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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Jazz U.K. Column - June 1999

In 1939, Trummy Young sang "It T'ain't What You Do, It's The Way That You Do It", and this philosophy has been expounded upon by such critics as Max Harrison, Martin Williams and Stanley Crouch, all of whom have drawn trenchant analogies between jazz and other art forms. While reading Peter Bogdanovich's recent book, "Who The Devil Made It", a fascinating compendium of interviews with 16 veteran Hollywood directors, I was struck by the similarity of their observations with those of jazz musicians. More than one filmmaker said that improvisation was important to their success in that they were able to see the potential in a seeming mistake and to let it take the scene in a previously unthought of direction. Most of them were already active while the great pioneer of the medium's aesthetic potential, D.W. Griffith, was making his greatest strides in the years surrounding World War I. Thanks to Bogdanovich, and the team of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill - much of their precious testimony that would otherwise have been largely gone with the wind has been preserved and published.

The reason for this digression is twofold - firstly, the realization that as this century comes to a close, those of us in the jazz world still have the opportunity to seek out the musicians who played with the men who created jazz as we know it today. While the great majority of jazz's first generation are gone, Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Milt Hinton and Benny Waters are still gracing bandstands and concert stages, and are generally accessible to those seriously interested in the music. Who better to ask about Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington, and what the rules of the game were then than these men?

It is not only the historically minded among us who should go out of our way to encounter these musicians, indeed it is the younger players and fans who would have the most to benefit from such a cross-generational confabulation. Contrary to most of the jazz textbooks and the philosophy of the great majority of so-called "jazz education", which betray an underlying intolerance of earlier jazz styles in terms of their viability to the present day improviser, players who came to maturity before the advent of Charlie Parker were not the musical equivalents of hunter-gatherers, whose only use was to mark an evolutionary guidepost on the way to the civilized maturity of be-bop.

If this rhetoric seems a tad heavy, it is because there have been too many performances by these masters where younger players were absent in the extreme. Then there is the next generation of musicians, who were professionals in the '30s: Bob Haggart, Johnny Williams, Al Casey and Jerry Jerome. They are followed by Hank Jones, Ruby Braff, Ray Brown, Louis Bellson, Milt Jackson, Flip Phillips and John Lewis, all of whom are willing to share their wisdom, and shatter any grand illusions about the halcyon days of jazz.

Secondly, there are many similarities between the evolution of the cinema and of jazz, which happened concurrently. The mastery of the two-reeler and the 78 r.p.m. disc have many parallels - and certainly much jazz in these modern times could benefit from the concision of the old Laurel and Hardy shorts, or the combination of humor and pathos to be found in John Ford's best work.

Those who think that jazz started with John Coltrane, (much less Bird ‘n Diz) are hereby urged to find their way to wherever these wise men are, and if any help is needed in starting a conversation with them after the introductory pleasantries, to prove that you weren't born yesterday, try: "Tell me about Big Sid Catlett!"