” music.
ªBraxton: “The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact….
“It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.”
Braxton’s concerns about “reductionism” in so-called Jazz music echo Frantz Fanon’s own observations concerning the Moldy-Fygge Jazz junkie’s revulsion towards bebop: “The fact is that in their eyes jazz should only be the despairing, broken-down nostalgia of an old Negro who is trapped between five glasses of whisky, the curse of his race, and the racial hatred of the white men. As soon as the Negro comes to an understanding of himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, when he gives birth to hope and forces back the racist universe, it is clear that his trumpet sounds more clearly and his voice less hoarsely. The new fashions in jazz are not simply born of economic competition. We must without any doubt see in them one of the consequences of the defeat, slow but sure, of the Southern world of the United States. And it is not utopian to suppose that in fifty years’ time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship.” Frantz Fanon, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” Wretched of the Earth. Bold-face mine.
†As a side note Vijay Iyer, a noted contemporary “jazz” pianist, also dislikes the term “Jazz” and dismisses it as an invention of the American record industry.