tr at wfcr.org
Thu Aug 14 23:24:59 EDT 2008
A few ramblings on some of the recent Dixieland/Keppard discussions...
In his magnificent autobiography, Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet says of
Freddie Keppard's decision to not record around 1916, "These people who was
coming to make records, they was going to turn it into a regular business,
and after that it wouldn't be pleasure music. That's the way Freddie was."
Of Keppard's use of a handkerchief to cover his fingers, Bechet says,
"Someone had it that Freddie was hiding something, some secret about the
music. He used to play with a handkerchief over his trumpet so you couldn't
see his fingers, and so this writer had it figured out that Freddie was
afraid to make records. Freddie just did that joke like, he was having fun.
Any musicianer knows you don't learn from seeing someone's fingers. You
learn by hearing; there's no other way-- not if you're a real musicianer.
You can't find the notes by watching them, not if you're going to feel them
to play what you got to play."
I'm fond of a line by Paul "Polo" Barnes, who described the origins of a
distinct New Orleans music this way. "We played ragtime, but we put our own
feeling into it." Bechet and Louis Armstrong generally use the term
"ragtime" to describe the music. And to me, "feeling" generally means blues tonality,
which Jae noted is largely absent from straw boater-styled dixieland.
For the most part, jazz came to be the accepted (and respected) term for the
music, but back in the day, it seems to have been used somewhat
interchangeably with dixieland. Both terms gained much wider use after the
success of the Original Dixieland Jass/Jazz Band, and Bechet and others
would seem to use either term as a way of differentiating music made by
whites and blacks. The former played jazz/dixieland; the latter ragtime.
Of the ODJB, Bechet says, "Some of the white musicians had taken our style
as best they could. They played things that were really our numbers. But,
you understand, it wasn't our music. It wasn't us. I don't care what you
say, it's awful hard for a man who isn't black to play a melody that's come
deep out of black people. It's a question of feeling." He dismisses their
recording of "Livery Stable Blues" as a "burlesque of the blues."
Burlesque strikes me as an elegant term for the manner of parody and
grossly unflattering imitation that the minstrel tradition embodied and out
of which the attitudes of whites toward blacks were shaped in the 19th and
early 20th centuries. Minstrelsy was still a popular medium at the time
of the ODJB's emergence, and in some ways the later revival of New Orleans
or dixieland jazz can be seen as a reaction to the vigorous rejection of minstrelsy
that bebop exemplified in the 1940's.
But it's not that simple, and it remains important to distinguish between Bechet,
other great New Orleans revivalists, and some of their devoted disciples. It took me
awhile, but one of the most rewarding discoveries I made in my jazz education was
developing an appreciation for traditional jazz.
As for Bechet's view of the "awful hard" challenge for outsiders to play or sing a melody that
originates with blacks, I believe that an evolution in consciousness has made it possible
for many to do just that, and not only in sincere imitation, but with highly imaginative
results. Jazz and American culture are certainly the richer for the effort.
"Jazz à la Mode"
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