Even when writing about a topic as delightful and congenial as early jazz, it’s quite impossible to avoid controversy. To be fair, just about everyone has offered kind support and encouragement regarding the quality and direction of this new paper. But there are soreheads (mostly non-renewing subscribers who have received more copies than they were entitled to) who have voiced crude remarks when they felt their particularly austere definition of traditional jazz was thrown out with the bathwater of The American Rag.
Well, there was one guy. My feeling is that others share his orthodoxy, though they may not have imbibed enough “truth serum” to tell the editor of The Syncopated Times just how he’s gone wrong.
This publication does have a website, the main purpose of which is to host a PayPal button for subscribers. I rarely post other content there, except to announce the publication of a new issue and to offer pertinent information. The template of the site is a free blog, and there was a comment section which I have now closed.
I shut down the site comments because I will not brook drive-by rudeness. On July 8, I received an email alerting me that the following comment had been posted: “What a total croc of [expletive deleted]. Syncopate Times has NO traditional jazz. What is traditional jazz?” The commenter then linked to his own blog post defining The One True Traditional Jazz.
Specifically, as my commenter would have it, Traditional Jazz is New Orleans Jazz, a.k.a. Dixieland. (It is not effete New York music, so Mr. Gershwin and his fellow Broadway hothouse blossoms need not apply.) It bred from the turn of the twentieth century in the various petri dishes of brothels, low dive bars, and funky butt dance halls.
The instrumentation of Trad is as immutable as on a period-instrument performance of The Brandenburg Concertos. Think of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band or the Original Memphis Five: “one or two trumpets or cornets, a clarinet or soprano saxophone [there’s your Bechet], a slide trombone” with nothing as degenerate as a C melody, alto, or bass sax thrown in. Rhythm? Just “a piano, a banjo or guitar, and a tuba or string bass. Drums are optional.”
The set list is yet even more severe: there are just 184 tunes that it is acceptable for a Traditional Jazz band to play. If you veer from this stringent repertoire, you’re out of the Trad Club. No more umbrella parades for you!
I have seen the accompanying compiled lists (of Original Trad and approved Trad Revival selections) and indeed it is mostly Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, Handy, and Clarence Williams compositions. He allows that Lu Watters and Turk Murphy deserve honorable mention.
Ah, but his conclusion will make you weep: “Traditional jazz is dying. The bands that still play traditional jazz are old and feeble. I heard some of the revival bands in their prime. Only their recordings remain, along with many fond memories.”
Well, what did he think was going to happen? Jazz that will not allow other influences to breathe the pulse of new life into it is destined to stagnate and die. No musician with strong vital signs will play a tune just as it was played in 1923. The hot jazz player of today has a panoply of individual musical and life experiences that inform his or her performance. And the hot jazzer of today will happily—thankfully—play and write new tunes to be added to the traditional repertoire.
Traditional jazz is not dying. According to the late jazz scholar Albert Murray, musicians evolve traditional forms in order to keep them alive. The artist, he says, is “trying to keep that form going and he finds it necessary to extend, elaborate it, and refine it; to adjust it to new situations. That’s what innovation is about. It’s not to get rid of something merely by getting rid of it, or to turn something around. It’s to continue something that is indispensable.”
That adjustment, Murray says, is an “ongoing dialogue with the form.” That dialogue is not calculated to demonstrate who is the Moldiest Fig of All. Fortunately, we may refer to (and enjoy) all those beloved original performances at any time through the miracle of YouTube, and many of the transfers haven’t even been destroyed through excessive noise reduction. The One True Traditional Jazz may be heard by more people now than at any time, ever. Young scholar/musicians with unlimited internet access to the classics are hearing the old records, learning the songs, and keeping the music magnificently alive with their own interpretations.
Thanks to the persistence of tradition, we may still have a conversation with Louis Armstrong. I have no doubt that he would be endlessly delighted by what we still have to say.