Mr. Ellington, Meet Mr. Matisse


The logroll is a two-step worth avoiding. It’s OK to lead, but to follow is to invite public ridicule. As it is thus highly moral not to return the favor of a kind review, I have happily waved morality’s flag to dodge the works of betters, rivals, and dolts alike. Last year, however, I champed at the bit when Alfred Appel Jr.’s long awaited Jazz Modernism appeared, refraining even from mentioning it in my Christmas wrap-up, though few who aren’t related by blood were likely to know that in 1998 Appel gave a book of mine a kinder review than I’d have given it myself. I was so certain that his provocateuring originality would rouse the jazz press to impassioned debate that it seemed pointless to weigh in. The ensuing silence has been deafening. Worse, a couple of critics who might have been expected to at least understand it responded as if personally affronted.

So what do you have to do to get attention for a major work on jazz? It helps to join the union. If Appel has an audience in mind beyond the general public (he prefers puns and anecdotes to lit’ry jargon every time), it’s the academic world where he spent most of his life (he’s professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and the author of The Annotated Lolita), not “the insular, marginalized province of enthusiastic fans alone.” His subversive intent is to sneak Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Jack Teagarden, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk into the academic great-art canon. This doesn’t sit well with jazz critics who like things insular. Nor does Appel’s style: a contagious, orgasmic rush of mollybloomery that had me scrawling “no, no” as well as “yes, yes” in many a margin.

Historically, jazz criticism has shied away from lyrics, often patronizing them as necessary sops to pop. So maybe it takes an English teacher to note that on “Just a Gigolo,” Armstrong transforms the title phrase into “just another jig I know”; or that in “Star Dust,” only Armstrong (“a daring liberty and act of intelligence”) effaces the pompous closing line (“what exactly is ‘love’s refrain’? ” Appel asks); or that Armstrong obliterates the word “shine” with scat before reprising key phrases in a rhythmic assault that reminds Appel of “grotesquely sprung eyeballs in some of Picasso’s preliminary drawings for Guernica [1937],” as well as “flying body parts and vectors” in Tex Avery cartoons, and The Nightmare of the White Elephant in Matisse’s Jazz, all of which amounts to a typical stroll through Appel’s open museum.

As lyrics are wed to music, Appel’s record collection finds a stunning correlative (subjective, I think) in 127 illustrations taken mostly from Matisse, Mondrian, Miró, Calder, Picasso, Brancusi, album covers, phonography, baseball, and jazz photography. In his nonstop, garrulous, not-quite-stream-of-consciousness flow (the prose is controlled and well-timed; trapdoors noted on one page are sprung several pages later when you’ve forgotten to watch out for them), jazz interacts with visual and literary arts on so many levels that the music begins to echo from the paintings, all of modernism soaring in the same orbit—though I can think of no book that made me more impatient to get back to the music itself. The assumption that a jazz outsider must be a dilettante is laid to rest early with diverse observations and two of the best jazz anecdotes I’ve ever read (gimme a sec) completely buried in chapter two, which may be the shrewdest analysis of Waller’s “way of making light of weightlessness” ever written.

The anecdotes alone should have had the jazz world chattering. Were Parker and Stravinsky ever in the same room? According to Appel, yes, and he provides details. Better still is the blow-by-blow account of an evening when Buddy Rich went up against Sid Catlett, the former playing everything he knew at supersonic speed, only to be undone by Catlett, rolling the beat with one hand and lighting a cigarette with the other, at which point Rich yelled, “Sid, you motherfucker!” and kissed him. I hear complaints that Appel’s artistic references are too far-ranging for most readers, but I don’t buy it. The pictures he cites are there in the book; the records you already own or can buy; and if you’ve never read Hemingway or Joyce, he will make you want to read Hemingway and Joyce—and also Nabokov and Albert Murray, who, in a radical break with jazzcrit, is commended as a novelist for his “syncopated prose.” Appel is at his best locating the reality behind the metaphorical flights of Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse,” her riff on seeing Waller one night.

The central metaphor in Jazz Modernism is the ragpicker, the collagist who picks and chooses from the leavings of the 19th century, the technological wonders of the 20th, and anything else lying about high or low, to remake the world—the essence of a modernism that Appel sees not as Pound’s and Eliot’s forbidding footnotes and idiograms, but as an exuberant burst of affirmative actions. Convinced that only accessible art counts at the highest levels, he disputes the postmodernist assumption that modernism was arch and arcane. He concedes a problem here with Joyce, but bats it away: Skip the brief “Proteus” and the heftier but dated “Oxen of the Sun” episodes, Appel recommends, and Ulysses opens up like a candy store. The teacher in him can’t resist a few helpful hints—and cross-references, of course, though not to Malory, Carlyle, or even (especially) Homer, but rather to Rex Stewart’s “Menelik.” Calling a fart a fart, he connects the notorious opening episode, which initially kept RCA from releasing it, to Bloom’s hard-earned “Pprrpffrrppfff,” and goes on to argue that Ellington’s (Stewart was nominal leader of the session) putative tribute to Haile Selassie actually mocks “a colonial pawn, a toothless lion.”

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.”

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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