The Antioch Review—
Special Jazz issue
Antioch University, Summer 1999
442 pages, $8.50
reviewed by Don Rose
The Antioch Review, one of the nation's leading literary magazines, published a special issue this summer devoted entirely to jazz—with a special focus on the music's relationship to and effects on the other arts. This is apparently the first time any journal of comparable stature has given jazz this extended attention, and the editors have come up with some genuine winners among the 14 wide-ranging pieces it gathered.
There are some real gems here, including a reprint of the great novelist Ralph Ellison's landmark linkage of black literature and jazz, "Richard Wright's Blues." This famous, frequently collected, essay was first published by the Antioch Review in 1945. Stanford's Horace Porter, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, then goes on to explore the confluence of Ellison's emerging artistry and his fascination with guitarist Charlie Christian and the experimental swingsters who gave rise to modern jazz.
The rest of the material is also new: notably, an exquisite piece by Princeton's Michael Wood, the prominent literary and film critic, where he analyzes Miles Davis's "Blue in Green" (from "Kinda Blue") and describes how that performance and jazz in general have affected his own work and thinking:
[J]azz for me is not just a taste and a pleasure and a memory. It is also a way of thinking and working, a secret analogy behind much of what I do when I read and write....I have often thought that most readers and writers, and certainly most critics, have a governing analogy for what they are doing, something that literature, or the act of reading or writing is most like. It is a likeness, not an identity,
says the British-born Wood, who has written books on Stendahl, Garcia Marquez and Nabokov. I've been reading him for years in the New York Review, but his interest in jazz—and the depth of his understanding—came as a welcome surprise.
The other must-read piece is a one-act play, "The C above C above High C," by novelist Ishmael Reed. His acid-drenched satire is a fantasy riff revolving around the moment when Louis Armstrong finally made a definitive statement on civil rights by urging President Dwight Eisenhower to take federal action to integrate Little Rock's schools in the mid-50s. Satch is the main character, alternately addressing the audience and the other characters, who include Ike, his wife Mamie and mistress Kay Summersby, Louis' ex-wife Lil Hardin, a caricature bebopper and a wild, racist J. Edgar Hoover flitting about in drag.
Yet another intriguing essay is a study of John Coltrane's cultural impact, specifically on black poets and poetry, particularly in the turmoil of the 1960s. It's by Gerald Early, director of the African and Afro-American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, who identifies the poet-playwright Amiri Baraka as the leading force in Trane's literary-artistic deification.
Richard Frost, a poet and drummer, carries the wedding of poetry and jazz a step or two further in an extended article, though he notes: "I'm often asked whether jazz has influenced my writing. No one has wondered whether poetry has influenced my drumming. My world of music has been almost entirely separate from the poetry....the practices are so different." The influence of jazz on poetry, however, was almost instantaneous with the maturation of jazz after World War I, as witness David Yaffe's analysis of its impact on Lost Generation poet Hart Crane.
Elsewhere in the issue is a quick study of bebop's effect on the prose style and novelistic structure of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac—which elicits issues of race and racism as well. Both themes play out in Paul deBarros' fine essay on the life and work of the almost forgotten radical poet-novelist Claude McKay.
A more offbeat discussion by historian Patricia Willard brings out the extensive relationship between the works of Duke Ellington and dance—noting that almost from the beginning of his career the composer was cognizant of dance forms as he created his music. "Duke thought and spoke in dance vernacular," she points out. "He proudly referred to his role as The Choreographer." She then quotes the master himself as saying, "Swing is not a kind of music. It is that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, terpsichorean urge."
In "Where's the Jazz Audience," jazz journalist Willard Jenkins surveys the scene and finds plenty of good music and musicians but a dwindling audience, though he cites recent studies showing a higher potential audience than many of us realize. Unfortunately, his recommendations for expanding the jazz audience are a set of meaningless nostrums that essentially ask jazz aficionados to act less hip and exclusive and bands to relinquish solo time—though he offers some reasonable advice to jazz marketers.
PBS arts correspondent Martha Bayles gets into a word-mincing discussion of ultimately no import in asking whether it's correct to refer to jazz as America's "classical" music—which is essentially a marketing device. She goes on to get hung up in the differences between classical and romantic music, essentially overlooking the fact that most Americans use the term "classical," however incorrectly, for all forms of European-inspired composed music from Gregorian chant to Philip Glass, with all the classicists and romantics in between.
New York saxophonist Erica Kaplan offers a tribute with an implied feminist perspective to the late trombonist-arranger Melba Liston—written shortly before her death this spring. Despite a few passing inaccuracies and a sometimes awkward writing style, the piece is a just homage to the frequently ignored and overlooked modern jazz pioneer.
Finally, poet-novelist Carol Keeley gives us a brief memoir of a visit she made with trumpeter Brad Goode to Chicago's Jazz Showcase and their encounter with saxist Red Holloway, trumpeter Clark Terry and drummers Louis Bellson and Barrett Deems. The piece goes nowhere, but will have some intrinsic interest to local fans; perhaps it is part of a larger work she is said to be working on. The issue also gives capsule reviews of some 19 recent jazz books.
The Antioch Review ($8.50), associated with the noted college of the same name, was founded in 1961 and is one of the nation's oldest continuously publishing literary quarterlies. (www.antioch.edu/review)