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.