New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History by Bruce Boyd Raeburn

As I mentioned earlier, the year 2010 will see me delving deeply into the still-emerging field of jazz academia.  As a part of that process, I’m going to be reading a lot of books and articles.  Furthermore, I am going to be summarizing and commenting on their contents for my own research.

Given that, I thought that Lubricity would be a good place for me to share these thoughts, and provide a place for others to share their own opinions on the subjects that these books discuss, all of which are relevant to the current issues of jazz writing to which I have always paid particular attention here at the blog.

The first book that I’ve been reading, New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History by Bruce Boyd Raeburn, has been a real eye-opener.  The book takes a look at how “New Orleans style” has been codified.  He cleverly posits that the rigid understanding of the style that began to develop in the late 1930s — instrumentation, repertoire, etc. — was influenced primarily not by New Orleans musicians, but by record collectors: a white, educated, leftist parallel culture that developed alongside recorded jazz.

Raeburn’s book, published just last year, shows how far academic jazz scholarship has come in the past few decades.  Being a latecomer to the jazz world has its disadvantages (it would have been nice to hear Count Basie live, for example,) but it also has some perks.  One is that the level of academic discourse about the music has become sharper, more nuanced and less beholden to the misguided mythologies and expectations of classical music.  Raeburn’s book is a shining example of this new scholarship.

The book tells the story of the clique of passionate jazz fans, writers and advocates that were largely responsible for the phrase we take for granted today: “Jazz was born in New Orleans.”  Men such as Charles Edward Smith, William Russell, Eugene Williams, John Hammond, Hughes Panassie and Charles Delauney began collecting “hot” records in the 1920s and before long were codifying their preferences into an impassioned ideology.

Raeburn traces the development, fracture and restoration of the “authentic jazz” ideology, starting with the seminal publication of Jazzmen in 1939.  Rabeurn carefully traces the opinions and preferences of a number of important critics as the story of jazz faces the complicated reality of its social context throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  It filled in a lot of my own gaps in understanding about how today’s jazz narrative — exemplified by the 2001 Ken Burns documentary Jazz — was formed.

Although he treats each subject very diplomatically, Raeburn seems to hold in particular regard the work of C. E. Smith, Charles Delaunay and others who managed to remain moderate during the partisan “jazz wars” of the 1940s, with a bit of disdain for the more partisan name-callers such as Leonard Feather, Rudi Blesh and Hughes Panassie.  Nonetheless, his balanced exploration of the issues is quite illuminating.

Considering the book’s title, I was surprised to find that it actually deals relatively little with the local politics of jazz in New Orleans.  His final chapter moves his focus from New York and Paris to New Orleans in the late 1940s, but I found this chapter leaving the most unanswered.  And then there’s this little gem in the final paragraph which totally threw me for a loop (and will certainly agitate many of those who attacked Ken Burns’s Jazz):

All of the young Marsalises grew up as modernists, but it was Wynton, in the guise of a “neoclassicist,” who did the most to repair the damage caused by the rift between traditionalists and modernists in New Orleans.

I guess by healing that rift, Marsalis managed to create an even bigger one!  Raeburn actually does mention Burns in his epilogue, opining that “he meant well, and something positive was accomplished.  But that is not the equivalent of getting the story right or embracing it holistically.”  It is precisely Raeburn’s holistic embrace (not to mention his meticulously-annotated attention to getting the story right) that made this book such an eye-opening read.

If you’re writing about jazz today, Raeburn’s book is a must-read.  As jazz writers, it is extremely important to understand our lineage, and “New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History” is the most honest, comprehensive and genuine attempt to do so that I have come across.  It would have been nice if the publishers had included a budget for photos (although the cover is pretty hilarious, featuring C. E. Smith, William Russell and Fred Ramsey Jr. enjoying a “folk moment” in 1941.)  But all things considered, this book is full of valuable information to anyone who wants to get the jazz story straight.

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