The Journal of Provincial Thought
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The phenomenal Kid Spats

Fortescue “Kid Spats” Deepelum

In the beginning was the word (& word was Jazz)

                                 Folks, have you heard that Dixie Jazz Band?  Say—it’s a bear!
                                That boy can play the cornet—you bet!
                                He’s got a feelin’ so appealin’
                                They make you go and get your dancin’ shoes.
                                They sway and play ‘The Livery Stable Blues.’
                                I love to hear that trombone moan!—so beautiful!
                                                * * * * *
                                Deacons, preachers, Sunday School teachers will have to sway
                                When they hear that Dixie Jazz Band play!
                                                --Shelton Brooks, “When You Hear That Dixie Jazz Band Play” (1918)

Starting with the bare notion of songs (i.e., words and music) as the fundamental matrix of pop, we can focus on the words that surround and inhabit African-American music, the texts to which musical sounds are yoked.  From 1917, when Victor recorded the Original Dixieland Jazz band, onward, a mystique surrounded the language of jazz and pop music.  The trend began earlier, with ragtime and ragtime songs, which achieved a slangy immediacy captivating or outraging listeners ca. 1900, creating the first obvious “generation gap” in U.S. culture.  New musics, from that day, needed new languages to succeed.  Listeners to these musics were initiated into a special argot.  This language was encoded in titles and lyrics and delivered by performers, who made their jargon (trade or shop talk) public. 
                The language of the music created a mythos for jazz, a subculture that infiltrated and reshaped the vestiges of nineteenth-century culture and redefined world culture.  Culture would no longer be elitist, aristocratic and top-down, looking to old Europe for direction, but democratic, vernacular and bottom-up, stamped Made in U.S.A.  As the old, hopeful motto of the freed slaves in Reconstruction  ran, “Bottom rail on top”—or as a saying from popular black lore ran, “Every tub on its own bottom.”  It is difficult to imagine the immediate effect of jazz on polite society in 1917-18, because our world view is now wholly colored by the music and its culture, but some basic facts and feelings are clear.
                The world of 1917 was still in basic ways a genteel, middle-class, Victorianized, puritanical one.  Women were ”in their place” as were the “lower orders” of society, and only the dragging war in Europe disturbed a pax Americana that had lasted since the Civil War (discounting what most felt were filibustering expeditions in Cuba, the Phillipines and Mexico).  While young people sang exuberant and vulgar songs from vaudeville and ragtime and engaged in rude, shoulder-shaking dances named after animals,  basic U.S. popular culture was restrained, sentimental and euphemistic.  Feckless romance and late-Victorian prudery ruled.  Basic ideas and values influenced the reception of jazz and its meaning in the American mind, evoking key words like sexuality, novelty and freedom and feelings associated with them.

                The word “jazz” itself, at first indeterminately also spelt “jass” or “jas” or with oddly Slavic-looking orthographies like “jasz,” was from an oral, not a literate culture.  When the ODJB records appeared in 1917-18, the spelling in their title was “jass.”  Its origin is murky and long-debated, but it has a sexual meaning:  it is the active verb for copulation, filling a necessary niche in the polite vocabulary of “standard” English, which long lacked such a term.  The root verb “f*ck” is ancient and in modern times (since the middle ages) has been proscribed.  Weaker synonyms have existed, euphemistic in feeling (“screw” is the most prevalent semi-respectable euphemism today—in the eighteenth century it was “roger” and in fashionable 1970s Britain it was “bonk”).   In the late nineteenth century (probably) the term “jazz” rose in lower class and/or African-American cultures and achieved  U.S. currency by the 1910s.
                Eubie Blake (1887?-1983), who grew up with ragtime and early jazz, in an interview of 1969 was very precise on the proscribed nature of the word, associating it with prostitution and procuring.  He spoke of early itinerant piano players who maintained a “sideline” in procuring  (Jelly Roll Morton is the most notorious example).  Blake said, “They’re pimps.  I hate that word.  I never use it around women.  I never say ‘Jazz’ around women, either.  ‘Jazz’ is a dirty word—you people don’t know that.” (Russell 444.)
                Mythological or folk etymologies exist for the word as a musical term, eccentric and far-fetched, proposing it as derived from French for “chase” to describe the urgent tempi and rhythms, attaching it to a legendary musician named “Jasbo” or “Jazbo” or “Chazz” or “Chas” or connecting it to the vulgar term “razz” (as in “raspberry,” the kazoo- or fart-like noise of buzzed lips of the “Bronx cheer”).  Other attempts to explain—or explain away—the term involved odd legends and guesses, all carefully skirting the vulgar denotation of the term.
                One early commentary (August, 1917) from the popular magazines, a mixture of shrewdness and folklore,  first tackles the spelling, saying it “is variously spelled jas, jass, jazz, jasz, and jascz; and is African in origin,” then refers to Lafcadio Hearn’s reports on the “creole patois and idioms of New Orleans,” and Hearn’s assertion that it meant  “‘speeding things up.’” (“Appeal of the Primitive Jazz” 28)  The same report connects the term to show business:
                                “. . . the phrase  ‘Jaz her up’ is a common one to-day in vaudeville and on the
                                circus lot.  When a vaudeville act needs ginger and the cry from the advisers in
                                the wings is ‘put in jaz,’ meaning add low comedy, go to high speed and
                                accelerate the comedy spark.  ‘Jasbo’ is a form of the word common in the
                                varieties, meaning the same as ‘hokum,’ or low comedy verging on vulgarity.” (28)
The article begins by saying,  “A strange word has gained wide-spread use in the ranks of our producers of popular music.  It is ‘jazz,’ used mainly as an adjective descriptive of a band.” (28)  This is straightforward and shows that the term is new and its context must be explained.
                The same article cites William Morrison Patterson of Columbia University, a linguistic scholar  investigating jazz and popular music, who made astute analyses of the rhythmic qualities of the music, remarkable given that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records were brand new (although Morrison must inevitably call jazz musicians “savages” in the usual backhanded manner of the day):
                                “. . . jazz is based on the savage musician’s wonderful gift for progressive retarding
                                and acceleration guided by his sense of ‘swing.’  He finds syncopation easy and
                                pleasant.  He plays to an inner series of time-beats joyfully ‘elastic’ because not
                                necessarily grouped in succession of twos and threes . . . . The result is that a
                                rhythmic tune compounded of time and stress and pitch relations is created, the
                                chief characteristic of which is likely to be complicated syncopation.  An
                                arabesque of accentual differences, group-forming in their nature, is super-
                                imposed upon the fundamental time divisions.” (28-29)
This thoughtful and detailed analysis must have soared over the heads of first listeners to such anarchic and explosive outpourings as “Tiger Rag” or “Sensation Rag.”
                Another early article (April, 1919) in The Literary Digest, which printed many popular press musings on jazz through the 1920s, was based on an interview with James Reese Europe, the highly skilled composer, arranger and conductor, late of New York’s Clef Club and then a bandmaster in the U.S. Army in France.  It begins by noting, “The latest international word seems to be ‘jazz.’  It is used almost exclusively in British papers to describe the kind of music and dancing—particularly dancing—imported from America.” (“Negro Explains Jazz” 28)  Europe recites a fanciful etymology for “jazz,” which he said derived from “a band of four pieces which was found about fifteen years ago in New Orleans, and which was known as ‘Razz’s Band.’  This band was of truly extraordinary composition.  It consisted of a barytone horn, a trombone, a cornet, and an instrument made out of the chinaberry-tree.”  It is hard to tell if this is a straight leg-pull or a semi-sincere answer to an unanswerable question.  Europe goes on to say, “The four musicians in Razz’s Band had no idea at all of what they were playing; they improvised as they went along, but such was their innate sense of rhythm that they produced something which was very taking.”  The fable ends with the ridiculously strained notion, “Somehow in the passage of time Razz’s Band got changed into ‘Jazz’s Band,’ and f rom this corruption arose the term ‘jazz.’” (28)
                In the same issue of The Literary Digest, another article contains a cloud of quasi-mythological narratives, repeated in many jazz histories over the decades, based on current New Orleans Item stories.  The stories revolve around “Stale Bread” [Emile Lacoume] and his “Spasm Band,” a group of street-busking children around the turn of the century.  “Stale Bread” is credited as the originator of jazz, and Joseph K. Gorham (self-described “Daddy of the Jazz”) is quoted that the word was known on the Barbary Coast and to the “southern darky” as “’to mess ‘em up and slap it on thick.’  That’s the verb ‘to jazz.’” (“‘Stale Bread’s’ Sadness” 47)  The Item article spins its web of history-etymology-mythology, insisting that “The phrase ‘jazz band’ was first used by Bert Kelly [a night club owner] in Chicago in the fall of 1915, and was unknown in New Orleans.”  It continues that the word was pinned by imaginative entrepreneurs on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as “the first New Orleans band to use the term.” (48)
                A competing digest journal, Current Opinion, also reported on the jazz question, first covering the story about William Morrison Patterson’s research conclusions with a slightly different spin, underscoring the “savage origin” theory in its article entitled “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.”  It also emphasized the Chicago backgrounds of the music with a lurid quote from raconteur Walter Kingsley: “Chicago likes its pleasures direct, frank and unashamed.  It likes smoke, and fresh bullock’s blood, and the smell of the stockyards and the grind of car-wheels on the margin of Lake Michigan, and it liked jazz because it lent itself to close dancing.” (165)  Current Opinion sees the hot, sexy story of jazz as more interesting than Patterson’s quiet, scholarly lucubrations.
                A year later (August, 1919), Current Opinion followed this with a report beginning, “Good or bad, fad or institution, Jazz was born in Chicago, developed in New Orleans, exploited in New York and glorified in Paris” (“Delving into the Genealogy” 97). This odd geo-history is a drawn from the New York Telegraph, which continues, “‘Chicago presents as Exhibit A, Jasbo Brown, a negro musician, who doubled with the cornet and piccolo . . . . One evening a young woman frequenter of the café where he held forth, tired of the conventional manner in which the music was played, called out, “A little more Jasbo in that piece!”  The cry was taken up, “Jazz! Jazz!” and Jazz music was christened.’” (98)  This patently silly myth includes the spicy idea of a woman, possibly white (as a patron) who urged on the black musician, which returns us to the sexual connotations or implications of the word, as it was bandied about, even by sedate family journals.
                Wilder Hobson, an early serious commentator on jazz, wanted to have things both ways, writing in 1933 for staid Fortune magazine:  “The etymology of the word jazz is obscure. It was once jass, and some say it is the corrupted nickname of a Negro musician called Charles.  Others think the word has lecherous origins.  However that may be, jazz means different things to different people.” (De Toledano 138)   Many tortured attempts were made to find an etymology not sexual in origin, but hundreds of examples exist for the usage of “jazz” being at first sexual, graphic and prohibited.  This is part of the idea of jazz’s birth not in Chicago but in Original Sin, the sense that the sexual nature of the music must be denied or explained in a puritan (or at least hypocritical) culture.  Defenders and attackers of the music have both played the “sex card” repeatedly in defining the music’s nature and origins, either celebrating its blatant sexuality or damning it for its excesses.
                The basic story goes that the Original Dixieland  Band, white New Orleans musicians who went on the road in vaudeville in 1916, were libeled by rivals, who contemptuously referred to them as merely a “jazz” band, meaning (presumably) either a band that might play in whorehouses or a band whose music was “not worth a f*ck” or “only worth a f*ck” or perhaps even, “music that simulated (or stimulated) f*cking.”  It seems an ineffectual libel, since only those inside the demi-monde would understand the insult, and that is the point of this particular legend—that the band or a shrewd promoter decided the vulgar slur would be good publicity and included it in the name, putting the mysterious word onto advertising posters.  The story has the usual surface verisimilitude of myth and legend but probably is simply more ornamented  folk etymology.  The standard history of the ODJB explains the story succinctly, euphemizing the word along the way:
                                   It was during [the run of Stein’s Band from Dixie, a precursor of the ODJB]
                                at Schiller’s that the word “jass” was first applied to music.  A retired vaude-
                                ville entertainer, somewhat titillated by straight blended whiskey and inspired by
                                the throbbing tempos of this lively band, stood at his table and shouted, “Jass
                                it up, boys!”
                                   “Jass,” in the licentious slang vocabulary of the vast Chicago underworld, was
                                an obscene word but like many four-letter words of its genre, it had been applied
                                to almost anything and had become so broad in its usage that the exact meaning
                                had become obscure to most people. (Brunn 30)
While its meaning may have been “obscure,” it was because this gutter vulgarism was beyond the experience of most middle-class people.
                The word may have been  inserted as an in-joke, a minor double entendre that a few would find amusing or intriguing and that most would not even get. The promotional effect was like one of those invented words that advertising writers were then discovering as powerful attractions because of their unique, exotic sounds—the fabricated word “Kodak” is the most famous example.  Such words are both mysterious and (as Brunn says) titillating.
                One implication of the unwholesome epithet “jass” was that the ODJB played for “jazzing” or perhaps plays as if  “jazzing,” and the notion relates to the closed-couple dances of the time, the numerous  responses by blue-noses to the lively one-steps—the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear, etc.  They had been condemned as sensual, savage, brutish, and had in fact flaunted the ideas in their titles.  They were close dances requiring considerable body contact and uninhibited movement, anti-decorous, comically degenerate, like grotesque parodies of the staid, stand-offish ballroom dances of the last century.  They were rooted in African-American culture, in a tradition going back to the beginning of minstrelsy and “Jump Jim Crow.”  Now they were viewed as sexual dances, dances that imitated the body language of sex and unleashed sexual forces.
                The point of the word “jazz,” its semi-revealed, semi-concealed meaning, is obvious in early jazz and blues titles:  “Jazz Me Blues,” “Jazzin’ Baby Blues,” “Easy Rider” and other titles whose double entendre suggested a gaudy, bawdy universe of sexual activity in which the new music fit:  “My Daddy Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll),” “Empty Bed Blues,” etc.  (Jelly Roll Morton made a speciality of double entendre sex-joke titles:  “Sweet Peter,” “Fat Fanny,” “Windin’ [i.e., screwin’] Boy Blues,” “Strokin’ Away,” etc., usually grafted onto seraphically beautiful melodies.)   But these were only part of the music in its most blatantly sexual manifestation, the early music of rough-and-ready obscenity, low-down dance halls and bordellos, whores, pimps, johns, gamblers, petty thieves, addicts and drunks.  A tradition of unveiled insult and derision in early New Orleans jazz yielded contemptuous titles like “Kiss My F*cking *ss” or  “All the Whores Like the Way I F*ck,” euphemized later, and which led to bowdlerized versions for popular consumption:  the first became shorthanded as “KMFA” or was called by dozens of code names (“Pork Chop,” “Get It Right,” “Do What Ory Say,” “Gatemouth”) and the second became innocuously “All the Girls Like the Way I Ride.”  Thus, an elegant, popular jazz song like Spencer Williams’ “[I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody] None of My Jelly Roll” (1919) was known to a wide public, because listeners did not understand (or only dimly understood) the idea of  “jelly roll” as a euphemism for “vagina” and by metonymy for “the sex act” and even for “those who are sexually adept,” so Ferdinand  Morton adopted the flamboyant vaudeville moniker “Jelly Roll” and used it professionally throughout his career, meaning that he was a ladies’ man in a double sense—a champion sexual performer and sexual procurer.  The name was printed on all his posters, record labels and business cards without raising an eyebrow (except in puzzlement at its oddity).
                What is amazing in this process is not that these ideas are obscene by standards of the day but that they were so easily and readily accepted and passed into common language.   A profound naïveté in American culture accepts new words and ideas easily, at face value, countering  the puritan suspicion and defensiveness of the culture, the readiness to condemn as sinful linguistic excesses.  In the triumph of vernacular, demotic American speech from the early nineteenth century onward, the culture opened itself to new ideas and behaviors from below, from the margins.  African-American music moved from the margins to the center of the culture in just a few decades after 1900.

good ol jass
Something naughty back of the shack

                A root attitude in U.S. culture, connected with the rise of technology and industry, the promotion of invention, the strain we call “Yankee ingenuity,” is the appreciation and demand for novelty.  People in the New World struggled to dissociate themselves from the Old World, from  tradition, conformity, heritage.  The idea of new-is-better is a ruling passion, associated with the eighteenth century idea of progress and a cheerful belief in the perfectability of man that underlies the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and all other documents created by those privileged white landowning gentlemen who paradoxically created into being the most effective democracy the world has seen.  As flawed as they are, as rooted in class, property, elite privilege and the vicious evil of chattel slavery, the spirit of those documents invested and shaped the U.S., for good and ill.
                New African-American musics after the turn of the twentieth century answered the call of novelty.  First, they demonstrated a galaxy of novel musical materials and sounds:  the blues progression, vocalized instrumental tone, complex rhythm and percussion effects, polyphonic structure inside an envelope of improvisation (the term “collective improvisation” of the 1930s covers this).   Second, they brought lyrics and language with new attitudes toward life, love, the basic topics of popular music.  Third, they brought energy that was exuberant, comic, complex, replacing the tired European sensibility of the nineteenth century.
                The first side recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, undoubtedly at the urging of the Victor representatives, was “Livery Stable Blues” (aka. “Barnyard Blues”), which meets these criteria:  the musical sound was revolutionary, featuring “sound effects” on cornet (neighing horse), clarinet (crowing rooster) and trombone (braying mule) that comically exploited the distorted, vocal tone habitually adopted by jazz musicians.  While without lyrics, the piece was comical, parodic, disrespectful, anarchic—its whole point is to be satiric or ironic in a naïve, almost childish way.  The sounds and timbres are those any beginning instrumentalist discovers by accident and explores, and the ingenuity of weaving them into a whole composition is purely that of “novelty music,” a staple of vaudeville (and of the new phonograph record industry, which needed novelty to maintain its serial production).  The manic energy, ebullient late ragtime rhythms and brash self-confidence of the ODJB marked what F. Scott Fitzgerald would proclaim “The Jazz Age.”  Listeners to early ODJB discs must have felt bemused and bewildered by the dense sheet of sound the five-piece band created and exhilarated by the urgency of the music.  Organized in the usual AABBACC (etc.) format of classic ragtime, “Livery Stable Blues” does not sound symmetrical and carefully constructed.  The three wind voices are so strident and staccato that they mask the basic format. The drums and piano seem to create random rhythmic thrashing in the background.  Several hearings are necessary to sort out the simple, consistent musical lines and the precise coordination behind what seems spontaneously composed chaos.
                A reporter from the New York Sun wrote quizzically about this new band and new music as they opened at Reisenweber’s Café in 1917:
                                The musical riot that breaks forth from the horns and variants of tin pan
                                instruments resembles nothing so much as a chorus of hunting hounds on the
                                scent, with an occasional explosion in the subway thrown in for good measure.
                                   It is all done in correct time—there is no fault to be found in the rhythm of it.
                                Even though the cornetist is constantly throwing in flourishes of his own and
                                every once in a while the trombonist gets excited about something and takes it
                                out on the instrument, their tapping feet never miss step.  The notes may blat and
                                collide with a jar, but their pulses blend perfectly.  In fact, they frequently inject
                                beats of their own between the main thumps just to make it harder for themselves,
                                yet they’re always on time to the dot when the moment arrives for the emphatic
                                crash of notes.  (Brunn 55)
As odd and condescendingly comic as this passage is, in a Bertie Woosterish way, it is actually fairly cogent analysis of the band’s raggy jazz or jazzy ragtime and its involuted polyphony and polyrhythms, done when no critical vocabulary whatever existed for jazz.  The music’s urgency and novelty was clearly persuasive to this journalist.
                The attitude behind a piece of music like “Livery Stable Blues” is one of pure impudence or effrontery, an in-your-face joke.  If you object to such horsing around, you are a stuffed shirt or a dullard.  Like eighteenth century wit, it is meant to expose and ridicule dullness,  prudery,  self-importance,  self-absorption, the ponderousness and portentousness.  The music is as basic, flat  and elemental as a comic strip or film comedy character. The need for novelty by “music consumers” was not new, but the wide dissemination of phonograph records accelerated it.  Vaudeville and minstrel shows had succeeded for generations, because they brought novelties to the provinces, and performers had only to perfect an act which could be repeated over and over on the road. It was “new” in each successive town or city.  But mechnical reproduction meant that a record of a performance was distributed across the country, saturating the market, then creating a demand for another new performance, forcing popular musicians to create more and more music rather than mastering and maintaining a repertory.  The ODJB recorded numbers in 1917 that had been played and refined around New Orleans for years. 
                “Tiger Rag,” one of their big hits, which became a universal jazz-pop standard for a generation, had various names—“Jack Carey” (a trombonist known for the piece), “Number 2,” “Snotsy,” “Meatballs,” almost anything a band wanted to call it.  The competitiveness of the jazz scene drove leaders to keep their books secret from others.  (When asked the name of a tune, King Oliver invariably replied “Who Struck John?”—meaning “mind your own business.”)  Jelly Roll Morton invented a brilliant mythico-archaeological explanation for the genesis of “Tiger Rag,” claiming he constructed it from an old French quadrille, a multi-thematic, multi-metered dance form (accounting for its form), also claiming he invented the trombone portamenti or glissandi as forearm piano tone-clusters (the tiger’s roar) and that he named it, at the prompting of a listener.  Like most of Morton’s numberless plausible fictions, it is a convincing bit of  impromptu ex post facto rationalization.
                 “Tiger Rag” interests me because it is both a jazz vehicle that has inspired dozens of brilliant recordings and a prime example of  the era’s insatiable drive for novelty.  Like “Livery Stable Blues,” it uses an “animal effect”—the trombone roar, echoed in some vocalized effects by the cornet and clarinet—but is not as blatantly “sound effect”-driven.  Other ODJB tunes reflect the comic or manic sound-effect interest—“Skeleton Jangle,” with its danse macabre passages, featuring cowbell and temple blocks from drummer Tony Sbarbaro (aka Spargo), mock-orientalia in “Sudan,” “Sphinx” or “Lena from Palestina,” a herky-jerky rhythm of exciting clarinet breaks in “Ostrich Walk” (harking back to the animal-dance one-steps again). 
                But the craftmanship behind “Tiger Rag” is serious.  A playfulness in Larry Shield’s clarinet playing  is like the raw exuberance of the clarinet in traditional klezmer music, and Eddie Edwards was a notorious joker with and without his trombone, but they produce a passable version of New Orleans jazz, based more on 1910s ragtime than on black bands’ styles but still creating swinging ensemble and break playing.  “Tiger Rag” is an exciting performance, and its effect on innocent listeners in 1918 must have been stunning.  To listeners conditioned by parlor music and sentimental popular or operetta tunes, “Tiger Rag” must have seemed like a musical apocalypse.
                The tune begins at full throttle with an introduction (Morton called this the quadrille’s fanfare or signal for partners to form for the dance), repeated twice and leading to a first strain that plunges into Shields’ clarinet breaks. The introduction repeats in typical ragtime/rondo form (AABBA).  The third strain was also a break strain, with a clarinet solo embedded over a simple, powerful riff by the cornet and trombone.   Thusfar the music focused on the clarinet part and Nick LaRocca’s subdued cornet lead.  The fourth strain is the “tiger” strain, featuring trombone smears reminiscent of circus trombone showpieces that highlighted gaudy slide effects.  The final strain is an out-chorus for the ensemble in typical New Orleans jazz fashion.  Aside from the descriptive title, it is possible to take the music for a basic, straightforward jazz performance, designed for dancing and as exciting listening.  But the title is important:  more than a strange title like “Snotsy” or “Meatballs” and much more than a number (like an opus number from European music), “Tiger Rag” gives the listener a mini-“program,” an agenda for the music as much linguistic as musical.  We are ready to hear and imagine man-eating tigers, jungles, tropical heat, the mysteries of the East and the tropics, a sinister hint of evil suggested by William Blake’s “Tyger” who lives in “the jungle of the night” and exhibits “fearful symmetry.”
                The tradition in art music of not supplying program but of identifying form and key signature—“Sonata in C” or “Prelude in C# minor” or “Symphony in D”—is alien to the spirit of popularized African-American music, in which each piece proclaims its individuality even within the serial conditions of genre production.  A lively ragging-the-classics parody like George L. Cobb’s “Russian Rag” (1918) is more emotional and evocative by title, and more memorable,  than Rachmaninoff’s dry, academic precision of  “Prelude in C# minor.”  When ragtime became wildly popular at the turn of the century, ragtime publishers had to supply titles (and vivid lithographed cover art) for the dime-store publications.  Appealing to an audience largely of educated middle-class women, they responded with flower names, other gently romantic associations, and with exciting, slightly naughty ideas or stereotyped ideas of African-American exotica.  Faced with selling jazz in the years after 1918, record producers used the same popular tradition evoked, but this time aimed more at a “youth market,” at a middle class beginning to refashion itself  beyond the bonds of old-fashioned Victorian morality and manners.  So the ODJB’s titles piqued curiosity and interest as part of the reception of jazz.
                Some titles were mystical, esoteric, nearly surreal:  what could something called  “Clarinet Marmalade” be?  An academic composer would have called it “Rondo for Clarinet and Quartet” or “Konzertstück.”  Why is it “marmalade,” not “jelly” or “jam” (both jazz-inflected words)?  The music is an effective march-like, raggy stomp, like many ODJB tunes, with a particularly engaging and lyrical trio strain which any march or cakewalk writer would be happy to claim.  “Fidgety Feet” is an “invitation to the dance” title (it was earlier known as “War Cloud” in an attempt simply to be topical or timely).  “Sensation Rag” is in the tradition of vaguely evocative ragtime titles, and “Bluin’ the Blues” and “Mourning Blues” introduce the relatively new idea of instrumental  blues as dance music.  “Lazy Daddy” was another Edwards trombone piece (his nickname was “Daddy” Edwards, and “lazy” refers to the drawling trombone part), but as a title it is opaque. 
                The ODJB records were enormously influential.  More ordinary Americans probably heard them as an introduction to the new music of “jazz” than any others, and their style defined the music and its earliest associations.  They also influenced innumerable musicians, who were dazzled by their success and interested in the musical patterns captured permanently on shellac.  Major artists of the 1920s like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke learned by playing along, both these cornet virtuosi shaped by Shields’ rococo clarinet parts as well as LaRocca’s simple, forceful cornet leads.  A whole generation of white youngsters in Chicago made the ODJB repertory their own, and it continued to identify the music generically known as “dixieland.”  Armstrong named one of his exuberant cascading-break set-pieces “Cornet Chop Suey,” an echo of “Clarinet Marmalade” (“chop suey” was Armstrong’s name for stuttering or stammering speech).  He would also make “Tiger Rag” a showoff piece for galloping swing and upper register effects.  Beiderbecke recorded the ODJB repertory with an updated, jazzier rhythmic feeling.  Duke Ellington incorporated “Tiger Rag” into a half-dozen compositions under masquerading titles. 
                The novelty factor in these  first jazz recordings of 1917-18 was multiple: 1)  the whole genre was relatively novel and completely novel on record (setting aside James Reese Europe’s raggy 1913 dance records); 2) the clear, close-up Victor recording of the instrumental quintet playing fast ragtime was different from the orchestras or small combinations that had recorded ragtime on “vaudeville” instruments like the banjo or xylophone, so the whole small-combo sound itself constituted a novelty; 3) the use of “sound-effect” instrumental tone and instrumentation (the trap set of Tony Sbarbaro was well-recorded, and his ebullient use of cymbals, wood-block, cowbell, temple blocks, snare drum was a virtual master class in state of the art pit-band drumming—Spargo has been undervalued as a major influence on  jazz drumming); 4) the gestalt of the band included its playing, the strange song titles and even its bizarre appearances in staged “action” photographs purporting to capture their music in mid-flight—poses deliberately jazzy or comic-surreal in which trombonist Edwards seems to spring from inside the piano or the horn players are dueling with their instruments, which became pro forma in band publicity photos for another decade, part of the pictorial whackiness of the Jazz Age, as iconic as John Held’s kinetic flapper-and-jellybean cartoons.
                The element of speed itself was an important central factor to the modernist revolution in culture and the arts.  Esthetic polemicists like the Italian Futurists or English Vortacists emphasized sheer speed and change, the acceleration of modern life, as a remedy to the imprisoning stasis of tradition and the past.  When the ODJB records appeared, with their brisk tempi and dense, high-speed polyphony, the U.S. had geared up for World War I, intensifying its pace of production and technological change.  Henry Ford’s production line in Dearborn churned out Model-T cars at an ever-increasing pace, while the cost of the vehicles dropped in inverse ratio.  One of the most acute commentators on American culture, Ann Douglas,  summarizes the feeling of the era well in Terrible Honesty:
                                . . . the pace of change had not only accelerated but peaked in the 1920s:  the
                                consequent transformation of American culture was not followed by any cultural
                                change so wide or drastic.  The modern world as we know it today, all the
                                phenomena that to our minds spell the contemporary, from athletic bodies and
                                sexual freedom for women to airplanes, radios, skyscrapers, chain stores, and
                                the culture of credit, arrived on the scene then, and although these phenomena
                               have been extended and vastly empowered in the decades since, they have not
                                fundamentally altered.  Only the computer, developed in the 1940s from the
                                electronic calculator, can claim a revolutionary effect comparable to those brought
                                about in the first decades of the twentieth century.  (193)
This fast, hectic music must have struck listeners in 1917 as the voice of the future, telling  how quickly their lives would change—and they were right!  Speed and change were, paradoxically, becoming permanent and “traditional” facts of American life, as observers overseas knew.  America was the land of the new, the impermanent, an ephemeral and ever-changing kaleidoscope of the present melting into the future.
                The idea of novelty was uppermost in the minds of  executives at Victor Records.  When they issued an advertising catalog on March 17, 1917, as the ODJB records were released, it was headed “New Victor Records Jass Band and other Dance Selections,” over a publicity still of the band seemingly shot in mid-performance, with everyone leaning rakishly forward as if about to pounce or against a stiff headwind.   Below the photo is a blurb selling the new band and music:
                                                   Spell it Jass, Jas, Jaz or Jazz—nothing can spoil a Jass band.
                                                Some say the Jass band originated in Chicago, Chicago says it
                                                comes from San FranciscoSan Francisco being a long way off
                                                across the continent.  Anyway, a Jass band is the newest thing in
                                                cabarets, adding greatly to the hilarity thereof.
                                                   They say the first instrument of the first Jass band was an empty
                                                lard  can, by humming into which, sounds were produced resembling
                                                those of a saxophone with the croup.  Since then the Jass band has
                                                grown in size and ferocity, and only with the greatest effort were we
                                                able to make a record.  (Brunn 68)
Clearly Victor thought they had an ephemeral fad on their hands, and the nervous, condescending humor shows that they had no idea where the phenomenon might go or that any listener might treat it as anything but an elaborate joke, rather like modern art.

tuba and drum
The future of Jas?

                The novelty of jazz was a conscious issue in the years immediately after 1917—the relationship between this new music and general U.S. culture, the desire for modernism and up-to-dateness that concerned commentators.  A series of articles in popular magazines, like the long-running discussions of jazz’s meaning and origins, delved into the connection between jazz as lowbrow art and the traditional fine arts.  If jazz was the representative form of American art, what did that mean?  Were we a nation of comic-strip-reading, movie-addicted, gumchewing flappers and jellybeans, dancing our lives away beyond the cultural pale?
                As early as October, 1917, The Literary Digest reported the opinions of James Weldon Johnson (with his brother J. Rosamund Johnson half the era’s most famous black musical-comedy writing team and co-author of “the black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice”), then field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The summary entitled “The Negro’s Contribution to American Art” began with a bold proclamation:  “Our only original contributions to the domain of American art have come to us through our negro population.” (26)  Johnson cited the “Uncle Remus” stories and ragtime and spirituals as the proofs for this assertion, mentioning popular dance master Vernon Castle’s preference for black music and musicians and including an argument for the international reputation of African-American music:
                                . . . there is not a corner of the civilized world in which it is not known, and
                                this proves its originality, for if it were an imitation, the people of Europe at
                                least would not have found it a novelty.  And it is proof of a more important
                                thing; it is proof that ragtime possesses the vital spark, without which any
                                artistic production, no matter how approved its form may be, is dead. (27)
This declaration, on the eve of the jazz revolution, shows the public was ready to receive the novelty of  new black music.
                Even earlier (April, 1917), the busy Carl Van Vechten had written a similar argument about ragtime (meaning popular music of the preceding two decades) for Vanity Fair called “The Great American Composer.”  In it, he imagined a retrospective look from a hundred years in the future, which would ignore “’important’ composers of the present day” like Henry Hadley, Arthur Foote, Ernest Schelling, George W. Chadwick and Horatio W. Parker. (75)   Van Vechten insisted that the “true grandfathers of the Great American Composer of  the years 2001” would be composers like Lewis F. Muir (“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”), Irving Berlin (multitudes of pop hits but most of all in this context,  “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”),  Edward B. Claypool (“Ragging the Scale”) and Louis A. Hirsch (“The Gaby Glide”).
                In this fanciful jeu d’esprit, Van Vechten makes acute analytical statements:
                                   Regard the form of Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.  A writer in the “London
                                Times” calls attention to the fact that, although for convenience it is written
                                out in a rhythm of 8, it is really a rhythm of 3 followed by a rhythm of 5,
                                proceeding without warning occasionally into the normal rhythm of 8.  It is
                                impossible for many trained singers to read ragtime at all.  They can decipher the
                                notes but they do not understand the conventions observed by the composers in
                                setting these notes on paper, conventions which are as simple as their ABC to
                                every cabaret performer. (140)
A well-argued defense of the complexity of ragtime and other African-American music and its resistance to simple European notation.
                Van Vechten closes with polemics, making assertions about the new music (about to be joined by the new jazz records):
                                It is the only music produced in America to-day which is worth the paper it
                                is written on.  It is the only American music which is enjoyed by the nation
                                (lovers of Mozart and Debussy prefer ragtime to the inert classicism of our
                                more serious minded composers); it is the only American music which is heard
                                abroad. (140)
A clear statement of the pro-ragtime, pro-pop stance that recurred for the next decade in press coverage.
                By 1922, after the explosive unveiling of jazz, this argument surged, with pro-pop and pro-longhair forces squared off for the cultural soul of America, and The Literary Digest in January, 1922, titled an article “Jazz Played Out.”  The article quoted Richard Strauss, saying, “Peace to the soul of jazz—‘tho it gave little peace to others!’”  The New York Herald trumpeted “the decline and fall of jazz,” signaled by Leo F. Reisman’s orchestra, which abandoned clarinets, saxophones and the elaborate trap drum kit most naïve listeners identified with jazz. The article concluded “while jazz for dancers is moving off the stage, our reputable composers seem disposed to enshrine it in the halls of real art,” giving a lengthy description of John Alden Carpenter’s “Krazy Kat, a Jazz Pantomime,” an early attempt to fuse jazz and modern conservatory music (by way of George Herriman’s superbly subversive and surreal comic strip). (27)  This report hedges its bets—jazz is “dead” on the dance floor but resurrected in the concert hall, where it is safely tamed into bourgeois respectability.
                Which suggests the title of a Literary Digest report of November, 1923—“Respectabilizing Jazz.”  This reviews a song recital by Eva Gautier, who included pop music on a program “with the work of the most recherche composers among the modern.” (31)  The concert was reviewed and championed by composer-commentator Deems Taylor, who called her inclusion of American pop songs “a brave thing.” Taylor described Bartok’s songs as “acrid dissonances and murky introspection” and Schoenberg’s Gurreleider as “Byronic romanticism,” in contrast with what he named as “genuine, home-brewed American jazz,” in this case, Muir’s “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a Kern-Wodehouse song, the Kahn-Donaldson “Carolina in the Morning,”Gershwin’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,”  “Innocent Ingenue Baby” and “Swanee,” encored by Gershwin’s “Do It Again.”  This is a program of what we would now call venerable classic pop songs, not jazz, and it seems pretty tame 75 years on.  Taylor was combative in proselytizing for the music, however, and said of its effect on the audience:  “Here was music they didn’t have to think about, or intellectualize over, or take solemnly.  They didn’t have to do anything about it, in fact, except listen to it—which was easy—and enjoy it—which was inevitable.” (31)
                This innocuous reportage drew responses and stirred a controversy over “jazz” (i.e., pop songs) on “art” programs.  The Literary Digest included responses from Musical America, where one “A.H.” fulminated under the headline “Jazz Overadvertised” in December, 1923.  “A.H.” saw Gautier’s program as a mere publicity stunt:
                                   “Jazz is the triumph of American advertising methods, and as such is a
                                distinctly native product . . . . The appeal of jazz rests solely on its rhythmic
                                insistency; as to the other essentials, melody and form, we have no knowledge
                                of any jazz song which measures up to even a fair standard of true music.
                                   “Jazz is frequently an entertaining and lively diversion, not because of any
                                inherent musical qualities, but because of the vigor and vitality of the interpreters
                                (usually artists whose race or color make them ineligible for membership in that
                                other manifestation of the American soul—the K.K.K.).” (28)
The final gratuitous swipe implies something darkly coded about both African-Americans and Jews, both widely identified with pop-song production.
                The article continues with quotes from Herbert F. Peyser of The Musical Observer, who was equally wroth over the program and Taylor’s fulsome accolades: 
                                “The foolishness of the whole affair lies in the endeavor to propagate the
                                sophistry that such music affords the ‘only representative music,’ the ‘only
                                music worth listening to in America.’ . . . . The spectacle of Americans
                                palavering over these shoddy excrescences of national sentimentalism and
                                vulgarity as ‘current modes of expression’ and ‘symbols of the spirit of the
                                time’ makes contemptible watching.  The plain truth is that for any but the
                                most mediocre purposes of life we have no ‘national’ music, and there is nothing
                                whatsoever to indicate that we ever shall have.” (28)
The innocent musical experiment clearly touched nerves, and Taylor’s naïvely chauvinistic enthusiasm was met with big guns from the established culture.
                The debate continued in various forums, with another champion of pop music from an unlikely quarter—one Dean (no first name given) Smith of the Yale Music School was extensively quoted in a July, 1924, Literary Digest article, “Putting Jazz in Its Place,” in which Smith in academic fashion waffles and equivocates through a half-hearted, backhanded defense:  “‘Any criticism of the music is academic and uncalled for—provided jazz holds to its original purpose of entertaining people in their times of recreation.’”  But he objects when he sees serious musicians “‘professing to find in jazz a veritable treasure of art which is to represent America before the world.’” (31)  He finds jazz severely limited (“‘jazz is the exploitation of just one rhythm.  This rhythm is the original rag-time of thirty years ago.’’’ [32]) and basically only suitable for comic effects, comparing unfavorably with comic strips, which have “‘the added advantage over jazz of possessing the power of satire.’”  Smith grudgingly holds out hope at the end: “‘Possibly the jazz of the future will evolve into something else, something more varied than it is now.  Its main contribution will always have to be in the field of humor.  Here it performs a useful service to every American who enjoys a joke.’” (32)  So, jazz—as Smith understands it—is firmly put in its place, as a comic footnote to American culture.
                Another article in the April, 1924, Literary Digest, “The Effort to Take Jazz Seriously,” mentioned the notorious Eva Gautier concert, with a supercilious report by a British observer to the London Times:
                                “. . . what Miss Gauthier [sic] did was to put a group of such [‘jazz’] songs
                                in an Aeolian Hall program, ranging from Purcell and Byrd to Bartok and
                                Schoenberg, and a refined audience listened to ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’
                                feeling that she and they were making fools of themselves together.  An
                                uncomfortable business, only worth recalling to show how many are the birth
                                pangs which must be suffered before an ‘American School of Composition’ can
                                draw breath.” (30)
So the argument over the ultimate value of pop music lapsed into a debate over nationalism and “nativism” in American culture, in which the gurus of high culture defended their territory bitterly.  From the trans-Atlantic perspective, this seemed trivial, just those amusing, flyweight Yanks at it again.
                Weighing into the debate was a rising star of American music, composer-critic Virgil Thomson, who in Vanity Fair for July, 1925, wrote on “The Cult of Jazz.”  Thomson, a sophisticated writer and musical analyst, began by saying:
                                   The worship of jazz is just another form of highbrowism, like the worship
                                of Brahms.  To call Jazz  “the folk-music of America” may be good advertising,
                                but it is not very good criticism.
                                   Jazz is too sophisticated to be folk-music.  Like the Viennese waltz, it is
                                self-conscious, formal, and urbane. (54)
Thomson deftly summarized the recent experiments in hybridizing jazz and classical music, including the recent and controversial ones:  John Alden Carpenter’s Krazy Kat ballet, Edward Burlingame Hill’s Scherzo for two pianos and orchestra and Gershwin’s just-debuted Rhapsody in Blue.  Thomson gave a succinct and fairly damning (and accurate) analysis of the Rhapsody:
                                   Mr. Gershwin’s piece, in spite of the excessive praise it has received,
                                and in spite of its enormous superiority to anything that the better educated
                                musicians have done in that style,  (for Gershwin can write blues, if he can’t
                                rhapsodies), remains just some scraps of bully jazz sewed together with
                                oratory and cadenzas out of Liszt.  Mr. Gershwin is an excellent composer
                                for the theatre.  The concert room seems to clog rather than facilitate his
                                expression.  The Rhapsody is at best a piece of aesthetic snobbery.  (54)
Thomson treads a neat course, separating jazz from classical music as a basic part of America’s “vast and explosive musical energy,” and ends with a thoughtful diagnosis:
                                   I wonder if we haven’t learned the wrong lesson from the success of jazz.
                                It doesn’t prove that nothing else is worth doing.  It only proves that if you
                                keep on doing your own stuff, in spite of the highbrows, you will eventually
                                get to be good at it.  And what we like about jazz is not so much that it is
                                American (because it isn’t, very much) as that, whatever it is, it’s darned
                                good. (118)
The essay is sympathetic toward the new pop music, but it is also stringent in upholding musical standards and ways of evaluating different musical forms, with a gracious compliment to young Aaron Copland’s first symphony, which he values above all the jazz-inflected (and gimmicky or faddish) works he mentions, calling it “American music because it is honest, personal music written by an American young man.” (54)
                In addition to flurries of critical and editorial commentary on the amazing new music, there was also the sincerest form of flattery, plentiful imitation.  There were quite direct copies of the sucessful ODJB format and repertory by the Louisiana Five, with a star New Orleans clarinetist in Alcide “Yellow” Nunez, and by Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band, in which The Schnozz played a mean ragtime piano.  There were also cover copies of ODJB hits by bands of every description, all hoping that the label “jazz” would stick to them and bring in some of the glory, fame profits flowing to the New Orleans musicians.  And there were references to them in music, like Shelton Brooks’s “When You Hear That Dixie Jazz Band Play,” and like a minstrel-vaudeville record cut by the singing/comedy duo Collins and Harlan, “That Funny Jazz Band from Dixie Land” (Victor 18235).  In its chorus, Collins and Harlan sing in close harmony, impersonating a blackface couple, “Mandy and Henry”:
                                Oh, honey dear, I want you to hear
                                Their harmony queer,
                                When you listen to
                                Mad musicians playin’ rhythm,
                                Everybody’s dancin’ to ’em.
They then go into a comedy routine—the Tambo and Bones routine from minstrelsy or something like the Two Black Crows’ routines which were immensely popular on records (and were something of the forerunners of Freeman and Goslin’s Amos and Andy radio comedy routines:
                                Mandy:  I say, Henry, what is a jazz band?
                                Henry:  Why, a jazz band am essentially different from the generality of bands.
                                Mandy:  In what particularity, Henry?
                                Henry:  Oh, in many ways, Mandy—
                                                (interruption by exaggerated trombone smear)
                                Mandy:  Lawsy, is that one of the ways?
                                Henry:  And another is—
                                                (interruption by clarinet whinnying)
Once again, the idea of jazz is explained most simply by pointing to the comic, novel sounds of the trombone glissandi and clarinet portamenti.  Everyone knew it was a new music, but it was like the old eastern parable of the blind men and the elephants—it was defined partially, reductionistically, or by what Mandy calls “particularities,” one fragment at a time, never as a comprehended totality.  It was enough for most people to feel and revel in its newness without questioning too nicely into its quiddity.

                Another social and psychic value communicated instantly by the jazz revolution was a sense of liberation associated with the music’s exuberant tempos, raucous instrumentation and high volume:  loud, fast and out of control is the current phrase, while a Coon-Sanders Nighthawks tune of 1925 was titled “Louder and Funnier.”  What most ordinary young Americans imbibed immediately from jazz as it appeared on record and then in public was an invitation to shed inhibitions, to “let yourself go” in a basic way.  The animal-dance one-steps of the 1910s had already opened these gates, with an invitation to imitate or even become a turkey, a grizzly bear, a rabbit.  The deliberately grotesque postures and steps were intended not to display coordination and elegance (dances for the past centuries, from gavottes and minuets to cotillion dances of the nineteenth century, aimed to instill grace and public confidence in the dancer, to “improve posture” by presenting a social display for observers) but to be comic, to be dramatic, to become someone or something else.  A transformational impulse imbued the dances already, and the new, faster jazz tempi and jazz rhythms invited further extroverted athleticism.
                The old ballroom dances were controlled group set-dances like the quadrille (continued today in square and folk-dancing, in line dancing, in a choreographed swing dance like the Big Apple) or genteel couple dances in “closed” position—that is, partners loosely embracing, with a lead and following pattern.  Dances like the Charleston and Black Bottom, the Shag and Lindy, separated dancers, injected more athletic steps and postures that seemed positively ungraceful or disgraceful in traditional terms but that struck the young as new and appealing.  The steps required or invited improvisation and embellishment, individual nuances and styling which the old cotillion steps forbade.  The point was no longer conformity to an ideal pattern but individual expression—which might be a definition of jazz.
                Early writers on jazz were confounded in defining it, but they noticed that it was not a product but a process, not a noun but a verb.  The act of playing, the liberation from scores and convention was the fascinating new idea.  Gilbert Seldes, an important cultural guru and close observer of the American scene in  the 1920s, summarized it:  “‘1. There is no such thing as jazz music.  2. Jazz is a method of playing music.’” (De Toledano 49)  This echoes “the famous dictum of Paul Whiteman:  ‘Jazz is not as yet the thing said; it is the manner of saying it.’”  (De Toledano 10)  The root American esthetic impulse to emphasize process over product is central in jazz, whose glory is the unfolding of surprise, a movement from improvisation to completed form. 
                Titles and lyrics of jazz and pop tunes also disseminate messages of freedom.  In some cases these were fairly obvious—“Let Yourself Go,” “Anything Goes,” “Hello central, give me Doctor Jazz,” “Shut the door and light the light,/I’ll be home late tonight.”  In other cases they are covert, subversive attitudes:  “I’m a little blackbird, looking for a bluebird,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “What did I do to be so black and blue?”   While most are innocent by later standards, they are all light-years distant from the subjects and sentiments of the old parlor songs and naïve operetta tunes.  They use simpler language, drawn from a vernacular that is tough-minded and plainspoken rather than euphemistic and polite.  Hearing and singing the lyrics was an act of freedom, a defiance toward restraint and authority, a private language, a code of saying, thinking and feeling that excluded oldsters, puritans, guardians of tradition and morality. 
                It was more than a freedom from oppression, however.  It was also a freedom to create new identities.  The end of World War I, of the 1910s, seemed epochal, more than the turn of the nineteenth century.  A generation came of age that was twentieth-century in  origin, that marked maturity by the passing of two revolutionary amendments to the Constitution—the 18th Amendment (1919), prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and the 19th Amendment (1920),  granting women suffrage.  The first seemed a triumph for the restrictive forces of Temperance, one of the great nineteenth-century radical movements, allied with Abolitionism, women’s rights and other causes.  The second was the culmination of nineteenth-century radical feminism, the enfranchisement of more than half the U.S. population.  In fact, both amendments were revolutionary in the culture, creating a new era of liberated young men and women, reshaping American society. 
                The issues of freedom and value associated with jazz were as controversial as its ranking among the arts or its sensual-sexual implications.  First attempts to write about it seriously, after waves of tabloid-like sensationalism of 1917-18, still coped with the lurid connotations and unspoken pejoratives surrounding the music.  In “Jazz:  A Musical Discussion,” in the staid old Atlantic for August, 1922, Carl Engel wrestled with ways to detach the music from its stigmas.  He deals with the immoral-dance charges first:  “The silly, lewd gyrations for which jazz is held responsible by some are the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society.  But such dances were common long before the word ‘jazz’ was coined.” (182)  One discreet solution is to return to social dance forms of yesteryear:  “. . . devise a dance in which there is general participation, as there was in the quadrille, the figure dances, the milder forms of country reels. . .” (182-83)  Engel addresses the problems:  “To a great many minds, the word ‘jazz’ implies frivolous or obscene deportment . . . . the sarabande, when it was first danced in Spain, about 1588, was probably far more shocking to behold than is the most shocking jazz today.” (183)  He says, as many commentators did, that the sedate waltz was considered an immoral and obscene spectacle in the early nineteenth century.  He searches for a relativistic argument that is not merely self-serving.
                Then Engel moves to a cogent discussion of the content and form of the new pop music.  He connects jazz with earlier forms:  “. . . jazz is rag-time, plus ‘Blues,’ plus orchestral polyphony; it is the combination, in the popular music current, of melody, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint.” (186)  He  notes the improvisational, performance-oriented nature of the music:  “A good jazz band should never play, and actually never does play, the same piece twice in the same manner.  Each player must be a clever musician, an originator as well as an interpreter. . .” and  “The playing and writing down of jazz are two different things.  When a jazz tune is written on paper, for a piano solo, it loses nine tenths of its flavor.” (187)  These elementary ideas must have been news to Atlantic readers of the day.  Engel’s essay is not sophisticated by musical discussion standards today, but it should remind us that listeners of that day found the new music exhilarating and anarchic, an inexplicable and ineffable experience.
                A more astute early commentary came from Virgil Thomson, in an essay called simply “Jazz” in The American Mercury (H. L. Mencken’s brainchild) for August, 1924.  He begins briskly with a simple technical definition:  “Jazz, in brief, is a compound of (a) the foxtrot rhythm, a four-four measure (alla breve) with a double accent, and (b) a syncopated melody over this rhythm.” (465)  He continues with an extended analysis of popular dances and their rhythms, including a close discussion of syncopation and the fixed tempo of jazz:  “. . . a syncopated tune is not jazz unless it is supported by by a monotonous, accentless rhythm underneath.  Alone it may only confuse the listener.  But with the rhythm definitely expressed, syncopation intensifies the anticipated beat into an imperative bodily motion.”  (466)  This is an excellent insight into the seductive, hypnotic effect of the new music, its insistence on kinesthetic reactions—dance, tap your feet, clap your hands!  Paradoxically, the obvious freedom of jazz was Thomson’s “imperative”--to use the body not just the ears and brain in reacting to the music, its “soul.”  By invoking a physical reaction, jazz offered freedom from over-intellectualization, from obsessive rationalism and straitjacketing logic.
                Thomson also deals with the wide palette of tone colors in jazz, the “illegitimate” instrumental effects (liberating—now instruments could be played as their natures dictated, not just by conservatory methods, “anything goes” in creating musical sounds).  He cites glissandi as characteristic of jazz, borrowed from the trombone and mimicked on other instruments—clarinets and saxophones, song whistles, the Hawaiian guitar.  (His analysis is echoed in a contemporaneous comment by music critic W.J. Henderson of the New York Herald-Tribune, who said, “’Jazz was originally the introduction of portamento [glissando] effects on the trombone.  Afterward the ingenious players of the popular music found out how to produce these wailing, sliding tones on other instruments . . . . Portamento effects on wind instruments are the real jazz.’” [“Jazz Comes to Stay” 337].) A fascination of the ODJB records, especially “Tiger Rag,” was Eddy Edwards’ virtuosic tailgate trombone work, and the slurs, slides and smears of the trombone became a novelty trademark and sine qua non of the new music.  It was common for commentators of the day to connect the whole notion of jazz with the trombone effects.  Sometimes “jazz” is used as though it were just an ingredient or component of music, not the music itself, so a writer may refer to a piece and to “the jazz” in it as a passage or technique, as in “then the musicians put in the jazz, and the music became lively.”  This connection of “jazz” to musical gimmicks—eccentric drum traps, mutes, “dirty” tone, etc.—lingered for years at the edge of our understanding.
                Thomson lists other “new” tone-color characteristics of jazz:  “. . . the varieties of wind tone have been considerably extended.  Passionate or startling expression has been found in all sorts of vibrati and flutter-tonguing and in the covered tones of the muted trumpet and trombone, the muted clarinet, and the trombone played through a megaphone.”  (466)  These remarks  predate the remarkable small-band recordings of Louis Armstrong, on which he illustrated a new musical lexicon of trumpet tone-colors and stylistic tricks—rips, shakes, smears and varied vibrato voices—or the comprehensive library of trombone tricks put on record with Duke Ellington by the remarkable Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, the most creative mute-genius of the jazz trombone.
                Before ending ambivalently, listing  jazz’s limitations caused by its “monotonous” rhythm, Thomson is generous in praising its musical virtues:  “. . . one hears piano figures that are ingenious, counter-melodies that are far from timid, and experiments in instrumental balance that are of interest to any composer.  The harmony itself is at times varied and delicate.  The blues formula—subdominant modulation with alternations of tonic major and minor—is simple and effective.” (467)  He lists other subtleties and notes the cross-pollination between jazz and “serious music,” the way both forms were interacting, especially since “musicians play one night at the movie, and the next night with the local symphony orchestra.  They bring a few tricks to the latter, and they take home a great many more.” (467)  It is a judicious and even-handed evaluation from a developing American composer who was sympathetic to jazz and pop music without being partisan.  Thomson demonstrates how the presence of jazz was immensely fertile to U.S. musical culture in the 1920s, and the debate over jazz’s value was liberating, forcing all observers to learn new ideas about art, about the producers of culture (no longer only WASP academically-credentialed bourgeois), about sources of culture.  New media like the piano roll, phonograph, radio and movies created galaxies of new, thrilling art. 
                Prohibition nurtured the burgeoning subcultures of organized crime and created, paradoxically, a milieu of free-flowing booze and brought illicit thrills of minor criminal behavior to much of the society.  People otherwise law-abiding and “square” ignored the prohibition law and plunged into a newly created demimonde of cabarets, speakeasies, “drugstores,” blind tigers and after-hours clubs that  featured African-American music.  Jazz and the blues became more firmly identified with sin and depravity and moral turpitude, but the scene was colored by a peculiar innocence, the notion that it was all more or less “normal” as the spectacularly amoral president himself said.  “Back to normalcy,” Warren G. Harding’s blithe post-war  inaugural promise, became an expedition into the unknown, into a future both promising and terrifying because of its undefined freedoms.
                The liberation of women was a corollary freedom.  Women felt free to dress lightly—out of  constraining corsets and stays and hobble skirts and into light, loose clothing which could be worn comfortably because of effective central heating in tight, balloon-framed houses.  They shed the long hair once the traditional badge of demure dependence (the “woman’s “crowning glory”) and became boyish, or at least girlish, rather than matronly. They were not little mothers-to-be but pals, tomboy companions, who smoked cigarettes, swore manfully, drove cars, took care of themselves.  This freedom was oriented toward youth (“Flaming Youth,” in the lurid phrase of the time), toward the speed and bustle of modern life and its new tools—automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radio, a panoply of devices and conveniences accessible to middle-class people rather than the rich by virtue of serial production and the open market.  In this cornucopia of material goods was the new music of the period, disseminated on phonograph records or played on the radio or in night clubs and roadhouses. 
                The country was wealthy, while Europe was raddled with war debts and the immense costs of recuperation from the 1914-18 nightmare.  Industry boomed, the stock market soared, patterns of life changed for Americans in the big cities and even in the little “main street towns” Sinclair Lewis dissected so skilfully.  The soundtrack for this silent comedy was, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a wistful little waltz called “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” because it was always three o’clock in the dark night of the soul.  But it might as easily have been “Runnin’ Wild” or “Living High” or, more presciently, Ida and Jimmy Cox’s poignant “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which showed the pricetag on this prosperity, the economic and social reality of the other half of U.S. society not supping at the big table of unlimited wealth:
                                   Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
                                Spent my money and didn’t care.
                                Carried my friends out for a good time,
                                Buying bootleg whisky, champagne and wine.
                                   Then I began to fall so low,
                                Had no money, no place to go.
                                It’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
                                Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.
                The prediction would come true in 1929, when the post-war bubble burst and phony confidence that had floated the nation for a decade ebbed and left the smelly tidal flats of the Depression.  But for awhile, a root message of jazz, the sensation of liberation it conveyed, was obvious to the U.S.  While it now seems a hoary cliché, the notion of the Jazz Age was real and experienced by U.S. culture, changing it permanently.  The music brought powerful meaning to the optimism that had long marked U.S. culture, and even its faint echoes on brittle old shellac discs still convey the euphoria and promise of that young America Fitzgerald described at the end of The Great Gatsby, an elegaic lyric to the combined innocence and corruption of the day, naïve hope mixed with cynical disillusionment:
                                . . . I became aware of the old island here that flowered for Dutch sailors’ eyes,
                                a fresh green breast of the new world . . . . for a transitory, enchanted moment,
                                man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an
                                esthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last
                                time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder . . . .
                                back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the Republic
                                rolled on under the night.  Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that,
                                year by year, receded before us.  It eluded us then.  But that’s not the matter.  Tomorrow
                                we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther, and one fine morning . . . 
                                  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Fitzgerald here wrote one of the superb lyrics of the Jazz Age, a deeply felt blues for America and for the fragile American Dream born of  much hope mixed with much despair. ###


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Brunn, H.O.  The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz BandBaton RougeLouisiana State University
                Press, 1960.

De Toledano, Ralph (ed.).  Frontiers of Jazz. New York:  Durrell, 1947.

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Douglas, Ann.  Terrible Honesty:  Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920sNew York: Farrar, Straus and
                Giroux, 1995.

“Effort to Take Jazz Seriously.” Literary Digest (April 26, 1924), 29-30.

Engel, Carl. “Jazz:  A Musical Discussion,” Atlantic Monthly (Aug. 1922), 182-89.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great GatsbyCambridge University Press, 1991.

“Jazz.” Outlook (March 5, 1924), 381-82.

“Jazz Comes to Stay.” Current Opinion (Sept. 1924), 337-38.

*Jazz Overadvertised.” Literary Digest (Dec. 15, 1923), 28-29.

“Jazz Played Out.” Literary Digest (Jan. 14, 1922), 27.

“Negro’s Contribution to American Art.” Literary Digest (Oct. 20, 1917), 26-27.

“Negro Explains Jazz.”  Literary Digest (April 26, 1919), 28-29.

“Putting Jazz in Its Place.” Literary Digest (July 5, 1924), 31-32.

“Respectabilizing Jazz.” Literary Digest (Nov. 24, 1923), 31.

Russell, William, ed. “Oh, Mister Jelly”:  A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook.

 Copenhagen: JazzMedia ApS, 1999.

“Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.” Current Opinion (Sept. 1918), 165.

“‘Stale Bread’s’ Sadness Gave ‘Jazz’ to the World.” Literary Digest (April 26, 1919), 47-48

Thomson, Virgil. “Cult of Jazz,” Vanity Fair (June 1925), 54 ff.

________ . “Jazz,” American Mercury (Aug. 1924), 465-67.

Van Vechten, Carl.  “Great American Composer,” Vanity Fair (April 1917), 75ff.

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