Mr. Ellington, Meet Mr. Matisse

Alfred Appel Connects the Moderns

Appel may be wrong about that—Ellington probably wouldn't have said even if asked—but his interpretation is a convincing example of the insightful uses to which he puts old-fashioned close reading. In contrast, jazzcrit, invested as it is in Intentionality and Authenticity, has always been skeptical about textual analysis. Appel can prove that Mondrian understood and loved boogie-woogie, but he can't prove that Waller had Varèse and Gershwin in mind when he employed the "aleatory" sirens in "The Joint Is Jumpin'," and he grants that Armstrong's closing "yes, yes" in the 1934 "Honeysuckle Rose" is only an "unintentional echo" of Molly Bloom. All he can do is juxtapose textual facts, which you may or may not see his way. The refreshing thing is that Waller and the rest are presumed to be titanic artists soaking up the world outside the sanctum of jazz, every bit as much virtuoso ragpickers as academically accepted white artists of the same era. He gives no racial passes; the only noble savage in this book is Brancusi's King of Kings.

Appel has interesting things to say about race, not least regarding a photograph of Waller trying to jitterbug with a smiling but firmly planted English woman on a transatlantic liner. He shows how color was subverted on album covers—Armstrong turned terra cotta, Bix and Trumbauer red and green, boogie-woogie hands rendered as one black and one white. And if it seems a stretch to note that the Victory Red lipstick advertised by Elizabeth Arden is the same as that painted on the Ellington caricature used for his wartime bandstands, you figure it out. Why is Ellington wearing lipstick anyway? Several startling passages concern Teagarden, so widely accepted as an honorary Negro that no one thought twice about his singing "Black and Blue." Armstrong integrated his band with Teagarden one month after the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson (and one year before Parker hired Red Rodney), but how to explain Louis's publicly addressing Teagarden as Homes, Brother Jackson, Boy, and Daddy, something he didn't do with "the bona fide blacks in the first, best edition of the All Stars."

Appel also traces the evolution of Armstrong's public sexuality. Making race records, he was rambunctiously sexual. Moving upward and outward into Tin Pan Alley acceptance, he focused on melancholy and submissive love songs, though he soon reinvested them erotically by punctuating phrases with the epithet "Mama," a code designed to suggest a black woman, which made it all right. Appel captures Armstrong's plight in his description of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love": He sings the lyric "breathlessly, as though he were walking up a hill or is on the brink of hyperventilation," and then erupts with stop-time ejaculations of word fragments—a "vertical column in space," in Appel's description, and "a thrilling moment in Armstrong's life and art, the genesis of his great international career."

A contagious, orgasmic rush of mollybloomery
photo: Jay Muhlin
A contagious, orgasmic rush of mollybloomery

There is plenty to disagree with. The jazz avant-garde does too offer humor and joy. Waller's first take of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" is not mediocre, though I'm glad Appel forced me to dig out the arguably superior alternate. Monk ultimately proved most accessible and lots of people can hum "Criss Cross" and "Evidence." Appel underestimates resources involved in the Hot Fives and Sevens when he says they don't employ the strategies of ragpicking. Nat Cole could be a damned erotic singer, and I won't get started on Bing Crosby. Appel's biggest misstep politically is to state more than once that territory he explores has never been tackled before—hell, his take on the Armstrong-Mills Brothers sessions is in the book of mine he reviewed. But he vastly extends the territory, pushing buttons and framing arguments in ways that demand fresh responses. How many works of jazz criticism have ever done that? How many practitioners of jazz criticism are ready to extend the dialogue?

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