The Spun-Off Independent Dead-End Ten-Star Blast
As a white artist influenced by and dependent on black American culture I want to say something about the place of subsidiarism in the arts in general. Some would call it parasitism, which is OK—often that’s what it is, though not always. But first I must, for propriety’s sake, assert the obvious, namely, that black culture itself is subsidiary to, not to say spat on and stomped by, white American culture, and that an immense though not primary part of its own substance and energy derives from this, which is what we all know. For the present I need to set this aside, however. Black American culture is an ethnic and esthetic mainstream in itself, partly because of the energy taken from reacting against oppressions; it is self-generated and self-sustained and now a couple of centuries old; it is a mainstream in the fullest sense. This is what I want to propound, and then against it the much smaller, almost minuscule components of serious white culture that go along with it as subsidiary participants. Clearly I don’t mean the white grafters and grafters who have profited from stealing black culture and commercializing it, Joel Chandler Harris, Elvis Presley, etc., film makers, agents, club-owners and all the rest, to say nothing of white landlords and storekeepers, politicians, etc. I mean the serious participants. And for the sake of simplicity I will exclude myself and all poets. We are dependent on many cultural antecedents in addition to black ones, international, national, and regional. Yet my own position vis-à-vis black culture is what has brought this topic to my mind.

      I want to talk about white jazz musicians. We’ve had a good many great ones, but finding an instance of a white musician, dependent on the black tradition, who has fed anything back into that tradition is difficult—pretty nearly impossible. Lester Young once said he learned something from Frankie Trumbauer, Miles Davis obviously took certain attitudes from Gil Evans (and he has even said that because he listened to Bobby Hackett a good deal when he was young he has a connection with Bix Beiderbecke), Cecil Taylor has acknowledged a restrained early admiration for Dave Brubeck, for a while in the late 1930s and 1940s almost every clarinetist younger than the original generation of New Orleans reed men, black or white, sounded like Benny Goodman, and one can find a few other such examples. But has any white musician contributed a major element to the black mainstream? I doubt it. Beiderbecke, who because of his time, place and personality may have been the greatest white innovator we have had in jazz, and who created a style, technique and improvisational concept that were genuinely new and expressive in his time, produced almost no effect on black musicians of that time or after. You can listen to black trumpet players from Frankie Newton to Ray Eldridge, for instance, without hearing anything that you can ascribe confidently to Beiderbecke. Without any question this is true of the other white musicians of the middle west who responded to black jazz from New Orleans in the 1920s and went on to make, from the 1930s to the 1960s, a style of composition and performance that was distinct, powerful, but at the same time has been ignored, not to say scorned, by critics and has had practically no developmental influence on jazz as a whole. We call it Chicago jazz.

      Take the most extreme comparison. The important early recordings in Chicago jazz were made at about the same time, circa 1930, as the important early recordings of Duke Ellington. On those early records one can hear occasional crossovers of theme and style, but not many. And the progress thereafter of Chicago jazz on one hand and of Ellington on the other was miles apart—musically speaking, that is: much of the time the two groups were located in the same city, New York. Both were playing jazz, to my mind very superior jazz, but beyond that they had nothing to do with one another. Yet I would argue, and from the perspective of our historical position today many would agree, that Pee Wee Russell and Wild Bill Davison ought to have been playing in the Ellington band, and that both they and the band would have benefitted if this had been the case. Russell and Davison had exactly the kind of individual stylistic and textural brilliance that Ellington sought and exploited in his sidemen, and they would have added to the band voices unlike those of any other musicians at Ellington’s command. Whether Russell or Davison, given their personalities and peculiarities, could have survived in the Ellington band is another question, of course, to which the clear answer is: probably not. But the idea has, to me, a wonderful attractiveness.

      Gunther Schuller in his Early Jazz (New York, 1968), which in spite of serious shortcomings remains the best scholarly book on the subject, gives one section to a discussion of Beiderbecke, but scarcely mentions any of the other Chicago musicians. Throughout the book, in passing, he mentions—usually, and properly, derogatively—the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and, with mild approbation, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. One can’t complain about this; jazz is a black people’s art, and Schuller’s analytical history is not intended to be encyclopedic but to explicate the major developments, which are inescapably black. But good jazz is good jazz. Often I’ve said that poetry is where you find it, and the same applies to jazz. Throughout the literature of jazz the Chicago period is neglected by critics, except by fanatical revivalists like Philip Larkin, who think that such second-raters as Muggsy Spanier, Danny Polo, Phil Napoleon, et al., are the greatest. I don’t know the whole literature, it has grown so large that no one could, but in fifty years of reading I remember no balanced discussion of Chicago jazz. Not one. Some of the Chicagoans (most of whom did not come from Chicago) were geniuses. Tastes differ, but everyone would agree on Beiderbecke, most would agree on Teschemacher, Joe Sullivan, Russell, Bunny Berigan, Art Hodes, Davison, Jess Stacey, Gene Krupa and George Wettling, each of whom was an innovator. (Wettling carried the New Orleans drumming style of Zutty Singleton further than anyone else was ever able to.) Scores of others, musicians like Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Bobby Hackett, Joe Marsala and Brad Gowans, had moments of genius, perhaps a good many of them, though not enough to qualify for the first rank. And then there were the scores and hundreds of fine musicians who played with spontaneity, urgency, and melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expressiveness, and who created the oeuvre, the body of hard-driving Chicago jazz played from 1930 to 1960 and later. Incidentally, some of the late-comers ought to be mentioned too, musicians like Ruby Braff, Bob Wilbur and Lou McGarity, who were not heard until after 1940 but who contributed a good deal to the final development.

      Chicago jazz is not Dixieland. I have written elsewhere about this distinction (see “Eleven Memoranda on the Culture of Jazz,” in Conjunctions:9; reprinted in Sitting In: Selected Writings on Jazz, the Blues, and Related Topics, University of Iowa Press, 1986), and all I’ll say now is that jazz is original, spontaneous, authentic and immediate. Dixieland is antiquarian, nostalgic and almost always pedantic. Chicago jazz came from white Chicago in the era of Prohibition and the Syndicate. Al Capone was in a sense its godfather. A certain hardness and violence is characteristic, much more than in the New Orleans black music that the Chicagoans derived from. What the Chicagoans insisted on from the beginning was Swing. They originated the style and, I think, the term. (At any rate it was not originated by the “swing” musicians and arrangers of the big dance bands, both black and white, of the late thirties and forties, which were called “swing bands” but which took their ideas more from Kansas City black bands like Benny Moten’s or East Coast black bands like Duke Ellington’s and Fletcher Henderson’s than from the white Chicagoans—to the extent that they took their ideas from jazz at all.) From the beginning you can hear a more swinging mode in the Wolverines as in “Copenhagen” (1924), and in the early Frankie Trumbauer recordings such as “Singing the Blues” and “Riverboat Shuffle (both 1927 and both featuring Beiderbecke), than in the records of the same period made by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. This was picked up and emphasized by Frank Teschemacher and the “Austin High School gang” (not all of whom attended Austin High) in 1928–30. Teschemacher wanted a sharp rough-and-ready enthusiasm that drove everything before it. His dynamic and rhythmic inventions, such as the diminuendo chorus, a whispered holding-back, before the final tumultuous ride-out, in which he himself invariably played the clarinet’s high notes flat, were all aimed toward this objective. Being in tune didn’t matter, relatively speaking; loud and raucous did. And these were the primary elements of most Chicago jazz from that time until it ended, between 1965 and 1970, whether the piece was something “purty” like “Singin’ the Blues,” a slow drag like “Sister Kate,” a swinging blues like “Frair’s Point” or “Tin Roof,” or a rag/march like “Panama” or “Fidgety Feet.”

       A photograph exists of the 1927 Jean Goldkette band, including Beiderbecke and Trumbauer, sitting on top of a small bus operated by the Framingham Taxi Co.—astonishing that such a group could be touring New England at that time, only ten years after the country’s first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland jazz Band—with one of the musicians, bassist Steve Brown, sitting on the hood and flourishing what looks to me like a Colt .38 automatic.

       A great deal has been made of the fact that black musicians of that period and earlier worked in brothels, barrelhouses and other such inconducive studios. They did. But white jazz musicians of the period worked in gin mills and speaks that weren’t much better, many of them owned by the racketeers. The whites had the option if they wanted it—and at one time or another many of them did—of working with such orchestras as Goldkette’s or Paul Whiteman’s and playing at good hotels, upper-class clubs, or for college proms. They earned some money that way, and the money was no doubt good to have. But they did not learn their jazz with Goldkette or Whiteman; they worked it out in the joints, and the literature is full of stories of violence and mayhem among the customers. I expect many of those musicians packed a piece.

      Chicago jazz, like any impulse in the arts, split into many different modes, dominated by the different personalities of its leading performers. But to my mind the mode I have been describing here, the music of the speaks, expressive—to the extent that any verbal designations can be attached to music—of sex and booze, a hard communal underclass optimism that carried over from the Twenties into the Depression, has been epitomized especially by Wild Bill Davison. He was born in 1906 in Ohio, formed his first band when he was in grade school, worked in a commercial dance band when he was an adolescent, played for a while in New York, then went to Chicago in about 1927, where he met Louis Armstrong, Zutty Singleton and other black musicians from New Orleans, and also Pee Wee Russell, George Wettling and the young white Chicagoans. Davison worked with most of them, though unfortunately not on many recordings. In 1932 he formed a band to work at Guyon’s Paradise with Frank Teschemacher on clarinet. Late one night in February, with Davison at the wheel, they ran into a taxi and Teschemacher was killed. (One thinks, inevitably, of what might have been. One thinks of the accident nearly twenty years later on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s younger brother.) Davison, who obviously was not called Wild Bill for nothing, went off to Milwaukee (Siberia) for about ten years. Then he moved to New York in the 1940s and began playing again with his old friends from Chicago. From 1945 until about 1970 his work became stronger and stronger. He died a couple of years ago, working occasionally until the end, though without the wind or the technique of his best years. I’ve heard he even quit drinking in his old age.

      What Davison did for Chicago jazz is easy enough to hear. For example, his recording of “Riverboat Shuffle” for Commodore Records in about 1947. (I’m using the Commodore CD, Jazz A-Plenty, 1989, which maddeningly gives none of the original recording numbers or dates.) The band includes Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, George Brunis on trombone, and George Wettling on drums. ‘Riverboat Shuffle” was originally written by Hoagy Carmichael for Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines in 1924 and was recorded by them for Gennett in that year; then in 1927 it was recorded for OKeh by the Trumbauer band with Beiderbecke on cornet, and this is the better of the two early recordings. The tune has two themes, minor and major, the second of which has a two-bar break at the end of each eight-bar segment (roughly speaking). On the Trumbauer recording these breaks are taken by Eddie Lang on guitar, Irving Riskin on piano, and Don Murray on clarinet—nothing very spectacular. Beiderbecke takes the final break of the first chorus and leads immediately into his solo, which is the only reason for listening to the record. He does all the things he was famous for, the upward rips, the hard high notes, the descending softer figures, and he builds his solo with considerably more complexity and fluidity than was common in that period, using long phrases within the essential eight-bar structure. Only Louis Armstrong, from whom Beiderbecke learned, could do as well in those years; and remember that Beiderbecke learned from Armstrong in person, before the revolutionary Hot Five recordings of 1926. The rest of “Riverboat Shuffle,” until the final chorus, is dismal. Even Trumbauer, usually reliable, does poorly. In the final out-chorus Beiderbecke leads the ensemble vigorously, overcoming the ineptitudes of the other musicians.

       Davison, who began his professional career only a couple of years later than Beiderbecke, learned more from Beiderbecke than from anyone else, and his “Riverboat Shuffle” is an intentional tribute to his teacher. But it is by no means an imitation. Davison takes all the stop-time breaks himself, for instance, but does not give himself a solo chorus. He does many things that resemble Beiderbecke’s playing but never exactly reproduces them (as so many Dixielanders do), and he intensifies them by a factor of about a hundred. Beiderbecke’s held-high tones were vigorous but pure in intonation. Davison’s are rough, off-key, seemingly random blasts in the upper register—they are shrieks. Davison’s low tones are much more growly than Beiderbecke’s, his slurred tones are wider and longer, his pacing more varied and farther from the beat. He drives harder. And he has his own maneuvers too, especially the screaming upward glissando that hits its top note like the crack of a whip. His technique is heavy, rough, impudent, yet astonishingly agile. In effect Davison brought the spirit of white Chicago jazz to its peak and did it with musical perfection and the total absorption and enthusiasm that are characteristic of all great artists in every medium.

      In the meantime, while Davison was at the top of his form, the bop revolution came and went, the cool revolution as well, and black jazz musicians were into the post-bop experiments and modifications of Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and others. I don’t know what these men thought of Davison. They certainly dismissed him and may have despised him. Although one can find components of their music that might have been taken from him, clearly none were—they came from other and black antecedents. Now, with the deaths of the original Chicagoans, Chicago jazz has long since passed from the scene, without—if you don’t count the thousands of people who love it and rely on it in shaping their sensibilities—leaving a trace. And this leads me to three generalizations.

      First, the art that leaves no influence is no less an art on that account. Its hard to think of analogues to Chicago jazz vis-à-vis mainstream black jazz. I have called it subsidiarism, but spin-offism might be a more descriptive term, the case of a movement in art that evolves naturally enough from the mainstream but then branches off, runs parallel for a while, achieves its own artistic integrity and significance, but finally dies without ever rejoining the primary line of development. In fact, I cannot come up with a single other example in the history of any art, an example of an appreciable community of artists which attains a significant level of achievement but then departs without leaving a significant influence. Individuals, yes; Ambrose Bierce in American literature, Georgia O’Keefe in American painting. But the only movements I can think of that have followed this pattern have been crack-pot obtrusions achieving nothing. (Yet in religion one can think of many important heresies that died or were wiped out without reentering their parent theologies, but which left meaningful effects in the broader culture.) Nevertheless it is possible; a group can move out, create something fine, and die—right out at the end of the track. And Chicago jazz, so distinct, is the proof. Not that there weren’t crossovers and affinities. The jazz associated with Fats Waller and other such small black groups in the thirties was not far from the spirit of Chicago. Waller himself and many other black musicians—from Coleman Hawkins in 1928 to Vic Dickenson in 1980—performed both live and on record with the Chicagoans. But in impulse, attitude and style the Chicagoans had their own music.

      Secondly, as jazz has evolved toward the present, I expect white influence on black musicians has increased, especially as from individual to individual. It would be surprising if such fine white musicians as Chet Baker, Charlie Haden and Steve Lacy, for example, hadn’t been listened to carefully by young musicians of both races. And today, of course, if you asked young conservatory-trained black jazz musicians whether or not they’ve been influenced by white musicians, my guess is that they’d say, “Naturally—just as we’ve been influenced by Asian musicians, Arabic musicians, rock musicians, and all musicians.” Of course they’d be talking, with respect to whites, primarily about “classical” musicians, and not Stravinsky and Bartok either, but Adams and Reich. A general rapprochement has occurred; music is music, and the question of race has become moot. It’s interesting—though I am distinctly of two minds about it—that this has happened not as much through social and political processes as through the music itself.

      Thirdly, for a long time we have been putting too much emphasis on the new, and we have now reached the point at which the new has run out. We have reached absurdity. in jazz we have run the whole course from primitivism to sophistication to academicism and preciosity in less than a hundred years, thanks to the technology of recording. Records give us the old, meaning what was done last year, in such concrete permanent form that musicians have naturally been impelled to do something different right away. But the course has been run. And the course was perhaps not such a good idea to begin with. Jazz musicians are universally graded by the critics on their novelty. A. B. Spellman, in his Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966, 1985) chooses his four biographees, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols, and Jackie McLean, because he believes each of them did something that the older bop musicians—not much older—had not yet done. They made “progress.” (Some of them called their work “progressive.”) Spellman refers to jazz before bop as “social music.” Well, I hope all music is social, but that isn’t what Spellman means. He means that earlier jazz musicans often had to play in dance bands to make their livings. But is he talking about the likes of Sidney Bechet, Henry Allen, Chu Berry, Joe Venutti, Charlie Christian, Art Tatum? Is he placing these serious artists on the plane of T. Dorsey and G. Lombardo? This is nonsense. In his essay called “The Passing of Jazz’s Old Guard,” which is reprinted in his Tuxedo Junction (1989), Gerald Early writes about Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Stitt. Is it only because I was born in 1921, the year in which Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” and started off the whole business of recorded black jazz, that I cannot think of these men as “Jazz’s Old Guard”? Jazz did not begin in 1942. Nor did it begin in 1982, as some young people today believe. No one knows exactly when it did begin, as a matter of fact, but it has been going on since 1910 or earlier, and it has always been real jazz—if that isn’t a redundancy.

      Nowadays when I go down to Sakura’s in Syracuse I hear a young guy who can do circular breathing perfectly, he can do it for hours if anyone wants him to, he can play three saxophones at the same time, loudly, and he can play not only the changes on “My Funny Valentine,” but the changes on the changes, and the changes on the changes on the changes, a veritable mathematical tizzy. And I ask myself why he doesn’t just relax and play some jazz. The truth is he can’t; both his training and the pressures exerted on him by current fashion have destroyed his ability to invent a counter-melody or para-melody worth a damn.

      In all the arts I see people struggling, usually in an academic milieu, to discover some novelty of form, structure, concept or style that will permit them to qualify as the avant-garde, but I do not see them succeeding, except in the most pedantic, uninteresting, feelingless ways. In both reason and practice we know that unending novelty is an impossibility. No one can foresee what the extended future may bring in jazz, or in painting or literature, but in the shorter view the age of experiment is obviously over. The time demands recapitulation, not innovation. This doesn’t mean direct imitativeness of the past—not at all; it means an honest and creative regard for tradition, including recent tradition, it means going back and filling in the gaps that were passed over in the onrush of recorded progress, restoring connections, reviving combinations, as Branford Marsalis does, for example, in his best work. And anyway, hasn’t newness in the arts always been essentially a matter, not of calculated or conceptual change, but of personality, both individual and collective? The dolce stil nuovo was not engineered in a workshop; it was derived intuitively from the sensibilities of half a dozen northern Italian poets who had certain traditions, old Latin and new Provençal, floating in their heads and sounding in their ears.

      It would be great if we could quit listening to so many records and hear live jazz instead. In a city like Syracuse, with a metropolitan population of 750,000, we ought to have six or eight places where we could go regularly to hear different kinds of jazz, not just the one-and-a-half actually here, and we ought to be able to sit comfortably and listen to the music without being deafened by overamplification. I can think of a good many reasons why this may be impossible, why it may never happen again. And I won’t give up my records for anything. But I do think in our music—and in our poetry, painting, film, and all the arts—we must, at least for a while, just relax and play some jazz.

Hayden Carruth (1921–2008) was the author of over thirty books of poetry. Among them, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey (Copper Canyon), which won the National Book Award for Poetry.