Jazz: Life Among Disasters from its very beginning / by Francesco Martinelli — jazzahead!

Jazz: Life Among Disasters from its very beginning / by Francesco Martinelli

18. August 2020
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Jazz: Life Among Disasters from Its very beginning

Considering the fact that corona is not the first global crisis that the world (not only jazz) had been confronted with, we asked experienced Italian historian Francesco Martinelli to take a closer look into history how especially jazz had dealt with disasters of comparable impact and what helped it to survive.
I ts birth was determined by one of the greatest social catastrophes of history, in fact a defining event of modernity: the slave trade that in the course of three centuries forcibly displaced maybe 15.000.000 people from their homes and families in Africa to death in the travel or finally to the unbearable conditions of slavery on the American shores. Jazz was inextricably bound to disasters from its very beginning.

In New Orleans its development was spurred by another social catastrophe: the destruction of the Creole world, when after the Emancipation the Southern racist culture reacted with the segregation or Jim Crow laws, forcing a conflation of Creole culture with the practices of African-originated people of more recent arrival in the New World. The music thrived in the open environment of New Orleans where remains of African traditions, Opera, song and dance had a free exchange: the radical differences between the two most important and influential musical genres created by the African diaspora in America, blues and jazz, born a few kilometers apart, depend on the very different social fabric of the cosmopolitan town and the isolated country communities. No stranger to epidemics, the Louisiana city in the course of the XX Century progressively lost importance due to the shift to rail shipping for agricultural goods produced in the basin of the Mississippi: with a further eradication, the music born in New Orleans in order to survive had to move North, to Chicago and New York, to Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Its sister music, the blues, developed in a relatively close area where social textures were however different: the Delta, upriver from New Orleans, a rich soil where agricultural laborers lived in abysmal conditions even after Emancipation and where penitentiary farms like Parchman provided an unbelievable amount of musical talent. When the blues in the 20s slowly arrived on the scene, it sung also of natural catastrophes, be it the High Water Blues sung by Bessie Smith about the flood, or the Boll Weevil Blues about the beetle devastating cotton field famously sung by Leadbelly, among others. Those forces of nature that could be placated or dealt with through agricultural and social practices in Africa, creating a harmony of mankind with its surroundings through a system of belief, here seemed merciless. Songs and music provided relief, collective spirit, and an alternative system of thought to the dominant white society.

Blues and jazz share their roots but they diverge on an important point. Jazz is one of the many popular music genres born or consolidated at the beginning of the XX Century when urban entertainment was changed by the arrival of the phonographic industry. From Fado in Lisbon to Neapolitan song in Italy, from Tango in Buenos Aires to Tarab in Cairo, from Samba in Rio to Son in Havana, they were all born in conditions of intense exchange of people, goods, and culture, in harbor cities where music changed fast and the risk of development of viral infections was also highest. Blues on the contrary seemed to go constantly back to its origins, and the never ending quest for its ultimate origin is part of its history and mythology. Jazz went viral before the phrase was fashionable and developed in a way that is comparable to a virus infection.

Using the categories adopted in studies of human geography, jazz developed initially through a diffusion by relocation (of African-originated populations on American soil) and then through diffusion by expansion (in the 1920s began spreading to other major metropolitan locations, as players from New Orleans carried their unique sound to new venues) through a hierarchical model (from an initially “selected” group into the larger population, typical of adoption of aspects of popular culture, as well as diseases), and finally it stimulated other social groups and other countries to adopt its processes, creating their own forms of jazz, in yet another diaspora.

And jazz did have to fight the stigma of disease in its affirmation: critics used words like ‘pathological’, ‘infection’, ‘virus’, ‘epidemic’, and ‘cancer’ to describe it, while doctors painted jazz enthusiasts as “nervous and fidgety,” with “perpetually jerking jaws.” In Cincinnati, a maternity hospital successfully petitioned to have a nearby jazz club shut down, arguing that exposing newborns to the offending music would have the effect of “imperiling the happiness of future generations.” The Ladies’ Home Journal wrote that jazz was putting ‘the three simple elements of music—rhythm, melody and harmony … out of tune with each other’. The result, according to opponents of jazz, was ‘not real music’, but rather a series of ‘epileptic fragments’ that could actually induce the disease. Music could be used as a therapy, but only “beautiful music” with a “regular rhythm”, which meant “European high art music”, not this genre primarily inspired by African-American music and still ultimately by African music itself, reduced in the Euro-American imagination to an incessant beat of drums evoking sensuality or waking up the dead.

Jazz had to be quarantined, like African-American populations had to be segregated and not allowed to “pollute” the genetic and cultural pool of the dominant White group, in the most abhorred event of “miscegenation”. Almost simultaneously with the arrival of African-American artists and repertoire on the market of popular music with the success of Mamie Smith's “Crazy Blues” in 1920 – the first true jazz disc - and the beginning of the segregated market of “race records”, Prohibition started and jazz, giving its name to the Jazz Age, was the appointed soundtrack to the consumption of illegal beverages, gambling and prostitution under the control of racketeers and organized crime. That so many musicians managed to rise above such conditions to create the music of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven, and of the orchestras led by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, should not stop being for us a source of wonderment. With complex strategies of meaning displacement, of metaphor and metonym, in short all that is called signifyin', they conquered inch by inch their space for expression and their public exposure.

Mercilessly picked by white popular music in what has been rightfully called a process of Africanization of American Pop, Black musicians developed new vocal and instrumental techniques, Black dancers new steps and fluidity of movements, Black composers and arrangers new ways of interaction between instantaneous creation and ensemble music: by the end of the decade thanks to Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington the language of the big band was in place. Despite a limited amount of interest from the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and in particular stride piano, was the soundtrack of survival, when “rent parties” became an effective way for families to pool together resources and manage relations with landlords. Disaster struck again in 1929, with the crash of Wall Street, drying the source of income for many jazz musicians who disappeared from the record industry, some forever, some to reappear in the mid-30s; some returned to manual labor, some survived in popular entertainment: barn dances, tent shows, vaudeville. Meaningfully Louis Armstrong, who had moved to New York from Chicago in 1929, reinvented himself many times in the first half of the decade: moved to Los Angeles, made movies, toured Europe living there for more than one year around 1933, but above all metamorphosed into a singer fronting already established big band, choosing Hoagy Carmichael's songs as vehicles (Stardust, Lazy River) and under many respects establishing the still current tradition of reworking pop songs for jazz expression, staking his and jazz's claim to a repertory of composed songs that after the 20s was mostly jazz inflected.

When multiple events around 1935 signaled the end of the Depression the celebrative music and dancing styles created in the Black culture were ready to be mainstreamed through white bands, song and dance: Benny Goodman, Dorsey Brother and Glenn Miller, Fred Astaire's Cheek to Cheek, and jitterbugs; concurrently the Black bands lived a golden era of social prestige and financial stability.

Concurrently another story of survival was beginning in Europe, where Roma musician Django Reinhardt was entering his second life as a jazz musician, after achieving early success as a dance banjoist and dealing with the first disaster of his career, the loss of mobility in two fingers of the left hand due to injuries sustained in the fire of his caravan several years before. Jazz provided space for bodies that were different from the “temporarily able bodies” of normality. As George McKay put it, “jazz was capable of flexibility and sought novelty...in its concern with the individual voice of expression, its fetish of the desire for the musically unique in tone or approach, jazz was open and welcoming to those who could, as Laurie Stras has put it, ‘sing a song of difference’”.

On both sides of the Atlantic things would radically change in a few years. Fascism in Italy and later Nazism in Germany would actively fight African-American music, trying to prohibit it or conversely to incorporate it in an Aryan superiority discourse. Django would walk on the knife's edge in the occupied France, developing his own strategy of survival in his doubly dangerous position of Gypsy person and jazz musician, and providing with his Nuages an unofficial anthem of Resistance; in Italy, Germany and soon the rest of Europe jazz would survive through adaptation and camouflaging, always suspicious to the authorities but at the same time essential in the nightlife, for the radio, and for the record industry, often representing a focus for different forms of dissent. Wartime in the USA was marked by the amazing rise of the All-Girls band, musical Riveter Rosies that rushed to fill positions left by drafted men in a display of talent that remained hidden before – and mostly also after - the war.

Race barriers were still in place after the war in USA, despite the name change of the music categories in the polls, where “race records” was substituted by “rhythm'n'blues”. At the beginning of bebop the protest was still implied, but it came out in the open in the 50s together with the development of the Civil Rights movement. Jazz, including its leading figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, tackled the issue head-on. Any discussion about jazz in the marketplace trying to overcome the “disaster” of the rise of rock'n'roll and the demise of the big bands as popular music must deal with racist exploitation and the creation of different “streams” of jazz.

By its very flexible nature, and by the charged meaning of its origins, jazz sits uneasy across the markets of traditional, popular and 'art' music, managing to survive through juggling personalities but more often than not shortchanged by public and private bodies: refused in the Conservatories until the 70s as 'popular', but not marketable enough; essential in the recording studio for the creative qualities of its players, but as improvisers unrecognized in the copyright system of composition. Will its capability for adaptation, its being a music of the time and of the place provide a viable alternative to the failed model of streaming and mass performance after the COVID crisis?


Reuel R. Hanks, Diffusion, in Encyclopedia of Geography Terms, Themes, and Concepts, ABC-CLIO (2011)

Russell L. Johnson, 'Disease Is Unrhythmical': Jazz, Health, and Disability in 1920s America, in Health and History, Vol. 13, No. 2, Special Feature: Health and Disability (2011)

Dave Laing, The Jazz Market, in The Cambridge companion to jazz, ed. by Mervyn Cooke, David Horn, Cambridge University Press (2002)

George McKay, Jazz and disability, in The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies, ed. by Nicholas Gebhardt, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Tony Whyton, Routledge (2019)