Soul on Ice

Soul on Ice

Is jazz really dead–or has it simply moved to a cooler location? Four new books take a scholarly look at a musical genre that is on the wane in America, but finding new life and new audiences in Europe.


“Is Jazz Dead?” asks Stuart Nicholson in a provocative book title. Anyone following jazz journalism for the past decade would be familiar with its alleged assassins. The remaining four major American labels have eviscerated their jazz rosters. Norah Jones–with her mix of country mannerisms and pop accessibility–keeps Blue Note afloat while lauded musicians cling to their contracts for dear life. “Neoconservatives” run Jazz at Lincoln Center while the avant-garde languishes. Legends are dying while young lions fail to live up to early promise. Conservatories–a booming, multimillion-dollar educational industry, Nicholson laments–are stultifying the young and suppressing innovation. And even though that Ken Burns PBS documentary aired nearly five years ago and tried to spread the word, it too is somehow to blame for jazz’s misfortunes. Armstrong, Ellington and Basie managed to thrive during the Depression and segregation, but label conglomerates, MTV, file-sharing and institutional repertory have been hazardous to the music’s health on its native grounds. Nicholson, an English jazz critic for the UK magazine Jazzwise, paints a grim picture indeed, but he has a solution: relocate to Europe. The Europeans support the arts, he tells us, are hip to the latest experimental styles and even have Norwegians who play better Ellington revivals than anyone in the dreary United States.

For the jazz musicians and jazz journalists struggling for mainstream attention, the sky could appear to be falling, but judging from the deluge of recent books, the music’s shelf life is just beginning. Jazz, more than any other musical genre, currently dominates academic presses; compared with pondering the use of the grace note in Haydn, chasing the path of Django Reinhardt or a riverboat band might even seem sexy. Hip-hop is so recent, rock and roll so flaky and ubiquitous. Scholarly presses are more willing to admit jazz’s importance today than they were when the music was at its most vital stages of development. For years Oxford’s Sheldon Meyer was the only university press editor willing to risk a jazz book, and even then most of the ones he edited were collections of newspaper and magazine columns by journalists with no academic credentials; now, even as these presses are tightening their belts and streamlining their lists, they are devoting more pages to the music than ever. “There are days when I think we are in the Golden Age of my obsessions,” wrote John Szwed in Crossovers, one of the many recent university press books on jazz. “The scholarship and popular writing on the contribution of African Americans is now so extensive that you could spend a lifetime reading, looking, and listening, and still never catch up.” It would take a while to catch up on jazz books published in the past year alone. In addition to collections of previously published writings by Szwed, Gary Giddins and Dan Morgenstern, more specialized studies abound: biographies and cultural histories, investigations global and local, musicological and historical, journalistic and scholarly. Is jazz dead? As Louis Armstrong is said to have replied when asked to define jazz, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Ripeness is all, in Nicholson’s book. For his research, he leans heavily on jazz criticism from the past decade and interviews with the musicians he deems to be sufficiently forward-looking, while the villains of the book get only glib dismissals without a chance for retort. Nicholson does not detect jazz’s pulse through virtuosity but instead listens for obvious journalistic hooks. The Bad Plus’s intricate jazz trio covers of Black Sabbath and Gloria Gaynor make easy copy for reviewers, but are they making music of value or merely technically adept kitsch? It doesn’t matter to Nicholson: They’re making it new. According to this line of reasoning, only musicians who are utilizing the latest technology or counterintuitive pop songs, or who are otherwise attracting the attention of English newspaper editors, are keeping the music alive. Nicholson laments the crossover vocalists, jazz educators and repertory revivalists before deciding that Europe is the environment most congenial to the jazz beat he covers. He has a nose for news, but where is that device Hemingway recommended to younger writers: the bullshit detector? Nicholson swoons over Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, describing him as “an exceptionally lucid soloist” with “a sure sense of melodic structure and lyrical imagination.” That may be, but Gustavsen’s performance at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall last spring was an exceptional snooze, an elegant but desiccated retread of territory covered better by Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Nicholson has nevertheless found his Great Nordic Hope.

There’s also a colonialism lurking beneath this progressive veneer. Nicholson’s favorite younger musicians–with the exceptions of avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp and eclectic clarinetist Don Byron–tend to be white and European, while his neocon enemies, notably Wynton Marsalis, are black men in impeccably tailored suits. Nicholson quotes a range of jazz critics and his appointed European jazz saviors–he places a particular premium on Jan Garbarek’s “Nordic tone,” a revolution he likens to the films of Ingmar Bergman–but neither Marsalis nor any of his musical and critical partisans are given a fair chance to respond to the charges made against him, despite the book’s two chapters about him. The book has a couple of quotations from Marsalis about his playing and his nonlinear sense of jazz history, but these statements are batted away like so many straw men. It is unclear whether these conversations with Marsalis took place before, during or after Nicholson had developed his rhetorical strategy, but a more substantial response from Marsalis would have only strengthened Nicholson’s argument.

“Wynton Marsalis’s legacy for an idealized representation of jazz from its golden years is simply a means of asserting black cultural identity within the predominantly white cultural mainstream of the United States,” Nicholson claims. Has there ever been anything “simple” about asserting black cultural identity against a white mainstream? And is Nicholson himself contributing to a version of that white cultural mainstream, even if it is that rather marginalized mainstream of jazz critics? Marsalis’s merits as a composer–Pulitzer Prize and all–can be debated, but Nicholson’s one-sided screed hardly provides a forum in which such a debate can take place. Besides, anyone attending recent Jazz at Lincoln Center fundraisers would be puzzled by Nicholson’s portrait of Marsalis as a hidebound ideologue who rejects all forms of postwar popular culture. While raising money for his orchestra’s lavish new Columbus Circle quarters over the past few years, Marsalis and members of his orchestra performed with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, producing collaborations without compromise or condescension. It was a long way from the Bad Plus’s gimmickry. In fact, Marsalis’s insistence on laying down the iron law of swing with rock and r&b icons added a rich tension to their performances. This more eclectic side of Marsalis–even if it emerged merely in the service of getting his concert hall built–would also provide a nuance to Nicholson’s invective, and nuance is one thing this book is conspicuously lacking. Is jazz as we know it dead? The reply growled by trumpeter Lester Bowie in his 1968 composition “Jazz Death” still resounds today: “Well, that all depends on what you know.”

Nicholson may believe that the future of jazz lies in Europe, but Michael Dregni’s Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend reminds us that a vital part of its past flourished there, too. The story of the Gypsy is one that includes survival from a near-fatal fire, the development of a ferocious, percussive and widely imitated guitar style with the use of only three working fingers, stardom in Vichy France (and unemployment after Allied victory), a disastrous American tour with Duke Ellington and more. He was a spendthrift, a near-illiterate, a dandy, a naïf and a scoundrel, and it’s hard to believe he was real, although his sublime recordings and a film clip with the Hot Club provide sufficient evidence that he somehow was. He found a place in the traditional jazz canon like no other European, and none of the explanations truly suffice. As John Szwed muses in Crossovers, “In Django’s case street logic had it that his great abilities stemmed from the fact that either (a) he was a Gypsy, a member of a pariah caste, and therefore homologous to black; or (b) Gypsy culture and black-American culture shared more than either did with white Euro-American culture.” These provocations are fascinating, but they are also speculative. How did this Gypsy assume an exalted space in an otherwise all-American traditional jazz canon? Such a query should invite a biographer to hit the ground with some demystifying facts or researched ruminations.

Or at least some good gossip, but even that requires documentation. Reinhardt the legend has thrived, but Reinhardt the historical figure is hard to reach. French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli taught Django how to write a little in adulthood, and all he had to show for it was one semi-coherent letter. He disowned in court his one published interview and left behind little more than scratchy records, old reviews of his concerts and the fading memories of those who knew him. Reinhardt’s recordings are well-known, and his percussive guitar style is still imitated and revered, but we know very little about the man himself. He was a prototype for Sean Penn’s scumbag savant in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown–a film that mystified and mythified the real Reinhardt even further. Apart from some colorful anecdotes and jangling arpeggios, the Gypsy remains a mystery.

One Reinhardt performance impressed the initially disdainful guitarist Andrés Segovia enough to inspire the classical virtuoso to ask the jazz icon, “Where can I get that music?” “Nowhere,” Reinhardt retorted. “I’ve just composed it!” The Gypsy guitarist’s genius never presented itself on the page. It only added to his mystique that he seemed to live by instinct alone, even though his astonishing musical logic was obvious to anyone who could appreciate it. It would be the task of others to explain exactly what he did and how he did it. Reinhardt could have been the most significant jazz musician to come out of Europe, but he was also the most underdocumented one since Buddy Bolden died unrecorded in an insane asylum. Anyone writing a Reinhardt biography faces an extraordinary story and a nearly insurmountable task, and it would require considerable literary skill to follow a subject who left such a scant paper trail. Dregni, a contributing writer for Vintage Guitar magazine, did his fieldwork and knows every string and fret of Reinhardt’s instrument, but he is not the writer for the job. This book has been justly celebrated for all the rigorous original research Dregni has done on the Gypsy. But to attain this information, one has to slog through a considerable amount of wince-inducing prose. Some examples: “Here, outside the City of Light, was a city of blight.” “While Les Halles–with its vast food markets–was the poetic belly of Paris, Pigalle was its penis.” “Django and Stéphane jammed on them as though their hearts beat to an American foxtrot rhythm.” “For Django, it was all a moveable feast eaten during a life on the move.” “For Django and for jazz, World War II was the best of times and the worst of times.” “Goebbels ordained that the capital was to be its old self, the City of Light even amid the darkness of war.” Reinhardt was virtually incapable of playing a cliché, but Dregni writes plenty of them.

Dregni was apparently struggling with how to write a biography and maintain a consistent narrative as he went along. We are told that Reinhardt “preferred Armstrong’s formidable playing over the erudite technique of the orchestra of Duke Ellington,” only to learn 100 pages later that he “attempted to style his arrangements like his other hero, Duke Ellington.” How did Ellington suddenly ascend in Reinhardt’s pantheon? We are told more than once that Reinhardt took a Gypsy father’s pride in his son’s ability to steal silverware from hotel rooms, but buried in the middle of the book–in a well-researched account of Reinhardt’s artistic and commercial triumphs in Vichy France–we stumble upon this little detail: “His mother was Jewish and he could forsee what that meant.” This is the first and last we hear about the Jewishness of this Gypsy star of the occupied jazz circuit, an irony begging for pages of copy. We certainly shouldn’t have to wait for the Gestapo to come knocking on page 155 to discover this in a book whose subtitle promises us “The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend.” There simply isn’t enough archival data to lean on to present Reinhardt whole without a more adept writer’s imagination and skill to fill in the gaps. By the time Reinhardt dies on his way to go fishing, it is hard to mourn the death of a man we have barely gotten to know.

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.

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.

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.

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