The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

Toujours Jazz

(pages 81-108)


THE word jazz is already so complicated that it ought not to be subjected to any new definitions, and the thing itself so familiar that it is useless to read new meanings into it. Jazz is a type of music grown out of ragtime and still ragtime in essence; it is also a method of production and as such an orchestral development; and finally it is the symbol, or the byword, for a great many elements in the spirit of the time--as far as America is concerned it is actually our characteristic expression. This is recognized by Europeans; with a shudder by the English and with real joy by the French, who cannot, however, play it.

The fact that jazz is our current mode of expression, has reference to our time and the way we think and talk, is interesting; but if jazz music weren't itself good the subject would be more suitable for a sociologist than for an admirer of the gay arts. Fortunately, the music and the way it is played are both of great interest, both have qualities which cannot be despised; and the cry that jazz is the enthusiastic disorganization of music is as extravagant as the prophecy that if we do not stop "jazzing" we will go down, as a nation, into ruin. I am quite ready to uphold the contrary. If--before we have produced something better--we give up jazz we shall be sacrificing nearly all there is of gaiety and liveliness and rhythmic power in our lives. Jazz, for us, isn't a last feverish excitement, a spasm of energy before


death. It is the normal development of our resources, the expected, and wonderful, arrival of America at a point of creative intensity.

Jazz is good--at least good jazz is good--and I propose to summarize some of the known reasons for holding it so. The summary will take me far from the thing one hears and dances to, from the thing itself. The analysis of jazz, musically or emotionally, is not likely to be done in the spirit of jazz itself. There isn't room on the printed page for a glissando on the trombone, for the sweet sentimental wail of the saxophone, or the sudden irruptions of the battery. Nor is there need for these--intellectually below the belt--attacks. The reason jazz is worth writing about is that it is worth listening to. I have heard it said by those who have suffered much that it is about the only native music worth listening to in America.

Strictly speaking, jazz music is a new development--something of the last two years, arriving long after jazz had begun to be played. I mean that ragtime is now so specifically written for the jazz band that it is acquiring new characteristics. Zez Confrey, Irving Berlin, Fred Fisher, and Walter Donaldson, among others, are creating their work as jazz; the accent in each bar, for example, is marked in the text--the classic idea of the slight accent on the first note of each bar went out when ragtime came in; then ragtime created its own classic notion,


--the propulsion of the accent from the first (strong) note to the second (weak). In jazz ragtime the accent can occur anywhere in the bar and is attractively unpredictable. Rhythmically--essentially--jazz is ragtime, since it is based on syncopation, and even without jazz orchestration we should have had the full employment of precise and continuous syncopation which we find in jazz now, in Pack Up Your Sins, for example. It is syncopation, too, which has so liberated jazz from normal polyphony, from perfect chords, that M Darius Milhaud is led to expect from jazz a full use of polytonic and atonic harmonies; he notes that in Kitten on the Keys there exists already a chord of the perfect major and the perfect minor. The reason why syncopation lies behind all this is that it is fundamentally an anticipation or a suspension in one instrument (or in the bass) of what is going to happen in another (the treble); and the moment in which a note occurs prematurely or in retard is, frequently, a moment of discord on the strong beat. A dissonance sets in which may or may not be resolved later. The regular use of syncopation, therefore, destroyed the fallacy (as I hold it) of the perfect ear; and this is one reason why Americans are often readier to listen to modern music than peoples who haven't got used to dissonance in their folk and popular music.

It is not only syncopation that makes us indebted to negro music. Another element is the typical chord


structure found there, the characteristic variations from the accustomed. Technically described, one of the most familiar is the subdominant seventh chord with the interval of a minor instead of a major seventh--a method of lowering the leading tone which affects so distant a piece as A Stairway to Paradise, where the accented syllable of Par'-adise is skilfully lowered. (By extension ragtime also uses the "diminished third.") The succession of dominant sevenths and of ninths is another characteristic, and the intrusion of tones which lie outside of our normal piano scale is common.' Still another attack on the perfect chord comes from the use of the instruments of the jazz band, one for which ragtime had well prepared us. The notorious slide of the trombone, now repeated in the slide of the voice, means inevitably that in its progress to the note which will make an harmonious chord, the instrument passes through discords. "Smears," as they are refreshingly called, are the deadliest enemy of the classic tradition, for the ear becomes so accustomed to discords in transition that it ceases to mind them. (We hear them, of course; the pedants are wrong to say that we will cease to appreciate the "real value" of a discord if we aren't pained by it and don't leave the hall when one is played without resolution.) In contemporary
[1]My indebtedness, and, I suppose, the indebtedness of everyone who cares at all for negro music, is apparent--to Afro-American Folksongs, by Henry Edward Krehbiel (Schirmer).


ragtime, it should be noted, the syncopation of the tonality--playing your b-flat in the bass just before it occurs in the voice, let us say--is often purely a method of warning, an indication of the direction the melody is to take.

I put the strange harmonies of jazz first, not because they are its chief characteristic, but because of the prejudice against them. The suggestion is current that they are sounds which ought never to be uttered; and with this goes an attack on the trick instruments, the motor-horns, of the battery-man. The two things have nothing in common. The instruments of the jazz band are wholly legitimate and its characteristic instrument was invented by a German, after whom it is named, in the middle of the last century, and has been used in serious music by (and since) Meyerbeer--I refer to the saxophone. There is no more legal objection to the muted trombone than to the violin con sordino. And the opponents of jazz bands will do well to remember that the pure and lovely D-minor symphony of Cesar Franck was thrown out as a symphony because it used the English horn. The actual sounds produced by the jazz band are entirely legitimate. We have yet to see what use they make of them.

In Krehbiel's book the whole question of rhythm is comparatively taken for granted, as it should be. Syncopation discovered in classic music, in the Scot's


snap of the Strathspey reel, in Hungarian folk music, is characteristic of three-fifths of the negro songs which Krehbiel analyzed (exactly the same proportion, by the way, as are in the interval of the ordinary major). But it is such a normal phenomenon that I have never found a composer to be interested in it. Krehbiel, to be sure, does refer to the "degenerate form" of syncopation which is the basis of our ragtime, and that is hopeful because it indicates that ragtime is a development--intensification, sophistication--of something normal in musical expression. The free use of syncopation has led our good composers of ragtime and jazz to discoveries in rhythm and to a mastery of complications which one finds elsewhere only in the great composers of serious music. In describing the Dahoman war dances at the Chicago World's Fair, Krehbiel says:
"Berlioz in his supremest effort with his army of drummers produced nothing to compare in artistic interest with the harmonious drumming of these savages. The fundamental effect was a combination of double and triple time, the former kept by the singers, the latter by the drummers, but it is impossible to convey the idea of the wealth of detail achieved by the drummers by means of exchange of the rhythms, syncopation of both simultaneously, and dynamic devices."
The italics are mine. I am fully aware of the difference between savage and sophisticated, between

folk music and popular music; yet I cannot help believing that this entire statement, including the Berlioz whom I greatly admire, could be applied to Paul Whiteman playing Pack Up Your Sins or his incredible mingling of A Stairway to Paradise with a sort of Beale Street Blues.

Freedom with rhythm is audible--should I say palpable?--everywhere. Stumbling (Zez Confrey) is in effect a waltz played against a more rapid counter-rhythm, and is interesting also for its fixed groups of uneven notes-triplets with the first note held or omitted for a time, and then with the third note omitted. A similar effect with other means occurs in the treatment of three notes in Innocent Ingenue Baby, by George Gershwin, where the same note falls under a different beat with a delightful sense of sur. prise and uncertainty. Mr Hooker's words are equally tricky, for it isn't "Innocent-Ingenue-Baby" at all; it is Innocent Ingenue (baby). In By and By Gershwin has shifted an accent from the first to the second simply by giving the second the time-value usually given to the first, a fresh, delightful treatment of a sentimental expression. The variety of method is vastly interesting. Louis Hirsch, whom I rank fairly low as a composer for jazz, has done perfectly one obvious, necessary thing: stopped syncopating in the middle of a piece of ragtime. In the phrase "shake and shimmy everywhere" in It's Getting Very Dark on Old Broadway, he presents the


whole-tone scale descending in two bars of full unsyncopated quarter-notes. In the works of Zez Confrey (they are issued with a snobbish tasty cover, rather like the works of Claude Debussy) the syncopation and the exploitation of concurrent, apparently irreconcilable rhythms is first exasperating and eventually exciting. They are specifically piano pieces and require a brilliant proficiency to render them.

It is a little difficult, unless one has the piano score, to determine what part is the work of the composer, what of the jazz orchestra. You can only be fairly certain that whatever melody occurs is the composer's, and that rhythmically he is followed with some fidelity. All you need to do is to listen to the violin, piano, or whatever instrument it is which holds the beat, to realize what the composer has given. Harmonization is often, and orchestration nearly always, left to other hands. Mr Berlin makes a habit now of giving credit to his chief collaborator, and he deserves it.'

Mr Berlin's masterpieces (June, 1923, but who shall say?) in jazz are Everybody Step and Pack Up Your Sins. I have written so much about him in connexion with song and shows that I can say little

[1]It has been clairvoyantly pointed out to me by another composer that Berlin's preeminence in ragtime and jazz may be traced to his solitary devotion to melody and rhythm; in the jazz sense there remains something always pure in his work. This supports the suggestion made in the next paragraph.

more. I see no letting down of his energy, none in his inventiveness. He is, oddly, one of the simplest of our composers. A good way to estimate his capacity is to play the more sentimental songs (I'm Gonna Pin My Medal on the Girl I Left Behind, Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone, All by Myself) in slow time and then in fast. The amazing way they hold together in each tempo, the way in which the sentiment, the flow of the melody, disengages itself in the slow, and then the rhythm, the beat takes first place in the fast time, is exceptional. You cannot do the same with his own Some Sunny Day, nor with Chicago or Carolina in the Morning. Berlin's work is musically interesting, and that means it has a chance to survive. I have no such confidence in Dardanella or Chicago. The famous unmelodic four notes occur in the latter as in Pack Up Your Sins (the source is the same, but we need not go into that) ; the working out is vastly inferior. Fred Fisher's work is sledge hammer in comparison with Berlin's, and lacks Berlin's humour. Of that quality Walter Donaldson has some, and Gershwin much. Donaldson wrote Al Jolson's Mammy (I can't remember which, but I'm afraid I didn't like it), and a song I count heavily on: Carolina in the Morning. This song is, incidentally, a startling example of how jazz is improving the lyrics, for the majority of jazz songs are not meant primarily for singing, so the balladists take liberties, and not being held to a definite end

rhyme give us "strolling with your girlie when the dew is pearly early in the morning." ' The music is clean, rapid, and audacious. It carries the introduction (of the chorus) almost to the point of exhaustion, suspending the resolution of its phrases until the last possible moment, and then lets go, with a vast relief on the long, somewhat yodelly note. Confrey has done the same thing in Kitten on the Keys where one bar is repeated five times with successive tightening of interest.

Two composers are possible successors to Berlin if he ever chooses to stop. I omit Jerome Kern--a consideration of musical style will indicate why. I am sure of Gershwin and would be more sure of Cole Porter if his astonishing lyrics did not so dazzle me as to make me distrust my estimate of his music. Gershwin is in Berlin's tradition; he has almost all the older man's qualities as a composer (not as a lyrics writer; nor has he Berlin's sense of a song on the stage). That is to say, Gershwin is capable of everything, from Swanee to A Stairway to Paradise. His sentiment is gentler than Berlin's, his "attack" more delicate. Delicacy, even dreaminess, is a quality he alone brings into jazz music. And his sense of variation in rhythm, of an oddly placed accent, of

[1] Internal, off-beat rhyme occurred as long ago as Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. Bud de Sylva has used it intelligently, but not expertly enough in Where is the Man of My Dreams? and Brian Hooker and William Le Baron make it a great factor in their highly sophisticated lyrics. So also Cole Porter.

emphasis and colour, is impeccable. He isn't of the stage, yet, so he lacks Berlin's occasional bright hardness; he never has Berlin's smartness; and with a greater musical knowledge he seems possessed of an insatiable interest and curiosity. I feel I can bank on him. Banking on Porter is dangerous because essentially he is much more sophisticated in general attitude of mind than any of the others, and although he has written ragtime and patter songs and jazz of exceptional goodness, he has one quality which may bar him forever from the highest place--I mean that he is essentially a parodist. I know of no one else with such a sense for musical styles. A blues, a 1910 rag, a Savoy operetta serio-comic love song, a mother song--he writes them all with a perfect feeling for their musical nature, and almost always with satiric intention, with a touch of parody. It is only the most sophisticated form which is germane to him; in highly complex jazzing he is so much at home, his curiosity is so engaged, he feels the problem so much, that the element of parody diminishes. Yet The Blue Boy Blues, almost as intricate a thing as Berlin ever wrote, with a melody overlaid on a running syncopated comment, has a slight touch of parody in the very excess of its skill. Jazz has always mocked itself a little; it is possible that it will divide and follow two strains -the negro and the intellectual. In the second case Porter will be one of its leaders and Whiteman will be his orchestra. The song Soon, for example, is a

deliberate annihilation of the Southern negro sentiment carefully done by playing Harlem jazz, with a Harlem theme, mercilessly burlesquing the cliche's of the Southern song--the Swanee-Mammy element--in favour of a Harlem alley. Porter's parody is almost too facile; Soon is an exasperatingly good piece of jazz in itself. He is a tireless experimenter, and the fact that in 1923 others are doing things he tried in 1919, makes me wonder whether his excessive intelligence and sophistication may not be pointing a way which steadier and essentially more native jazz writers will presently follow. Native, I mean, to jazz; taking it more seriously. Whether any of them could compose such a ballet as Porter did for the Ballet Suedois is another question.

The other way is still open--the way of Sissle and Blake, of Creamer and Layton, of A. Harrington Gibbs. The last is a name unknown to me ten days before the moment of writing; I do not know if it represents a Southern negro or a Welshman. But--if he has composed anything, if Runnin' Wild isn't a direct transcript of a negro devil-tune--he is in the school of the negro composers and he has accomplished wonders already. For Runnin' Wild is a masterpiece in its genre. Note the cleverness of the execution: the melody is virtually without accompaniment; it consists of groups of three notes, the interval of time being simple, and the interval of pitch in the group or between two successive groups, is quite conventional.


Once three groups of three notes are played in succession; toward the end the group is twice lengthened to four notes; the orchestra is heard after each group has been sung, giving an unnerving effect of alternating sound and silence. But there is something more: There is the complete evocation of the two negro spirits-the darky (South, slave) and the buck (Harlem); the negro and the nigger. It ends with a shout which is lyrical and ecstatic at once, wild and free. It is an enchantingly gay piece, it expresses its title-one sees our own Gilda Grey stepping out in it bravely; it is, in a way, a summary of the feeling of negro music which Shuffle Along and its followers restored to prominence.

More must be said of the negro side of jazz than I can say here. Its technical interest hasn't yet been discussed by anyone sufficiently expert and sufficiently enthusiastic at the same time. In words and music the negro side expresses something which underlies a great deal of America--our independence, our carelessness, our frankness, and gaiety. In each of these the negro is more intense than we are, and we surpass him when we combine a more varied and more intelligent life with his instinctive qualities. Aggravatin' Papa (don't you try to two-time me) isn't exactly the American response to a suspected infidelity, yet it is humanly sound, and is only a little more simple and savage than we are. The superb I'm Just Wild about Harry is, actually, closer to the American


feeling of 1922 than "I Always dream of Bill"; as expression it is more honest than, say, Beautiful Garden of Roses; and He May be Your Man is simply a letting down of our reticences, a frankness beyond us.

I shift between the two teams, Sissle and Blake, Creamer and Layton, uncertain which has most to give. Sissle and Blake wrote Shuffle Along; the others accomplished the intricate, puzzling rhythm of Sweet Angelina, one or two other songs in Strut Miss Lizzie, and Come Along, I'm through with Worrying. Of this song a special word can be said. It is based on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and imposes on that melody a negro theme (the shiftlessness and assurance of "bound to live until I die") and a musical structure similar to that applied to the same original by Anton Dvofak in the New World Symphony. I am only a moderate admirer of this work; I am not trying to put Come Along into the same category, for its value is wholly independent of its comparative merits; nor am I claiming that jazz is equal to or greater or less than symphonic music. But I do feel that the treatment of a negro melody, by negroes, to make a popular and beautiful song for Americans ought not to be always neglected, always despised. I say also that our serious composers have missed so much in not seeing what the ragtime composers have done, that (like Lady Bracknell) they ought to be exposed to comment on the platform.


If they cannot hear the almost unearthly cry of the Beale Street Blues I can only be sorry for them; the whole of Handy's work is melodically of the greatest interest and is to me so versatile, so changing, in quality, that I am incapable of suggesting its elements. Observed in the works of others, the blues retain some of this elusive nature--they are equivocal between simplicity, sadness, irony, and something approaching frenzy. The original negro spiritual has had more respect, but the elements have been sparsely used, and one fancies that even in looking at these our serious composers have felt the presence of a regrettable vulgarity in syncopation and in melodic line. Jesus Heal' de Sick is negro from the Bahamas; its syncopation, its cry, "Bow low!" are repeated in any number of others; the spirituals themselves were often made out of the common songs in which common feeling rose to intense and poetic expression--as in Round About de Mountain, a funeral song with the Resurrection in a magnificent phrase, "An she'll rise in His arms." The only place we have these things left, whether you call the present version debased or sophisticated, gain or loss, is in ragtime, in jazz. I do not think that the negro (in African plastic or in American rag) is our salvation. But he has kept alive things without which our lives would be perceptibly meaner, paler, and nearer to atrophy and decay.

I say the negro is not our salvation because with


all my feeling for what he instinctively offers, for his desirable indifference to our set of conventions about emotional decency, I am on the side of civilization. To anyone who inherits several thousand centuries of civilization, none of the things the negro offers can matter unless they are apprehended by the mind as well as by the body and the spirit. The beat of the tom-tom affects the feet and the pulse, I am sure; in Emperor Jones the throbbing of the drum affected our minds and our sensibilities at once. There will always exist wayward, instinctive, and primitive geniuses who will affect us directly, without the interposition of the intellect; but if the process of civilization continues (will it? I am not so sure, nor entirely convinced that it should) the greatest art is likely to be that in which an uncorrupted sensibility is worked by a creative intelligence. So far in their music the negroes have given their response to the world with an exceptional naivete', a directness of expression which has interested our minds as well as touched our emotions; they have shown comparatively little evidence of the functioning of their intelligence. Runnin' Wild, whether it be transposed or transcribed, is singularly instinctive, and instinctively one recognizes it and makes it the musical motif of a gay night. But one falls back on Pack Up Your Sins and Soon as more interesting pieces of music even if one can whistle only the first two bars. (I pass the question of falling farther back, to the music of

high seriousness, which is another matter; it is quite possible, however, that the Sacre du Printemps of Strawinsky, to choose an example not unaffected by the jazz age, will outlive the marble monument of the Music Box.)

Nowhere is the failure of the negro to exploit his gifts more obvious than in the use he has made of the jazz orchestra; for although nearly every negro jazz band is better than nearly every white band, no negro band has yet come up to the level of the best white ones, and the leader of the best of all, by a little joke, is called Whiteman. The negro's instinctive feeling for colourful instruments in the band is marked; he was probably the one to see what could be done with the equivocal voice of the saxophone--a reed in brass, partaking of the qualities of two choirs in the orchestra at once. He saw that it could imitate the voice, and in the person of Miss Florence Mills saw that the voice could equally imitate the saxophone. The shakes, thrills, vibratos, smears, and slides are natural to him, although they produce tones outside the scale, because he has never been tutored into a feeling for perfect tones, as white men have; and he uses these with a great joy in the surprise they give, in the way they adorn or destroy a melody; he is given also to letting instruments follow their own bent, because he has a faultless sense of rhythm and he always comes out right in the end. But this is only


the beginning of the jazz band--for its perfection we go afield. We go farther than Ted Lewis, whom Mr Walter Haviland calls a genius. M Darius Milhaud has told me that the jazz band at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston is one of the best he heard in America, and stranger things have happened. The best of the negro bands (although he is dead, I make exception for that superb 369th Hell-fighters Infantry Band as it was conducted by the lamented Jim Europe) are probably in the neighborhood of 140th street and Lenox avenue in New York and in the negro district of Chicago. Many hotels and night clubs in New York have good jazz bands; I limit myself to three which are representative, and, by their frequent appearances in vaudeville, are familiar. Ted Lewis is one of the three; Vincent Lopez and Paul Whiteman are the others. There is a popular band led by Barney Bernie (as I recall the name, perhaps incorrectly) which is an imitation Ted Lewis, and not a good one. Lewis must be prepared for imitators, for he does with notorious success something that had as well not be done at all. He is totally, but brilliantly, wrong in the use of his materials, for he is doing what he cannot do--i.e., trying to make a negro jazz orchestra. It is a good band; like Europe's, it omits strings; it is quite the noisiest of the orchestras, as that of Lopez is the quietest, and Lewis uses its (and his) talents for the perpetration of a series of musical travesties,

jokes, puns, and games. I quote a eulogy by Mr Haviland:[1]
For instance, there is his travesty of the marriage ceremony. To the jazzed tune of the good old classic "Wedding March" Lewis puts a snowy, flower-decked bridal veil on the sleek, pomaded head of the trombone player. He puts it on crooked, with a scornful flip of his slender, malicious hands. Then he leads forward the hardest-looking saxophone player, and pretends to marry "Ham" and "Eggs"--and incidentally draws the correct conclusion as to marriage as it exists in America to-day. Perfect satire in less than three minutes.
Well, this is extraordinarily tedious and would be hissed off the stage if it were not for the actual skill Lewis has in effecting amusing orchestra combinations. His own violence, his exaggeration of the temperamental conductor, his nasal voice and lean figure in excessively odd black clothes, his pontificating over the orchestra, his announcement that he is going to murder music-all indicate a lack of appreciation of the medium. He may be a good vaudeville stunt, but he is not a great jazz leader. Again Mr Haviland:
It is not music. It has the form of music, but he has filled it with energy instead of spirituality. What is the difference? You'll understand if you hear his jazz band. It interprets the American life of to-day; its hard surface, its scorn of tradition, its repudiation of form, its astonishing sophistication--
[1] In "The Spice of Variety," which he conducts for Saucy Stories.

and most important, its mechanical, rather than spiritual civilization.
And again no. Lewis may have a perfectly trained orchestra, but the sense of control which one absolutely requires he does not give. He has violence, not energy, and he cannot interpret those qualities which Mr Haviland so justly discovers as being of our contemporary life because he isn't hard and scornful and sophisticated himself-he is merely callous to some beauties and afraid of others, and by dint of being in revolt against a serene and classic beauty pays it unconscious tribute. (I fear also that Lewis imagines the "Wedding March" classic in more senses than one.) It may be noted also that the tone of travesty is not correct for contemporary America; we require neither that nor irony. Parody, rising to satire, is our indicated medium--Mr Dooley, not Ulysses.

The orchestra of Vincent Lopez I take as an example of the good, workmanlike, competent, inventive, adequate band. It plays at the Hotel Pennsylvania and in vaudeville, and although Lopez lacks the ingenuity of Lewis in sound, he has a greater sense of the capacities of jazz, and instead of doing a jazz wedding he takes the entire score of "that infernal nonsense, Pinafore," cuts it to five characteristic fragments, and jazzes it--shall I say mercilessly or reverently! Because he likes Sullivan and he likes


jazz. And the inevitable occurs; Pinafore is good and stands the treatment; jazz is good and loses nothing by this odd application. The orchestra has verve and, not being dominated by an excessive personality, has humour and character of its own. I trust these moderate words will not conceal a vast admiration.

Jim Europe seemed to have a constructive intelligence and, had he lived, I am sure he would have been an even greater conductor than Whiteman. Today I know of no second to Whiteman in the complete exploitation of jazz. It is a real perfection of the instrument, a mechanically perfect organization which pays for its perfection by losing much of the element of surprise; little is left to hazard and there are no accidents. Whiteman has been clever enough to preserve the sense of impromptu and his principal band-that of the Palais Royal in New York-is so much under control (his and its own) that it can make the slightest variation count for more than all the running away from the beat which is common chezLewis. Like Karl Muck and Jim Europe, Whiteman is a bit of a kapellmeister; his beat is regular or entirely absent; he never plays the music with his hand, or designs the contours of a melody, or otherwise acts. I know that people miss these things; I would miss them gladly a thousand times for what Whiteman gives in return. I mean that a sudden bellow or a groan or an improvised cluck is all very well; but the real surprise is constructive, the real


thrill is in such a moment as the middle of Whiteman's performance of A Stairway to Paradise when a genuine Blues occurs. That is real intelligence and the rest-is nowhere. The sleek, dull, rather portly figure stands before his orchestra, sidewise, almost somnolent, and listens. A look of the eye, a twitch of the knee, are his semaphoric signals. Occasionally he picks up a violin and plays a few bars; but the work has been done before and he is there only to know that the results are perfect. And all the time the band is producing music with fervour and accuracy, hard and sensitive at once. All the free, the instinctive, the wild in negro jazz which could be integrated into his music, he has kept; he has added to it, has worked his material, until it runs sweetly in his dynamo, without grinding or scraping. It becomes the machine which conceals machinery. He has arrived at one high point of jazz--the highest until new material in the music is provided for him.

The title of this essay is provoked by that of the best and bitterest attack launched against the ragtime age--Clive Bell's Plus de Jazz. (In Since Cezanne.) "No more jazz," said Mr Bell in 1921, and, "Jazz is dying." Recalling that Mr Bell is at some pains to dissociate from the movement the greatest of living painters, Picasso; that he concedes to it a great composer, Strawinsky, and T. S. Eliot, whom he calls "about the best of our living poets," James Joyce


whom he wofully underestimates, Virginia Woolf, Cendrars, Picabia, Cocteau, and the musicians of les six--remembering the degree of discrimination and justice which these concessions require, I quote some of the more bitter things about jazz because it would be shirking not to indicate where the answer may lie:
Appropriately it (the jazz movement) took its name from music-the art that is always behind the times. . . . Impudence is its essence-impudence in quite natural and legitimate revolt against nobility and beauty: impudence which finds its technical equivalent in syncopation: impudence which rags. . . . After impudence comes the determination to surprise: you shall not be gradually moved to the depths, you shall be given such a start as makes you jigger all over. . . .

. . . Its fears and dislikes-for instance, its horror of the noble and the beautiful are childish; and so is its way of expressing them. Not by irony and sarcasm, but by jeers and grimaces, does Jazz mark its antipathies. Irony and wit are for the grown-ups. Jazz dislikes them as much as it dislikes nobility and beauty. They are the products of the cultivated intellect and jazz cannot away with intellect or culture. . . . Nobility, beauty, and intellectual subtlety are alike ruled out. . . .

' . . And, of course, it was delightful for those who sat drinking their cocktails and listening to nigger bands, to be told that, besides being the jolliest people on earth, they were the most sensitive and critically gifted. They . . . were the possessors of natural, uncorrupted taste. . . . Their instinct might be trusted: so, no more classical concerts and music lessons. . . .

The encouragement given to fatuous ignorance to swell with admiration of its own incompetence is perhaps what has turned


most violently so many intelligent and sensitive people against Jazz. They see that it encourages thousands of the stupid and vulgar to fancy that they can understand art, and hundreds of the conceited to imagine that they can create it. . . .
It is understood that Mr Bell is discussing the whole of the jazz movement, not ragtime music alone. I do not wish to go into the other arts, except to say that if he is jazz, then Mr Joyce's sense of form, his tremendous intellectual grasp of his aesthetic problem, and his solution of that problem, are far more proof than is required of the case for jazz. Similarly for Mr Eliot. It is not exactly horror of the noble that underlies Mr Joyce's travesty of English prose style, nor is it to Mr Eliot that the reproach about irony and wit is to be made. In music it is of course not impudence, but emphasis (distortion or transposition of emphasis) which finds its technical equivalent in syncopation, for syncopation is a method of rendering an emotion, not an emotion in itself. (Listen to Strawinsky.) Surprise, yes; but in the jazz of Lewis and not in that of Whiteman, which does not jeer or grimace, which has wit and structure--i.e., employs the intellect. Nobility--no. But under what compulsion are we always to be noble? The cocktail drinkers may have been told a lot of nonsense about their position as arbiters of the arts; precisely the same nonsense is taught in our schools and preached by belated aesthetes to people whose claims are not a whit better--since it doesn't matter what their admirers

think of themselves--it is what jazz and Rostand and Michelangelo are in themselves that matters. I have used the word art throughout this book in connexion with jazz and jazzy things; if anyone imagines that the word is belittled thereby and can no longer be adequate to the dignity of Leonardo or Shakespeare, I am sorry. I do not think I have given encouragement to "fatuous ignorance" by praising simple and unpretentious things at the expense of the fake and the faux bon. I have suggested that people do what they please about the gay arts, about jazz; that they do it with discrimination and without worrying whether it is noble or not, or good form or intellectually right. I am fairly certain that if they are ever actually to see Picasso it will be because they have acquired the habit of seeing-something, any thing-without arriere-pensee, because they will know what the pleasure is that a work of art can give, even if it be jazz art. Here is Mr Bell's conclusion, with most of which I agree:
Even to understand art a man must make a great intellectual effort. One thing is not as good as another; so artists and amateurs must learn to choose. No easy matter, that: discrimination of this sort being something altogether different from telling a Manhattan from a Martini. To select as an artist or discriminate as a critic are needed feeling and intellect andmost distressing of all-study. However, unless I mistake, the effort will be made. The age of easy acceptance of the first thing that comes is closing. Thought rather than spirits is required, quality rather than colour, knowledge rather than irreticence,

intellect rather than singularity, wit rather than romps, precision rather than surprise, dignity rather than impudence, and lucidity above all things: plus de Jazz.
It is not so written, but it sounds like "Above all things, no more jazz!" A critic who would have hated jazz as bitterly as Mr Bell does, wrote once, alluding to a painter of the second rank:
But, beside those great men, there is a certain number of artists who have a distinct faculty of their own, by which they convey to us a peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and these, too, have their place in general culture, and must be interpreted to it by those who have felt their charm strongly, and are often the objects of a special diligence and a consideration wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the stress of a great name and authority.
--and beside the great arts there is a certain number of lesser arts which have also a pleasure to give; and if we savour it strongly and honestly we shall lose none of our delight in the others. But if we fear and hate them, how shall we go into the Presence?

Return to Projects Page

Return to Home Page