Hugh L. Smith, Jr. (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: “Jazz in the American Novel,” in The English Journal, Vol. XLVII, No. 8, November, 1958, pp. 467-478.
[In the following essay, Smith examines the inclusion of jazz music from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ralph Ellison, John O'Hara, and Nelson Algren.]
Since the late thirties enough has been written about jazz as an art form to warrant its dignity with those who claim any real breadth of reading. And jazz has become an intellectual fad in the fifties, which is fortunate, for now the burden of disproof rests with the unbelievers: jazz is no longer a talented but naughty waif trying to slide in the temple door behind the tuxedoed respectability of classical music.
Jazz has been denotatively defined as successfully, at least, as poetry ever has. One such definition was arrived at by a roundtable conducted by professor Marshall Stearns of Hunter College and held at Music Inn, Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1951: “Jazz is an improvisational American music utilizing European instrumentation and fusing elements of European harmony, Euro-African melody, and African rhythm.” An introductory reading list of critical-historical books dealing with jazz as an art—and they were written for the most part by literary men to whom jazz owes a great deal—might contain Frederic Ramsey and Charles E. Smith's Jazzmen, Wilder Hobson's American Jazz Music, Robert Goffin's Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, Rudi Blesh's Shining Trumpets, Barry Ulanov's A History of Jazz in America, Marshall Stearns' The Story of Jazz, and Andre Hodeir's Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence.
In the treatment of jazz by American novelists, three trends are apparent: a quantitative increase in jazz subject matter, a qualitative advancement in the accuracy of portrayal of the jazz world, and a consistently romantic treatment of jazz subject matter. The third development is a unique survival which defies the present age of conformity—a tiny literary revolution, a possible harbinger of the New Romanticism that may lie somewhere ahead as our inevitable anodyne. This Romanticism is American, a Transcendental brand which concerns celebration of self, expansiveness, high idealism, belief in art, anti-materialism, non-conformity, and—amazingly in our Eliot-Tate-ridden age—fearlessness and an acceptance of both life and death. Its major modification from the Transcendentalism of our great-grandfathers is its amorality.
JAZZ AS ATMOSPHERE
Jazz in the American novel can be broken down into divisions based on the author's apparent purpose in using it: for atmosphere and mood; as a set of romantic symbols to the professional musician; and as a set of romantic symbols to the jazz listener. The use of jazz for mood first appeared in the twenties. Here the distinction between jazz and the treacly dance music of the day must be insisted upon, for the latter, borrowing its novelty from jazz percussive effects, was employed by novelists also. Literary treatment of popular music loses most of its power when the musical style portrayed goes out of vogue; this is not true of jazz, for no jazz style has been lost—each is still being played on records and in public. Young bands like those of Lu Watters in the forties and Bob Hodes in the fifties are representative of many which continue to use the earliest instrumentation, including banjo and tuba, to obtain authentic traditional jazz effects.
Though writers of the twenties struggled along with popular music for the most part, even a Michael Arlen might be affected by what seems to be a jazz form. The book is The Green Hat, and the setting is Paris, which was visited by several early jazz units:
They call this rhythm the Blues. It reminded you of past and passing things. … It reminded you of the scent tangled in the hair of she with whom you had last danced to that rhythm. … You mourned the presence of the dead. You mourned the memory of the living. They call this rhythm the Blues. It reminded you of regret.1
Although Scott Fitzgerald employed popular music in every novel he wrote, he gave us few passages that suggest jazz. One occurs in The Beautiful and Damned, when Anthony Patch is serving in a South Carolina army camp (Fitzgerald served in Alabama):
He liked Johnston's Gardens, where they danced, where a tragic negro made yearning, aching music on a saxophone until the garish hall became an enchanted jungle of barbaric rhythms and smoky laughter, where to forget the uneventful passage of time upon Dorothy's soft sighs and tender whisperings was the consummation of all aspiration, of all content.2
Toward the end of what he wrote of The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald shows an acquaintance with the “swing” enthusiam of the thirties, which America owed to Benny Goodman and the others who popularized Swing—a jazz style featuring a heavy four-four beat, driving ensembles, and improvised solos. Swing reached a public much larger than that of King Oliver and the little-known Negro jazz units of the twenties, handicapped as they were by race and by the social onus of the only places which would hire them. Fitzgerald employs Swing for a simile in the scene in which Monroe Stahr, the producer, uses the British writer Boxley to inspire a played-out group of screen writers working on a picture:
Suddenly they were at work again—taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it. They might throw it out again tomorrow, but life had come back again for a moment.3
Fitzgerald, the “chronicler” of what was, paradoxically, a counterfeit Jazz Age, had only these things to say about jazz; yet what he said was approving, was romantic, and contained references to idealism, tragedy, and vitality.
Fitzgerald's “enchanted jungle of barbaric rhythms,” in The Beautiful and Damned, could bring to a number of minds Carl Van Vechten, that antic and romantic novelist and music critic of the twenties who has been accused by certain jazz critics4 of glorifying the Negro and his music for the insincere purpose of encouraging the “jungle” fad of the twenties, thereby offering himself and the sad young people the promise of id releases. Edward Lueders' recent book on Van Vechten5 leaves us instead with a man whose sincerity and musical taste remain unimpaired by any fads he may have started or become involved in. In the twenties he interested himself in a number of jazz musicians who have since become musical giants. His photographs of Bessie Smith, for example, remain the best we have of this remarkable singer. And Van Vechten's critical judgments on jazz remain closer to the truth of today than any of the surfeit of wild critical writing that concerned itself with “jazz” in the twenties. His 1926 novel Nigger Heaven offers an early example of the use of jazz to establish the Harlem atmosphere of its day. The following passages are typical:
Couples were dancing in such close proximity that their bodies melted together as they swayed and rocked to the tormented howling of the brass, and the barbaric beating of the drum.6
The drummer in complete abandon tossed his sticks in the air while he shook his head like a wild animal. … The band snored and snorted and whistled and laughed like a hyena.7
This idea of primitive emotion is carried further in a scene in which Mary analyzes her racial background:
Savages! Savages at heart! And she had lost or forfeited her birthright, this primitive birthright which was so valuable and important as an asset, a birthright that all the civilized races were struggling to get back to—this fact explained the art of a Picasso or Stravinsky. To be sure, she, too, felt this African beat. … This love of drums, of exciting rhythms. …8
The Picasso and Stravinsky references offer a basis of comparison for what Van Vechten feels is the valuable folk-art tradition expressed by jazz. What would appear to be condescension in others does not seem so in Van Vechten, for he approves unreservedly of the Negro's cultural heritage. He seems to have adopted an anthropological position which refuses to label cultures as “inferior,” and he felt that post-Victorian American needed some of the values of this heritage. Subsequent developments toward a non-Puritanistic moral code and a more primitivistic and subjective artistic expression would appear to reveal a prophecy in the direction of his thinking.
When Van Vechten's characters are serious or dejected, he often tends to employ a Blues or spiritual singer to help establish the mood. At one point Mary reflects on the faith of the people who wrote and sang the spirituals, and in another instance a powerful emotional effect is provoked in a small-minded audience (the Albrights and Orville Snodes of the Y.M.C.A.) by the unschooled Webb Leverett's singing of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.”
Du Bose Heyward, the Charleston novelist who collaborated with George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess, employed spirituals for atmospheric effect in somewhat the same manner as Van Vechten, but in addition he wrote one passage in Mamba's Daughters which offers music that could be identified only as jazz variations on a theme. Heyward ascribes to it a powerful, affirmative effect:
Charlie rejoined the party just as the music flung its unifying rhythm into the discordant babel. … There were eight men in the orchestra, and Lissa noted … that they were all full-blooded negroes. There were two guitars, two banjos, a fiddle, a cornet, and trombone, and a man with drums and traps. The sound was unlike anything that the girl had ever heard. Strive as she might, she could not recognize the tune. As a matter of fact, it was not an orchestra in a strict interpretation of the term, but merely a collection of eight individuals who had taken some simple melody as a theme and were creating rhythm and harmony around it as they played. Her immediate sensation was one of shock at the crude and almost deafening uproar. Then, as she stood listening, a strange excitement commenced to possess her. Music had never moved her like this before. It had made her cry—and it had shaken her with delight, but this seemed to be breaking something loose deep within her—something that seethed hot through her veins and set her muscles jumping.9
At the end of Mamba's Daughters, however, Heyward succumbs to a popular attitude of the twenties: the book's climax suggests the symphonizing of jazz (a la Gershwin?) as a final hope for the Negro's music.
Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel utilizes vocal jazz briefly to round out the character of Pearl Hines, who sang with Helen Gant at rural moving picture theaters:
Pearl Hines was a heavily built girl with a meaty face and negroid lips. She was jolly and vital. She sang ragtime and nigger songs with a natural passion.10
Pearl's “happy and vital sensuality” and the gusto with which she sang occasionally led men to make passes at the girls, at which times Pearl was wounded and disappointed. Pearl's attitudes suggest a quality in “nigger music” that can be appreciated without debasing the performer or listener.
In Of Time and the River Captain Nicholl and some of his companions form a little band for their own entertainment:
They played nothing but American jazz music or sobbing crooner's rhapsodies or nigger blues. Their performance was astonishing. Although it was contrived solely for their own amusement, they hurled themselves into it with all the industrious earnestness of professional musicians employed by a night club or dance hall to furnish dance music for the patrons.11
Wolfe fills a page with the intensity of their performance. Their Blues are sincere but ineffective, for they do not feel the music (as did Pearl Hines); they are simply trying to escape from an inner emptiness by
… mouthing the words of negro blues … and with an obvious satisfaction, with an accent which was remarkably good, and yet which had something foreign and inept in it.12
Even Wolfe seems puzzled by the extremity of their need for this music, but he records it faithfully in an effective scene.
Since the arrival of the “bop” jazz style (which originated in Harlem in 1941), with its odd intervals, unusual chord extensions, vibrato-less tone, reverse percussion (featuring steady cymbal beat with snare and bass accents), and new demands on technique, jazz has again been revolutionized. By adding “progressive” effects Bop has evolved into a less tense “cool” style. The Greenwich Village novelists of the “beat generation” use “cool” music for mood and background in much the same manner as their predecessors. One passage in Clellon Holmes' Go (1952) offers this music as a symbol and a philosophy for young people dislocated by World War II:
In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them, and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life. …13
Chandler Brossard is another who has used up-tempo Bop musical settings to emphasize certain fast-paced and searching qualities in his characters:
I looked away from the Rouault and listened to Danny Blue. He was blowing all by himself now, without the orchestra, blowing on and on and up and up, blowing one variation after another … until I thought he was going to come right off the record. A real junkie. He was loaded with heroin on this record. He flipped his wig when it was finished and they took him to a sanitarium.14
The obvious reference is to Charlie Parker, the great alto saxophonist who suffered a breakdown after a record date for Dial on the West Coast. Against reality, Brossard's intellectual bravado comes off badly, for Parker's record (“Be-Bop”)—unlike Danny Blue's—shows that he was in no condition to play at all. A Harper's short story, Elliott Grennard's “Sparrow's...
(The entire section is 6099 words.)