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Liberating modernism, degenerate art, or subversive re-education? - The impact of jazz on European culture
© Berndt Ostendorf., Amerika Institut, Munich


Cuts and Breaks
This paper will argue that the introduction of jazz-derived music involved a radical break concerning the rules of performance and habits of reception in Western musical culture. This break had occurred first in America, between the years 1896 and 1910, when the African American idiom entered the musical mainstream under the generic label of ragtime. The introduction of African elements into the Euro-American canon was not just another case of selective borrowing and exchanging. Norman Mailer rightly speaks of the “knife-like entrance of jazz.” For it had more to do with a paradigm change as described in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a confrontation of dissimilar, even antithetical musical cultures that would have repercussions beyond the U.S. on an international scale. 2)
Although initially labelled a child of the gutter or a cultural mongrel (as Art Hodes and Ann Douglass have put it) 3) jazz satisfied more of the high cultural prophecies and avant-garde desires of modernism than any single one of the classic arts. The new music spoke to the agendas of futurism, surrealism, DADA, primitivism, post-colonialism, radical democracy, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and ushered in a new way of being -- all at once.
But it gave to these high cultural transgressions a decidedly vernacular spin thus preparing a structure of feeling for the subsequent victory of a popular culture industry. 4)
This first wave of African American music entered Europe on a vernacular foot, which is by way of popular dance. It found a broad social base and it affected all types of popular music, in particular the then current dancing styles. New and exciting rhythms were ushered in by the cakewalk, ragtime, foxtrot, charleston, and shimmy, a true demotic revolution which affected most levels of society from the dancing Windsor and Hohenzollern courts to music halls and cabarets. According to a contemporary German dance critic, Fritz Giese, the American imports were so successful and novel that they 'succeeded in doing away almost completely with all European vernacular dance traditions.' Only the waltz managed to survive as a social dance 5)
After the Great War urban youth embraced these new American rhythms as an alternative to stiff and corseted traditions of motor behaviour. It was precisely in the realm of leisure where the mobile and expanding young working class created a new cultural space with its very own rhythms and metropolitan choreographies. 6)
Though rudely interrupted by the interlude of fascism this first wave had prepared the ground for a more sophisticated acceptance of jazz after the second world war. The second wave encountered a somewhat different European audience that received "jazz as a form of popularly generated high art music" (Hobsbawm). These audiences came prepared and had acquired a better understanding of what constituted jazz on the basis of records that had been available since the twenties. Now they were ready to seek out the genuine essence of jazz in night club performances or in the concert halls. Though still of questionable social status jazz could now be heard at the Pleyel or at the Philharmonic. But the audience was still divided between a large, nostalgic cohort advocating the revival of “genuine” jazz, meaning a return to traditional roots, and a much smaller, forward-looking musical avant-garde devoted to bebop and cool jazz. 7)
Both maintained their set of clubs and associations at a hostile distance and accused each other of musical treason. Despite these differences of taste the same shock of recognition mobilized its followers. For many jazz fans shared the uncanny feeling that they had not only discovered a new musical genre, but a "new way of being in the world" 8)
The promise of musical freedom that this music imparted to its fans helps to explain why many white Americans or Europeans described their first encounter with genuine jazz in terms of a religious conversion using a rhetoric of liberation. 9)
But its detractors were just as adamant. The Afro-American idiom sent shock waves through the nervous system of the American and European establishments. The hysterical level of hostility in the reaction to ragtime by mainstream classical musicians allows us to reconstruct its libidinal and subversive challenge. 10)
Today ragtime may seem innocent enough, just the thing for encores in classical concerts or for piano students bored with Clementi. But we are the children of the musical and libidinal liberation that ragtime set in motion. For us, as for the little boy in Doctorow's novel Ragtime, "there seemed no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music". The violent hostility against ragtime on the part of established musicians in the early part of this century was motivated by the pervasive feeling of decline common among the value-conservative ruling classes.
The mood was buttressed on both sides of the Atlantic by books such as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race or by Oswald Spengler's Untergang des Abendlandes. From their perspective, ragtime could be read as the tip of the iceberg, as a pathological, immoral, patently sexual, and subversive substratum of cultural rot. James Joyce called attention to the paralysis of public live, William Butler Yeats diagnosed the lack of a center and Ezra Pound compared civilization to a bitch gone in the teeth.
In that scenario of crisis innovators welcomed the new music; traditionalists read it as a symptom of decline. No wonder then that the American composer Daniel Gregory Mason greeted ragtime with the appropriate disgust: “Let us purge America and the Divine Art of Music from this polluting nonsense.” Swiss-born Hans Muck, the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, concurred, “I think that what you call ragtime is poison . . . A person inoculated with the ragtime fever is like one addicted to strong drink.” 11)
Others charged that it led to permanent brain damage or that it would curve the spine and wreck the nervous system. Furthermore, “its greatest destructive power lies in its power to lower the moral standards.” A year before the outbreak of World War I, Walter Winston Kenilworth wrote a letter to the Paris editor of the New York Herald Tribune presumably to warn Europeans of this imminent danger to Western culture:
Can it be said that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the Negro through the influence of what is popularly known as “rag time” music? . . . If there is any tendency toward such a national disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger—if it has not already gone too far . . . The American “rag time” or “rag time” evolved music is symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the negro type.
With the latter sexual restraint is almost unknown, and the widest altitude of moral uncertainty is conceded. 12)
A New England music critic with a preference for the European musical tradition concurred and, in jumbled prose which mirrors his nativist angst, continued the argument by defining the role of the Jew in this nefarious plot to destroy Aryan America. And he also highlights the treasonable behaviour of the upper classes and nouveaux riches. Ragtime is a mere comic strip representing American vices. Here is a rude noise which emerged from the hinterlands of brothels and dives, presented in a Negroid manner by Jews most often, so popular that even high society Vanderbilts dance to it. All this syncopated music wasn't American, it is un-American. The Jew and the Yankee stand in human temperance at polar points. The Jew has oriental extravagance and sensuous brilliance. However, ragtime is a reflection of these raucous times; it is music without a soul. 13)
These apocalyptic metaphors of decline and degeneracy are by now familiar stuff in the history of jazz and popular music: Orientalism, intoxication, pollution and blatant sensuality, all of these spread by tempting dance, were knocking down the gates of Western culture whose door keepers reacted by strengthening its cultural defences with a strong dose of sexism and racism. 14)
They articulate a latent fear of instability and libidinal freedom that White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural custodians associated with the threatening Other, represented at this time by an infectious oriental blight transmitted by Blacks and Jews, a blight that had spread to women as well.15)
It would be easy to add similar German, English, French fears of such cultural assaults issuing forth from “mongrelising America”. But why did jazz and ragtime, types of music that seem so innocent and harmless today, provoke such outbursts of apocalyptic endism? A brief phenomenology of jazz may be in order to reconstruct the nature of the collision between "Europe" and "Africa" in order to understand both the anxiety of the fundamentalist international who diagnosed and feared the subversive power of the jazz idiom, and also the deep attraction it held for all non-American dissenters, for occidentals and orientals, for the Arab World, for Indians or Japanese, and particularly for Europeans. 16)

2). Paul Berliner. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. (Chicago: U. Chicago 1994)

3). Art Hodes. Selections from the Gutter. Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press 1977. Ann Douglass. „Ragging and Slanging“. Terrible Honesty. Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Giroux, Farrar & Strauss 1995.

4). Berndt Ostendorf. «What Makes American Popular Culture so Popular : A View from Europe. Amerikastudien in print. See also Henry Pleasants « Introduction » Serious Music -. And All That Jazz.

5). But then the waltz was accused by reactionary circles at the time of the Vienna congress for having caused the French revolution. Fritz Giese. « Das tanzende Amerika » Velhagen & Klasings Monatshefte 41, 11 (July 1927), 542-48. Also his Girlkultur. Vergleiche zwischen amerikanischem und europäischem Rhythmus und Lebensgefuehl. Munich 1925.

6). Guenter Berghaus. « Girlkultur-Feminism, Americanism and Popular Entertainment in Weimar Germany. » Journal of Design History. Vol 1. Nos.3-4, 193-219. Siegfried Krakauer became an eloquent commentator of the new urban culture.

7). Berndt Ostendorf, “Bebop und die Beat Generation: Avantgarden oder Subkulturen,” Amerikastudien/American Studies, Jg. 30, 4 (1985):509-535.

8). Jazz and Americanism were related to a new « body feeling ». Rudolf Kayser writes in Vossische Zeitung: « To it corresponds the new appearance of the European : beardless, with sharp profile, determined gaze, narrow, steeled body, and of the new type of women : boyish, linear, lively in gesture and gait. In general, the method of Americanism strongly expresses itself in physical terms, in the body-soul. » See also Paul F. Berliner. « Jazz as a Way of Life. » Thinking in Jazz. The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago. U. Chicago Press 1994.

9). Mezz Mezzrow describes it so in Really the Blues. Cf. my review of Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues. African Americans. Jews, and American Popular Song (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1999) 275 S. Jon Parish. The Color of Jazz. Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1997) 165 S, Jahrbuch für Volksliedforschung, forthcoming.

10). Neil Leonard, “The Reactions to Ragtime,” in John Edward Hasse, ed., Ragtime. Its History, Composers, and Music (New York: Schirmer, 1985).

11). On the role of German-Americans in trying to elevate American musical taste in the late 19th century and to stave off the native American influence see my “The Diluted Second Generation: German-Americans in Music 1870-1920,” in German Worker's Culture in the US: 1850-1920, Hg. Hartmut Keil (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988) 261-287.

12). “Demoralizing Ragtime Music,” Musical Courier 66 (21 May 1913): 22-23.

13). Quoted in Kenneth Aaron Kanter, The Jews on Tin Pan Alley (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1982). See my review in Popular Music, vol.4, (Cambridge University Press 1984), 323-327. More on the theme of Jewish-Yankee opposition in music in McDonald Smith Moore, Yankee Blues: Musical Culture and American Identity, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985). See my review in Popular Music vol. 6, no. 3, October 1987. In that context the music of Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert (1868-1928) is of interest. Gilbert, a classical composer, wrote a number of pieces with a ragtime inflection: "Comedy Overture on Negro Themes" (1905) and "Dance in Place Congo," (1906-8) which was rejected by Karl Muck as "niggah music" unfit for the concert hall. He then rewrote it as a ballet score with a premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. By this time the shock of hearing negro inflections in classical music had worn off, and reviews of his earlier works were quite favorable, but Gilbert withdrew from what he called his "Negro phase". Charles Hamm. Music in the New World. (New York: The Norton Company 1983), 419-20.

14) A bestseller of the time, Otto Weininger's Geschlecht und Charakter which saw 17 editions between 1904 and 1928 and which was read by all modernists spells out the oriental temptation. Most classical composers of the time were dismissive of jazz. See Henry Pleasants “American Music and the Musical Establishment.” In: Serious Music... op. cit. 112ff.

15). It is no accident that E.L. Doctorow’s chose the title Ragtime for his novel that pivots on the modernizing shock of the new. The traditional American world is represented by father, orthodox Europe by Jewish Tateh before his conversion; the “liberated” modern and popular world is consummated in the marriage of Tateh, the film tycoon, and mother, who in that encounter discovers her own sleeping beauty. And all of these conversions are energized by the musical color line. See my "The Musical World of Doctorow`s Ragtime," American Quarterly Vol. 43, No. 4 (December 1991), 579-601. Cf also my ”Some Contradictions in the Americanization-of-Germany Debate,” in Elliott Shore and Frank Trommler, ed. Being Present in the Other Culture. New York: Berghahn Books 2001

16). See my "Anthropology, Modernism, and Jazz" in: Harold Bloom (Hg.). Ralph Ellison. (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), 145-172 for a fuller statement.

Jazz entered Europe in two waves after the First and Second World Wars. Both times the mood was divided between profound hostility and intense appreciation. This paper will argue that the introduction of jazz involved a radical break concerning the rules of performance and habits of reception in Western musical culture. It was not just another case of selective borrowing; it had more to do with a paradigm change in music as described in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a confrontation of antithetical musical cultures that would continue to have far-reaching repercussions. Although a child of the gutter jazz satisfied more of the high cultural prophecies of Futurism and more of the avantgarde and transgressive desires of modernism than any single one of the traditional arts. The new music spoke to the agendas of surrealism, primitivism, radical democracy, multiculturalism, post-colonialism and urban cosmopolitanism. It promised to modernize, to liberate, to innovate and ushered in a new way of being in the world-- all at once. But it gave to these high cultural, modernist desires a decidedly vernacular spin, a cultural camouflage which allowed it to subvert European cultural habits "from below." ________________________________________ •^• ?

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