Monday, February 19, 2007

Pearl Harbor Jazz

Pearl Harbor Jazz: Change in Popular Music in the Early 1940s
By Peter Townsend
University Press of Mississippi

Al Jolson remains an iconic figure for the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer. At the time, he was considered such, as jazz was used as a catch-all term for most popular music. However, codification of musical genres has essentially decreed that the most famous “jazz” movie is no longer about a jazz singer. The process of separating and insulating jazz from popular music (particularly pop vocals) lies at the heart Peter Townsend’s Pearl Harbor Jazz.

Essentially, Townsend identifies the attack on Pearl Harbor as the symbolic beginning of the schism between jazz and popular music. The advent of WWII would lead to a series of setbacks for big bands that would ultimately force all but the strongest organizations out of business. The effect of the draft on bands has been well documented, in effect bidding up the salaries of inferior musicians, as star soloists went into service. Townsend however, brings greater emphasis to the effect of gasoline and tire rationing had curtailing bands’ ability to tour, adversely affecting their income as a result. Townsend explains the further prohibitions on private buses hit African-American bands hardest:

“In the expression used in a Variety headline in the week the ban came into force, the black bands were in effect ‘Jim Crowed.’ There had been an effort by representatives of the black music community to gain special dispensation from the Office of Defense Transportation for black bands traveling in the South, but this was not granted. The bands would be forced onto other forms of transportation, but would do so at a further disadvantage, ‘Train riding isn’t easy for colored bands . . . particularly in the South, the best territory for them. Jim Crow rules on southern lines make routing a difficult task’ (Var. 6.24.42:41)) (p. 104)

As swing bands folded due to artificial economic setbacks, bebop would become the new ascendant jazz style, but it was perceived as a less commercial, more intimidating form of art music. Townsend uses Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra as touchstones throughout Harbor. In 1943 Ellington would inaugurate jazz’s conversion to art music with his Black, Brown, and Biege concert at Carnegie Hall. In the same year, Sinatra is credited with hastening the big band demise by establishing the primacy of independent vocalists with his now mythic appearance at the Paramount Theater (which is pictured on the book jacket).

Townsend argues that artists like Ellington and Sinatra are not so easy to categorize, and that jazz and popular music had been much more intertwined than later jazz writers wish to acknowledge. Townsend further argues that bebop figures like Thelonious Monk were in fact, much more influenced by popular songwriters than is generally recognized:

“Monk had a wide, though idiosyncratic, acquaintance with the popular song and its harmonies. At the sophisticated end of the popular song harmonic vocabulary, the half-diminished chord was not unknown. Monk could have derived this chord from, among other possible examples, the song “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.” Monk was still playing and recording the song in the 1960s.” (p. 144)

Townsend seems to anticipate these arguments being received as heresy by many jazz writers, but I think he underestimates the degree to which the “Great American Songbook” rubric has legitimized and even canonized popular songwriters like Berlin, Gershwin, Harry Warren, and Vernon Duke. For instance, during a Bill Charlap set, one is more likely to hear him talk about the songwriters whose songs he interprets, than refer to the jazz artists who also have recorded those standards.

Townsend’s treatment of the bebop movement is also valuable for a revisionist examination of bop’s supposed rejection of swing music and swing figures. Probably no figure represented swing’s ostensibly regimented qualities as much as Benny Goodman. However, according to Townsend:

“[Kenny] Clarke, credited as the first bebop drummer and an original ‘rebel,’ mentioned that when Benny Goodman attended Minton’s, ‘we always got a great deal of pleasure when he came in’ and that the Minton’s band used to ‘convert our style to coincide with his.’” (p. 135)

Peter Townsend (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, not the Who guitarist, who spells the name with an “h”) has written an interesting challenge to how many people think about jazz. In effect, he asks if it was really in the music’s best interest to separate itself from popular music. As he observes, “for many musicians, the main problem with commercialism was how to get more of it.” (p. 126) Having jazz critics metaphorically stand in front of jazz clubs warning patrons if they are looking for simple entertainment they should go elsewhere certainly did not serve that end. Jazz readers may not agree with every point, but Harbor offers a fresh perspective on a pivotal period in the development of the music and may spur some interesting debates.