Jazz And Music: Music In America
( Originally Published 1929 )
AMERICAN music is not jazz. Jazz is not music. Jazz remains a striking indigenous product, a small, sounding folk-chaos, counterpart of other national developments. What we call music, however, is a force, adjusted to the stream of the world in which materials float and elements play, and active like them upon the human situation; and, bold and debonair as it is, seductive with woodwind in minor thirds and fuller of bells than a bayadere, our characteristic "dance-music" is cheerfully quiescent. Foxtrot and charleston, its special figures, have supplied several ultramodern composers with happy motives—Milhaud, Copland, Hindemith, Chavez, Auric, among others. So, too, its novel instrumental effects; since jazz composers have been ingenious in combining timbres savoursomely. It may, conceivably, contain a spirit in embryo, the palpitancy, the peculiar giddy, half erotic bobbing, possibly announcing a state of levity bound to make much of our old solemnity seem impotence. Yet, in itself, jazz, or rather more what the great run of our commercial musicians continue to produce with their material, their themes and instruments, has changed nothing in the human environment. On the contrary, it has let everything sit.
Beneath its superficial irregularity, snap and go, the best of jazz stands inert. Rhythm is precluded, not permitted to develop itself in its hard-boiled sphere. In place of truly rhythmic, periodical, unpredictable displacement of volumes and accents intrinsic to phrases and freely flowing periods capable of organic extension and development, the typical jazz composition offers mere beat; mechanic iteration, duplication, conformation to preestablished pattern. Its alternation of bars of three and four and five units, the so-called jazz polyrhythm, is sheer willful contrast and change. The chief excitement in it proceeds from a series of jerks, systematic anticipations and retardations of the arbitrary, regular, unfailing beat.
For jazz heartily and consistently violates the identity of its medium: the sonority of instruments. Rhythm, manner of being and of moving, is as intrinsic to the material of the artist, whether that of tone or of colour, language or granite, as it is to the artist himself; to be produced only through the free sympathetic relationship of man and thing, craftsman and medium. But in jazz, there is no penetration of the subject stuff, no empathy, no union of the man and the matter, no tension. Tremendously dolled up, the core of jazz is prearrangement, repetition, succession. Metric schemes inflexible as all preconceptions, are arbitrarily imposed on the means and the artist; and to dictate is to exploit. As for the jazz melodies, they are largely synthetic, either inappropriate arrangements of old, tried matter dredged up from the more sentimental European romantics, or not too dangerously novel recombinations of phrasés of jazz and other popular compositions.
This sharp denial of the stream of things and the conditions under which materials exist and forces move, is not only symbolical. Jazz's first blare revives the lure of ready made elysiums. Sparkling' as a soda-fountain, the blissful region rises amid its pebbly beats, luxurious, immediate as the dance floor, apparently no less easily accessible than some smart clothes and a complacent embrace. Merely to let go and to pass in is to attain; apotheosis. The saxophone says so, insinuative and enveloping; and reserve and ponderation, discrimination of the identity of things and the conditions shaping us, all indeed making for tensity, discomfort and pathos, suddenly become the folly of the living dead. Smoothness of enamel, gaiety of flowery dresses, airiness of speed are there for the mere taking, or the inconsiderable price of a little willingness, a little cash and snap. The not impossible she," or he, is at hand in a thousand persons. There are myriads of persons, each one the one here where existence is canoeing down flowing blue and sailing on ocean breezes and throbbing in the pink of a perpetual spasm: hard, assured, winning people, decided and smart as the cut of straight limbs, youthful with earth's sweetest bloom; and at night (the urgent trumpet swears it) the cars are sapient glow worms transporting rapturous pairs through moving spaces.
Precisely that is the function of jazz, its great raison d'être. Jazz is an "entertainment"; and an entertainment, in very, simplest Boeotian, is something which temporarily removes people from contact with the realities, Perhaps it is a little ungracious of us, to analyze what, like an entertainment, pretends merely to please? But we have here to do with an extra-ordinarily popular drug-like use of the materials of sound; and it is certainly not for mere purposes of disparagement that we seek to explain its prevalency by reminding ourselves that the great number of men are incapacitated for either a large or consistent acceptation of the world, the stream of things, the conditions of existence. Yearning for a new life potential between them and the world appears too weak or too non-existent to reconcile them with conditions making life possible. Unable to grant a satisfactory embrace, reality seems merely cruel, merely treacherous, merely tragically hazardous; and satisfaction to lie only in security from its caprices. This is sought in the ostrich-like act of disorientation and disarticulation by which man withdraws from contact with materials and people into himself. The illusion of an established, waiting, easily accessible apotheosis is consequent of it. For how could retreat, and the revivification of past experiences, the repetition of familiar ideas and habitual gestures following it, be attended by anything but feelings of a dissolving sweetness? They weaken the lure of the actual, so baleful to weak passions, do they not? and dissipate tension? In other days, this sort of exercise was amply given by religious practices. At present, particularly in America, it is provided by "politics," "all the news that's fit to print," Florida, Hollywood, the rest of Southern California, "the education of our children," "sophisticated" fiction and above all, by jazz. The heaven our exercises offer, has merely become a little more sensual, a little more earthly than that of the middle ages, something like the Mohammedans'. That is because in many ways it is merely the intensification of the fictitious world in which most people consistently dwell. No doubt, the American exercises focussing it possess much of the snappiness of the civilization to which they bring relief. Jazz, for example, embodies a knack with materials. It is smart; superficially alert, good humoured, and cynical. Essentially, nonetheless, it is just another means of escape.
What we term music, the representative work, say, of Bach and Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Brahms, primarily is what jazz from the beginning is not; the product, of a sympathetic treatment of the sonorous medium. Music is a chain of temporal volumes released by sensitive manipulation of an Instrument. Music has rhythm, indeed, each piece of it has its own way of flowing, its own logic of temporal volumes not to any degree mechanical, or identical with the motion of another thing, even one of its own species. In works like the last sonatas and quartets of Beethoven, the fantasies and fugues of Bach, Tristan and Isolde of Wagner, the logic is so universal that we have the impression these pieces existed since the beginning of the world, and must persist till doomsday. Still, no matter how special it may be, the piece of music is never stationary or disintegral. You cannot arrest a composition midways without disturbing a balance. Moreover, the accents are intrinsic to the phrases; and the phrases themselves develop from the initial idea, theme, or quality of sonority, freely; in conformity with a law which we can recognize after the piece is done, but cannot predict. For pieces of music, when they do not involve literature and try to tell stories, are compositions for the violin, for the piano, for the orchestra, reverend of these identities; born of a sort of auscultation or penetration of the means and themes, of a sympathy between the man and the instrument or material, a subtly following adjustment of his will to that of things. They are never the product of preconceived schemes or mechanical beats or mathematical formula: arbitrarily imposed. What if they do bear the names of fugue and lied, sonata and fantasy? These names are little besides rough significarions of genera and species. Musical art is spontaneous and original, the reverend adjustment of sonorous means to new conditions, new states of being, new experiences. Not only are no two fugues of Bach, no two sonatas of Beethoven, no two fantasies of Chopin or Schumann identical as wholes, or, for the overwhelming part, in their phrases. In many cases, they radically vary the type to which they belong. Many musicians have indeed established their own forms, their own types: Haydn the binary form, Beethoven the scherzo, Schubert the dramatic lied, Wagner the structural opera or music-drama. But, whether radical in norm or not, they are each autonomous, showing evidence of a spontaneous and original, uncalculated and uninduced approach to the medium. No doubt, there are compositions, the clavier and organ works of Handel, for example, whose interest is slight for the reason that they are little besides talented manipulations of a means. And there are others, the piano pieces of Brahms, perhaps, whose interest is large in the face of a none too sympathetic approach to the keyboard. Still, penetration of the medium and its individual nature and way of being and moving, in the spirit of the moment and mood, is prerequisite.
And music cuts away the foundations of ready-made elysiums. Music is expressive, carrying us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, into impersonal regions, into the stream of things; permitting us to feel the conditions under which objects exist, the forces playing upon human life. In conformity to the terms of materials, each piece of music has not only thingness, continuity of texture and "a beginning and a middle and an end." To some degree, consequent to the state of the composer at the time of composition, it contains and communicates a rich pathos. Musical art's fundamental acceptance of the identity and limitations of its medium is not, by any means, consent in the conditions of a mere fragment of the world. The medium is the microcosm, the splinter of Ygdrasil shot with the grain of the all; and the embrace of it, the consent in its identity, the acceptance of its law of motion, the recognition of the whole in the fragment, involves adjustment to the great rolling universe. Hence, we are moved by music, find it expressive and full of feeling. For to live, to merge with the stream and become part of forces larger than ourselves, is to feel, to know something about the entire world; and the music lets us share in a great man's absorption: at least to the degree to which we are capable of being lost to ourselves. Indeed, musical literature embodies a tremendous gamut of intuitions, from deepest sorrow to highest joy, in combinations as individual as its combinations of the tones of the scale. Graver feelings preponderate in the work of certain composers, Bach and Brahms for example, and lighter feelings in that of Haydn and Mozart. Still, without exception, the representative pieces of the chief composers present irreproducible harmonies of the pathetic palette, opposing, balancing and conciliating the elementary intuitions much as great experience of life itself does.
To call Bach's music the soul of Protestantism, Beethoven's the affirmation of man's nature, Wagner's the gospel of a religion of love, and Debussy's the sensuous embrace of the cosmos, is very roughly to indicate the immense effect music has exercised on our environment. Together with painting and the novel, perhaps even more grandly than either of its sister arts, music has recently been tending to supplant formal religion. It is not without profound reason that Martin Luther, himself more of an adaptator than a composer of original music, figures perennially in musical histories. The art he cultivated in his leisure has proven more active in his profounder intention than the dogma he laboriously established; meditating between the individual and the universe. Indeed, with her immense flexibility, her semi-materialism, her direct address to feeling, Frau Musica has been more subtly, immediately revelatory of the ever-moving, unpredictable something at the core of life than a fixed dogma could ever be. Her immense responsiveness to the curve, the way, the law of things, has actually sustained the individuals capable of larger, subtler, more sensitive harmony with the invisible forces. (One could scarcely imagine modern idealism deprived of Mozart and Beethoven and Wagner.) For, like all art, music itself is an act, an offspring, of potency, of pregnancy with fresh spirit and life; therefore the director and ally of all that is able to adjust to things and move beyond itself in new embodiments. The musician's acceptance of the conditions of existence, of inevitable tragedy, and extinction, so abhorrent to the jazz-artist and the jazz public; his very delight in a "Creation" almost indifferent to man: what is that but the act of the creature strongly impelled, strongly loaded with the seeds of life, full of yearning for the thing imminent between him and the world; bound to find his cosmic partner, his instrument, satisfactory—mortality, failure and final extinction notwithstanding; and everything for the best, in what may even prove the worst of possible worlds?
Not only the effects of music are loud in their testimony of its origin. The personal developments that have accompanied its appearance declare it plainly. The great composers were no less victorious as men than as musicians. The world has not frequently seen a human clarity as intense, a capacity for receiving, digesting and giving life as uncompromised, as that of John Sebastian Bach; or a loveliness as warm as Mozart's; or a majesty as simple as Beethoven's; or experienced a lifelong increase in wisdom and power as steady as Wagner's, with its culminadon in the death-mask of a Buddha. And for two hundred years, a succession of great musicians had the power to receive and move a technique onward: Philip Emmanuel Bach receiving it from his great father; Haydn from P. S. Bach, and Beethoven from Haydn; Wagner from Beethoven; and the newest men from the old demiurge of Bayreuth.
And today a force related to theirs is at work in America. This is one of the most significant aspects of the national situation. We have an American music: there existing a body of sonorous work, not jazz, made by persons associated with the American community, to be grouped without impertinence with classic European works. Jazz may continue to bulk large and remain the most striking product of our direction toward the instruments! of music. Still, side by side with it, and side by side with other products of energy directed toward the means of art, there Continue to appear with an accelerating ! speed, compositions rooted in the American "soil"; exploiting the material of sound in characteristic ways, and releasing a typical pathos. Possibly, the product is still small in worth. The crea tive talents are, assuredly, few and not mature. As a whole, the musical movement is still slighter and of less importance than either the pictorial or the literary, in proportion to its comparative recency. But it exists; it swells. New creative talents appear with every year; and while they may yet seem uncertain and anything but overwhelming, they have added a new interest and excitement to life, filling it with the vibrance of gathering powers. How many revelatory experiences do we not owe to the work of Valise, of Chavez, and Copland? How much of the intensity of American life does not come from the burgeoning of the talents of Harris and Sessions and Ruggles? It is of course too early to make prognostication of the final intensity and importance of the movement anything but idle amusement. Nonetheless, it is by no means too early to estimate the initial force. Considering the seriousness of the accomplishments, the fact that some of the most important living composers are Americans by nationality and by culture, such an estimation indeed becomes one of the tasks most incumbent on criticism. It has long been one of the most attractive adventures offered by present American life.