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The Jazz Spell--From Hot to Cool : The Art Form Has Often Been a Stepchild in the Land of Its Birth

February 20, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

"Do we teach the French how to stomp a grape?" the legendary jazz entrepreneur and alumnus of the Mound City Blue Blowers, Eddie Condon, once asked indignantly.

What exercised Condon was that the French, who did not invent jazz, were acting as if they had given birth to jazz appreciation and jazz criticism. But the fact is that the French pretty much did. The first really substantial survey in print of jazz, a book called "Le Jazz Hot," was written by a 22-year-old Frenchman named Hugues Panassie and published in 1934.

It has been an irony, as old and durable as jazz itself, that the one truly home-born American art-form has found its warmest understanding outside the country, and particularly in France.

Paris has been a home away from home for many an American jazz great, of whom the master of the clarinet and the soprano sax, Sidney Bechet, is the perfect symbol. To this day, and even if they choose not to live abroad, American jazz players, who have some difficulty finding enough work to pay the rent here at home, tour all of Europe--and Japan, too--playing to throngs.

The irony goes on, and it is a source of some chagrin that the best feature film yet made about jazz and the men who make it, " 'Round Midnight," should have been done by a French film maker, Bertrand Tavernier. (Admittedly, the production was made possible by an American producer, Irwin Winkler.)

By a double irony the film stars a major American star of the bebop era, Dexter Gordon, who was himself a longtime expatriate and who in " 'Round Midnight" plays a fictional character inspired by the lives of other American jazzmen who found homes abroad.

Why jazz should have been so undercelebrated for so long in the land of its birth is not easy to explain, although in the beginning its associations with the brothels and gin mills of New Orleans did not exactly commend it to Middle America, as Leonard Feather points out in his overview of the jazz past on the next page.

The fact that in a still sharply segregated society the pioneer players were primarily blacks and Creoles who gave jazz (or jass , and even the word was naughty) a clandestine flavor that was piquant but not quite right for the uptown, uptight parlor.

What is far easier to understand is why jazz from the first and to this day exerts such a spellbinding and irrevocable hold on those who discover it, and love it.

After the organized politeness, the grandeur and even the sweeping romanticism of classical music, and the controlled pleasures, the strict time and the predictability of popular music, jazz carried the free-form sound of liberation, spontaneous invention (even if in relatively primitive musical terms), the direct expression of strong emotions from joy, predominantly, to loneliness, bereavement, rejection and urgent desire.

It had--has--propulsive energy and the unique and unmatched excitement of creation happening as you listen. The music is no longer necessarily primitive; more often than not in the present world it represents a very high degree of technical virtuosity and musicological expertise. What links present and past are those twin without-which-nothings of propulsion and improvisation.

For a brief and glorious time, jazz moved into the mainstream. The best (and most enduring) of the big bands were those that most heavily reflected the jazz impulse, from Ellington forward in time.

Millions of us found jazz in the big band era, a life-shaping coinciding of our private chronologies and music's. There was the rising popularity of records played on the radio, even before disc jockeys were called disc jockeys; the prime-time radio shows like the "Camel Caravan" with Benny Goodman and above all the late-night remote broadcasts from nightclubs and dance palaces (the Glen Island Casino, the Meadowbrook), institutions which, though never seen by most of us but only imagined, still retain in memory a magical glamour.

Swing and jazz were almost, if not quite, one; and you couldn't dig the swing bands without being led to an enslaving worship of the individual musicians and the small groups they had played with before and would again.

There are those of us who still don't know what to do with our old 78s, and even though virtually everything on them is also available, sometimes with enhanced sound, on unbreakable LPs, it seems vaguely unsettling and dangerous to discard the 78s, rather like surrendering an original painting for a cheap print.

Jazz has never again made the mainstream as it did in big band days. As a matter of fact, it has almost as much right as the stage to be called a fabulous invalid; it continues to diagnosed as terminally ill, and yet it shows the bloom of recovery at every turn.

Jazz has long since been embraced by intellectuals and even accepted as less than subversive by Middle America. (Rock made the supposed wickedness of jazz seem very relative indeed.)

Now traditional jazz flourishes as seldom before, and there appears to be a widening audience for all forms of jazz. This issue celebrates 70 years of American jazz--dated from the very first jazz recording, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band doing a couple of tunes for RCA on a February day in 1917.

It is an extraordinary and tumultuous history, carried, in some instances, by unlettered men of genius, who became better known, and certainly better loved, than Presidents and kings. It could be argued whether the United States has had a more effective foreign policy than jazz, or a more welcome ambassador (since Benjamin Franklin) than Louis Armstrong.

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