Modernity as a Cultural Style

Jazz in Black and White

The virulent racism that had characterized American culture in the 1890s began to relax somewhat after the first world war, at least in intellectual circles. African-American migrants, drawn by wartime jobs, found a degree of creative freedom and fellowship in the North unheard of in Jim Crow Dixie. We remember this cultural flowering today as "the Harlem Renaissance," a period when African-American artists, writers and poets produced works that celebrated their own traditions and cultures. In the twenties white Americans found this culture increasingly fascinating, and in New York adventurous whites made their way to Harlem, where they heard jazz bands play in segregated clubs. Langston Hughes later recalled the twenties as a time "when the negro was in vogue." White patrons like Carl Van Vechten, the author of Nigger Heaven (1926), offered valuable support to artists like Hughes; they also confined them in stereotyped ideas of what "negro" literature and art should be.

African-American music, and more specifically Jazz, served as an anthem to whites like Van Vechten, impatient with the moral and personal restraints of their elders. Their view of African-American culture involved fantasies of escape from the pressure to work, from sexual restraint, from convention. The "white Negroes" of the 1920s projected their own desires onto black Americans, most frequently through music.

Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow grew up in a middle-class Jewish-American family in Chicago. A rebellious adolescent, he went to reform school at sixteen for car theft. There, in 1916, he heard African-American music for the first time. The singing of African-American inmates, he recalled in his autobiography Really the Blues, "hit me like a millennium would hit a philosopher." Released from reform school, he began learning to play jazz clarinet by listening to the earliest recordings of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Joe "King" Oliver. A mediocre musician at best, he made his reputation in Harlem as primarily as Louis Armstrong's marijuana connection--in the forties, the word "mezzrow" or "mezzerole" came to refer to a particularly fat marijuana cigarette. Eventually, after years of living in Harlem, he came to regard himself as actually having become an African American. When the draft board listed him as "negro" in World War II, he was delighted. In the two selections from Mezzrow's autobiography included here, we can see his ambiguous relation to black culture, the ways he mixed genuine admiration with crude stereotypes.

For Mezzrow, jazz was always about rebellion, a rejection of middle class respectability ­ those "chumps who have to rise and shine each morning, slaves to the alarm clock." A creative musician, he wrote, "was an anarchist with a horn." But paradoxically, for black Americans musicianship was as often a badge of middle class success and respectability.

In his autobiography, Mezzrow vividly recalled another white Jazz musician, Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke. In popular culture Beiderbecke, the "young man with a horn," symbolized "jazz age" rebellion and the romantic self destruction of youth in the twenties. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke grew up hearing the music of riverboat bands that came up the Mississippi from the deep South. He showed an early genius for the coronet. He also showed an early and intense fondness for whiskey, a fondness that killed him in 1932, at age 28. Widely regarded as the best white jazz musician of his time, Beiderbecke spent much of the twenties in Paul Whiteman's big band. This three hundred pound White man, called "the king of jazz" in the popular press, offered what now sounds like a pallid, slick and bland version of jazz in his all-white orchestras. Beiderbecke's story was made into a movie in 1950, Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas.

Like Mezzrow, Beiderbecke spent his musical life in imitation of the sounds he heard from African Americans. He detested the segregation that prevented black and white musicians from recording together, but profited from it his entire career. The musical excerpt here, from Beiderbecke's 1928 recording Sorry, shows the sound that made him famous. Compare it to another 1928 recording, Louis Armstrong's Weather Bird.

Armstrong is universally recognized as the first great soloist in Jazz. His tone, phrasing, and easy rhythmic inventiveness were unprecedented. For men like Mezzrow and Beiderbecke, he represented the "authentic" sound they hoped to capture. Ironically, though men like Mezzrow cast him as the authentic voice of the rebellious downtrodden, Armstrong frequently claimed his favorite musician was the bandleader Guy Lombardo, whose smooth, finished sound formed an antithesis to his own. Armstrong fell from favor among many jazz listeners in the forties, partly because his willingness to entertain alienated African American musicians striving to redefine jazz as high art. Recordings and analyses of Armstrong's work are legion; the comparison of Armstrong and Beiderbecke included here suggests what might be called "sensibilities," and provides an example of the rich cultural synthesis that characterizes American popular culture. The songs included here also demonstrate an enduring tension between creolization--the synthesis of musical forms--and appropriation.

A: Recollections of a White Negro: Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow on Really the Blues
--In first of these excerpts Mezzrow remembers the first of his three spells in jail. In the second, he describes pawning his sister's fur coat after she criticizes the great blues singer Bessie Smith. In both selections, genuine admiration and respect for African-American culture mixes with a startling degree of stereotyping. The reader wonders how Mezzrow would react to a black person with perfect, formal diction.

B: Dixieland from Iowa: Bix Beiderbecke, Sorry (1928)
In recordings like Sorry, Beiderbecke forged a unique style. Records like this served as background music to the "roaring twenties."

C: A Classic From the First Great Soloist:Louis Armstrong's Weather Bird (1928)
Armstrong's work in the twenties is unsurpassed in its originality and force. His looser, more inventive style contrasts clearly with Beiderbecke's vaguely martial, simpler playing.


FM: Ann Douglass, Mongrel Manhattan (NY 1995); Eric Lott, Love and Theft; Burton Perretti, The Creation of Jazz (1992)