July 13, 2014

WHICH IS WHAT HAPPENS IF THE RAMONES DON'T SAVE YOU FROM YOURSELF:

Three Little Bops : The lost world of popular jazz. (JOHN H. MCWHORTER, July 2014, Books & Culture)

In 1957, a Looney Tune cartoon called "Three Little Bops" recast the Three Little Pigs tale in jazz, with the pigs as a beret-wearing trio of jazzmen and the wolf as an interloping trumpeter trying to sit in despite his lack of talent. The entire seven minutes is set to a jazz beat, narrated in song, hipster-style. Amidst the snazzy novelty of the short, something stands out, albeit in the background: in the clubs that the pigs play in, the patrons are not countercultural beatniks but smartly dressed white people, of the same kind who had been depicted dining and dancing at nightclubs in musical films of recent decades.

One might wonder: if the cartoon was reflecting any kind of social reality, just who were those people supposed to be? It's one thing to see them attending a midcult club like Ricky Ricardo's Tropicana on I Love Lucy in the same era--but out listening to serious jazz?

Marc Myers' Why Jazz Happened sheds light on a question like that, seeking to show how jazz has adapted to popular tastes to survive. "For the past ninety-five years jazz's survival has been based on the ability of musicians to interpret their times without relinquishing the characteristics that define the art form," Myers notes. His intent is to show how the happenstances of American social history have crucially shaped the evolution of jazz since its official beginnings with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's seminal 1917 recording.

What Myers actually chronicles, however, is less a successful series of transformations than a long decline in influence, of a music that lit up ordinary Americans in the two decades between the two world wars but then became steadily less central to the culture. Jazz's artistic development, like that of most art forms, has inevitably put it beyond the reach of the ordinary evaluator. Jazz fans tend to bristle at such verdicts. So too, in response to the equivalent argument about their music, classical music representatives insist the problem will be solved via presentation strategies and lowering ticket prices. They assume that, with those issues finally resolved, Sisyphean though the task ever appears to be, surely the music's passion, the "soul"--a term often heard from classical fans as well as from jazz buffs--will work its magic.

However, just as fish don't know they're wet, fans of refined musical forms like classical and jazz have a hard time putting themselves into the heads of ordinary listeners, especially ones nurtured in the pop-saturated musical culture of the past 60 years, focused on volume and histrionic performer charisma. Jazz in the form of candy-flavored pop tunes put across in danceable fashion--which was how most experienced the music in the Twenties and Thirties--was catnip to younger Americans of the time. However, what this kind of jazz later became--musically dense, focused on individual improvisation, and intended for quiet listening--has always been more like absinthe, now and forever a specialty taste. Myers' book neatly demonstrates this, despite his intent to reveal an art form dynamically responding to popular tastes.


Great jazz was popular music and was accessible to everyone.  But in a modern world where various fields of study became ever more esoteric, accessibility became shameful to artists and they sought to make their work product ever uglier, the antithesis of art.
Posted by at July 13, 2014 9:08 AM
  
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