Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce
Alfred Appel Jr., professor emeritus of English (Knopf, 2002)
“It’s all music, man,” saxophonist Charlie Parker once told an interviewer. “Just call it music.”
That’s a pretty simplistic Everyman’s characterization from the cat known as “Bird,” whose magnificent flights of aural fancy helped to change the face of jazz from happy-go-lucky, blues-based syncopations to high art.
Alfred Appel Jr., longtime English scholar and avid musicologist, personally witnessed a cataclysmic moment in musical history that both affirms and also somewhat contradicts Parker’s words. As Appel tells it in this entertaining and astute explication of jazz culture, it was an evening in the winter of 1951, at Manhattan’s famous Birdland club, when Parker played his legendary tune “Koko” in the presence of Igor Stravinky, proceeding to reference the great composer’s Firebird Suite at the top of the second chorus.
Perhaps no event could better signify the confluence of classicism and modernism in the musical realm. Yet Appel’s volume, which “seeks to establish the place of classic jazz (1920–50) … in the great modernist tradition in the arts,” goes beyond music, linking the likes of Bird, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington to modern masters of the visual and literary. Making the leap, for example, from Picasso’s Figures by the Sea to the robust drumming of Big Sid Catlett may appear to be a stretch, but if the thread that unites great art forms is the power of expression and the achievement of creative freedom, then indeed Appel is on to something.
Appel’s text is divided into an overview and three jumping-off points — Waller, Armstrong and Ellington, who form a kind of musical Holy Trinity. Within this analytical construct, he manages to include songwriters, singers and players from Gershwin to Billie Holiday to Jo Jones, as well as to provide a sociocultural context for jazz’s influences and development.
In setting up his thesis, Appel views jazz as “the touchstone of accessibility.” He makes a strong case for treating jazz “as part of mainstream culture rather than as the insular, marginalized province of enthusiastic fans alone,” ticking off the salient characteristics of humor; a capacity for joy; the Great [white] American Songbook, the backbone of jazz multiculturalism [Berlin, Rodgers, Kern, etc.]; and the goals and ideals of racial integration.
From Appel’s perspective, the work of the fine jazz interpreter/improviser is no different from that of an Alexander Calder mobile, a Constantin Brancusi wood sculpture or a Robert Rauschenberg “combine” painting. It’s the working and re-working of themes that unite the musician and the painter (e.g., Matisse’s Jazz series); it’s the freewheeling, tapped from God-knows-where wordplay of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that makes it the spiritual cousin of Armstrong’s “transformative powers” as vocalist. Appel extends his discussion to include film (Chaplin, Astaire), poster art, album covers, magazine advertisements, cartoons and even baseball icons such as Joe DiMaggio and 1940s Brooklyn Dodger Pete Reiser, who, in his own way, represented daring improvisation in the outfield and on the basepaths.
As fascinating as the text may be, it is the wealth of visual support that really informs this book. Well over 100 illustrations, many in color, capture samples of the artwork under discussion as well as portray the fabulous jazz personages, both at work and at play.
Appel’s ambition in attempting to tie together somewhat disparate, even seemingly random elements of modern artistic expression is considerable. Even if his broad theme offers a cerebral challenge to the general reader, there is no question that in the specific treatment of the jazz artists, he has made a major contribution to the literature, all written with clarity and certain style.
Like the gifted musicians on whom he focuses, Appel, both as scholar and fan, draws upon a considerable kitbag of knowledge and personal experience to lay out and develop his themes. The result, however, is decidedly less improvisatory and more characteristic of careful design and committed intellectual vision.
Martin Brady is a freelance writer based in Nashville, where he
is also the theater critic for Nashville Scene. He was formerly
a senior editor at Booklist, published by the American Library