Soul on Ice
Before jazz could go international, though, it had to become national, and the journey from Storyville to St. Louis and beyond happened on riverboats. The music played on these boats has long been the stuff of legend. "There's been so much that's been written and sung about the Mississippi, all romantic and wonderful somehow," recalled clarinetist Sidney Bechet. "But there's a lot of misery there too, a lot of the bad times and the hurt that's been living there beside the river." Still, said Bechet, "that music was so strong, there was such a want for it that there was no moving away from it." The romance, the misery and the music of migration are all captured in William Howland Kenney's Jazz on the River, a book that narrates a history that couldn't be captured merely by doting on scratchy records, tattered scores and old reviews. It was commonly known that jazz was born in New Orleans and made its way up the Mississippi, but until Kenney no one had investigated the makers of the boats and the conditions of the musicians who worked on them. And no study before this one ever charted that northern migration so that we can appreciate the artists and how their musical communities were formed, giving us new ways to appreciate the Pittsburgh of Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams, the St. Louis of Miles Davis.
We get to know the riverboat manufacturing Streckfus family, in need of entertainment and cheap labor, and the black musicians who were glad to accept the $35 a week to get the hell out of Louisiana. Some bands were integrated decades before Benny Goodman desegregated his band, a liminal realm where Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke could at least get a chance to check each other out. "When perceived from the middle of the Mississippi River, North peacefully coexisted with South, Confederate gray with Union blue, and whites with blacks," writes Kenney. "Riverboat jazz reaffirmed confidence in the United States." This is not merely a Mark Twain-style allegory but a startling historical phenomenon, a demonstration of how jazz could desegregate Americans nearly half a century before civil rights became the law of the land.
It was not always lovely to be on a raft, of course. Beiderbecke had neither the reading chops nor the discipline to make the gig, and while Armstrong had a crucial early job working in Fate Marable's band, he was frustrated by the rigidity of the format and was glad when he got a chance to leave. When the young Armstrong's sight-reading abilities were later tested by another bandleader, Fletcher Henderson, after Armstrong responded to a pianissimo marking--an instruction to play softly--with a blaring note, he said, either joking or dodging, that he thought "pp" meant "pound plenty." Those jokes got him out of trouble many a time. This story has been told in every Armstrong book, but until Kenney's we never got to feel what that or the riverboat gig was actually like. What we get in this book, with lucid prose and meticulous research, is a geographical and cultural context for the figures who would eventually become canonical, providing a vital new backdrop for music and anecdotes that had seemed well trodden.
The musicians were overworked, underpaid and didn't always even get sleeping quarters on the excursion boats. They were required to be excellent sight readers, but the most significant music to come out of those bands couldn't be notated. The teenage Armstrong's improvisational impulses might have put him at odds with Marable, but it only made him want to swing harder. The riverboats were as repressive as they were crucial. Kenney's book functions as labor history as much as it does an aesthetic trajectory, laying out all the arbitrary forces, from the market to racial segregation, that somehow combined and floated upstream, allowing Armstrong to get some essential early exposure before he could get off the score and onto his own flights of fancy. As the music made its way north, the riverboats provided the first sounds of that music to Ma Rainey and W.C. Handy. "St. Louis Blues" couldn't have been written without the boats carrying the New Orleans musicians up the river.
At the end of the book, Kenney quotes a scene from Ellison's Invisible Man to give us a flavor of those wonderful, terrible riverboat days. In the beginning of the novel, sharecropper Jim Trueblood profits from telling a compelling but dubious tale of father-daughter incest. Trueblood's tale is as ribald as a Fats Waller lyric, but it's also as artful. Before he tells his story, he recalls hearing the music wafting from the riverboats: "Then the boats would be past and the lights would be gone from the window and the music would be goin', too," he says, before comparing the music's enticement to a "plump and juicy" woman "kinda switchin' her tail 'cause she knows you watchin' and you know she know." In a more exalted moment, but still celebrating the trickster spirit represented by Trueblood, Ellison lamented on a 1965 PBS show that "one of the most intriguing gaps in American cultural history sprang from the fact that jazz, one of the few American art forms, failed to attract the understanding of our intellectuals.... It is a fact that, for all their contributions to American culture, no Edmund Wilson, no T.S. Eliot, no Cowley or Kazin has offered us insights into the relationship between this most vital art and the broader aspects of American social life." Heffley did journeyman work investigating how jazz got imported--and maybe distorted--when it collided with broader aspects of European life. As for actually placing jazz in its historical and cultural context in America, Kenney is among the scholars who have explored exactly what Ellison had asked for, with a scholar's mission to bring the music into a geographical, economic and social investigation of what was going on around it, that same sound that Ellison's Trueblood heard from those riverboats. That cultural moment of public intellectuals Ellison yearned for forty years ago is long gone, and the moment of the music Kenney studied is even further away. Now that New Orleans stands in danger of losing its jazz archives amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the starting point of that riverboat journey--the Storyville whorehouses, the dance halls and the street parades where it all began--will float even further into the realm of myth. Now there are more books than ever to document a world that recedes every day. But before there was Ellison there was another writer, one who named an age after jazz, whose words are now particularly poignant. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.