The fine art of jazz gives the world its music

November 10, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE EVOLUTION of jazz from popular entertainment to fine art proceeds apace. The latest step in this progress occurs at 5 p.m. today, when the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society inaugurates its 1996-1997 season by presenting jazzman Arvell Shaw in concert at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Shaw is one of the last grand old men of the genre: The veteran bassist was a member of Louis Armstrong's legendary All-Stars during the 1940s and '50s and also played with seminal figures such as Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Benny Goodman. It is altogether fitting that the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society, now in its fifth year, chose him to inaugurate its new venue at the BMA.

During his lifetime, Shaw has witnessed jazz arise from obscure origins among a downtrodden people to become the musical lingua franca of the entire world. Though its creators and greatest innovators were African-Americans, today it is played by musicians the world over and enjoyed by audiences in every corner of the globe.

The emergence of this unique confabulation of blues, marches, ragtime, hymn tunes, dance melodies and European art music as a universal form of musical expression surely is the most astonishing aspect of its brief but intense history. It is a development that cries out for explanation. Yet the problem has baffled academic historians, jazz buffs and critics alike.

The English writer Eric Hobsbawn, himself a superb jazz critic as well as historian, conceded as much when he observed that "it is hard to find a parallel for [jazz's] unique history.

"Other local musical idioms have had the power to proselytize: the Hungarian, Spanish, Latin-American," Hobsbawn wrote. "Our age and culture is one that needs periodic blood-transfusions to rejuvenate tired and exhausted or thin-blooded middle-class art, popular art whose vitality is drained by systematic commercial debasement and over-exploitation.

"Since the aristocrats and the middle class first began to borrow the waltz from the 'lower orders' and the polka from the peasantry of an exotic and revolutionary nation, since the romantic intellectuals first discovered the thrill of the Andalusian Carmens and Don Joses Western civilization has been a pushover for exoticism of all kinds.

"And yet, the triumph of jazz is greater, more universal and all-embracing than that of all previous comparable idioms. It has become, in more or less diluted form, the basic language of modern dance and popular music in urban and industrial civilization."

There is a still more puzzling paradox in jazz's global cultural hegemony.

Though it indeed has been the basis for virtually every significant development in 20th-century popular music and dance, jazz itself was never a true popular music.

Though it gave its name to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, and the famous big bands of Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie and Duke Ellington helped dub the 1930s the Swing Era, jazz had ceased to be primarily a form of dance music by the late 1940s.

The separation of jazz from popular dance freed the music to return to its main line of development as a mode of individual expression. But it also restricted its appeal to a much smaller coterie of avant-garde aficionados and cognoscenti.

The audience for Miles Davis and John Coltrane was never, for example, anything like that for Duke Ellington and Count Basie, simply because the former made music mainly to express their personal feelings whereas the older musicians always had to satisfy their listeners' desire for singable tunes and danceable rhythms.

Migrated from U.S.

Yet even as jazz became less accessible as popular entertainment, it captured a wider public, migrating from the United States first to Europe and then throughout the industrialized world.

Now that jazz is finally being recognized as a fine art, it is more cogent than ever to ask what accounts for its phenomenal influence and diffusion across all lines of religion, race and nationality.

Hobsbawn only begins to answer such questions when he suggests that jazz plays its most important role and has its real life as an emerging common tradition of culture.

"If I had to sum up the evolution of jazz in a single sentence," he writes, "I should say: It is what happens when a folk-music does not go under, but maintains itself in the environment of modern urban and industrial civilization.

"Much of it has changed out of all recognition. But that, after all, is what we should expect to happen to a music which does not die but continues to evolve in a dynamic and tempestuous world."

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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