One morsel review: The history of very early jazz in the U.S., spanning roughly from 1890s to 1920s, alongside very interesting insight into what these music meant on a social and artistic level. Fantastic.
Genre: Social history
A history of early jazz, the music, the people, the places. An exploration of how jazz came into being and evolved during the early XX century. A society that was changing more dramatically and faster than ever before found into jazz – its syncopated rhythms and its free modes of expression – the language to describe itself.
I feel I don’t know enough about jazz. A large chunk of my story takes place in a speakeasy which is also a jazz club and jazz… well, it’s a form or art so peculiar and with such a strong personality. It’s a very complex world of its own and I feel it still eludes me in spite of all my efforts.
So I was very happy when I discovered this book.
This is a comprehensive look at early jazz, the people who played it, the people who enjoyed it, the places where it happened. It focuses very much on life and emotions around jazz, on how people felt and thought, which is always what I enjoy the most about social histories.
It starts off trying to trace down the birth of jazz. Trying, because in spite of several legends, nobody knows where, when and how jazz was born. It was probably not born at all, but rather it evolves from other forms of music, which the author traces as far back as Africa and slave music and dances. More certainly, jazz as we know it today took its firsts steps in New Orleans at the beginning of the XX century, probably in shady places, like brothels and honky-tonks, and was made public to the general population of the city by marching bands, which were extremely popular at the time. The author devotes many pages to depicting a very vivid portrayal of marching bands, their lives, their dynamic, the musicians they fostered and how these musicians prompt a further evolution through an ever changing form of music. This was the most interesting, most vivid part for me, where quotes from musicians and pieces of oral histories abounded. The narration was also very smooth. On occasions, it was really like being there, in that place that perspired music from every cobblestones and person.
The author then moves her narration away from New Orleans, northward, mostly to Chicago and New York, where jazz came of age. Here, she enters the speakeasies, the recording rooms, and even the theatre. The section devoted to jazz and movies was also very interesting, not only because it illustrated the modernity of jazz and what it represented for the people of the Twenties, but also because through it, she has the possibility to show the evolving of African American’s image and position in that society.
The style is very enjoyable. It seldom enters specific language (unless necessary), but rather leans on storytelling as much as possible. But there is also a more clinical, more educated analysis of practices and social behaviours. The differences in techniques and way to enjoy that music between the black and the white community was addressed in details. Where the white audience enjoyed jazz in a more ‘classic’ way, with musicians playing and audience listening, black audience tended to participate in a mutual effort bringing together musicians, listeners and dancers, where each one influences and inspires everyone else -call and response, she calls it.
Jazz as played by black musicians, the authors asserts many times, will always been different from jazz played by white musicians. Because the roots of jazz run deep into blues, and blues emerged from a historical, social and cultural experience which is very unique to the African American community.
It was a very enjoyable, very interesting, thoroughly detailed and researched work. I enjoyed it very much.