Of Jazz and Brave Ulysses

Of Jazz and Brave Ulysses

Near the end of Jazz Modernism, Alfred Appel Jr.


Near the end of Jazz Modernism, Alfred Appel Jr. tells an anecdote about meeting Louis Armstrong that says as much about the cultural divide of the past as it does about the cultural confusion of the present. The encounter took place at Stanford University in 1965 when Appel was introduced to Armstrong as “a professor of English who loves jazz.” Armstrong, without missing a beat, replied, “Professor of Jazz! What this world comin’ to?” In 1965, Armstrong’s comeback was precisely on target. Back then, literature professors taught the traditional canon, and if they wanted to turn their attention to jazz, like Barry Ulanov at Barnard or Marshall Stearns at Hunter, they had to moonlight as jazz critics. Jazz had no place in humanities departments in those days, and academics had to turn to trade magazines or the mass market if they wanted to write about it. And since jazz wasn’t taken seriously enough to be a scholarly subject outside of music departments, academics who did write about it had to eschew the unhip scholarly apparatus and take notes on the scene.

Today jazz faces the opposite problem. It is shrinking as a commercial entity (the figure I keep hearing is that it accounts for less than 3 percent of national CD sales–and that’s including Kenny G), but as evidenced by Robert O’Meally’s Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia, it’s expanding as a cultural studies subject for literary scholars and historians. In 1975 Miles Davis declared jazz to be “the music of the museum,” but today it’s the music of the institute, the center and the interdisciplinary study. The musicians discussed in Jazz Modernism–Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday–have not only changed the way musicians approach phrasing, harmony and rhythm, they’ve changed the way Americans think about language, race, style and gender, too: in short, the subjects that dominate Modern Language Association conventions. Jazz has had its impact on American aesthetics, but it has had an influence on the context of aesthetics, too, and today’s jazz scholars have to be engaged with both.

Alfred Appel Jr. is not that type of scholar, however. He is a throwback to an earlier generation of academic jazz fans lucky enough to witness the flowering of the art in front of them. If you were a literature professor who loved jazz in the 1960s, then you probably believed that there were such things as high art and low art, and that Armstrong and Ellington really belonged on a canonical tier with James Joyce and Picasso. No literature professors were writing scholarly books that said such things back then, but from reading Jazz Modernism, it’s clear that Appel would like to have been one. So, after establishing his reputation with an annotated edition of Lolita–given a blurb of approval from Nabokov himself–and retiring nearly forty years after his encounter with Armstrong, the 66-year-old Appel can now finally become the Professor of Jazz, or at least Professor Emeritus of Jazz. But 1965 was a long time ago. While Appel is eager to canonize jazz or, as he puts it in the book’s first chapter, to “establish the place of classic jazz (1920-50)–especially Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Jack Teagarden, and Charlie Parker–in the great Modernist tradition in the arts,” many high-profile institutions have long since beat him to the punch: Jazz at Lincoln Center often collaborates with the Philharmonic and the ballet. And PBS inundated middlebrow America with a multimillion-dollar, General Motors-funded Ken Burns documentary that spent nineteen hours hammering viewers with the message that jazz is high art, exemplified when one of the talking heads speculates on the connections between Armstrong and Werner Heisenberg. The Professor of Jazz is now living in a world that has come to accept jazz’s canonical status. Meanwhile, literature scholars tend to be less interested in placing things “in the great Modernist tradition” these days than they are in interrogating, problematizing or queering them. Great traditions are for Modern Library lists.

And so Jazz Modernism aims to be less a scholarly book than a popular one, and its mission is twofold: to claim that popular entertainers like Armstrong and Waller are more complex than they seem, and that Ulysses, which the Professor of Jazz tells us he has taught for forty years, is actually more accessible than it appears. For Appel, the term “jazz modernism,” then, is less a metaphysical conceit than it is an attempt to level the hierarchical playing field. Appel admits that he’s exasperated by the impenetrable allusions of the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses (and found that when Nabokov taught the chapter, he couldn’t get all the references, either) and prefers the more straightforward eros of Molly Bloom’s “yes I said yes I will Yes.” By the time Appel met Armstrong in ’65, though, Ralph Ellison was already talking about how his own “real transition to writing” occurred when, as an undergraduate at Tuskegee, he read “The Waste Land” and found that the poem’s “range of allusion” reminded him of Armstrong. Ellison’s point was that jazz was indeterminate and allusive, high art passing as popular entertainment. Once Louis Armstrong’s cultural import could be considered with the same precision as T.S. Eliot’s–once it could be established that they were, in their own ways, equally complex and worthy of sustained analysis–one could get a better handle on what it truly means to be Modern.

To establish that idea, Appel’s method is to make assertions about different artistic fields, often in the same paragraph, and show how they have more in common than one would think. References to Matisse, Calder, Miró and other artists are also sprinkled throughout the book, and in 261 pages–including more than a hundred full-bleed illustrations–Appel juggles many balls and keeps them aloft using anecdotes, puns and references that he ricochets like so many rim shots. With the anecdotes, he usually scores. It’s hard to resist his account of seeing Charlie Parker react to Stravinsky’s appearance in a nightclub by peppering his performance of “Koko” with a quote from The Firebird Suite, and the appropriateness of Bird playing the tune is not lost on the allusion-happy Appel. On the puns, this author is not exactly in the stratosphere with Joyce and Nabokov.Yet “verbal and visual puns are central here because they are philo-progenitive, producing at least two new words or forms where there had been one,” Appel claims. Fair enough, but by the time the Professor of Jazz drops a line about Jo Jones’s “heavy-handed cymbalism,” he seems to be engaging in some of his own.

Beyond the anecdotes, the asides and the “philo-progeneration,” Appel does what the New Critics did: He gives close readings. On Ulysses, he finds that after a quarter-century teaching the book, he has changed his mind about Leopold Bloom’s future as a sexually active straight male. On recordings by Waller, Ellington and Armstrong, he approaches them the way he would a Modernist text, looking for contradictions and double meanings, and making a larger argument out of them, as he does when he notes Louis Armstrong’s play on “Just a Gigolo” as “Just another jig I know,” deftly uncovering Armstrong’s racial subtext. Appel marries writing and music most successfully when discussing Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse.” When he discusses that ingenious short story with a character based on Waller, we feel that we are in the hands of a true scholar who marries his appreciation of his subject with a sustained close reading. The section relies on no fancy footwork, special pleading or counterintuition–and the result is that Appel slows down for just a few pages to discuss a great prose writer and her descriptions of a great jazz pianist.

But there are other times when Appel seems to be on autopilot by way of a Bartlett’s Quotations of Modernist axioms and jazz lore. We are told on several occasions that Ezra Pound said, “Make it new”; that Charlie Parker said, “It’s all music, man”; that Proust said that parody is a cleansing exercise; and that a Wallace Stevens line about “red weather” had something to do with Monk and Ellington recordings, Matisse interiors and more. Formulating these connections appeared to entail little more research than pulling some dogeared books and deeply grooved records off the shelves and, to borrow a term from the critic Terry Eagleton, quoting and doting.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but often the connections made seem to have less to do with any inherent link between the works and more to do with the Professor of Jazz claiming they do in witty and learned prose. Speaking of a Brancusi sculpture, Appel writes, “Jazz players around the world are still echoing the tones and pet phrases of Armstrong, Gillespie, Parker, and John Coltrane, producing so many Little French Girls.” OK, but I imagine that each of those musicians would have been surprised to hear it. Here is another typical form of Appel’s synesthesia: “‘Make it new,’ Ezra Pound had said, and Armstrong did, giving body and depth to streetcorner jive.” The Professor has his feet straddling high and low, and is confident that he can direct readers in how to maneuver from one to the other without getting motion sickness. What is intended as a leitmotif begins to feel more like a formula.

It is a formula that works best when Appel sticks to a subject long enough to give it sustained attention. But it is ironic that an intellectual best known for a work of textual scholarship–his Annotated Lolita–refers to no other works of jazz scholarship, and does not even include a bibliography. In his Lolita book, you can not only get French and Latin translations but learn, for example, that when Humbert Humbert refers to a “catalpas,” it is a botanical term for “any of a small genus of American and Asiatic trees of the trumpet creeper family.” Trumpet creepers get more scholarly precision in the Annotated Lolita than great trumpeters do in Jazz Modernism. When, writing of Armstrong, Appel observes that “like the Elizabethan clown, he used his persona of joy to take splendid liberties,” he does not mention that he is using an argument that was posited in Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act in 1964: “Armstrong’s clownish license and intoxicating powers are almost Elizabethan; he takes liberties with kings, queens and presidents.” “What is a jazz singer anyway?” Appel asks at another point. “The question continues to vex jazz critics and enthusiasts. A simple answer: a jazz singer takes liberties with a song’s melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics.” Really? Puff Daddy took liberties with the melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Is it jazz? When Abbey Lincoln–a formidable diva and songwriter–sings one of her own compositions, like “I Could Sing It for a Song,” is she taking liberties with her own material or performing her work exactly the way she intended when she composed it? By Appel’s definition, Puffy would be more of a jazz singer than Lincoln–or, for that matter, Waller, whose performances of his own compositions are given a subtle and sharp reading elsewhere in the book.

Such questions have, as Appel notes, long vexed jazz critics and enthusiasts; but none of their opinions are taken into account, at least not directly. In fact, an unsuspecting reader of Jazz Modernism could walk away from the book with the impression that Appel is the first Professor of Jazz who ever gave Armstrong, Ellington & Co. the High Modernist nod of approval. Although the concept of jazz modernism as a genre is supposed to occupy a liminal ground between high and low, it really isn’t very different from standard definitions of Modernism. Appel makes several allusions to Armstrong’s 1936 “Rhythm Saved the World,” connecting it to a Modernist idea that great artists find objects–scraps of paper in a Picasso collage, trite pop tunes given “rescue operation[s]” by Billie Holiday or Armstrong, or an ordinary day in Dublin on June 16, 1904–and transform them into great, complex art that will stand the test of time. “‘My Favorite Things’ are playing again and again/But it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane,” sang Elvis Costello in a 1994 song called “This Is Hell,” pretty much making the same point, perhaps as a Professor of Pop.

For all its imprecision, glib conflations and scholarly shortcuts, I’m still glad Jazz Modernism exists. Appel is an entertaining and learned reader, and it is a treat to walk through his record collection, bookshelves and art prints and get his witty and beguiling asides on them. He clearly considers Armstrong, Ellington and Waller as occupying a similar plane to Joyce, Picasso and Matisse, and it is a healthy sign for the subject that Appel can make the case for giving canonical props to these musicians–and the jazz musicians of the generation Appel favors really did have to struggle for respect. Appel is sensitive to this, and he is at his most insightful and idiosyncratic on matters of race. Some of the most important work now being done in jazz studies–from John Szwed’s anthropological journey into the mind of Sun Ra to Krin Gabbard’s investigation into the masculinity of trumpet players, Scott DeVeaux’s rewriting of the history of bebop and, most recently, Eric Porter’s fascinating account of jazz musicians as critics and activists (in which he takes figures like Ellington, Mingus and Lincoln seriously as self-reflective thinkers)–engages in research that says as much about what jazz musicians thought of themselves as it does about what traditionally learned aesthetes might make of them. Today’s Professors of Jazz don’t need to bestow an Olympian canonization on the artists they write about; they can show how the methods of contemporary scholarship can be applied to jazz with precision and fascination. Louis Armstrong might have been glad that Appel is now in a spot where there are many Professors of Jazz, and at least in that respect, the world may not be coming to such a bad place after all.

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