Jazz is a music, jazz is a people, jazz is all the people who make the music and then those who cherish it. Jazz is an awareness of what it took to make the music, its history, a magic evolution of special sounds, from the haunted blues of Robert Johnson to the mystical saxophone of John Coltrane. Jazz is a milieu of dances that have their own contiguous history with jazz, of colors you remember in certain clubs, of marijuana and alcohol, of religious roots and raucous bohemia.
Jazz milieu is legends that are tragic: the great Charlie Parker, only 34, his stomach afire with ulcers, saxophone gone and talent depleted, dying on the rug of a European baroness’ palatial Manhattan apartment. And legends that rise to myth: the odyssey of Louis Armstrong; the elegance of Duke Ellington; the thunderous cornet of Buddy Bolden, grandfather of the art form, who died in a Louisiana asylum and never recorded.
Jazz is also a language. Or, better put, a specialized use of English in the United States has grown up around the culture of jazz. But the actual vocabulary of jazz stems from oral traditions of Southern blacks — the spirituals and work songs — and it manifests itself in the hip argot of city streets, in the slang and often coded terms which circulate among musicians themselves, a vocabulary any aficianado or serious critic better know. Jazz language ripples out of the radio and its cadences are heard each Sunday in black churches.
More than this, the actual rhythms of the music, the special arrangement of musical sounds, have exerted an enormous influence on American literature in the twentieth century. There is a rich history of jazz woven into the language of poetry, fiction and drama. Much of the oral history by which the music has been chronicled is actually profoundly musical literature. In 1938, the historian Alan Lomax sat Jelly Roll Morton down at a piano in the Smithsonian and taped hours of his reflections about his life and early jazz years. The 12-record set which came out of those sessions is a major source of information in early jazz history. The book, which was finally published in 1950, nine years after Morton’s death, is generally considered a classic in jazz history. But Mister Jelly Roll is more than that; it is also a terrific story, fictionalized in parts by Morton’s outrageous embellishments. Lomax, who also recorded remembrances of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and others, says he “came to realize that what these people had to say and their way of saying it was as good as their songs. Editing aimed to transfer the surge of speech into the quieter flow of type could, I found, sometimes produce prose as gracefully and finely-tuned as the best of written literature.” Three other musicians in particular — Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong — have produced major autobiographical literature based on the rhythmic speech patterns of the black oral tradition and on imagery drawn from the sounds of a cultural milieu too few literary critics have examined.
In a strict, technical sense, Jazz Literature is autobiographical, but I believe it is a genre of its own, a distinctive category of literary composition, and as such the language should speak to us in a way we are not accustomed to reading, but should have familiarity in hearing. Some American novels which have heretofore been called “lyrical,” “musically influenced,” or “black,” are more accurately called Jazz Literature: Cane by Jean Toomer; System of Dante’s Hell by LeRoi Jones; and, of course, Ralph Ellison’s powerful classic, Invisible Man.
Jazz was the heritage Louis Armstrong personally wrote about on his own typewriter in the memoir Satchmo — published in 1954, when On the Road was written but still unpublished, and Jack Kerouac was roaring across America, searching for the jazz-inspired prose which soon became his hallmark. Jazz forged a friendship between poet Kenneth Rexroth and Charlie Parker, united by its shared culture the late great Coltrane and the young black poet Michael Harper. Jazz is the rhythmic foundation of Albert Murray’s award-winning 1974 novel, Train Whistle Guitar.
Other books, too, from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s through the present, suggest the ongoing dialogue between jazz and the written word: God’s Trombones; Weary Blues; Banjo; Libretto for the Republic of Liberia; Hear Me Talking To Ya; Treat it Gentle; Dear John, Dear Coltrane; Black Blues and Shiny Songs ....
Jazz then, both as music and milieu, is one high expression of culture in America. Yet, for all of the impact the music has had on national life, the state of letters today (i.e., white letters) displays a dreadful ignorance of Jazz Literature, of its meaning as a genre, and of the remarkable statement on democracy contained within the broad flow of this literary tradition.
The problem emerges all the more clearly in the way critics classify “Black Literature” — a ridiculous term. By such logic, Invisible Man, a polyrhythmic novel reflecting folk and jazz culture, is lumped together under the same rubric with the searing realism of Native Son. If such rigid classifications were applied across the board, the works of Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway should be simply rendered “White Literature” — and Hemingway, who detested Whitman, would probably turn over in his Idaho grave.
It’s time to expand traditional notions of literary classification and broaden the boundaries of criticism and literary history to include those works with roots deep in the oral and musical patterns of Afro-American life. For years the academic establishment has had an ordered methodology for assessing literature. One learned the craft of criticism by reading Coleridge, Wordsworth, Eliot, Pound, and latterly Wilson, Cowley, Frye, Tate, Brooks, Ransom and others. To date, the standards of criticism are dictated by classical concepts of grammar, diction, syntax, themes and recognizable styles.
Any study of literature must inevitably confront certain facts about the writer. That Faulkner lived in a rural province, heard its homespun spoken rhythms, and was privy to its lore is elemental to understanding his work. But a study of music is qualitatively different. We may begin with the essential environmental data of, say, Louis Armstrong’s life, and try to recapitulate the shaping influences of his New Orleans apprenticeship, but still something eludes us. Though great musicians create from sounds of other musicians and natural sounds they hear in the world, the essence of their music is drawn from a private, inner sound, a studio of pitch and tempo and timbres, determined by the artistic discipline in which it resides. This personal sense of sound is a major force in the literature produced by black musicians.
God’s body’s got a soul,
Bodies like to roll the soul,
Can’t blame God if we dont roll,
Come, brother, roll, roll!
— Jean Toomer
In 1922, 22-year-old Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to join the band of his mentor, King Oliver, in Chicago. Armstrong’s departure was symbolic as well as personal, for in him the ensemble tradition of early New Orleans jazz exported its most brilliant player to the urban North, drawing the curtain on New Orleans’ great jazz renaissance begun at the turn of the century. By 1925 Armstrong was on his own, cutting now-classic records; he soon became the rage of New York clubs each time he came to town.
For all his brilliance, Armstrong was but one of many gifted artists who gravitated to Harlem during the 1920s, when that neighborhood emerged as a city-within- a-city. As if his stunning revolutionary horn play were not enough, he took the jazz trumpet and used it to sing, instrumentally, to the accompaniment of blues singers like Bessie Smith, fusing the lyrical and instrumental tradition of Southern music that was spreading, through recording studios, to black folk transplanted in the urban North, a renewal of their Southern heritage.
At the same time musical strains were merging, there was in Harlem heavy traffic between musicians and novelists and poets and dancers. Black writers began to produce plays for New York audiences. Alaine Locke edited an influential book called The New Negro, which celebrated the emergent black cultural movement. Black musical dramas also appeared, like William Grant Still’s three-movement cantata, Levee Land. James Weldon Johnson, author of the musically poetic work, God’s Trombones, wrote the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and worked on musical scores for the stage with Langston Hughes. Music had become a force now working its way into the literary ferment of the Harlem awakening.
The Southern tradition of black music served as the literary foundation for much of the poetry and theatre of Langston Hughes. His important 1927 collection, Weary Blues, was an affirmation of the black folk culture. And in the oral tradition both of his race and Anglo-Saxon verse in general, Hughes took to the road in the 1930s and traveled through the South, reading to black audiences his verse drawn from the songs and gospel shouts they knew so well. Several years earlier, Jean Toomer, a fair-skinned black of diverse ethnic backgrounds, abandoned academia in the North for a brief stint in a small school in Sparta, Georgia. Toomer’s discovery of the Southern folk culture reached high eloquence in his 1923 book, Cane, which follows in the tradition of polyrythmic music: part narrative and part verse. Cane's beautiful, often haunting lyricism is something of an anomaly in the history of the novel; many critics question whether it is a novel at all. In a letter to The Liberator magazine, Toomer explained the influences which converged on him and led to the writing of the work:
From my own point of view, I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analagous to the fact of racial intermingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one to the other, I have sought to let them live in harmony. Within the last two or three years, however, my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group. A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accounts about, of which til then I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my own nature, apart I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now, I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. My point of view has not changed; it has deepened, it has widened.
The Harlem writers celebrated the beauty of blackness during a decade when whites began to notice their work. Claude McKay’s 1929 novel, Banjo, set in the teeming international port of Marseilles, draws together a Caribbean, Senegalese and American black from the South. When one man questions the title character’s love of instrument, he affirms the folk tradition.
“Banjo! That’s what you play?” exclaimed Goosey.
“Sure that’s what I play,” replied Banjo. “Don’t you like it?”
“No. Banjo is bondage. It’s the instrument of slavery. Banjo is Dixie. Dixie is the land of cotton and massa and black mammy. We colored folks have got to get away from all that in these enlightened, progressive days. Let us play piano and violin, harp and flute. Let the white folks play the banjo if they want to keep remembering all the black Joes singing and the hell they made them live in.”
“That ain’t got nothing to do with me, nigger,” replied Banjo. “I play that theah instrument becaz I likes it. I don’t play no black Joe hymns. I play lively tunes. All that you talking about slavery and bondage ain’t got nothin to do with our starting up a li’l orchestry.”
In fostering the dignity of Southern folk life, Toomer, Hughes, McKay* and others were celebrating a dualistic culture built on both oral traditions which had endured since the earliest days of slavery and the profound musical life which flourished as ex-slaves migrated off plantations across the South and into the cities in the days after Reconstruction.
The Harlem Renaissance died quickly after the 1929 Stock Market crash. As the Depression of the 1930s set in, many musicians were suddenly out of work. Black writers who in the past had depended on white publishers and readers found it hard to sell their work. And jazz music changed. The tight ensemble tradition of New Orleans jazz became popularized over the radio by orchestral interpretations in the Swing Era. The Big Bands’ music was built on the Southern idiom, but it watered down the music significantly. Hot jazz gave way to more dreamy croonings, a sentimental jazz more oriented to a growing audience of melancholy white listeners.
As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. —Ralph Ellison
As the Harlem Renaissance ebbed, a full-fledged literary movement arose in the white South. In 1922, the year Louis Armstrong left for Chicago, a group of well-bred, well-read young men in Nashville began a small literary magazine called The Fugitive, and called themselves the Agrarians because of their opposition to materialism and industrialization and their ties to some of the ways of the Antebellum South. The group included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom. It is revealing of the Agrarian perspective that in their famous book of essays, I’ll Take My Stand, Ransom wrote of the Old South:
It was a kindly society, yet a realistic one; for it was a failure if it could not be said that people were for the most part in their right places. Slavery was a feature monstrous enough in theory, but, more often than not, humane in practice; and it is impossible to believe that its abolition alone could have effected any great revolution in society.
By 1935, the Agrarians’ concern with their own output and the surrounding literary ferment in the South led to the founding of the quarterly Southern Review as the principal forum for the “New Critics,” as they were then called.
The critical thought developed by Tate, Ransom, Warren, R. P. Blackmur and Cleanth Brooks focused on each literary work as a “thing-in-itself,” having its own special language and inherent value. They called for close textual analysis of the work at hand. In 1941 Ransom published The New Criticism, which among other things, compared the Southern critical position then emerging to a similar development in England, especially as articulated by T. S. Eliot.
T.S. Eliot was of pivotal importance to the New Critics. If The Waste Land, published in 1922, the year The Fugitive was founded, served as a moral statement of literature — protesting the decay of traditional values wiped away by the Great War — Eliot’s larger cultural philosophy, as expressed in his critical essays, spoke to the concerns of the New Critics. In one of his most famous essays, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot argued that tradition was much more than the simple handing down of ideas from one generation to the next.
...the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity. (Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot, 1964 edition, Harcourt Brace & World)
The literary concerns of the New Critics stemmed directly from the Anglo-Saxon tradition Eliot exalted. But there was a problem in the South, for the regional literature up to the Great War was sentimental and shallow, reflecting the spurious, pseudo-classical culture of the antebellum South, with its cornerstone of racial paternalism. Tate himself wrote that the Old South’s culture revealed its lack of depth by failing to produce a serious body of literature. Coming out of such a meritless literary tradition, it was perhaps only natural that the New Critics, recognizing the worth of their own poetry, should attach themselves to the tradition of English literature by publishing weighty articles filled with references to the Greeks, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Eliot and his British contemporaries.
Significantly, the New Critics ignored the cultural heritage of the “other” South. They did not hear the blues, or if they did, probably viewed it as a peasant perversion. Where Eliot called for a tradition built on “the whole of the literature of [one’s] own country,” the Agrarians were concerned only with the literature of the white race, a conservative-elitist mentality that distorted literary criticism for 40 years. The Harlem Renaissance could be conveniently regarded by Allen Tate as the product of one of those “cosmopolitan and eclectic groups of the East” — despite the fact that its roots lay in the Agrarians’ own region and that many of the Harlem Renaissance writers were profoundly influenced by the same works as the Agrarians.
Take, for example, Ralph Ellison. In 1935, the same year Tate’s Southern Review began, a young Negro student at Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama reacted to T.S. Eliot in a different way. Ralph Ellison had grown up in the colorful frontier culture of Oklahoma City, which he described in Shadow and Act as filled with “gamblers and scholars, jazz musicians and scientists, Negro cowboys and soldiers from the Spanish- American and First World Wars, movie stars and stunt men.”
Ellison had studied the trumpet as a boy; at the same time, an early schoolteacher had introduced him to Negro history and “from her I’d learned of the New Negro movement of the twenties, of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson and others. They had inspired pride and had given me a closer identification with poetry...but with music so much on my mind it never occurred to me to try to imitate them.”
Ellison had gone to Tuskegee intent on becoming a composer of symphonies. But:
... during my second year, I read The Waste Land and that, although I was then unaware of it, was the real transition to writing....
I was much more under the spell of literature than I realized at the time. Wuthering Heights had caused me agony of unexpressible emotion and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand then, its range of allusion was as mixed and as varied as that of Louis Armstrong. Yet there were its discontinuities, its change of pace and its hidden system of organization which escaped me.
There was nothing to do but look up the references in the footnotes to the poem, and thus began my conscious education in literature.
The influence of the blues was still dominant, however, with the result that Ellison’s great novel, Invisible Man, is rightly called a “blues odyssey.”** Consider, as a frame of reference for understanding that book, Ellison’s own interpretation of the blues in Richard Wright’s work:
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
The nameless narrator of Ellison’s novel keeps alive the pain of his race’s struggle by recounting his own travel: like innumerable Southern bluesmen, he rode the rails North to New York and confrontation with black nationalist politics in Harlem; he was ultimately left like the blues lyricist, alone in the end, to tell his tale. The polyrhythmic nature of Ellison’s prose is analagous to jazz and reflective of The Waste Land's influence in the shifting tones, the lyrical passages and evocations of folk humor, counterposed with the powerful streak of realism and racial introspection.
In accepting the National Book Award in 1952 for Invisible Man, Ellison discussed the influence of his racial heritage as applicable to Anglo-Saxon literary tradition.
Thus to see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom, I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led, after so many triumphs, to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity and individual self-realization. It would use the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us.
Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you “keep much.’' But the price got a little too high to pay (law wise). —Louis Armstrong
As the Agrarians were formulating their critical thought between the World Wars, the seminal school of New Orleans jazz musicians was intent on preserving and spreading the facts about their music and careers for future generations. In 1938, the year Jelly Roll sat down at the Smithsonian piano to tell his tale to Lomax, Louis Armstrong gave a tip to jazz scholars Frederic Ramsey and Bill Russell as to the whereabouts of old Bunk Johnson. A popular New Orleans trumpet man of the 1920s, Bunk was doing field work in New Iberia, Louisiana. His teeth had rotted out and he didn’t even own a horn. Money was raised, both for a horn and dental work. Bunk came back to life and his recordings established a sound link in jazz history, as his play derived from that of the legendary Buddy Bolden, who never recorded.
On June 12, 1942, Bunk reminisced for critic Ralph Gleason. Like Lomax, Gleason was sensitive to Bunk’s spoken rhythms and in transcribing the memoir arranged the words like music to dramatize their place within the oral tradition of the African call-and-response pattern, slave work songs and spirituals. The result is folk poetry, as the section on his embellished influence over young Armstrong illustrates:
Well, then I would show him and show him til he begin
Understands’ me real good.
It was a short time before Louis could play the blues.
And he learned to play the blues.
And I learn him how to play Ball the Jack,
I learn him how to play Ball the Jack,
I learn him how to play Didn’t He Ramble
Then I learn him how to play Didn’t He Ramble
And then the music become easy to him —
By head, by ear
And Louis could play anything that he could whistle.
As the Second World War unfolded, with jazz players now finding work in clubs frequented by GIs on leave, jazz reporters like Ramsey, Russell, Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather began interviewing players and writing the first histories of the music, based on oral revelations. Meanwhile, the music itself was undergoing a major transformation.
In the middle 1940s, Charlie Parker, a driving young saxophonist out of Kansas City, began exploring new jazz sounds, long rippling reaches of sound, pulsing the blues idiom into rich new heights. With Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet and Thelonious Monk’s unorthodox piano, be-bop music forged into the jazz consciousness, shattering the reign of swing, opening new vistas of sound, expanding the language of jazz. The be-bop players dressed with casual disregard for social propriety, and the spoken language of the jazz culture soon reflected their radical impact. Ross Russell writes in his biography of Parker:
Money was gold. Eyes meant willingness or enthusiasm. A pad was a bed, therefore someone’s room or apartment. Old jazzmen’s expressions, once in, were now out, and hopelessly dated the speaker. Hi root ideas they gave way to verbal improvisations, in the same way that old tunes served as armatures for bop compositions (A Dizzy Atmosphere from I Got Rhythm). Etymology remained reasonably straightforward. The intent was always the same: to exclude the uninitiated, to confound the square, to strengthen the inner community. Out of the world became gone, shorter and more allusive. Blow your top became flip your wig, leading to flipped, flipped out, wigged, wig, and wiggy...
Like the new music, the new linguistics revolved around fixed points and established ideas. Like the music, it was a language in motion, subtly changing from day to day, with ever-fresh coinagesand connotations, subject to common concepts and needs.
The decade of the 1950s saw a great cultural bridge built between the language of jazz and white American literature. The Beats — particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg — wrote novels and poems incorporating the hip idiom into their works. The frenetic bohemian lives of the writers always found them drawn back to be-bop music. Charlie Parker, who died in 1955 just as Kerouac and Ginsberg were emerging as important writers, became a tragic legend; his music exerted a profound influence on the Beats.
It is not possible in this space to discuss the myriad evocations of jazz in Beat literature of the ’50s, so let us briefly hear Jack Kerouac, whose words Ginsberg called “bop prosody.” His second novel, On The Road, brought him immediate fame after its 1956 publication. A subsequent novel, The Subterraneans (1958), was written during a speed-induced three-day-stretch; a tale of the San Francisco underground, it recounts the love affair of the narrator (in fact Kerouac) and a black woman named Mardou Fox. Early in the book, they visit a jazz club.
... and up on the stand Bird Parker with solemn eyes who’d been busted fairly recently and now had returned to a kind of bop dead Frisco, but had just discovered or been told about the Red Drum, the great new generation gang wailing and gathering there, so here he was on the stand, examining them with his eyes as he blew his now-settled-down-into- regulated design “crazy” notes — blew the booming drums, the high ceiling...
...to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eye looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions or remembered me from other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicagos — not a challenging look but the king and founder of the bop generation at least the sound of it in digging his audience digging his eyes, the secret eyes him-watching, as he just pursed his lips and let great lungs and immortal fingers work, his eyes separate and interested and humane, the kindest jazz musician there could be while being and therefore naturally the greatest....
Like Parker’s sax, the language of The Subterraneans moves rapidly, descends to re-ascend, his repetitions force new sound openings in words that convey the spirit of the milieu shared by the Beats and the Bops. In his later book of poetry, Mexico City Blues, Kerouac devoted a poem to Parker. Kerouac read some of his verse to the accompaniment of jazz in San Francisco and New York clubs, he recorded some of his literature on LPs, and he lived a life as intensely consuming as Parker’s consumption of booze and pills and pot, bursting through marriages and affairs, struggling constantly for the next burst of living beyond the smoky layers of a mutual yearning to transcend. Bird died at 34, Kerouac at 52.
Some critics call the Beats romantic, but it’s not a serene or pastoral romanticism, rather a spiritual rebellion against the conformities of the 1950s, a shout against the deadening of cultural life under the technology of corporate America. The Beats used their own frenetic lives to embody protest against the wasteland of the 1950s. In this sense they differed from Bird and Dizzy and the be-bop jazzmen; although their music was a radical stylistic departure, they were still creating music more than protesting. The Beats augmented the music of the Be-Bops with booze, pills, pot, Zen, and mystical ideas; jazz provided the stylistic undercurrent for their orchestration of words.
While Kerouac and the Beats surged across cultural barriers to immerse themselves in the idioms of jazz, Louis Armstrong, now in his 50s, began to write. Although he had a grade-school education, Louis read well and enjoyed books. He spoke in a naturally cadenced voice that still stands as a leitmotif through many records. Armstrong, a selftaught typist, left a trail of hundreds of letters to friends, fans, kin and jazz critics; in them he tried to imbue stress sounds of his music through the medium of the written word. One letter, written at the behest of biographers, reflects on his 1931 arrest outside a Los Angeles jazz club for possession of marijuana and ends with a vintage defense of the now-popular herb. Note the sounds.
As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope. But with all the riggermaroo going on, no one can do anything about it. After all, the vipers in my haydays are way up there in age — too old to suffer those drastic penalties. So we had to put it down. But if we all get as old as Methusala our memories will always be of lots of beauty and warmth from gage. Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you “heep much.” But the price got a little too high to pay (law wise). At first you was a “misdomeanor.” But as the years rolled on you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor. (Jailhousely speaking.)
Armstrong produced two books which bore his name as author. Swing That Music, a ghosted number published in 1939 for publicity purposes, and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), a vivid recollection of early New Orleans jazz which recounts in detail Louis’ life up until his 1922 reunion with King Oliver in Chicago.
Louis also wrote privately, for his own enjoyment. I recently interviewed Dizzy Gillespie, who told this story. “I went to see him one time, he was in the hospital, sick, intensive care, only family to see him. So I went over there, went up to his room. He was sittin by the window, with light comin down, doin this” — here Dizzy made a huntand- peck typing motion with his fingers — “He looked up and saw me, say: ‘Gawd-damn, baby, come in heah!’ ‘What you doin, Louie?’ ‘Listen, this the introduction: Chefronda, Chefronda! Come in here and get outa that cold, nothin on you but that skinny nigger!’ ”
He was writing an erotic short story.
Trane, Coltrane; John Coltrane;
it’s tranetime; chase the Trane;
it’s a slow dance;
it’s the Trane
in Alabama; acknowledgement,
a love supreme,
it’s Black trane; black;
I’m black man; I’m black;
I am; I’m a black man —
—From “Brother John,” in Dear John, Dear Coltrane by Michael Harper
Jazz literature dramatically expanded in the 1960s. As the struggle for civil rights in the South challenged the white liberal mind and moved North in explosive statements from urban ghettos, so did streams of literary, musical and political statements begin to merge and blend into a cultural polyrhythm now called the Black Arts Movement, giving rise to what many critics see as an evolving Black Aesthetic. It is essential to understand the evolving Black consciousness of the late 1970s, for herein lies the key to a full awareness of Jazz Literature, and the potential for a communitarian criticism which the tradition itself demands.
In many ways, the message of Martin Luther King was an extension of the oral tradition of the South. His charismatic demands were supported by the network of black churches, and his stirring calls for suffrage and civil rights were cast in the scriptural language of Southern blacks. King himself recognized the difficulty of transposing this message to the urban ghetto, a culture of vast complexities and concentrated anger, with an oral tradition built on different slangs and often irreligious idioms. Malcolm X, by contrast, came out of that culture and spoke directly to what Kimberly Bentson calls “the fundamental chaos of violent, urban, ghetto life....”
Malcolm knew instinctively and by experience that this chaos concealed an approach to life, an adaptability in the face of abuse and painful dues-paying that created something beautiful amidst and despite the enveloping misery — the will and character to survive. This chaos was akin to the music of Malcolm’s time, epitomized by the “life-in-death” lyricism of John Coltrane, which the fearful took to be cacaphony. Malcolm went into the bars, prisons, slums, and streets to preach the message; he spoke to the whores, pimps, and hustlers as well as to the others.
Malcolm X became a spiritual hero to the generation of black artists who came to maturity in the 1960s. Countless poems are written in his honor, and his name conveys a meaning, the quest for a black cultural consciousness, a liberation embracing the heritage of the African and American. And by this time, the music was soaring, reaching for newer heights by consciously importing African musical rhythms into modern jazz. Coltrane’s saxophone spoke of a racial mysticism, and as the violent protests of the urban ghetto spoke politically, the musical revolutions in jazz communicated deepest yearnings of the writers. In 1965, the last year he wrote under his American name, LeRoi Jones, Imamu Baraka said succinctly: “The denial of reality has been institutionalized in America, and any honest man, especially an artist, suffers from it.”
The cultural cause of black artists in the 1960s, as it has endured to the present, is to create a new reality, bring to the surface the unwritten legacy of black speech and (very often) set it on paper with the musical quality of jazz/blues. In so doing, the black arts movement has affirmed the dignity of “substandard” English by broadening the cultural heritage of the motherland. In Africa, drums were the basic sound at tribal convocations. Drums duplicated sounds which often were real words. Word and song blended in the drumbeats. The leader of the tribe sang to the beat of the drums, while a chorus, usually female, sang refrains behind him. In Dixieland jazz, a one-two thump of the drum begins the song. A brassy trumpet, playing the lead role, intones, and the reed instruments — sax, flute, clarinet — join in like the chorus.
And so with the new black writers. The role they have taken for themselves in so many poems is like that of the jazz musician, as a spiritual speaker, a priest or priestess of the culture.
In his book, Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Stephen Henderson extols the present generation of poets and, with a sharp critical savvy, analyzes one potential obstacle:
In their insistence upon jazz as a model and inspiration for their poetry, these writers were and are confronted with enormous technical problems, some of which may be insoluble if they continue to write that poetry down. For their model is dynamic, not static, and although one can suggest various vocal and musical effects with typography, an extensive use of mechanical devices may be ultimately self-defeating. Thus Black poets are rediscovering the resources of their oral traditions and have occasionally been very successful with them. Some idea of that success may be obtained by listening to Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Larry Neal, Don L. Lee, Nikki Giovanni, and Ghylan Kain and the Original Last Poets. In the meantime, however, the question of typography is still quite formidable and still unresolved.
“Poets,” Henderson says, “use Black speech forms consciously because they know that Black people — the mass of us — do not talk like white people. They know that despite the lies and distortions of the minstrels, both ancient and modern, unlearned and academic — and despite all of the critical jargon about ‘ghettoese’ and ‘plantation English,’ there is a complex and rich and powerful and subtle linguistic heritage whose resources have scarcely been touched that they draw upon.”
Jazz Literature, as one strain within the broader movement of black arts, has not been studied seriously by the academic establishment. For the inheritance of the American university form of criticism, even after the wrenching changes of the ’60s and rise in Afro-American studies, is still seated in the New Critics’ linguistic tradition of Anglo-Saxon English. It is not terribly interdisciplinary, as witnessed by the volumes of criticism-of-criticism, ponderous academic debates, old literary grounds furrowed and retilled to be furrowed again, and much of it is simply abominable in what it says to intelligent readers. The New Critic’s strict adherence to a textual analysis renders too many critics helpless when confronted with a polyrhythmic novel or poem that draws on Alabama blues or oral riffs of Harlem.
There are in America two great cultures, two mighty linguistic traditions, the Afro-American and the Anglo- American. In a very real sense, Jazz Literature is the bridge, for the music has been international language for many years now. Today, white academic critics have begun to recognize and acclaim the works of black novelists like Albert Murray, James Allen McPherson, Toni Morrison, Ernest P. Gaines, Alice Walker, Imamu Baraka and others. But the challenge Jazz Literature poses for white scholarship is bi-cultural — a new way of reading and writing about language.
In “The Function of Criticism,” T.S. Eliot says that above all a critic must have a very “highly developed sense of fact.” Basic questions about a critical standard suggest the need for literary reporting to unearth facts: How deeply rooted a tradition is Jazz Literature? What are its thematic evolutions? What influence has it had on foreign writing, particularly African — and vice versa? To what extent have white writers contributed to this literary genre? How many jazz-inspired works are buried in scattered libraries, out of print and unknown to the average critic? Who are the contemporaries, musically inspired narrators in America yearning for their stories to surface? Not all black writers produce Jazz Literature; which authors were most deeply influenced by which musicians — and who did the musicians read? B
lack critics like Stephen Henderson are bringing to the fore facts about Jazz Literature. Who are other critics doing such seminally important work? Why don’t they appear more frequently in white-edited literary journals? Beyond the “highly developed sense of fact” which T.S. Eliot emphasized for all critics, Jazz Literature demands a special form of criticism by inviting a synthesis of music and literature in a critical standard, a binding together of the two major language traditions into a self-conscious literary community, and a democratic one at that.
* The influences of folk life and music were only one strand of the Harlem outpourings. McKay and Hughes in particular wrote many poems of a political and social nature, which are not Jazz Literature.
** The assessment of Albert Murray, distinguished critic of jazz and literature, and author of Train Whistle Guitar.
Jason Berry is the author of Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi, and co-author of Up From the Cradle of Jazz, a forthcoming history of New Orleans music. This article was re searched with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C. (1984)
Jason Berry is the author of Amazing Grace, which chronicles Charles Evers’ campaign for governor of Mississippi. He has written for numerous national publications, and last appeared in Southern Exposure in “Long Journey Home,” with a profile of the Creole poet, Jack Nocentelli. (1978)