If White Folks Had Invented Jazz, Would Anyone Care?


Back when jazz was young, say from 1915 to 1932, it came in two flavors: hot and sweet. Chocolate and vanilla, roughly speaking. The hot stuff took the weary old ache of the blues and stuck afterburners on it, blasting it into orbit. The men that made it fly were, for the most part, black. Names like Louis Arm strong—the Jimi Hendrix of the ’20s—Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton. People even Britney Spears has heard of (well, maybe not Jelly Roll, but I’d put even money on the other two).

But back in the Jazz Age, what the bulk of the Babbittry were listening to on their brand-new radios and fox-trotting to in their speak easies was the other kind, made by (mostly) white guys with new saxophones, guys who read notes off of music stands and wore tuxes. We don’t hear much about this vo-do-de-o-do these days; it’s the province of paunchy middle-aged white males who live with their moms and file their 78s by matrix number. As far as the jazz establishment is concerned, it’s shit. Bottled nostalgia, not Art. In fact, the critics have decided the town ain’t big enough for both flavors: The sweet stuff is “dance band music.” Not jazz.

I’ve been deep into the hot stuff for a dozen years now, and I’ve always pretty much gone along with that consensus, but two recent imports have made me rethink this whole sweet-versus-hot business. One is a serious and scholarly survey of “the white role in jazz history.” The other is a gaudily nostalgic wallow in the “good-time social music of a vanished civilization,” as its compiler (curator?) calls it.

Vegetables before dessert. Lost Chords is the two-CD “musical companion” to jazz gadfly Richard Sudhalter’s recent 890-page Oxford University Press book of the same name, in which tome he seeks to prove that whitey could play jazz and that anybody who sez different is some kind of reverse-racist moron. Rather than argue with him, let’s take it to the stage. Number of tracks: 49; earliest track, 1920; latest, 1944; mean year of origin, 1928; tracks by artists who first recorded before 1930: 39; big bands: 10; tracks with vocals: seven (plus one whistling and one comb-and-kazoo); tracks by artists who worked as New York studio musicians: 24 (more or less). The typical track here, therefore, would be a 1928 instrumental cut in Manhattan by a small group of session men. Like “The Wild Dog,” by Joe Venuti’s Blue Four.

Venuti on violin, the great Eddie Lag on guitar, clarinetist Don Murray stretching out on baritone sax, ragtime piano-dazzler Rube Bloom handling the rhythm—an all-star combo, guys whose every musical minute was booked a month in advance. Talented. And—a big snooze. “Wild Dog” is full of the kind of shit musicians like to get snobbish about: nimble fingers, lots of notes. Sudhalter singles out the “tempo shifts” and “thematic and harmonic variety.” It’s got that. But is it “music for both heart and mind”? If your heart is two sizes too small, maybe.

Some of the assembled—the Original Dixie land Jazz Band, Eddie Condon and his various outfits, Wingy Manone, Jack Purvis—made blazingly hot records; you won’t find those here. But neither is the stuff here particularly sweet. Lost Chords is really a secret prehistory of cool jazz: “clean,” “unfussy” music with “clarity and orderliness of line” (I’m quoting from the notes) and no “rowdiness” to mess things up—nor, unfortunately, much of the sup pressed emotion that made Miles Davis and his cool cohorts so poignant. End result: Even after repeated and sympathetic listening, 80 percent of Lost Chords comes off as something you rub on a burn to take the sting away. It’s nice, pleasant music, but, like Elvis says, it just don’t move me. (Some exceptions: the New Orleans Rhythm Kings; the Georgians; Lee Wiley; the Casa Loma Orchestra; Tommy Dorsey—on trumpet, not his usual trombone; Bob Dunn’s wild electric steel guitar. All heart-stoppers.)

Now for the baked Alaska. “That’s What I Call Sweet Music” is priapic curmudgeon R. Crumb’s ode to those fellas in tuxes, compiled from records in his collection. It has the single most beautiful CD package I’ve ever seen, a pricey little hardcover book with 11 full-color drawings by Himself and hand-lettered notes on pastel backgrounds. As for what’s in it. Tracks: 24; earliest: ’27; latest: ’30; big bands: 24; white bands: 20; vocals: 15; bands anyone’s heard of: 10. If Lost Chords is the art rock of its day, this is the power pop: tight, peppy music with corny vocal refrains—often by trios—and just enough rhythm to get by. The horns riff in sections and keep solo dexterity to a minimum; the songs have titles like “Hum and Strum” and “Happy Days and Lonely Nights.” Everybody’s happy, and I’m happy, too.

Red Nichols, who appears on both these collections, cut scads of combo records where, he said, “the principal aim was to turn out something that met the approval of your fellow musicians.” He also made a heap of “commercial” dance band records—which he hated—
just to pay the rent. If I have to choose between cynical, fun crap and closed-shop art, I’ll take the crap. Score one for guys who live with their moms.