Saturday, March 19, 2011

Marshall Stearns: The Story of Jazz

I'm reading Marshall Stearns 1954 monograph The Story of Jazz.  Stearns traveled along with the Gillespie band on the 1956 Middle Eastern tour, and maybe the South American tour, though that is not confirmed yet, and presented a lecture on the history of jazz, which the Gillespie band provided stylistic illustrations of, playing tunes in dixieland and swing styles as well as the modern jazz that they specialized in.  Stearns also went on to found the first academic jazz studies program, currently located at Rutgers.  Because I'm telling the story of how musical stories are told and what that telling means, his work is important to understanding the rhetorical presentation of the Gillespie band, and the discursive field surrounding jazz as it moved from being a popularly supported commercial practice to an institutionally supported academic practice.

Stearns' history is actually pretty good, and I am surprised that it doesn’t have a higher profile in jazz and/or popular music studies.  The notion of stylistic transmission isn’t really highly theorized, but it’s also not sloppy or incomplete and it pays attention, perhaps too much speculative attention to possibilities of juncture, blending and synthesis.  In general there’s an ideological commitment to & an underlying belief in the idea that people respond to democratic possibilities, to some kind of mixture of individual expression and group belonging.  Some of this is American exceptionalism at work, as surely here as in Henry Nash Smith and any American Studies text from the period, and its worth remembering that Stearns is a part of that same institutional/scholarly/aesthetic apparatus whose progressive and humanistic visions of American possibilities were funded in part for their value as cold war propaganda.  Somebody needs to do an extensive contextualized accounting that follows the money that fed the developments in American Studies, Jazz, and modern art during this period.  And not because the money totalizes the vision, but because both should be accounted for in a full understanding of how popular taste, aesthetic differentiation and domestic and international politics come to bear on popular memory and national identity..   

The arrangement of the book is oddly chrono-spatial, meaning that its chronological linear narrative doesn’t proceed uniformly forward.  The first section, The Pre-History of Jazz, makes the case for African retention and cultural survivals in the new world, which is in many ways the underlying basis for the entire history, the authenticating origin which gives jazz an alternate pre-history from European American musical practice and thus renders it something other than a minority appropriation of Euro-American music.  Here, Stearns draws heavily upon Melville Herskovits' work, which is a good thing.  The second section, New Orleans, follows the religious and cultural currents that connect the Caribbean to the Cresecent City, and details to the degree possible, the development of jazz as a particularity in that city.  Here Stearns helps establish Buddy Bolden as a seminal figure and does a good job of acknowledging the uneven coverage of various eyewitness accounts of Bolden’s playing, producing something like a textual montage of shaky, hand held home movies and snapshots.  This montage is actually more convincing than it ought to be, depending to some degree on the agreement between the reader and those eyewitnesses that all of this is part of the birth of something called jazz, and on the reader’s agreement to be enlisted in a history whose authenticity is signaled in part by its incomplete and mysterious qualities.  Buddy Bolden’s place in this history as the fount of jazz is cemented, rather than disputed by the fact that he escaped the reach of the audio recording devices that were just beginning to appear.*  There’s a separate tangent that leads off here, interrogating the narrative placement of male figures in jazz histories, but I have to track down a source that helpfully disputes this trend and places a woman who played piano at a New Orleans brothel in the place usually reserved for Bolden.

Stearns’ next section is entitled The American Background, and it’s here that the current of American exceptionalism I noted in paragraph one really begins to assert itself.  This section begins with a chapter on The Great Awakening and black preaching performance in that context and follows a pattern that’s familiar by now but was much less so in 1954: The Work Song>Blues>Minstrelsy>The Spiritual>Ragtime.  Again, Stearns draws upon good sources, and I am personally glad to see John W. Work given greater attention than Alan Lomax.  From here on out, the book proceeds more or less chronologically, and The American Background is followed by 4 shorter sections that chronicle the emergence of Jazz as such and subsequent branches and stylistic subdivisions.  This is the section that I’ve read least of, so I have less to say about it but it is worth noting that, like all genre critics, Stearns assumes that there is a thing called jazz that exists outside of the histories of jazz compiled by critics, fans and musicians, despite the fact that those critics, fans and musicians agree on very few particulars regarding the definition of that thing called jazz.  This puts genre firmly into the definition of culture that I first encountered in Bill Dressler’s cognitive Anthropology course: Culture, Minda and Behavior, at the University of Alabama: unevenly shared (i.e. disputed) knowledge.

No comments: