The concept of progress: appreciating Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz

Somewhat against my better judgment, I’ve been desultorily reading Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz. These kind of books are dangerous, to me anyway, because in the minutes it takes to read a few pages you can come up with many, many hours of new stuff to listen to. But it has already inspired me to go back and listen again to some great early jazz recordings which have not been on the playlist for many years–in particular, rediscovering the sprightly chamber jazz of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang has been a real treat. And passages like this one lift the book far above the ordinary:

From its earliest days, jazz had been a forward-looking art, continually incorporating new techniques, more expansive harmonies, more complex rhythms, more intricate melodies. Sometimes this ideology of progress was stated explicitly, as in Beiderbecke and the Chicagoans’ oft-spoken praise of Stravinsky and other contemporary classical composers; in other instances, no words were necessary, as with the implicit modernism of Armstrong’s breakthrough recordings of the 1920s. But whether they expostulated about the future of music or merely announced its arrival through the bells of their horns, the leading musicians of early jazz were modernists in the truest sense of the term. They were admired—or chastised, as the case may be—as daring exponents of the new and bold.

It is easy to lose sight of just how remarkable this modernist bent was, given its context. The concept of progress has played a modest role in most ethnic music traditions. Those who draw connections between jazz and African music miss this important difference. The griots of West Africa, for example, aim to preserve their cultural legacy as it is handed down to them. This is not a mere aesthetic choice, but a cultural imperative: they are the historians of their society and must maintain the integrity of their precious musical heritage. …

Almost from the start, jazz players embraced a different mandate, accepting their role as entertainers and pursuing experimentation with an ardent zeal. This created a paradoxical foundation for jazz, one that remains to this day: for the jazz musician soon proved to be a restless soul, at one moment fostering the tradition, at another shattering it, mindless of the pieces. Even more striking, this progressive attitude of early jazz players came from members of America’s most disempowered underclass. Recall that this music was not only viewed with apprehension by much of the ruling class but was often belittled and derided even within black America’s own ranks. In the face of this hostility, simply preserving the African American vernacular music heritage—saving the legacy of a Buddy Bolden or King Oliver from the oblivion that obscures the early history of most traditional forms of music— would have been a major achievement. But advancing the jazz idiom to produce an Ellington or Armstrong was nothing short of miraculous—and all in the span of a single generation. One searches in vain through all the countries of the world to find another example of such a rapid and dramatic transformation from folk music to art music.

Books like these are a huge organizational challenge because the material can be approached so many different ways: chronologically, biographically, thematically. Gioia has done a good job of using all three approaches; the frame of the book is chronological, but when he introduces each figure they get a full biographical treatment, even when that requires going well outside the chronology of the rest of the chapter. For instance, the xylophonist Red Norvo is discussed early on for his 1930s recordings, but Gioia also assesses his 1950s work with Mingus and other later recordings (the treatment of Norvo is also a good example of Gioia’s generous approach to “minor” figures outside the standard jazz pantheon).

He is also, by the way, an excellent guide to more recent music: his annual best-of lists are wonderful, eclectic and huge.

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