In the fall of 1982, on the advice of "Ragtime" Bob Darch, I took my violin and a gypsy cab out to Bedford-Stuyvesant with a guitar player and a singer to play a few tunes for Eubie Blake. The old master composer and piano player was housebound in pajamas and robe but still very much compos mentis. All afternoon he hummed along to choruses of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Memories of You." But at the end of every piece, he'd mumble a one-word curse: "Mozart . . . Mozart!" After six or seven tunes, I finally turned to Eubie and asked him what he had against the composer. "Mozart," he said. "Why are they playing all that Mozart? He's dead!"
A few months after our visit, Eubie turned 100 and was serenaded by dozens of jazz musicians in a 24-hour tribute at St. Peter's Church in Manhattan. Five days later, he strode off himself to meet Wolfgang. The next year, "Amadeus" won the Academy Award, and recordings of "Don Giovanni" flew out of the stores. But though from time to time, if you wander down, say, to the Tom Turpin Ragtime Festival in Savannah, Ga., you might hear a chorus of "The Charleston Rag," you aren't likely to run into a tune by Eubie Blake in any jazz club in Manhattan. And rightly so. After all, he's dead.
Classical music has never been shy about performing the symphonies of its angels, but jazz, the hell-raising music of the here and now, the music whose name (according to many) comes from the Life Force itself, has always shunned the past. Death is something to be blown away by the woodwinds, not wallowed in by the brass. It's "The Saints Go Marching In" versus Liszt's "Funeral March."
So what to make of the spate of articles and books in the last few years that say jazz has turned its back on the living? That jazz has come not to bury its dead but to praise them? That jazz has become the province of museums like Lincoln Center or the Smithsonian? That jazz has not just been framed but murdered? To judge from the recent crop of jazz criticism, the body has been misidentified. The real corpse may not be jazz but jazz criticism.
Take "The History of Jazz" by Ted Gioia. Touted as the first concise jazz history in the 40 years since the publication of Marshall W. Stearns' "The Story of Jazz," Gioia's book is the latest in a venerable line of jazz volumes edited by Stanley Meyer for Oxford University Press. The best of Meyer's books, like Whitney Balliett's "American Musicians," have mixed a depth of knowledge with a quick-fingered style that has made reading a joy not unlike finding an empty stool at the far end of the bar at Bradley's, with Cyrus Chestnut at the piano. What a disappointment, therefore, to wade through Gioia's history, which, while it points to the proper signposts, submerges them under a lake of tepid prose and library paste.
We know we're in trouble when the first chapter, already encumbered with the Stone Age title "The Prehistory of Jazz," begins the search for the mixed European and African ancestry of jazz by traveling with the 7th century Moors in their invasion of Spain and southern France. If not for Charles Martel's victory at the Battle of Tours, Gioia tells us, quoting Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford." It's a novel argument (and how many of us want to hear about clanking chains in slave boats again?), but Gioia is surely shooting himself in his own footnote with a passage that would make a better introduction to a Monty Python sketch.
And this is only the beginning. Throughout the book, academic tics jump off the page. Nietzsche turns up in a discussion of the Modern Jazz Quartet; Herbert Marcuse, in a riff on Albert Ayler. In a passage analyzing the fragmentary nature of Charles Mingus' method of composition, Gioia invokes the shades of Gibbon's sidemen, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound: " 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins,' Eliot proclaims toward the end of the 'The Waste Land.' 'I cannot make it cohere,' announces Ezra Pound near the conclusion of his massive 'Cantos.' In fact, Mingus was the closest jazz has come to having its own Ezra Pound," Gioia writes. Why? Because Mingus fragmented his way into Bellevue (although not for broadcasting propaganda for Mussolini).
It's not so much that Gioia misunderstands Mingus but that his invocations of these literary and philosophical sources add nothing to our understanding of jazz. They are merely examples of a nervous school of pop criticism that believes that scholarly references confer legitimacy, that Charlie Parker's greatness lay in his ability to quote Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" from the "Peer Gynt Suite," rather than in the seamless virtuosity of his playing. They prove merely that the writer has spent time in the library.