Shifted Cliques

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.

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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?

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4 thoughts on “Shifted Cliques

  1. Andrew Strauss

    Bravo for another excellent post! I think you are getting very close to stating some essential truths about the nature of music, especially when it comes to common misconceptions about “improvised” vs. “composed”. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought up Philip’s book as it does not address jazz, and I believe you are correct, American jazz’s relationship to sound recording is a very different one than European art music had. I just happened to like “Performing Music in the Age of Recording” as a Classical musician because it articulated a lot of feelings that I had after listening to recordings of musicians born in the 19th century. I’d like to take a crack at your last questions. I would venture that it is possible to learn orally from a recording if the master musician who recorded it is still alive and the musical milieu in which he exists is still going strong. Speaking from my own experience as a violist, I would love to be able to emulate the playing of Oskar Nedbal, a musician whose training was handed down over generations from the master violinist Viotti. However, I find this to be impractical. Even if I could ape Nedbal’s style (a very difficult endeavor) his playing inhabits a sound world that no longer exists. I would be subject to ridicule in the light of current performance standards. The fact is, I didn’t imbibe oral tradition from my teacher, nor did she from hers, nor did her teacher from his. All that remains is a diluted conservatory culture, and I admire Philip’s audacity in stating this unpleasant truth. Is blogging an oral culture? Probably. To frame the question in those terms leads us to consider the extent to which our lives are intermediated by technology, a topic I find disturbing to say the least!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Strauss

      I’ve been mulling over some points on the composition/improvisation debate and I thought I might as well post them here. To me, the entire distinction seems a bit of a red herring. I would say that improvisation is the beginning and end of all music making. Armstrong’s written-out solos are no more/less improvised than a Mozart fantasy. Music never ceases to be improvised simply because it was notated. In Mozart’s time, a portion of the concert was set aside for improvisation. Soloists would be given a surprise subject which they would have to work into a fugue(tough stuff). Of course, musicians relied on formulas practiced well in advance to cope with any contingency. In the 19th century, musicians espoused a sort of inverted Platonism: the score was merely an approximation of the ideal performance, a marked contrast with today’s reverence for the printed page as Platonic form. I don’t want to fall into the trap of equating improvisation with “interpretation”, but to paraphrase Furtwangler, interpretation ought to be improvisation in reverse. If I try to explain this to a non-musician, I inevitably get the response “but it’s better to create something(of one’s own)”. Yes, improvisation is hard, but does that make it nobler than interpretation? On the other hand, I have a pianist friend who’s a gifted improviser in multiple genres. His attitude: if there’s an abundance of excellent music already composed, why insist on playing your own material of admittedly lesser quality?

      Reply
  2. Kevin Whitehead

    Ratzo makes excellent points, as he so often does. Allow a nitpick: Although the claim is frequently made, Jack Teagarden was not Native American; his parents were of European heritage. Not that that takes away from the larger point, about how Native American influences in jazz/American music are often overlooked.

    Reply
    1. Ratzo B Harris

      I’m glad you picked the nit, Kevin. I have labored under a widely-accepted assumption that Jack Teagarden was part Native American. But now I’ve read the excerpts from Sudhalter’s refutation of this and a few bulletin-board threads that trace Teagarden’s heritage via census records.

      That said, I have to agree that a debate about Teagarden’s apparent claim to having Native American blood has sprung up. One has to wonder, then, what good would it do for Teagarden to make a false claim about his Native American ancestry? While it might give him some credibility among certain circles of New Orleans jazz musicians, especially fans and friends of Chief Russell Moore. But outside of that select group, it wouldn’t play to his advantage.

      Assuming that Teagarden wasn’t fabricating a whole-cloth Native American lineage, there is the question of why shouldn’t we agree with a few sheets of paper from the U.S. Census Bureau? Considering that the first mentioned, from 1880, was less than 20 years after the 1862 land run on the Indian Territories that pretty much erased any hope of Native Americans continuing as sovereigns in North America, it might behoove whoever was being counted to claim themselves, or represent other members of his or her household, who may or may not have been present for a census taker, as white. Another possibility is that Jack may not have been the son of John Teagarden (I know, how could I even suggest such a thing!), a not uncommon occurrence in the wiles of Texas at the turn of the century (or anywhere else at any other time, for that matter).

      To be fair, Teagarden was not a “well-balanced” individual. He drank himself to death and never gained the commercial success we might believe befitting a musician of his immense talent. Could this “imbalance” be the result of a partially hidden Native American heritage or just his native psychosis?

      One part of the refutation thread refers to an “eye-witness” account of someone who met Teagarden’s younger sister a year before her death and authoritatively claims that he “didn’t detect any Indian blood in her features” and that the 85 year-old woman “looked rather Teutonic.” Research like this usually upsets my digestion, but I would counter that the person I’ve been led to believe is Jack Teagarden that I’ve seen in photographs and motion picture footage seems to have features I’ve seen in Native Americans in other photographs and motion picture footage. But this is also no proof. There are examples of non-Native Americans who portray themselves as Native, like Iron Eyes Cody .

      So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Teagarden made the whole thing up, but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that he didn’t!

      Reply

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