Soul on Ice | The Nation


Soul on Ice

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Reinhardt created an original style when he fused Gypsy musette with the swing of Ellington and Armstrong. But the European jazz musicians who came after World War II did not merely mine local folk music; they improvised according to the principles of Schoenberg, Stockhausen and other theorized clangor. Mike Heffley's Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz investigates the music of many of these practitioners as a phenomenon distinct from their American counterparts. Pianist Cecil Taylor, born in the United States, continues to slam the keys and demonstrate the journey from Bud Powell to the New England Conservatory and beyond, pounding out European avant-garde jazz better than anyone on the Continent. Why do we need Joachim Kühn, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Ekkehard Jost, Peter Kowald and others discussed in Heffley's book when we have Taylor? The answer has something to do with a Hegelian theory of freedom and atonality, but before Heffley can canonize the European avant-gardists of his book, he characterizes the "smiling stage personae of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and many others" as "crafted for those they served as masters throughout history." This was the view of some bebop musicians and hipsters in the 1950s--pretty much the attitude summed up by James Baldwin's 1957 story "Sonny's Blues." Indeed, managers Joe Glaser and Irving Mills did put Armstrong and Ellington where they wanted them--faux jungles, mobbed-up clubs, at a distance from their white co-stars in films. Still, Ellington never played a chef, servant or hero's best friend, and Armstrong even played a gangster in Artists and Models. In America's post-Ellison moment of jazz studies, the master-slave dialectic posed by Heffley has been negated.

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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The European view of jazz is rather different, though, and that is the view of Northern Sun, Southern Moon. You have to hand it to Heffley: This is a man who knows his von Schlippenbach, his Jost, his Kowald. European jazz is certainly a subject important enough to justify substantial scholarly heavy lifting, and for anyone who wants to understand it, this is the definitive study. Distilled from a 1,757-page ethnomusicology dissertation directed by Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan, Heffley's book--trimmed to a Spartan 300 pages--is in the grand sweeping theoretical tradition of Durkheim and Weber, and one does not have to be persuaded by its argument or enjoy the music he champions to appreciate its heft. There is a certain jingoism about studying jazz as an exclusively American phenomenon, although one invites arguments when one tries to distinguish how essential the American--and African-American--influence has to be to call it jazz. Reinhardt might have been playing Gypsy music in cafe obscurity for the rest of his life if he hadn't fully intuited and appropriated the music of Louis Armstrong, whom he tried (and failed) to impress in an impromptu performance. "Ach moune!" Reinhardt cried in a Romany expression when he first heard Armstrong. Translation: My brother!

The German musicians discussed in Heffley's study find kinship with late period John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman (the latter evidenced in Colors, Coleman's fascinating 1996 duet with Kühn). But the German Emanzipation movement Heffley meticulously documents is not only an emancipation from rhythmic and harmonic structure but from swing and the blues. This is an Emanzipation proclamation of an ironic kind, a relinquishing of a distinctly African-American musical aesthetic; some of the European musicians covered in this book reject the word "jazz" altogether, a semantic distinction welcomed by jazz traditionalists in America. It's hard not to be unsettled by this German erasure of black influence, which Heffley neither judges nor endorses but studies rigorously.

If you like swing, blues and melody, you won't like the music discussed in these pages, but these European movements--with all their noise--are vital, seldom acknowledged elements of jazz history, and it is unlikely that anyone will cover it as thoroughly as Heffley. What finally emerges from all this noise is an attempt to dismantle ethnic and geographical boundaries, as much as it assaults harmony, rhythm and comfortable decibel levels. Heffley's book examines what happens when jazz is displaced from its native land, leaving swing and the blues behind. As the East German critic Bert Noglik put it, "Jazz, its background as an African-American idiom, has developed into a global musical language." But there are many ways to embrace musical revolutions, and there were some musicians in America who did not feel the need to choose. Charles Mingus, who had internalized the atonal scores of Schoenberg as a teenager in Watts while steeped in blues and bop, could be trans-idiomatic and swinging at the same time. Before any of the European improvisations documented in Heffley's book took place, Mingus was arguing for a global musical language in a Down Beat manifesto back in 1951. "All music is one," he wrote.

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