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The World, as Such, Is Present in Jazz

By Eli Siegel


According to Aesthetic Realism, it is the world as the oneness of opposites that makes any art what it is; that makes beauty, aesthetic impact, aesthetic effect, tension, power, or whatever synonym for beauty one selects. The world is change and sameness, and it is change and sameness as one thing that is present in all art or beauty and makes that art or beauty what it is. The world is manyness and oneness, and these two, working as one, are present in all art. Right now, the contemplation of the world or universe as one thing with many many things as that one can make the world seem beautiful, agreeably tense, a thing of deep impact.

      Is all this true about Jazz?

      It is, and a good way of showing it is to go where jazz is, and look at things.

       The Jazz Makers of Shapiro and Hentoff (editors) is a repository of jazz occurrences and attitudes. Enough is said here about the artists—the jazz makers—and their work, to have it serve as a beginning point.

      Early in the book, Orrin Keepnews writes of Jelly Roll Morton. Morton is made to look somewhat like Leonardo da Vinci, the “universal man.”

But there was only one Jelly Roll Morton. And, as has been true of “unique” individuals in many fields of endeavor, a good part of his uniqueness can be attributed to what might be called a sort of personalized universality.

      The universe as personal is one substantial description of art. Well, if Jelly Roll Morton had a “personalized universality,” he was not only like Da Vinci, but like art itself. To stand for everything and be oneself, is the art possibility in human beings; to be just to reality and be redolent of self is what a work of art does or has. Jelly Roll Morton with a personalized universality is like Homer, Rabelais, Sir Walter Scott, Balzac, Victor Hugo. I am not trying to be farfetched: this quality of being personal and universal at once is, at its largest, what is in the greatest art anywhere, and of any kind.

      And if, as Mr. Keepnews evinces, it is present in a man of Jazz, that much jazz is an interchange of and identity of the tremendous and unique—as music is itself, the drama, the novel.

      Mr. Keepnews writes of Morton well. You feel a little, as Mr. Keepnews tells of the difficulties, the frailties of Morton, you are reading Vasari telling of the difficulties the persons he wrote of had. Once there were Florence, Venice, and Rome: in the early history of Jazz there are New Orleans, Chicago, and New York.

       More strictly to business. Jelly Roll’s jazz is described as having: “a range from brashness to poetry, from naïveté to sophistication, that reflect this man and therefore cannot be exactly duplicated by anyone else.”

      When Morton’s work is given “brashness” and “poetry,” it is given strength and grace, or roughness and elegance. These things are present in Byron, Burns, Sandburg—as poets.

      Morton is given naïveté and sophistication. This is a way of saying that he has simplicity and complexity. This is what as painters Giotto, Constable, Ryder have.

      And there is that name, Jelly Roll, one of the strangest instances of artistic nomenclature. Jelly Roll has the quality of a soft thing become hard, of a mobile thing becoming firm. Softness and hardness, mobility and firmness are present in Ibsen, John Millington Synge, and Tennessee Williams—in the more felicitous moments of the last-named dramatist.

      Jelly Roll, like boomerang, is a showing by the world that it can get about and be where it started in the same occurrence of consciousness.

Both Severe and Easy

Keepnews writes: “Jelly Roll as an everyday leader was, according to Wilbur de Paris, a ‘disciplinarian,’ with ‘very little patience with out-of-line guys.’” Jelly Roll, then, is like Arturo Toscanini, who, through strictness, evoked melody. The meaning of this quotation is that Jazz, like other arts, is both severe and easy. To get ease, often, severity must come before. Jelly Roll Morton is in the tradition of accuracy as joy.

     One gets the idea from the Keepnews sketch of Morton that Jazz is a profound mingling of the casual and the purposive. It is that, for it is art.

      And we come to the ever so likable “Baby” Dodds, the exquisite and crashing drummer whom Louisiana gave birth to. Nat Hentoff writes of him.

      Dodds himself is quoted. He is telling of how musicians of once were severe and useful to him and his playing:

In their way, they were rough, but in a way they weren’t rough. Everything they told you they would make you do for your own benefit.

Here Dodds is talking of difficult and easy as one in art—“rough”...[and] they weren’t rough.” All art has something forbidding, not facile, even harsh about it; all art has the inviting, the easy, the gentle. The world is just like that, too.

     And while Dodds is doing what “they told you,” it is for “your own benefit.” Here Dodds is hinting at the fact that the deepest commands of the universe are one's own desires. I think that is so in art.

     In art we affect the object as the object affects us. Art is a way of interheightening, interaddition, inter-good effect. Wordsworth, in seeing a flower, brought his way of seeing the flower to it, and made it something more; the flower brought itself to Wordsworth, and made that particular Englishman more. The artistic situation is the simultaneous interchange of value.

     In art, too, people can affect each other for the good, as Coleridge did Wordsworth and Wordsworth did Coleridge. The purpose of an artistic organization is the exchange of value. When value is exchanged, the opposites I-and-You, You-and-I, We-and-They, They-and-We that much become one.

     Baby Dodds is of this when, as Nat Hentoff narrates: “Baby inf1uenced Wettling, Ray Bauduc, Wally Bishop, Ben Pollack, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, and Dave Tough, among others. He in turn continued to be influenced by the men he played with.”

      I becomes They here, and They become I, which is a way—intimately, socially—of saying: I  become the World, the World becomes I.

One and Many Working as One Thing

And then there is the matter—the ever so early matter—of composition, or as it is called in Jazz, often, ensemble. Composition or ensemble is the Many and One, the One and Many working as one thing. This can occur in an unlimited number of ways.Yet composition or ensemble in Jazz is like composition in Painting, Music, Poetry, Drama, Dance. Composition is always the giving of one purpose or effect to many things, while making each one of those things more alive.

      Here is where Baby Dodds, man of Jazz, is concerned with the question of composition as Aristotle, Horace, Boileau, Fromentin, Berlioz saw it, too.

I studied each player individually. I had to study their method of improvising and to know what they intended to do. And when the band came in as a whole, in ensemble, I had to do something different again. But at all times I heard every instrument distinctly. I knew when any of them were out of tune or playing the wrong note. I made that a distinct study. Those of us who worked with the King Oliver Band had known each other so long we felt that we were almost related. That outfit had more harmony and feeling of brotherly love than any I ever worked with. And playing music is just like having a home.

This statement of Dodds is lovely. That’s the word for it.

     Dodds, in this lovely statement, talks about Jazz the way, at times, Coleridge talks about poetry in the Biographia Literaria. See Coleridge on part and whole in a poem: in chapter 14 of the work mentioned.

     Along with the idea of composition, there is in Dodds’ work the matter of spontaneity and plan as one in art—look at the words “improvising” and “intended” and “method” just preceding “improvising.” Also there are sameness and difference as one—“ensemble" and "distinct.”  There are separation and junction, for there are “each player individually” and “brotherly love”; “distinct” and “outfit”; there are “every instrument distinctly” and “harmony.” These two expressions are as good as any to show separation and junction as one in art.

      These indications of Jazz, like art itself, being a oneness of the opposites that are the structure of the world, come from the early pages of the Shapiro and Hentoff work: The Jazz Makers.

     This means that there are likely many more indications.

     Hail, Jelly Roll Morton and Baby Dodds as lively exemplifiers of the universe!

 

 

Note: "The World as Such Is Present in Jazz: Some Indications" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 844, June 7, 1989. © Copyright 1989

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