When I began this protracted discussion about cliques back in March, I had a specific goal in mind: to describe American music as part-and-parcel of the many sociopolitical echelons that comprise America as a distinct cultural entity. I now see that musical cliques have an amorphous quality that makes them, much like American music as a whole, difficult to pin down. While I try to focus on improvised (American) music in my posts as a stand-alone phenomenon practiced by a dedicated and rather large clique, the truth of the matter is that very little music is entirely improvised, yet most music includes a certain amount of improvisation. To further confuse matters, some of the most memorable creations by improvising musicians were mostly composed (Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey”) while some of the best-known compositions were mostly improvised (Count Basie’s “One O’ Clock Jump”). Take that a step farther and you have the related philosophical tenets that the best improvised music sounds composed and the best composed music sounds improvised! The reason the blog focuses on jazz so much is that, of all of the musical genres that are distinctly American, jazz is the one that incorporates improvisation the most, with the arguable exception of Latin American music. This, of course, starts a slippery discussion of how to define “American” when referring to “American music.” One of the things I love about NewMusicBox is that we try to use as broad a definition as possible, so that music performed in America can be included.
As I mentioned in the above-linked entry, jazz, as a recorded music, will very soon be a century old. On February 17, 1917, the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band recorded two songs for the Victor Talking Machine Company, “Dixie Jass Band One Step” (introducing “That Teasin’ Rag”) and “Livery Stable Blues.” According to a currently accepted historical timeline, Victor originally offered trumpeter Freddie Keppard an opportunity to record with his Original Creole Orchestra in 1915. The group, also called The Creole Band, was co-led by bassist Bill Johnson and was engaged in a four-year tour of the vaudeville circuit. Keppard was considered to be New Orleans’s top cornetist (filling the slot left by the retirement of Buddy Bolden), but had moved to Los Angeles to join the Creole Band after King Oliver had “cut” him for the title in 1914. Keppard turned down Victor’s offer, ostensibly because he was concerned that others might “steal his stuff” and because the fee offered by the Company was much lower than he was used to getting for playing the vaudeville circuit (that the Victor Company also wanted the group to make a test recording for no money may have also been a significant factor). Things might be very different today if the Creole Band had accepted the offer. For one thing, the music being discussed might not be called “jazz,” since the word was mostly used as a sports terms, specifically in baseball.
The personnel of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (they eventually respelled their name) consisted of: Nick LaRocca, trumpet; Larry Shields, clarinet; Eddie Edwards, trombone; Henry Ragas, piano; and Tony Spargo on drums. Spargo’s (his real name was Antonio Sparbaro) drum set employed a large bass drum (played with the butt of his right-hand drum stick), a snare drum, a “Chinese tom-tom,” a wood block, a cowbell, and a single suspended cymbal. While the drum set used was fairly standard for the time (and deserves more study as a truly American instrument), what has made the ODJB controversial is that the group was not made up of black or Creole musicians. LaRocca, Spargo, and Ragas were from families of Italian immigrants, Shields was from an Irish family, and I have yet to learn of Edwards’s nationality. Whether or not this began the long-standing argument over supra-cultural appropriation of African American music, it is part of its ubiquitous presence in the history of jazz. One of the things that strikes me about this is that, at the time, Italian and Irish Americans were not considered to be white, so, strictly speaking, the OJDB was not an example of supra-cultural appropriation—although LaRocca, in his later years and long after Italian Americans had become “officially” white, argued that African Americans had little or nothing to do with the origins and early development of jazz, apparently thinking that the idea of jazz having African socio-musical elements was part of a Communist plot to mix races in the South. This is an example of how musical cliques can be detrimental to society at large. Anyone who believes that African Americans played no part in the development of American music is just being silly. It’s like ignoring the input from Native Americans like Jack Teagarden, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Mildred Bailey, Russell Moore, Kay Starr, or Jim Pepper.
I received a comment on my post last week that inquired as to whether I consider “a living oral tradition to be a clique.” I neglected to address that in my direct response but would like to consider the query here. While, certainly, a group of individuals who participate in a specific oral tradition can be considered a clique (since they can make up an exclusive circle of persons held together by a common interest), I don’t see the oral tradition per se as much of a clique but more as a method for disseminating information about the clique concerned. And, while I still haven’t read Performing Music in the Age of Recording, I think I will, for the time being, disagree with the premise that the body of recorded music serves more as evidence for a “shift in attitudes toward the musical past.” The example of Louis Armstrong’s filing his almost note-for-note performance of “Cornet Chop Suey” two years before he recorded it is a blatant example of how a recorded performance, commonly understood as improvised, was proved vis-à-vis academic-style research to be through composed. It was the research that provides the shift. In reality, it is understood by many of those who learned to play jazz by oral tradition that much of what is assumed by the general public to be improvised is actually pre-composed. But what I wonder is how technology dovetails with the oral tradition. When a master musician gives lessons by using recorded media (cassette tapes, CDs, video tapes), is this part of an oral tradition? How about our blogging at NewMusicBox?