A civilization shaped by technical and industrial forces like those we have considered in the last chapter, working in collaboration with social and political institutions which--in spite of two world wars and a cataclysmic depression--have retained a degree of democratic equality and per-sonal liberty unparalleled elsewhere, implies cultural values and artistic forms which are not only different from those appropriate to the agricultural and handicraft-commercial civilizations of the past, but have also originated in an al- together different way. For the process by which techno- logical civilization has taken form has reversed that which operated in earlier cultures.
Hitherto, as Santayana pointed out in Reason in Society (1905), civilization has consisted in the diffusion and dilu- tion of habits arising in privileged centers: "It has not sprung from the people; it has arisen in their midst by a variation from them, and it has afterward imposed itself on them from above." But civilization in America, in so far as it can be identified with the vernacular influences this book has sought to define, has sprung from the people. What was "imposed on them from above" was the trans- planted tradition of an older culture.
From the point of view of those who have been trained in the cultivated tradition, the emergence of a civilization from popular roots has been a phenomenon of dubious merit. The fear of what is often called "popular culture," in all its manifestations, is a notable feature of much his- torical and critical writing. To Santayana himself it seemed certain that "a state composed exclusively of such workers and peasants as make up the bulk of modern nations would be an utterly barbarous state." Indeed, those who think of culture as "the diffusion of habits arising in privileged centers" are led almost unavoidably to the con- clusion reached by an anonymous writer in Harper's in 1928, that the future of culture in America is "clearly quite hopeless" because there is no church or aristocracy or other authority to modify or restrain what is assumed to be the human race's "natural taste for bathos."
Back in the 1880s this attitude was already firmly es- tablished. Cultivated people everywhere tended to agree with writers like Sir Edmund Gosse that it was from Amer- ica that the real threat to established values came.
Up to the present time, in all parts of the world [Sir Edmund wrote in 1889], the masses of uneducated or semi-educated persons . . . though they cannot and do not appreciate the classics of their race, have been con- tent to acknowledge their traditional supremacy. Of late there have been certain signs, especially in America, of a revolt of the mob against our literary masters.... The revolution against taste, once begun, will land us in irreparable chaos.
Here was one aspect of that "perpetual repudiation of the past" that Henry James had observed. But what Gosse did not see, and could not have accounted for if he had seen was that this revolt was by no means confined to the mob. Eight years before Gosse wrote, the conservative and staid North American Review had published Walt Whitman's famous essay on "The Poetry of the Future" in which he argued that until America produced its own great poetry the "feudalistic, anti-republican poetry" of Shakespeare and the other great writers of the past "will have to be accepted, such as they are, and thankful they are no worse." Even the decorous William Dean Howells was publicly asserting a few years later that at least three fifths of the literature called classic, in all languages, was as dead as the people who wrote it and was preserved only by "a superstitious piety." What was happening, of course, was much more than a mere revolution against taste. It was a revolution in taste--and it had its roots in the changing bases of civilization itself.
The man who, perhaps more clearly than anyone else in his time, understood what was going on was the engineer, George S. Morison, designer of the first of the great bridges across the Mississippi at Memphis and of many other bridges throughout the country. A powerful man, physically and intellectually, Morison had early abandoned what promised to be a successful career in law to go into engineering. He went to work under Octave Chanute, chief engineer of the Kansas City bridge, in 1867, and by the time the bridge was completed in June 1869, Morison had risen to be associate engineer. By 1875 he was internationally famous as the man who--eighty-six days after fire destroyed the great wooden trestle which carried the Erie Railroad across the Genesee River at Portage-had designed and constructed the steel bridge which replaced it, and at the time of his death in 1903 he was widely recognized as one of the world's great engineers.
Oddly enough, however, few people remember Morison's book, The New Epoch as Developed by the Manufacture of Power, published just after he died but completed--and the preface dated-in Chicago in 1898. It is a strange, forcefully clear book, and an important one, though no historian of our civilization, so far as the present writer has discovered, has taken any note of it. Briefly, it argued that with the discovery of ways to manufacture power mankind entered a new ethical epoch which would transform civilization. What ultimate form the new epoch would take he did not specify, but he saw clearly chat the new mechanical and technical era would in the long run bring about fundamental changes in men's relationship with one another and with their environment. In many ways, he realized, the new epoch would inevitably open as an era of destruction. By its very nature it would destroy "many of the conditions which give most interest to the history of the past, and many of the traditions which people hold most dear." There would be destruction in both the physical and intellectual world--of customs and ideas, systems of thought, and methods of education as well as of old buildings, old boundaries, and old monuments. How this destruction would occur, and how much time it would take, he did not care to guess. The important thing, he argued, was that it would come--"not because the things which are destroyed are themselves bad, but because however good and useful they may have been in the past, they are not adaptable to fulfill the requirements of the new epoch."
Meanwhile there was danger. Some time might elapse after the old had been destroyed before the new was established in its place, and the trouble would lie in the gap between the two. "The next two or three centuries," he warned, "may have periods of war, insurrection, and other trials, which it would be well if the world could avoid." One of the greatest dangers, in this connection, would be the fact that the new epoch would destroy ignorance, spreading education not only to all classes in civilized countries but to savage and barbarous races as well. The most terrible "period" of all would be that time "when the number of half-educated people is greatest, when the world is full of people who do not know enough to recognize their limitations, but know too much to follow loyally the direction of better qualified leaders."
Whatever the limitations of Morison's 134-page historical essay, it nevertheless succeeded as few if any of its more ponderous successors have done in diagnosing the causes of unrest and chaos in our time. If we bear his thesis in mind we will no longer have any difficulty in understanding the link between Gosse and other cultivated writers of the genteel tradition in the eighties and nineties and their vigorous critics in the 1920S. On the surface, of course, men like J. E. Spingarn, H. L. Mencken, and Ludwig Lewisohn were in open rebellion against almost everything that the exponents of the genteel tradition had stood for. But essentially the writers of the twenties were, in Lewisohn's phrase, trying as their predecessors had done to awaken Americans to "the peril of cutting ourselves off from the historic culture of mankind." Even Irving Babbitt and the new humanists were doing their best to reinforce traditional standards which would correct that "unrestraint and violation of the law of measure" which was at the root of our cultural deficiency. The finest literary talent of a generation was dedicated to the task of setting up some authority which would restrain what inevitably seemed, to anyone who cherished the values inherent in European culture, to be the American's "natural taste for bathos."
Almost nobody among our writers seemed to realize, as Morison did, that destruction of those values was inevitable, however regrettable it might be, and that the great job to be done was to help discover and establish those new values, based upon the actualities of political democracy and industrial technology, which must one day-after who knows what misery and devastation-take their place. Those who sensed that this was so were left to struggle with the problem alone, till many were overcome by the fear of futility. There is no more pitiful record of this fearful loneliness than Sherwood Anderson's Perhaps Women (1931). Listen to the note of desperation in these words, for instance:
Watching an intricate machine at work, Anderson thought that the men who designed and built it might "some day be known to be as important in the life swing of mankind as the man who built the Cathedral of Chartres." And yet, he asked, can man, being man, actually stand, naked in his inefficiency before the efficient machine? And his answer was no, it cannot be done-not yet in any event. "They are too complex and beautiful for me. My manhood cannot stand up against them yet."
In his loneliness Anderson questioned whether men any longer had the power to make new values to replace those which the machine was destroying, and the point of his book was the despairing hope that perhaps women could do it for them. But he at least faced up to the challenge, which one woman had thrown at him, to "go and look" at the factories and machines which were shaping the new age, and to "stay looking."
Those who might have been expected to help in the exploration of new values too often spent their time ridiculing or denouncing or lamenting what they called America's bourgeois taste. People like James Truslow Adams, whose study of the downfall of the Puritan theocracy in colonial New England should have taught him better, wrote articles urging "the upper class" to refine and elevate the middle class and not be swamped by its "obscurantist prejudices, its narrow and ignoble prepossessions, its dogmatism, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency." In an article published in a popular monthly in 1932-after Radio City and the George Washington Bridge had both been built-one of the future editors of the Reader's Digest declared that anyone who looked at American architecture and manners could see that for a decade or more we had been in the throes of an "uprising of serfs." The middle class, he announced, had delusions of upper-class grandeur to which it was giving expression in structures like the Automat restaurant up near the Bronx with its huge cathedral window and elaborate vestibule, in huge, "insincerely magnificeny" movie palaces such as New York's Roxy and Paramount, and in overelaborate business offices designed to cater to what he contemptuously called "the demand for the dignity of industrial pursuits."
That demand was real enough, and the amount of money spent in an effort to satisfy it is a measure of its intensity. It is certainly true that there were plenty of inappropriate guesses as to how that dignity should be ex- pressed. But the failure to find appropriate expressions, in architecture and elsewhere, should not have been taken as evidence that the demand itself was contemptible. The onus for buildings like the Roxy, the Gothic Automat, and the ornate business offices belonged not to those who demanded beautiful surroundings for recreation and work without knowing how to achieve them, but to those who could not, or would not, share Louis Sullivan's faith that it was the architects job to affirm that which the people really wish to affirm-namely, the best that is in them. For as Sullivan knew, "the people want true buildings, but do not know how to get them so long as architects betray them with architectural phrases."
As one looks back at the twenties and thirties in the light of the argument which this book has developed, there is something rather touching about the desperate efforts Americans made to put utilitarian architecture behind them and to build beautiful things. We had been effectively taught, by those who we readily agreed were our betters in aesthetic matters, that what was useful was not beautiful. The architecture of the Chicago school--the highest manifestation of the vernacular tradition yet achieved--was discussed by Thomas E. Tallmadge in a chapter of his 197 history of American architecture enabled "Louis Sullivan and the Lost Cause." Such architecure was doomed, he said, because of its demand for originality and for freedom from traditional styles. "What is the culture and genius of America" he asked; and promptly answered, "It is European."1
It was no wonder, then, that the ordinary citizen who wanted beauty in his dwelling frequently turned, not to the vernacular for inspiration, but to the cultivated tradi- tion, convinced that to be beautiful a design must be both European and useless. It was in this mood that Americans built during the twenties those genial horrors that Charles Merz described in The Great American Bandwagon: the Italian wells that pumped no water, the Spanish balconies for houses with no rooms upstairs, and all the rest of the amiable but pointless lies of the Coral Gables era.
There were, of course, fine things being done all through this period. We were still building grain elevators and industrial plants which, as the German architect Walter Gropius had written in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes in 1913, had a natural integrity deriving from their designers' independent and clear vision of these grand, impressive forms, and which were "not obscured by sentimental reverence for tradition nor by other intellectual scruples which prostrate our contemporary European design." But in the twenties this mechanical architecture as Lewis Mumford pointed out at the time, had a vocabulary without a literature. When it stepped beyond the elements of its grammar-that is, when it moved from pure engineering construction into the field of architecture proper, it usually could only "translate badly into its own tongue the noble poems and epics which the Romans and Greeks and medieval builders left behind them."
A dispassionate study of the relationships between engineering and architecture in the twentieth century would be of great value to an understanding of our civilization. What apparently happened was that the engineers, feeling the need for something more than the purely utilitarian satisfactions which their designs provided, turned to the architects for help, while at the same time the architects, sensing the vitality of engineering construction in contrast with the sterility of traditional architecture, turned increasingly to the problems of giving architectonic expression to the forms evolved by the engineers.
Any study of these interrelationships would, to be sure, have to reckon with certain questions which are posed by such a structure as the George Washington suspension bridge across the Hudson at New York. As it stands, the bridge is concededly one of the most beautiful structures in America. Other great suspension badges, like the Golden Gate Bridge, have more spectacular settings; but there is something about the George Washington's lofty yet sturdy towers, curving cables, and slender floor 2 which, as the eminent badge designer David B. Steinman said, has made this bridge, to the younger generation of Americans, a symbol of our civilization. (See Fig. 29) Yet, as it stands, it is unfinished; the original design worked out by the engineers and the consulting architect has never been completed.
The bridge as originally designed was the work of O. H. Amman, chief engineer; Allston Dana, engineer of design; and Cass Gilbert, architect. According to the First Progress Report on the bridge, issued by the Port of New York Authority January 1, 1928, the guiding motives of the design, from the engineering point of view, were "purity of type, simplicity of structural arrangement, and ease and expediency of construction"--motives which, as we have frequently observed, are characteristic of the vernacular tradition. But, the Report continues, in designing this bridge "it was realized that more than the usual attention must be paid to the aesthetic side," because of its monumental size and conspicuous location and because the bridge "should be handed down to posterity as a truly monumental structure, which will cast credit upon the aesthetic sense of the present generation." Here were the reverence for tradition and the intellectual scruples which Gropius had lamented in European design, and which appeered in America wherever the cultivated tradition retained influence. The general outlines and proportions were purely vernacular in origin, dictated, as the Report said "by engineering requirements." But the towers, anchorages, and approaches "called for careful architectural treatment and dignified appearance." It was here, especially in the towers, that the cultivated tradition would be called upon to create the beauty which it was assumed the vernacular alone could not achieve. The steel skeletons of the towers, designed to carry the entire dead and live load of the completed structure, were nevertheless to be imbedded in a concrete casing faced with granite, in the design of which the architect had decorated the main arch with imposts, springers, and voussoirs and had provided other ornamental details which had no reference to the structural forces at work. (See Fig. 30)
However, as the 635-foot steel skeletons of the towers rose from the shores of the river, something unprecedented happened. The "unexpected" functional beauty of the naked steelwork fascinated people, and there was a widespread popular protest against applying the masonry covering which, according to the original plan, was to be the chief element in the aesthetic appeal of the bridge. 3 So far as the present writer knows, the Port of New York Authority has never taken formal action to abandon the original design, and it is still theoretically possible that the towers will be cased in concrete and stone.4 The protest which prevented the "aesthetic" treatment of the towers was, after all, almost entirely a popular one, and the time may come when our betters in these matters will decide to go ahead with the design which they believed would best cast credit on our generation's taste. For to many people, apparently, it still seems difficult to believe that pure mathematics and engineering expediency can by themselves produce something beautiful. Even Chief Engineer Amman himself, in his final report on the bridge in 1933, still insisted that the appearance of the towers would be "materially enhanced by an encasement with an architectural treatment" like Cass Gilbert's, though he admitted that the steel towers as they stand lent the structure "a much more satisfactory appearance" than he or anyone else connected with the project had anticipated.
Nor is Mr. Amman the only civil engineer who is unable to accept the statement made fifty years ago by George S. Morison, past president of their society, that "architecture, which as a fine art would consign itself to the museum, ...will find its highest development in correct construction." For even in suspension bridges designed since the George Washington, the engineers have usually felt the need of some sort of architectural treatment for the towers, such as the step-back of Joseph Strauss's Golden Gate Bridge or the steel cupola and spire indicated in Robinson's and Steinman's studies for the proposed Liberty Bridge over the Narrows of New York Harbor. (See Fig. 30) On the other hand, when architects have had a large part in bridge design they have shown increased confidence in the aesthetic force of unadorned engineering forms, as witness the design by Aymar Embury II of the sheet-steel towers of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. (See Fig. 30) Mr. Embury, it is perhaps worth noting, was trained as an engineer before he began his work as an architect.
One of the most illuminating architectural careers of this period was that of Raymond M. Hood, who died in 1934. The buildings Hood designed from 1914 to the time of his death offer a startling record of the change from architecture conceived in terms of the cultivated tradition to architecture as the exaltation of vernacular forms.
Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, educated at Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hood worked for a year as a draftsman im the office of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, then went to the Beaux Arts in Paris. After his return to this country in pgll, he worked for a while im an architect's office in Pittsburgh, then m 1914 set up as an architect on his own in New York. For years he found little work to do, managing to keep himself going only with sustaining jobs like designing radiator covers. In 1922, however, he suddenly leapt into fame as the co-author of the prize-winning design in the Chicago Tribune's $50,000 competition. (See Fig. 31) The contrast between Hood's and Howell's tower, with its drapery of Gothic flying buttresses, and the design submitted in the same competition by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, has often been pointed out. Saarinen's design-"a soaring pile of receding pyramidal masses"-made no compromise with the essential nature of a skyscraper; Hood's tried its best to hide the fact that it was made of concrete and steel and glass.
How much Hood's later work was influenced by the bold design which was defeated by his own in the Tribune competition it is impossible now to say. His next big skyscraper was the black and gold American Radiator Tower im New York (1924), which was simpler than the Tribune Tower but essentially in the same vein. Even as late as 1929, in the Scranton Masonic Temple, he was still echoing the Gothic which he had learned in the office of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson. Then suddenly in 1930 he produced the Daily News Building, with its red stripes accentuating the vertical quality of its step-backed mass, and a year later the McGraw-Hill Buildmg (his favorite) in which the wide strips of windows are separated by horizontal bands of green-blue. (See Fig. 31) Those two great buildings were the last, except for his share of the Rockefeller Center project, before he died.
What happened to Hood between the Tribune Tower and the McGraw-Hill Building would make a profoundly interesting study. No doubt it was in part the influence of his friend Joseph Urban which encouraged him to use color as an integral part of design. It is probable too that his partnership with the engineer Andre Fouilhoux taught him a great deal about steel, concrete, and glass construction. But such influences do not by any means answer the questions which his astonishing career raises. What we need to know, and someday may know when Hood's life is properly written, is what he meant when he said, late in life, to Kenneth Murchison, "This beauty stuff is all bunk." On the evidence of his two greatest buildings it seems safe to assume that he meant something very like what the Shaker elder, Frederick Evans, had meant back in the 1870s when he told Charles Nordhoff that Shaker buildings ignored "architectural effect and beauty of design" because what people called "beautiful" was "absurd and abnormal." Like the Shakers, the designer of the McGraw-Hill Building had an eye to "more light, a more equal distribution of heat, and a more general care for protection and comfort.... But no beauty"--if beauty was something apart from such things as these.
In all branches of architecture the influence of the vernacular has been increasingly effective during the past twenty years. First the depression and then the war created pressures which tended to overcome the retarding influence of the cultivated tradition and to encourage a bold acceptance of vernacular forms and techniques. There is increasing awareness that the best work in American architecture grows directly out of the democratic and technological necessities which force us to think in terms of economy, simplification, and fitness for human purposes. Writing in 1941, Talbot Hamlin listed some of the architectural high spots of the preceding five years: the Farm Security Administration's camps for migratory workers; the Hunter College building, Rockefeller Center, the Bronx Whitestone Bridge; the new buildings of the Massachusetts General Hospital; the KauEman house-Falling Water; the planned community of Greenbelt, Maryland; the Norris Dam and its powerhouse; the high school at Idaho Springs, Colorado; the Santa Rita housing project at Austin, Texas; and Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings for the Taliesin Fellowship. Of all these structures, as Mr. Hamlin observed, only Wright's Kaufman house was a private dwelling; all the rest were designed for some socially constructive purpose.
In a technical discussion of the FSA camps in a professional architectural journal Mr. Hamlin observed that the details of actual construction of these buildings were of extraordinary interest "because they show how the need for economy, creatively conceived, can itself become a means to new and beautiful architectural forms," as, for example, in the use of ventilating louvers as an important element of design in the Utilities Building at the Woodville, California, camp. (See Fig. 32)
Apparently [he continued] the San Francisco architec- tural office of the FSA approached every problem of architectural design, in big as in little ways, with complete freshness and innocence of mind. It had no fixed ideas as to windows or doors or interiors or exteriors. Nothing seems to have inhibited its logical approach to each problem; no foreordained picture of what had been done or what was usual held it back.
Very much the same sort of freedom characterizes the best of our industrial plants, especially those built during the war, and here too it is economy which provided the impetus to imaginative construction. The late Albert Kahn, engineer and architect of such magnificent structures as the Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Detroit (see Fig. 32), the Olds Foundry at Lansing, Michigan, and many others, stated the matter very clearly in an article written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1947. Strict economy must, by the nature of the case, prevail in designing factories, especially those which were then called "defense projects." All non-essentials, everything which is not "purely utilitarian," must be eliminated.
The very observance of this requirement, however, often makes for successful design [Mr. Kahn continued]. As a rule, the most direct and straightforward solution produces the best-looking structure.... Just as the mere clothing of the skeleton of a modern airplane by designers with an eye for line and a sense of fitness produces an object of beauty, so the frank expression of the functional, the structural, element of the industrial building makes for success.5
The triumph during the second quarter of this century of vernacular forms which emerged from a hundred years of firsthand experiments in patterning the elements of a new environment could be traced in many fields besides construction. In writing, for example, it would be easy to show how the tradition of reportorial journalism which first attained literary quality more than a hundred years ago in Dana's Two Years Before the Mast had become, since Mark Twain's time, one of the principal shaping forces in our literature and could be traced as clearly in John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy as in John Gunther's Inside U.S.A. Indeed, journalism in this sense has become a distinctively American phenomenon. As Georges Bataille said in the critical journal which he publishes in France, writing like John Hersey's account of the atom-bomb's aftermath in Hiroshima illustrates a characteristic American effort "to give reportage a foundation of rigorously factual detail" which is almost unknown elsewhere.
In the movies, again, one could observe the origin and development of an almost purely vernacular art form, the direct product of technology and the commercial organization of popular culture. Those who were sensitive to the changing character of our civilization had anticipated something like the movies long before the technical means had been discovered. As early as 1888 David Goodman Croly, newspaper editor and sociologist, wrote a curious book called Glimpses of the Future in which--fifty years before publication of Finnegan's Wake--he prophesied the disintegration of the novel as an art form and suggested the use of colored pictures (in his day, chromolithographs of course) to take the place of descriptions of people and places, and of phonographs to reproduce the conversations between characters. That was as near as he could come, at that stage of technical development, to foreseeing the Technicolor talking picture. But the point worth noting is that long before movie cameras or color film had been invented those who were aware of the vital forces in the new civilization recognized that the traditional art forms would be superseded by forms appropriate to a technological environment.
A study of the development of the movies, furthermore would provide a striking example of the interaction between the cultivated and vernacular traditions. Earlier in this book that interaction was discussed in terms of architecture, and we saw how the forms which had been in- herited from an older civilization were modified by such vernacular influences as balloon-frame construction. In the case of the movies, however, the process was reversed, and a vernacular form was modified by cultivated influences. In the early stages movies were produced without any conscious aesthetic aim; the men and women who made them were in the business of providing mass entertainment in a medium which had been created by ma- chines and science. Then, sometime in the twenties, cultivated critics began discussing the films of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin as artistic achievements of the first rank. The movie makers themselves began to wonder if they weren't artists and shouldn't behave as such, and artists who had been trained in the techniques of older art forms like the theater began to move over into movie making. With the coming of the talking picture in the late twenties the movies became more and more like photographed plays, and the confusion between what can properly be called cinema values and those of the theater still marks much of Hollywood's output in spite of the success of such movies as The Informer and a few of the great documentary films like Pare Lorentz' The River.
The role of the vernacular in creating new art forms and altering the basis of old ones could be traced, too, in other fields: in modern dance, in the evolution of the animated cartoon, of the comic strip, and of the radio serial, and in the effect of photographic techniques and movie scenarios upon fiction and poetry. But it is in music, especially in the music loosely known as jazz, that we can most clearly perceive both the extent to which vernacular forms and techniques have succeeded in modifying older traditions and the degree to which the newer forms and techniques are still limited.
Jazz is a subject about which many people have very imtemperate opinions, and it will be well, for the purposes of this present discussion, if we can avoid the heated controversies which constantly rage not only between those who dislike it and those who like it, but even between the various cults of its admirers. We may as well avoid, in so far as possible, such bitterly disputed points as the precise relationship between jazz and the music of primitive African tribes and the extent to which jazz has been improved or degraded by its divergence from the instrumental music produced by colored bands in New Orleans sporting houses fifty years ago.
To begin with, then, let us agree that by jazz we mean American popular dance music, exclusive of waltzes, as it has been performed for the past quarter century or so. By this definition we mean to include not only the spontaneous instrumental or vocal improvising called hot jazz, epitomized by such a performer as Louis Armstrong, but also the carefully rehearsed performances, featuring improvised solos and "breaks," which professional dance bands like Benny Goodman's or Tommy Dorsey's give to everything they play-whether it be Tin Pan Alley tunes composed in the old operetta or ballad traditions, or melodies lifted from western European concert music, or pieces composed by Tin Pan Alley in imitation of hot-jazz improvisations. In this broad sense jazz is a product of the interaction of the vernacular and cultivated traditions, but its distinctive characteristics as a form of musical expression are purely vernacular.
Jazz is fundamentally a performer's art, and in this it marks itself off decisively from the music of the western European tradition. The composer, who is the dominant figure in Western concert music, is of almost no importance to jazz, for in jazz-in its most distinctive form-invention and performance occur simultaneously as the players have their way with the melodic or rhythmic pattern. It is true, of course, that musical improvisation has flourished im other cultures, and that even Western music of the cultivated tradition had its roots in improvisatory processes. But never before have conditions favored the universal availability of a performer art. The emergence of jazz as what might be called the folk music of the American people is inextricably bound up with such technological advances as phonographic recording and radio broadcasting.
Nor is it only in making jazz available that these technological devices have been important. In the early development of jazz, for example, the player piano not only contributed to the dissemination of ragtime (a rhythmic type which popularized many of the elements of jazz) but also imposed certain characteristics of rhythmic precision and even of tonal quality which became distinctive elements of its techniques. Anyone familiar with the playing of accomplished jazz pianists knows how they can use "pianola" style, though usually only for humorous effect in these latter, more sophisticated days. Similarly, the microphone of the recording and broadcasting studios has had its effect upon the instrumental and vocal performance of jazz. The vocal techniques of singers as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith and Dinah Shore, have been devised-often with remarkable inventiveness and sensitivity-to exploit the full range of possibili- ties in the microphone, and it is largely to the microphone's limitations and possibilities that the typical jazz band owes both its characteristic make-up and its distinctive instrumental techniques. Indeed, these techniques have become such an integral part of jazz that it is seldom performed without the use of a microphone even in small quarters like night clubs and even when the band is not on the air.
It was precisely with the beginning of recorded jazz, in 1918 and the years immediately following, that the instrumentation of jazz bands began to undergo the changes which in the early twenties produced the orchestral combination that is still standard. As long as jazz remained a localized phenomenon in the Storyville district of New Orleans, it retained the instrumentation which had first crystallized with Buddy golden's band in the 1890S: a combination of trumpet, valve trombone, clarinet, string bass, drums, and banjo. But as it spread to other parts of the country, and as recordings became increasingly popular after the phenomenal success which Victor made with its records by the Original Dixieland Band in 1918, new instruments were added (notably the piano and saxophone) and the balance of instruments within the ensemble underwent important changes. From about 1921 on the standard jazz orchestra has consisted of three units: the brass (trumpets and trombones), the reeds (saxophones and a clarinet), and the rhythm section (piano, guitar or banjo, string bass or tuba, and drums). All kinds of variants have been tried on this basic arrangement; big "symphonic" bands have been organized, and there have been recurrent experiments with various "small band" combinations built around a piano, and even some highly successful trios, quartets, sextets, and so on. But the three-unit instrumentation remains the standard for both hot and sweet (or commercial) bands.
One of the most interesting aspects of jazz instrumentation is that the rhythm section tends to remain intact, whatever variations may be made in the other units. A fifteen-piece band has four men in the rhythm section, and so has an eight-piece band. What this amounts to, of course, is a recognition of the fundamentally rhythmic nature of jazz. For it is its rhythmic structure that distinguishes it from other types of music.
It is precisely this distinctive rhythmic structure which makes jazz such an extraordinarily effective musical form in our civilization, and we will be better able to understand its significance if we acquaint ourselves with the two rhythmic characteristics which give it its special quality.6 These characteristics are syncopation and polyrhythm.
Syncopation, in the simplest terms, is the upsetting of rhythmic expectation by accenting a normally unstressed beat and depriving a normally stressed beat of its emphasis. As such it is a device which is fairly common in western European music, and consequently people who do not understand jazz frequently assume that jazz performance has merely borrowed a stock effect from traditional music and done it to death. But in a Brahms quartet, for example, syncopation is a special effect, consciously used for its striking qualities, whereas in jazz it is--as Winthrop Sargeant says--"a basic structural ingredient which permeates the entire musical idiom."
Even so, syncopation by no means accounts for the special nature of jazz. If it did, musicians trained exclusively in the cultivated tradition would produce jazz merely by continuously employing a device with which they are already familiar--whereas all they would actually produce would be corn. For in addition to syncopation jazz is characterized by superimposing of conflicting rhythms which creates a peculiar form of polyrhythm. This polyrhythm, as Don Knowlton was apparently the first to recognize, consists of imposing a one--two--three rhythmical element upon the fundamental one--two--three--four rhythm which underlies all jazz.
This formula of three-over-four, with its interplay of two different rhythms, seldom is baldly stated in jazz melody, but it almost invariably affects jazz phraseology and gives it its unique stamp. Here, as in the case of syncopation, we are using a term which is familiar in the cultivated tradition of Western music; but, as with syncopation, the term has a distinctive meaning in relation to jazz. As Sargeant points out, the commonest form of polyrhythm in European concert music--two-over-three--never appears in jazz, and the almost universal three-over-four of jazz is very rare indeed in Western music. Furthermore, in European polyrhythm there is no upset of normal rhythmic expectation; strong beats remain stressed and no accent is placed upon unstressed beats. But jazz polyrhythm has the effect of displacing accents in somewhat the same way that syncopation does so.
The domination of jazz by these two characteristics means, as Sargeant makes clear, that the relation between jazz rhythms and those of music composed in the western European tradition is "so slight as to be negligible." In other respects, of course, jazz has been strongly influenced by the cultivated tradition. Both its scalar and harmonic structure are largely borrowed or adapted from western European sources, though even in these aspects jazz has developed certain peculiarities-notably the "barbershop" or "close" harmony which it shares with other types of American music including that of the cowboys and the hillbillies. 7 But rhythmically jazz is a distinctive phenomenon.
The source of jazz polyrhythm is almost certainly to be found in the Afro-American folk music of the Southern Negroes. But from the point of view of our discussion, the important fact is that almost all American popular music, the commercial "sweet" as well as the hot variety, has wholeheartedly adopted both polyrhythm and syncopation, and that both of these are devices for upsetting expected patterns. In other words this music which originated in America and spread from there to the rest of the world depends for its distinctive quality upon two rhythmic devices which contribute to a single effect: the interruption of an established pattern of alternation between stressed and unstressed beats.
This interruption of rhythmic regularity m jazz is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the socalled "break" or "hot lick"--the improvised solo bridge passage of two or four measures which frequently fills the interval between two melodic phrases. During the break the fundamental four-four beat is silenced and the solo goes off on its independent rhythmic and melodic tangents, until suddenly the band picks up the basic four-four beat again right where it would have been if it had never been interrupted. The effect is brilliantly described in the following paragraph from Winthrop Sargeant's book:
In this process the fundamental rhythm is not really destroyed. The perceptive listener holds in his mind a continuation of its regular pulse even though the orchestra has stopped marking it.... The situation during the silent pulses is one that challenges the listener to hold his bearings.... If he does not feel the challenge, or is perfectly content to lose himself, then he is one of those who will never understand the appeal of jazz. The challenge is backed up by the chaotic behavior of the solo instrument playing the break. It does everything possible to throw the listener off his guard. It syncopates; it accents everything but the normal pulse of the fundamental rhythm.... The listener feels all the exhilaration of a battle.
It is essentially this same sort of battle between unexpected, challenging melodic rhythms and the regularity of the fundamental beat which characterizes all jazz. In hot jazz, when almost all the players are improvising all the time and nobody really knows what anybody is going to do next, the exhilaration is more intense than in rehearsed performances spiced with improvised solos and breaks. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind.
Now a musical form which exploits and encourages this kind of free-for-all might logically be expected to be chaotic and disorderly in the extreme. As Louis Armstrong once wrote, you would think "that if every man in a big sixteen-piece band had his own way and could play as he wanted, all you would get would be a lot of jumbled up, crazy noise." And with ordinary performers that is exactly what you would get-which is why most orchestras play from scores in which, with varying degrees of success, an arranger has incorporated hot phrasing. But, as Armstrong concludes, when you have "a real bunch of swing players" they can pick up and follow one another's improvisations "all by ear and sheer musical instinct." It is the essence of good jazz performance to be able to cut loose from the score, and to know--or feel--"just when to leave it and when to get back on it."
Benny Goodman, explaining the basis of organization for the famous band he got together in 1934, put the matter thus: what he wanted was, first of all, "a good rhythm section that would kick out, or jump, or rock or swing," and secondly, musical arrangements that would be adequate vehicles for such a rhythmic section and at the same time would "give the men a chance to play solos and express the music in their own individual way." In other words, Goodman intuitively recognized that it is the rhythmic structure of jazz which reconciles the demands of group performance (the arrangement) and individual expression (the solos).
What we have here, then, is an art form which within its own well-recognized limits comes closer than any other we have devised to reconciling the conflict which Emerson long ago recognized as the fundamental problem in modern civilization-the conflict between the claims of the individual and of the group. Everybody in a first-class jazz band seems to be-and has all the satisfaction of feeling that he is going his own way, uninhibited by a prescribed musical pattern, and at the same time all are performing a dazzlingly precise creative unison. The thing that holds them together is the very thing they are all so busy flouting: the fundamental four-four beat. In this one artistic form, if nowhere else, Americans have found a way to give expression to the Emersonian ideal of a union which is perfect only "when all the uniters are isolated."
By its resolution of this basic conflict jazz relates itself intimately with the industrial society out of which it evolved. The problems with which Armstrong and Good- man are concerned have much less to do with the problems of the artist, in the traditional sense, than with those of industrial organization. It is not in traditional art criticism that we will find comparable values expressed, but in passages like this from Frederick Winslow Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management, published just seven years be- fore the first jazz recordings were issued:
The time is fast going by for the great personal or in- dividual achievement of any one man standing alone and without the help of those around him. And the time is coming when all great things will be done by that type of cooperation in which each man performs the function for which he is best suited, each man pre- serves his own individuality and is supreme in his par- ticular function, and each man at the same time loses none of his originality and proper personal initiative, and yet is controlled by and must work harmoniously with many other men.
In other ways, also, jazz relates itself to the vernacular tradition out of which it came. Like all the patterns which that tradition has created, it is basically a very simple form. Harmonically it is little more than the repetition of four or five extremely simple and rather monotonous chord sequences. Melodically, it consists of the repetition of ex- tremely simple tunes which, however lovely or amusing they may often be, are not subject to elaborate develop- ment, as are the themes of western European music. They may be worried and fooled with in hot solos till they are practically dismantled, but they are not thematically de- veloped. Finally, even in its rhythm, where jazz displays so much ingenuity, it is restricted to four-four or two- four time.
As a musical form, then, jazz is so simple as scarcely to be a form at all. The "piece" being played always has, of course, at least an elementary formal pattern-a beginning, middle, and end; but the jazz performance as such usually does not. It merely starts and then-after an interval which has probably been determined more by the duration of phonograph records than anything else-it stops. But this structural simplicity accords with the other vernacular characteristics that jazz displays. The polyrhythmic and syncopated flights of hot solos and breaks, with their abrupt, impulsive adjustments to ever-changing rhythmic situations, give jazz an extraordinary flexibility; but they could exist only in a simple, firmly established musical framework. Similarly, it is the structural simplicity of jazz which makes it, like other vernacular forms and patterns, so suitable for mass participation and enjoyment and so universally available.
In these terms one can understand Le Corbusier's brilliantly perceptive observation that the skyscrapers of Man- hattan are "hot jazz in stone and steel." Jazz and the sky- scrapers! It is these two, and jazz in a "more advanced" form than the other, which to one of the world's greatest living architects and city planners "represent the forces of today." And both, as we have seen, are climactic achievements of the vernacular tradition in America. Neither im- plies anything resembling the cultivated tradition's negation of or contempt for the actualities of a civilization founded upon technology and shaped by democratic political and social institutions. (It is no mere coincidence that in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, and wherever authoritarian regimes have existed, the men in power have attempted to discourage if they have not forbidden the performance of jazz.)
Let it be clear that in making these points we are not implying the aesthetic superiority of jazz over western European music or of Rockefeller Center and the McGraw- Hill Building over the cathedrals of Chartres and Salisbury. Such comparative valuations have no place in the context of this book, whether or not they have validity elsewhere. Judged strictly in its own terms, jazz is admittedly limited in its emotional range. Like other vernacular forms, notably journalism and radio serials, it is pretty much restricted to moods of humor, sentimental sadness, and sexual excitement; it is difficult to conceive of a jazz performance which would evoke the moods of tragedy, of awe, or of spiritual exaltation which are found in the masterpieces of western European music. Furthermore, there is some question whether jazz is capable of evolutionary development. To many critics it seems that jazz today is in all essential respects precisely what it was at the moment when it emerged from the New Orleans sporting houses to sweep the country. Others might agree with the present writer that works like George Gershwin's An American in Paris and parts of his score for Porgy and Bess, and more recent works like Robert McBride's Quintet for Oboe and Strings, give evidence of an evolutionary process whereby the vernacular jazz tradition interacts creatively with the cultivated tradition, losing none of the former's vitality and immediate relevance but greatly augmenting its expressive range.
Certainly skyscraper architecture at its best owes more than a little of its success to cultivated influences which have modified its vernacular qualities. But the essential fact is that both of these forms fully acknowledge their vernacular roots. Both are forms of artistic expression which have evolved out of patterns originally devised by people without conscious aesthetic purpose or cultivated preconceptions, in direct, empirical response to the conditions of their everyday environment.
It is clear that these vernacular forms and the others we have touched upon in this essay do not--by themselves-- yet offer a medium of artistic expression adequate to all our needs. Forms inherited from an older tradition still must play an important role if we are not to be aesthetically starved, or at least undernourished. Opera and poetic drama, for example, may be as moribund as their most candid critics assert, but there will inevitably be periodic attempts to rejuvenate them. And such attempts will be made not only because of the cultural (and social) prestige which attaches to these and many other heirlooms of the cultivated tradition but also because we cannot yet afford to let them die.
Meanwhile the techniques and forms of the vernacular are rapidly attaining widespread influence and prestige, and their popularity throughout the world serves to remind us once again that it is not their specifically American quality, in any nationalistic sense, which gives them their fateful significance. The products of the vernacular in America do, of course, bear the stamp of the national character, just as the artistic achievements of other peoples display certain national characteristics. But these are superficial features. The important thing about the vernacular is that it possesses inherent qualities of vitality and adaptability, of organic as opposed to static form, of energy rather than repose, that are particularly appropriate to the civilization which, during the brief life span of the United States, has transformed the world. By an accident of historical development it was in America that this tradition had the greatest freedom to develop its distinctive characteristics. It should, however, temper any undue nationalistic pride which that fact might induce in us, to remind ourselves that people in other lands have sometimes been more ready than we to appreciate the human and aesthetic values of vernacular modes of expression. Foreign movies have, after all, frequently surpassed ours in creative realization of the cinema's potentialities, and European and South American architects sometimes seem to be more alive than our own to the expressive possibilities of vernacular construction.
As a nation we have often been hesitant and apologetic
about whatever has been made in America in the vernacular
tradition. Perhaps the time has come when more of us are
ready to accept the challenge offered to the creative
imagination by the techniques and forms which first arose
among our own people in our own land.
1 Nine years later, in a revised edition of his book, Mr. Tallmadge changed the title of his chapter on Sullivan to "Louis Sullivan, Parent and Prophet"--a change which concisely expresses the shift in "official" attitudes toward the vernacular from the twenties to the thirties. Return
2 The second level of this bridge was not added until 1961. Return
3 After this chapter was written the author came upon a discussion of this incident in Le Corbusier's book, Where the Cathedrals Were White (pg. 47). M. Le Corbusier agrees that the George Washington is "the most beautiful bridge in the world," and that it would have been utterly spoiled if the towers had been faced with stone "molded and sculptured in 'Beaux Arts' style" as the architect had planned. But he seems to have picked up an impression that it was the farseeing wis- dom of a single "sensitive>, individual which caused the original design to be abandoned. Further, he fails to consider the implications of the fact that the bridge as it stands is a pure engineering achievement in the sense that the designer had no aesthetic intentions, but was merely solving functional problems and providing a structure upon which the aesthetic treatment" could be hung. Return
4 The fact that Cass Gilbert's designs for the anchorages and approaches of the bridge were ultimately discarded in favor of much simpler designs by Aymar Emburv II suggests, how- ever, that Gilbert's designs for the towers may also have been permanently shelved. The Port Authority will not, however, make public any information on this point. Return
5 It is interesting to observe how the structural forms of Kahn's steel and glass factories were prefigured seventy years earlier in the temporary wood and glass exhibition building shown in Fig. 19. Return
6 Far and away the most useful analysis of jazz as a musical form is that by Winthrop Sargeant in the revised and enlarged edition of his book, Jazz: Hot and Hybrid, published in 1946. I draw heavily on Mr. Sargeant's work in this chapter. Return
7 Sargeant makes a convincing case for the idea that this barbershop harmony is not an echo of the post-wagnerian chromatic effects of European music, but was developed from the structural characteristics of accompanying instruments like the guitar and banjo. It merely uses the chords you get by sliding the hand up and down the neck of the instrument while holding the fingers in the same relative position. Cf. Jazz: Hot and Hybrid, pp. 198-200. Return