Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Barry Ulanov


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


Chapter 12 of Barry Ulanov, The Handbook of Jazz, Viking Press, 1957, 143-151.

“The fitting together of small pieces does not make for a major art, although it may be from time to time the secondary function of a major art. . . . It is to the everlasting credit of jazz that it has made its piecework so compelling to its ardent admirers that for many of them there is no more satisfactory expression in the arts, major or minor.”

—Barry Ulanov 

The Place of Jazz

Barry Ulanov 

The distinction between major and minor art naturally concerns anyone who writes about jazz or any other kind of music.  At the same time one must be suspicious of rating systems in any discussion of the arts.  Any numerical means of distinguishing one work of art from another is necessarily questionable, for it presupposes a mathematical content that can be set forth with some precision by an accountant-critic who can tote up, mechanically add or subtract, the virtues and vices, achievements and failures, of a work of art.  It is important, however, to note certain general characteristics about jazz, not at all mechanical in nature, which may go some of the way toward indicating its major or minor status.

If the art of jazz is only as important as the arts of faïence or petit point, of etched glass or bagpipe music, then we should know it and make our judgments accordingly and its musicians still, perhaps, feel a little uneasy with them.  To the extent that any music sometimes sets words or narrates a story, jazz is some of the time literary, some of the time pictorial, some of the time concerned with translations of elements in space into sound, sometimes with translations of events in time into what reads like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t: aural pictographs.  It is concerned with the same problems of conveying meaning and truth with which all of music is beset: one never knows for sure the precise intention of a serious jazz composer or performer; one never knows with certainty whether it is a purely subjective speculation of the jazzman or a description of an object which should be recognizable to the hearer.  The definite and the indefinite both struggle for the jazz musician’s attention just as they do for the classical man’s; the jazz musician’s listeners are left just as the classical musician’s are, sometimes satisfied, sometimes bewildered, by what jazz evokes for them of person or place, mood or atmosphere or precise meaning.

There are, of course, among those who listen to jazz, all kinds of people, variously emotional or cerebral, some most fluently associative in their listening, some more directly musical.  Jazz elicits from listeners its share of visual images, just as other forms of music do.  Jazz makes its appeal to stock emotional responses, invoking sorrow or joy, the maudlin or the madcap, the terrified or the delighted, just as other music does some of the time.  And jazz also can draw to itself musically intuitive listeners, who respond to its sounds with some apparatus which those who have it will recognize as the musical faculty.  To them, technical distinctions of form are uppermost, and yet there is some unmistakable content as well, however difficult it may be to make verbal distinctions between the two.

Perhaps the most significant point about jazz as an art form is this: at its best what it communicates cannot be communicated in any other way; to those who know it well there is such a thing as the jazz experience, one which is entirely different from any other in music.  It is this experience which draws the most intense support from jazz musicians and jazz fans.

By definition the jazz experience cannot be translated altogether successfully into words.  If it could, there would be no need for jazz.  All one can do, really, is select general descriptive headings that permit one to point to now one set of responses, now another, and the different sorts of music which summon them forth.

Much of jazz is concerned with the simple communication of simple pleasures.  Its little masters have presented miniatures of sound, terse or somewhat more rambling, which declare that this or that kind of good time has been enjoyed.  Not only do they declare that a good time has been had: they make some attempt to share it.  Often the sort of three- or four- or five-minute ecstasy thus communicated does not rise above the most elementary physiological level.  But some of the time there is a small poetry of pleasure of which the jazz musician is capable, which he can not only feel but re-feel, can react to not only once but several times.  As he sorts out his feelings and reactions, he can think his way through to felicitous reconstructions of experience which many of us are very glad to have.

Occasionally there have been attempts at large-scale expression and development of ideas in some complexity over a considerable range of melody and harmony and rhythm.  The starting point for this sort of work is almost invariably a fairly extended meditation or contemplation of the life of the jazz musician or of the Negro people in the United States, or a part of a big town, or life in all the cities of the United States, even sometimes the more abstract speculation about the nature of man or God or the relationship between the two.  It would be foolish to assert that any large degree of success has attended these unsystematic expatiations upon the obvious.  But the systematic and the organic have not altogether eluded the jazz musician.  He will not always be confined to an abbreviated discourse and therefore in the larger forms to a kind of fragmentary anthologizing.  For there is a reality packed away in the music of jazz, a reality to which millions respond with recognition if not always with pleasure.  Jazz stirs certain feelings which are apparently universal.  As few arts have in our time, it has been accepted internationally; it has evoked in Europe and Asia, in South America and Australia and Africa, essentially the same reaction that it has in its native North America.  It obviously expresses something that audiences in the twentieth century want to have expressed for them.

It is not too difficult to point to what jazz does that so delights its millions.  It is a big-city music.  It reflects, as few other arts in our time do, the massiveness and the matter, the chaos and the conflicts, the frantic pace and the fragmentary nature of life as it is lived by the millions gathered together in the cliff dwellings of the modern metropolis.  It does more, too, than merely reflect these elements of urban existence: it sorts them out, distinguishing certain kinds of individuals from the crowd, and saying something about each of them.  And with all the poignancy of any of the arts of our time which has sought to chronicle urban life, it describes the loneliness of the big-city dweller.

For this reason it is to jazz that composers have turned when they have wanted to express these typical characteristics of life in the big twentieth-century town.  The pages of jazz in the work of Stravinsky and Ravel, of Bloch and Vaughan Williams and Prokofiev, point unmistakably to such a programmatic purpose.  In the same way the writer of musical cues for radio or television or motion pictures turns to jazz for this sort of urban atmosphere.  And so, too, some poets have turned to jazz to build the impression of a life of rhythmic impulse, more or less subtle; in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in the more obvious poetry of Carl Sandburg, and in some of the more recondite lines of E. E. Cummings, jazz is used as a primary or secondary resource to convey an unmistakable meaning.

The effectiveness of jazz in such a context is illustrated by that wistful strain of the blues with which Tyrone Guthrie brought to an end his Old Vic revival of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Edwardian dress, or by the acid commentary on life in the inflation-twisted Germany just after the First World War in Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera.  In painting too, in the work of such men as Stuart Davis and Byron Browne, jazz has appeared most persuasively, as symbol or metaphor of direct narrative subject.  This is not what some would call the “pure” use of jazz; such painting or music is at least at one remove from the improvisation of “the real jazz.”  Nonetheless, it is a utilization of the resources without which much of the art of our time would be considerably poorer.  Even at some distance from the playing processes of jazz, it is possible to make good use of its content; but how much better the direct use of its materials by its most seasoned, its most gifted performers!

There is at least as much skillful commentary on early and late hours, on life uptown and downtown and midtown, on every aspect of life in the big city, in the music of Duke Ellington as in that of any contemporary composer in the classical tradition.  There is more wisdom about life as it is lived in the metropolis to be gathered nightly from the spontaneous outbursts of small chamber groups in jazz than is to be found in, say, Maurice Ravel’s Blue Sonata or in those late piano sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev in which the swinging strains of jazz appear.  It is a confined sort of wisdom I am talking about here; I am not comparing all the insights of this composer or that with those of the jazz improviser.  But what the jazz musician, speaking directly from his own experience, has to say is very special and quite enlightening.  To neglect his communication is to turn away, with a recluse’s distaste for his own time, from one of the central sets of facts about the twentieth century.

Jazz musicians do know more than one environment; large numbers of them come from small towns and villages, from the farm and the ranch.  But it is usually in a night club, recording studio, ballroom, or hotel that a jazzman finds himself as a jazz musician.  In these places jazz is played by professionals, and it is to them that an aspiring jazzman must go, not merely for recognition, but for survival in jazz.  And so it is the atmosphere of these places and all that surrounds them that the jazzman soaks up and squeezes out in his playing; it is this environment that he reproduces simply and openly or upon which he makes more extended notes and comment.  At his best he is severely conscious of the limitations of this environment and accepts them as necessary.  In doing so he performs that conscious act of the will and develops that precise sort of control which together mark the genuine artist in any art form.  As that control increases and the jazz musician more and more conforms his will to the limitations of his art, his music becomes more and more an art.  For with control and acceptance of limitation comes an apparatus of sign and symbol without which no art of consequence has ever existed.  The intimate reflections and secret experiences of the jazz musician can then be communicated with some certainty of understanding.  Something of this translation of intimacies has already occurred in jazz: there are large numbers of people who really do “dig” the arcana of jazz; its aficionados really have found something in jazz which cannot be found precisely in the same detail anywhere else.  The “something” which is unique to jazz may be as yet nothing more than the passing reflections of typical New Yorkers or Chicagoans, Los Angelenos or Kansas Citians, or those who travel between these cities and others.  Because they are miniature, these reflections do not canvass the sublime, except in the breach; most of the time one knows little of real exaltation in jazz.  Still, what is said is said with conviction, and it rings true; a world of vital experience has been put together, piecemeal.

The fitting together of small pieces does not make for a major art, although it may be from time to time the secondary function of a major art.  If those small pieces are all that a particular group of artists and their audiences have experienced with any great depth of feeling; if this is all they really know about and can talk or dream about, then this must be their expression, their art, no matter how minor.  It is to the everlasting credit of jazz that it has made its piecework so compelling to its ardent admirers that for many of them there is no more satisfactory expression in the arts, major or minor.  The distinction between ecstasy and exaltation could not concern them less.  They are content with an iconography of the subway and the department store, the night club and the radio and the tabloid newspaper.  They are more than content, they are thrilled, that the commonplaces of big-city life have been translated with such clarity into a set of sounds and that the work of translation can apparently be expected to go on forever—or at least as long as the cities in which they live go on.  Jazz is, then, neither faïence nor petit point, neither etching upon glass nor the music of bagpipes.  It is an art that says some of the things that must be said about this society.  Ours may be a minor civilization, but to the extent that one of its particular creations, jazz, expresses it with some thoroughness, this creation has a major contribution to make and possesses a universal importance, for our time at the very least.

Posted March 18, 2008

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