restricted access 4. Mastery
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87 4 . m aste ry he second world war severely altered the texture and tempo of American life, and jazz reflected those changes more acutely and thoroughly than the other arts, with the arguable exception of painting. Popular music gave way to canned patriotism, sentimental bromides, and silly novelties. Hollywood divided its soul between the benedictions of Bing Crosby as a priest and crime stories (later called noir) of festering corruption. Broadway looked backward even when it was serious (The Glass Menagerie , The Skin of Our Teeth), though it preferred outright nostalgia (I Remember Mama, Life with Father). A popular appetite for poetry was requited by a virtual law firm of the trade: Benét, Benét, Millay , McGinley, and Nash. Though the novel fared better, particularly in the South, only Richard Wright’s Native Son successfully broached the agenda of race, which remained on the back burner until thousands of returning black servicemen who helped save the T Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, c. 1950. mastery 88 world for democracy demanded a little of the same. The new jazz set a comprehensive tone for black discontent and black accomplishment , tempering outrage with ebullience, sorrow with nobility, hurt with beauty, impudence with razzle-dazzle genius. Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and Powell were of the first generation born during the Harlem renaissance. History was on their side and they knew it. The world could not fail to take notice of their music. An elemental difference between popular and serious art is that the former gives society what it wants and the latter gives it what it must. The impact modern jazz had on American life is reflected not least in the number of people, including countless artists in other fields, who found themselves relearning their responses to music because of it. Indeed, bebop’s glittery blare reawakened many to At a recording session in New York City by Sir Charles and His All Stars. Left to right: Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Butts, Dexter Gordon, Buck Clayton, J. C. Heard, Danny Barker, and Charlie Parker, September 4, 1945. mastery 89 the astonishing fact that much of what was best in American culture emerged from a formerly enslaved and often despised minority . Which is not to say that its proponents achieved a mastery or seriousness lacking in their predecessors. The music of Armstrong, Ellington, Bessie Smith, Hawkins, Young, Holiday, Basie, Tatum, Eldridge, and many others of the 1920s and 1930s, was every bit as expert, personal, and willful. The choices they made were in all important respects singularly musical, even in the arena of commercial concessions. They represented the first wave of accomplishment, when jazz and popular music reinforced each other. The modernists knew that that marriage was no longer tenable. Jazz in the Swing Era was so frequently compromised by chuckleheaded bandleaders, most of them white, who diluted, sentimentalized, and undermined the work of dedicated musicians, that a bold new virtuosity was essential—and the modernists brandished it like a weapon. They confronted social and musical complacency in a spirit of dauntless romanticism. Their art was a relentless celebration of self. That modem jazz disenfranchised conservative listeners no one can doubt. Yet its leaders were not the sort of apostates who thrive as a clique, snubbing bourgeois acceptance. They were pioneers who cultivated their contemporaries on their own terms. “Don’t play what the public wants,” Monk advised, “you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are doing—even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” Monk eventually found a permanent international audience, as Gillespie had earlier, as Parker did posthumously. It was easy for the impish Gillespie to exploit the publicity value of the bebop-rebop-hipster-hepster jive that Parker disdained. (“Let’s not call it bebop. Let’s call it music,” he pleaded.) But Parker was no less intent on securing public approval. His insistence on performing with an ensemble of strings betrayed less of a debt to Stravinsky and Hindemith than to the sugary backdrops Armstrong favored for his interpretations of pop songs nearly­ twenty years earlier. Yet he was accused of alienating the jazz following , of scorning dancers and entertainment values. mastery 90 mastery 91 The truth is more complicated. Parker paid his dues in dance bands, admired great dancers (he named the tap dancer Baby Laurence as an influence), and relished the rare opportunities when he could play ballrooms. He was himself a good dancer, like Gillespie , who could cut a...