Saturday, April 22, 2006

Jass: "Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great."

So, Jazz Fest is coming up soon, and with it the usual discussion of jazz as key to the culture of New Orleans, and New Orleans as a city with a unique love for jazz. And along with that, the occasional voice pointing out that New Orleans' vibrant hip-hop scene is margaized by some, etc. Here, then, retyped verbatim and in full, an editorial published in The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune in 1918, the same year that Louis Armstrong took King Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band. Armstrong followed Oliver's lead, moving to Chicago, a few years later. Anyway, here's the editorial:

Jass and Jassism

Why is the jass music, and therefore, the jass band? As well ask why is the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut? All are manifestations of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash. Indeed, one might go farther, and say that jass music is the indecent story syncopated and counter-pointed. Like the improper anecdote, also in its youth, it was listened to blushingly, behind closed doors and drawn curtains, but, like all vice, it grew bolder until it dared decent surroundings, and there, was tolerated because of its oddity.

We usually think of people as either musical or nonmusical, as if there were a simple line separating two great classes. The fact is, however, that there are many mansions in the house of music. There is first the great assembly hall of melody -- where most of us take our seats at some time in our lives -- but a lesser number pass on to inner sanctuaries of harmony, where the melodic sequence, the "tune," as it most frequently is called, has infinitely less interest than the blending of noise into chords so that the combining wave-lengths will give new aesthetic sensations. This inner court of harmony is where nearly all the truly great music is enjoyed.

In the house there is, however, another apartment, properly speaking, down in the basement, a kind of servants' hall of rhythms. It is there we hear the hum of the Indian dance, the throb of the Oriental tambourines and kettle drums, the clatter of the clogs, the click of Slavic heels, the thumpty-tumpty of the negro banjo, and, in fact, the native dances of a world. Although commonly associated with melody, and less often with harmony also, rhythm is not necessarily music, and he who loves to keep time to the pulse of the orchestral performance by patting his foot upon the theater floor is not necessarily a music lover. The ultra modernists in composition, go so far as to pronounce taboo upon rhythm, and even omit the perpendicular lines on their bars of written music, so that the risk of a monotonous pulsation is done away with.

Prominently, in the basement hall of rhythm, is found rag-time, and of those most devoted to cult of the displaced accent there has developed a brotherhood of those who, devoid of harmonic and even of melodic instinct, love to fairly wallow in noise. On certain natures sound loud and meaningless has an exciting, almost an intoxicating effect, like crude colors and strong perfumes, the sight of flesh or the sadic pleasure in blood. To such as these the jass music is a delight, and a dance to the unstable bray of the sackbut gives a sensual delight, more intense and quite different from the languor of a Viennese waltz or the refined sentiment and respectful emotion of an eighteenth century minuet.

In the matter of jass, New Orleans is particularly interested, since it has been widely suggested that this particular form of musical vice had its birth in this city -- that it came, in fact, from doubtful surroundings in our slums. We do not recognized the honor of parenthood, but with such a story in circulation, it behooves us to be last to accept the atrocity in polite society, and where it has crept in we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it. Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great.

--Times-Picayune editorial, June 20, 1918 (page 4, Column 2)

[Thanks to the person who insisted no thanks were necessary... You know who you are.]