Ralph de Toledano
American Music: Classical, Popular, & Jazz
Cleveland Regional Meeting of The
September 21, 2002
The composer and critic Virgil Thomson once remarked that a
musical work required three people: Composer, performer, and critic.
Of these, two are mandatory, for a musical score, unlike a poem, is
incomplete until it has been delivered to the ear.
The critic is something else again, and though I may comment on
everything from Gregorian chant to Igor Stravinsky, American “serious” music
is not my bag. It is with this lack in mind that I present myself.
My musical education, I confess, began when I was seven and I was taken
by the hand to Juilliard for testing to determine whether I had the makings of a
wunderkind. It took several years before I had convinced my family that I
was not Yehudi Menuhin. I could, by
that time, make noises with a violin and could follow a score by Mozart, but
nothing more complex. It was my involvement in the renascence of jazz—plus the
fact that as editor of campus publications I was receiving free records—that
led me back to earlier music. That
reawakening carried me from the pre-Baroque of Frescobaldi to our times—though
I remain forever hung up on Hector Berlioz.
Commenting on the American aspects of music, namely the so-called
classical and jazz is my assigned theme—and to this I have added what is
called “popular” music. I am
perhaps the wrong person to offer insights into “the American classical
product.” No one, to my knowledge, has offered a convincing explanation of why
British music ended with the passing of Purcell and his contemporaries.
Similarly, it can be asked why, in the so-called “serious” forms, an
America which dominated poetic composition since the second decade of the
Twentieth century, still lives in Europe. It’s
as if, in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing, the characters spoke in
Oxford accents. What music of
distinction was composed on this side of the Atlantic here in the Twenties and
Thirties—Stravinsky’s and Bartok’s come to mind—were ours courtesy of
Hitler and Stalin. This country,
which has more concert halls and symphony orchestras than all of Europe, has
produced little that is native.
Virgil Thomson is a case in point. He, like Aaron Copland and most other Americans writing for
the concert hall in the past century, learned their art in Paris at the feet of
Nadia Boulanger, or in the stews of Weimar Berlin and Vienna.
Thomson is a composer of great merit.
And his score for the Depression film, The Plow That Broke the Plains,
speaks in an idiom that is truly American, and responds to the American love of
melody. But most of his work, like the opera Four Saints in Three Acts
(libretto by Gertrude Stein), is a prisoner of another geist.
Copland in his later work turned from orchestrating the Talmud to Western
folk themes as in his ballet Rodeo but other than this thematic
borrowing, he gives us nothing that could not have been written by Darius
Milhaud. Richard Rodgers’ ballet,
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is more to the point.
A case may be made for John Cage. He is held in the highest esteem by our most distinguished
critics as one of this country’s finest composers, who reflects the hustle and
clang of industrial and urban America. Cage
set out to produce what Virgil Thomson would admiringly describe as “a
homogenized chaos that would carry no program, no plot, no reminders of beauty,
and no personal statement”—all tied somehow to Arnold Schoenberg’s
twelve-tone clusters. A 1940 work
employed brake bands, flowerpots, electric buzzers, and other noise-makers.
In a later work for harpsichord, he employed 52 tape machines, 59 power
amplifiers, 64 slide projectors, etc, constituting what one critic lauded as
“an art of noises.” But perhaps
out of pity, Cage’s later works includes 4:33. Its three movements
consist of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of complete silence.
George Gershwin is, of course, the exception.
His larger works—in theme, in approach, and in content, captured the
urban American spirit without resorting to the bowdlerizations of the academy.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and his other orchestral works have
often been given the back-of-the-hand by critics for not challenging Mozart and
by jazz aficionados who label them with an oxymoronic sneer as
“symphonic jazz” on a par with
the pretensions of Paul Whiteman’s full orchestra.
Gershwin died while still young, studying form and structure, and a long
way from his full potential.
His art and genius were rooted in jazz and popular song,
out of Tin Pan Alley and that truly American vehicle, musical comedy.
We look down our noses at Tin Pan Alley, as if it was still Yes, We
Have No Bananas. But it gave us such giants of song as Irving Berlin, Harold
Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and other in and out of musical
comedy—melodies which we took into our lives, because they reflected those
lives in their musical cadences and lyrics. The American popular ballad, James T. Maher notes in his
introduction to Alec Wilder’s analytical study, American Popular Song,
“took on and consolidated certain native characteristics—verbal, melodic,
harmonic, and rhythmic—that distinguished it from the popular song of other
countries…It used the aural grammar of Western diatonic music…But the sum of
its distinctions was unique.” The
influences were many, some coming out of the blues and ragtime and it is as
soundly constructed but far more interesting than leider.
Musical comedy grew out of popular song and fed it, and
both along with jazz were America’s greatest contribution to music.
For musical comedy booted off the stagethe vapidities of Viennese
operetta and the vulgarities of the British music hall.
Musical comedy and popular song also provided vehicles for singers in a
special bandstand and nightclub genre, related to jazz.
But this musical and cultural field is a topic in itself.
It is a question whether jazz will survive its rape in the
Ken Burns series Public Broadcasting.
That series was full of historical and musical errors—which is easy in
dealing with jazz—but its basic them that jazz is strictly African-American in
derivation is entirely false and reversely racist. When the Swing Era broke upon us in the mid-1930s I was one
of a group of young critics, many of us still in college, who tried to define
the music which Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and
many others were playing—and to dig back to the roots.
The easy answer was that jazz is performance. But
if we played Vivaldi as we play Stravinsky, where would we be?
As we investigated jazz, we leaned heavily on the recordings made from
1917 on—when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band opened at Reisenweber’s in New
York to tremendous and unwarranted acclaim—and in such descriptive wirings as
we could find. In time, solemn critics would tell us that jazz was the
application of “pentatonic thinking to the diatomic scale”—which was not
Instrumental techniques are, of course, important.
A jazz musician hits a note on the head, whereas his classical cousin
slips into it. Jazz musicians
phrase differently, mostly because no one taught them to do it the way Juilliard
dictates. And since most early jazz
musicians could not read music, they had an open field based on their
inventiveness and the quality of their ear, free of any score.
Instrumental techniques, moreover, were revolutionized by Louis
Armstrong, cornet, and Sidney Bechet, clarinet and soprano saxophone.
It is amusing to recall that when Louis Armstrong played at Paris’s
Salle Pleyel, hitting C above high C and E above high C, suspicious French
musicians inspected his horn, convinced that something had been added to the
Jazz is also rhythm. But
its rhythms, contrary to pious opinion, did not come from Afria.
African music is basically drumming—and this is so complex that it is
impossible to score. Whereas jazz
drumming, which gives it the beat, was a simple 6/8 over 2/4 which, except from
a persistent Dixieland strain, became 4/4—plus syncope.
And that syncope derived not from West Africa but from the movement and
the rhythm of levee workers, as they slung cargo, the work pats of field hands,
and the surge of New Orleans marching bands.
And the syncope did not spring out of Africa, but was a device in the jam
sessions Frescobaldi held at the Vatican in pre-Baroque times.
The musical expression which formed jazz had no roots in
Africa except in the psyche of those who played it. This is not to gainsay the tremendous contribution made by
slaves and freemen in the South. But
the spiritual evolved from the four-part hymns sung in white churches.
So did its secular cousin, the blues, a twelve-bar form on an A-A-B
pattern. You can note that
relationship in the Sorrow Song, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, or
the rousing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho to
the blues sung and recorded by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and so many others of
less talent but equal passion reflecting the life and loves of southern blacks. The blues were everywhere below the Mason-Dixon line, with
their diminished sevenths and thirds—the so-called “blue” notes discovered
by musicologists long after jazz had adopted popular song.
W.C. Handy picked up the great blues tunes he heard, copyrighted them,
and became “Father of the Blues.”
There was that great voice and there was ragtime, which I
suspect had no momma and no poppa. And
there was New Orleans, a city with a wide and eclectic musical culture.
European opera and song, the Hispano-African dance rhythms of Latin
America, and the bamboula which was chanted and danced to in the city’s
Congo Square. Mix it in with
ragtime and you had jazz—hailed at first in Europe by such conductors as Ernst
Ansermet and given cult status by Hugues Panassie and the Hot Club of France
years later. Jazz had been moving
up the Mississippi on the riverboats, making stops in Kansas City and points
east and west. But when Secretary
of the Navy Josephus Daniels shut down Storyville, the great New Orleans
redlight section, in order to preserve the morals of our sailors—putting out
of work the “professors” who played piano in the sporting houses and
stifling the great musical activity of the city, it moved up, almost in a body
to Chicago, and then to Harlem and the West Coast.
Of the greatest importance as an element of jazz is its
collective improvisation as it was played from its origins and into the present.
New Orleans had brought together all the elements I have mentioned.
In collective improvisations, the great instrumentalists of jazz and
their minor followers could sing out, unconfined by the written arrangements of
the dance orchestras, giving us the thrill of being present at the creation.
But jazz had not always been what we heard in the mid-1930s.
In Chicago it met a white influx—from the genius of Bix Beiderbecke to
the Austin High School gangs to individual musicians like the trombonist Jack
Teagarden, fresh out of Texas, to an ambitious Jewish boy n amed Benny Goodman.
Swing, which eliminated collective improvisation, was an
offshoot of jazz. But in New York
and other big cities, the small bands which had barely survived and the
musicians who had stayed alive by playing in the “sweet” dance orchestras,
came into their own. And it was the
small bands which gave us what we were already calling the “righteous”
music. “More than eight men and
it ain’t jazz,” the true jazzmen argued, and that was more important than
all the hype about the big bands. But
more importantly, jazz had moved out of its ghetto, out of the records, later to
become collectors’ items, which kept the tradition alive.
It was recognized as America’s contribution to a music now lost in
atonality and hyper-intellectualism. I
do not have the time to discuss who made jazz what it was, with horn or
saxophone or at the drums, or its great innovators like Jelly Roll Morton, or
Duke Ellington who gave it another dimension.
New Orleans, the land of dreams, gave America a music of its own—and though its beat and its song has been drowned by the meanderings of bop and eventually the obscenities of rap, it left its stamp. Hot jazz as we knew it is a scarce experience, but we still have the records—come on’a my house and I’ll play them for you—a pantheon of musical heroes, and a precious memory.