The Serious Business of Levity

On April 9, my wife Sue and I were delighted to attend a performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in Upper Nyack, New York. The concert was in benefit of The Rockland Conservatory of Music, now celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Vince and the band were magnificent and swung hard.
The venue, The Reform Temple of Rockland, was intimate—but it wasn’t packed. At least five subscribers to The Syncopated Times were in attendance, which made us smile. But there were empty seats, and Sue and I both noted what is all-too typical at jazz concerts: the average age of the audience easily surpassed that of the musicians on the bandstand.

Happily, that isn’t the case with dance events. The Lindy Hop community is out in force when there’s the prospect of a hardwood floor. But we do wonder why concerts featuring the finest jazz players in the country aren’t teeming with young music students. (To be fair, we noticed the same dearth of young people at a performance—also magnificent—of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony at Colgate University the following day.)

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The Serious Business of Levity
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I’ll focus here on early jazz. “Most of it is just too happy and upbeat to be taken seriously,” wrote Monk Rowe, who is the Joe Williams Director of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. “Too much entertainment value attached to an art form means a lower rung on the value ladder. Too often the presentation works against it—the outfits, hats, humorous titles, etc.”

Although early jazz isn’t just (or even mostly) about faux straw hats, arm garters, and red-striped vests, that seems to be a common perception of the music. And certain jazz fans do delight in the hokum. But the music has always been about fun, even if at times it unashamedly veers into Spike Jones territory.
It may be asking too much for academics and their charges to shine their countenances upon a genre of music that was born (with no clear paternity) at an establishment called Funky Butt Hall. And this misbegotten waif will not sit still to be analyzed by the doctors looking for dire social currents leading to its creation. It is more than likely to whip out a dented trombone to let out a long, loud raspberry at such attempts at deconstruction. (That’s what trombones are for.)

The error that most of us make is in mistaking solemnity for seriousness. Solemnity is akin to wrapping oneself into a toga and standing on a marble pedestal in the vain attempt to avoid frivolity. One must utter “platitudes in stained-glass attitudes,” and not, under any circumstances, smile. Solemnity is a pose assumed in the foolish denial of mortality.Pit Band Cartoon Gar WilliamsSeriousness is staring mortality full in the face and deciding to have fun, anyway. New Orleans, the cosmopolitan miasmic swamp, the host to frequent epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, the frequently-flooded “damp grave” where bodies have to be buried above ground, was perhaps the most auspicious birthplace for jazz. New Orleans, through much of the nineteenth and earth twentieth century, was the scene of constant Decameron-like revels which needed suitable musical accompaniment. And it was no coincidence that jazz become a national phenomenon at precisely the time of the wholesale and senseless slaughter of The Great War and the subsequent worldwide influenza epidemic. There is nothing that prompts the desire for levity and life as the presence of pestilence and death. (Cue the trombones!)

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Today, we can afford to be solemn. With better drainage and a handful of antibiotics, we’ve managed to reduce the plagues of the past to mere sniffles. We feel no frantic need to dance and carouse in the face of death. We can pretend (when young) that we are enlightened and that our earnestness will preserve us indefinitely in perfect youth and wisdom. And that sense of invulnerable health and life in youth is a little too perfect. Some Metal is called for.

So the young listen to dark music, as if flirting with a vivifying mortality. Apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios are the rule rather than the exception in Young Adult literature. Popular films are all about superheroes trying to prevent (or bring about) the End of Something or Other. This is the profundity of those who see their impending demise not as a daily reality (as did Franz Schubert and Bix Beiderbecke) but as Entertainment.

While cornets, trombones, and tubas may not be Metal, I am cheered to see young musicians taking up early jazz with incredible devotion to the music. They capture the spirit of old jazz with ringing authenticity while still remembering that the breath of levity and the pulse of life are required to make it all work.

And the young dancers get it. As for the rest of us, when it is brought home to us that our flirtation with decay was not unrequited, we may again seek the poignant seriousness of sweet, hot jazz.

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