Category Archives: research

Imitation and Innovation 8tracks

This is a post that continues my thinking from that previous post about Basie and Jazz BANG, but here I work specifically with Count Basie and his influences. This post is a product of some discussion on facebook about Basie (and my previous 8tracks post), and really has grown out of this Basie session at Jazz BANG. It does of course, also develop the theme of innovation, improvisation and impersonation – step stealing and cultural appropriation/transmission in vernacular music and dance culture. And we all know how obsessed I am with THAT stuff. Love love love.

This post is shaped by some useful comments and references supplied by Andrew Dickeson on the Facey, in response to my 8tracks post, and more specifically, to my question about Fletcher Henderson’s influence on Basie and other musicians.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 1.11.39 PM

I’ve written about this version of Honeysuckle Rose many times before (here and here), I find myself using various versions of this song for teaching all the time, and I DJ with it a lot. I am very obsessed. I’m also fascinated by Fletcher Henderson, and the way he went from big name arranger and band leader to ‘joining’ Benny Goodman’s band. His life (which was somewhat tragic), and the role John Hammond played, really catch my interest. Also he had fucking MAD skills.

So here is an excerpt from a useful book Andrew hooked me up with, and an 8track set I put together to illustrate this section:

The early Basie book was casual and frequently borrowed, either in bits and pieces or, sometimes, whole. The ultimate sources was often Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Basie’s arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose is a slight simplification of Henderson’s. Basie’s Swinging the Blues comes from Henderson’s Hot and Anxious and Comin’ and Goin’*. Jumpin’ at the Woodside (as Dan Morgenstern points out) comes from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s Jammin’ for the Jackpot, with perhaps a glance at the arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose that Benny Carter did for Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. Jive at Five from the same ensemble’s Barrelhouse. The Mills’ Blue Rhythm Band was a Henderson-style orchestra.

*A more complete history of this piece is interesting and revealing. The 1929 Ellington-Miley Doin’ the Voom Voom, in AABA song form (an obvious Cotton Club specialty), became the 1931 Horace Henderson-Fletcher Henderson pair of pieces called Hot and Anxious (a blues) and Comin’ and Goin’ (partly a blues). those pieces all added the riff later called In The Mood. These, in turn, became Count Basie’s Swinging The Blues. Meanwhile, Doin’ The Voom Voom had obviously inspired the Lunceford-Will Hudson specialties White Heat and Jazznocracy, and these in turn prompted the Harry James-Benny Goodman Life Goes to a Party. In the last piece, the background figure (an up-and-down scalar motive) to one of the trumpet solos on Voom Voom had been slightly changed and elevated into a main theme.

(Williams, Martin. The Jazz Tradition, 1992. p117-118.)

8tracks linky

Imitation and Improvisation from dogpossum on 8tracks Radio.

[Edit: I've added the Fletcher Henderson version because I'd FORGOTTEN it. It's currently my favourite.]

Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Count Basie and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Joe Keyes, Carl Smith, George Hunt, Dan Minor, Caughley Roberts, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Jack Washington, Claude Williams, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 3:00 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 01)

Honeysuckle Rose 1939 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Jimmy Maxwell, Johnny Martel, Ziggy Elman, Ted Vesely, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Toots Mondello, Buff Estes, Jerry Jerome, Bus Bassey, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool) 3:04 Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958) (Mosaic disc 01)

Honeysuckle Rose 1932 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, J.C. Higginbotham, Sandy Williams, Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Freddie White, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Katherine Handy) 3:14 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 03)

Swingin’ The Blues 1938 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:48 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)

Hot And Anxious 1931 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, Claude Jones, Benny Morton, Russell Procope, Harvey Boone, Coleman Hawkins, Clarence Holiday, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Bill Challis, Don Redman, Horace Henderson) 3:25 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 02)

Comin’ And Goin’ 1931 Baltimore Bellhops (Fletcher Henderson, Rex Stewart, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, John Kirby) 3:12 The Fletcher Henderson Story (disc 02)

Doin’ The Voom Voom – Take 1 1929 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra 3:08 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 02)

White Heat 1939 Jimmie Lunceford 2:31 Rhythm Is Our Business

Life Goes To A Party 1938 Harry James and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Vernon Brown, Earl Warren, Jack Washington, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 2:52 Life Goes To A Party

Life Goes To A Party 1938 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Hymie Schertzer, George Koenig, Art Rollini, Babe Russin, Jess Stacy, Allen Reuss, Harry Goodman, Gene Krupa, Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson) 4:17 Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall (disc 1)

Jumpin’ At The Woodside 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 3:10 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)

Jammin’ For The Jackpot 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Charlie Shavers, Carl Warwick, Harry Edison, Al Cobbs, Wilbur DeParis, Tab Smith, Eddie Williams, Ben Williams, Harold Arnold, Billy Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams, Lester Sonny Nichols, Chuck Richards, Lucky Millinder) 2:30 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Complete Jazz Series 1936 – 1937

Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Coleman Hawkins and his All-Star Jam Band (Benny Carter, Andre Ekyan, Alix Combelle, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Eugene d’Hellemmes, Tommy Benford) 2:47 Ken Burns Jazz Series: Coleman Hawkins

Jive At Five 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:51 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 03)

Barrelhouse 1936 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Lucky Millinder, Henry ‘Red’ Allen) 3:05 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Harlem Heat

Jumpy Nerves 1939 Wingy Manone and his Orchestra (Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Conrad Lanoue, Zeb Julian, Jules Cassard, Cozy Cole) 2:53 Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Mosaic disc 05)

In The Mood Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 3:19 The Tiffany Transcriptions (vol 9)

Using history in dance classes

I’m very interested in discussions about history and historical research. I’ve written about a million billion times before (this post ‘Try To Write About Jazz’ sums up some of my thinking). One of the things I’m most interested in is the way dancers use history. We do a lot of things with historical narrative and historical texts. People use it to justify sexist behaviour (a friend of mine uses the excellent term ‘retrosexists’), they use it to present their dancing as more important (because it is more historically accurate), they use it as content for dance classes (eg we teach particular historical routines), they use historical photos and art work in their own PR activities, they use old magazines as guides to historically ‘accurate’ fashion…. The idea of ‘history’ as a resource is a very powerful one in the modern swing dancing world.

Before the internet (when? yes, in the olden days), a lot of this historical knowledge was shared face to face, by phone, on video and film and in letters and books. I’ve talked about this in terms of ‘cultural transmission‘ – the movement of ideas and practices between cultures (and generations and communities and….). Then the internet happened, and then youtube happened. I wrote about this in a journal article a few years ago, and my favourite part was the concept of ‘stealing’ in jazz dance.
Which is why I tend to take the position that if you want to be awesome, you’ve got to keep ahead of the curve. You have to be the person who’s getting stuff stolen from. You have to be the DJ who presents that new song, which every other DJ then plays – so you gotta keep looking for new music, and improving your skills so you know when to pay that new great song. You have to be the dancer who first does that step in a comp, which every other dancer then uses in comps and teaches in classes. This sort of competitive copying pushes us further, and makes us more creative.
But to be really creative, when you’re stealing that step/song/idea, you’ve got to present it back to the community in a new and improved form: you gotta make it better when you do it your way. Or else that crowd of fierce hoofers in the balcony seats are gonna drown you out with enraged tappeta tappetas.

I’m absolutely enamoured with the idea that we can steal a dance step. I’m fascinated by the way power (cultural, class, social, economic, etc) informs how and when and if we steal ideas and dance steps. In that article I argued that African American dance, in the early days (ie the slave days) was about subversive, underground power. I talked about the idea of appropriating dance steps as resistance, and I’ve used the cake walk as an example.

I’m not hugely interested in whether or not something is ‘historical accurate.’ But I am interested in how people use the idea of ‘historical accuracy’ to justify their dancing or thinking: “You must wear garters, because women did in the 1930s” or “You must play 1930s big band swing because that’s what dancers heard in the Savoy ballroom” or “You must learn to dance on the social dance floor only, because that’s how people learnt in the 1920s.” I am certain that in reading those statements you immediately thought of a dozen counter arguments: “Not every woman wore garters in the ’30s” or “I’m not living in the 1930s, so why should I wear garters?”, “People listened and danced to small bands at house parties in the 1930s, so why can’t I listen and dance to small band recordings?”, “Dance classes were a huge industry in the 1920s!”

I don’t really think it’s worth pursuing these sorts of arguments. But I do think it’s absolutely fascinating to look at the way uses of history (and historical ‘evidence’) can help us map patterns of power and influence. But then, I’m not a historian, nor have I ever claimed to be. If I had to mark my place in a discipline, it’d be feminist media studies, or feminist cultural studies. And we lack data, donchaknow. But then, that sort of demarkation of discipline (and defensiveness) really only makes sense in a university context. And I am not writing or working in a university.

I’ve just read this post, Google-historians, as linked up by Follower Variations. That’s the blog where I find most of the interesting bits and pieces about dance in the wider online swing discourse. I rely on blogs like this for linkies because I’m generally not all that interested in reading a lot of blogs about dance. Most of my online reading is in more hardcore feminist and lefty territory.

But my interest was caught by Harri’s post about ‘Google-historians’. It has a decidedly combative tone, which of course provides the reader with a ‘hook’ – a way into the text. Which is why I think people luuurve to get all up in my blog posts that use all caps, rather than my (much more interesting) posts about jazz discographies or vegetarian cooking. I can’t imagine why people don’t want to read all about which musicians played in which sessions of which bands on a particular date. People love history, right? Right?!

I’m not entirely sure what overall point this ‘Google historians’ post is trying to make: is it ‘stop using google!’, or ‘go to dance classes!’ or ‘cite your sources!’ or ‘don’t simplify history!’ ? I started writing a comment asking the author which of these it was. And then I realised that perhaps all of these are the point. Below is a comment I wrote there. I shouldn’t have written such a long comment on someone’s blog post, but, well, fuck. I write a lot when I’m interested. If I’m not interested, I’ve got nothing to say. But I figured I’d reproduce the comment here, in the spirit of not-thread-hogging.

—————————————————————-

I think I need some clarification of your thinking, Harri.

Are you arguing that any researcher who uses just digital sources is going to be full of rubbish?

I can’t agree with that. There’s lots of important stuff to be gained from a little super-powered googling. I’d argue that the important part is not the tools you use, but the way you read the material you find. It’s important to be critical (in the sense of critical thinking, where you ask questions about veracity, accuracy, ideology, context and so on), to be self-reflexive (how is who I am and my ideas about the world affecting the way I read this text?), and to seek out substantiating and corroborating sources.

I’d argue that any historian worth their salt should use a range of sources (primary, secondary, tertiary, etc -> speaking to people who were there; reading newspaper and first person accounts of people who were there; reading informed accounts of events by insightful observers). There are a whole host of digital sources (which you can search using google, which is after all just a powerful search engine – just a particularly clever index), and they can be very useful.
For example, if I wanted to find out about Australian/British responses to a certain dance hall, I might find this Trove search quite helpful. Trove is a very reliable tool, aggregating metadata from a host of reputable Australian digital collections. The most exciting of these (I’ve found) is the series of digitised Australian newspaper and magazine articles.
If I wanted to know what sort of film footage was available, so I could see what those newspaper stories were all about, I might search the catalogue of the National Film and Sound archive, the most reputable source of audio-visual material in the country.
I could use Pandora (a website archiving service run by the National Library) to access a history of the Trocadero in Sydney which includes first person accounts from people who were there.

I could use Youtube to search for some footage from the events described in those pieces, and then I could use google to find a ‘legit’ source for this film (in this case the NFSA).*

But as we all know, this isn’t going to be enough for a really comprehensive historical survey. We’d need some first-person interviews. But all these digital sources are useful for finding out who we should be talking to. Who are the dancers mentioned in the newspaper reports? What do the dancers in the films look like? And so on and so on… Even if we do find a real person to talk to, there are going to be challenges. I remember Peter had written a really good how-to for interviewing older people about dancing on DanceHistory.org, touching on things like not rushing, being polite, being careful with emotive topics, etc etc.

Secondly, though, I think it’s impossible to get an ‘objective’ or final, authoritative history of a topic. So, for example, there’re a number of competing and equally authoritative stories about things like what it was actually like in the Savoy ballroom. Some of these stories are just completely made up (and I do like the idea that Al and Leon might have told Marshall Stearns a heap of lies – lol!), some are inaccurate because the person telling the story was mistaken, and some conflict simply because the story tellers had different experiences in the Savoy (eg a young white woman might have a different experience than an older black man). So if I do manage to chase down dancers from the Trocadero, using all those digital sources, there’s no guarantee that any single story will be enough to gain a bigger idea of what it was like.

I’m guessing this is your point? That we need to treat history as a complex, changing, moving story, rather than a simple one-off meta-narrative?

The next challenge, though, is how you actually go about stuffing history into your dance classes. When I teach, I like to reference the people who told me the story (eg “Norma tells a story in a clip filmed at Herrang in year X where she said…” or “Lennart pointed out that such-and-such was very young when they heard this story”). That seems important, and I think it encourages students to learn from a whole range of teachers (Norma and Lennart and…), which is a good thing for me to do, as a person who invites those teachers out to teach workshops and then needs to promote them** :D I think a lot of dance teachers are reluctant to encourage their students to do their own research and thinking, or to learn from other people. For the usual reasons.

But if you’re telling these historical stories in class, you have to keep them really short – the less talking, the more dancing in a dance class, the better (ie the more viable) they’ll be. You can’t just list a whole heap of facts and hope they’ll stick. You have to use story-telling carefully, integrating it with the physical movements and pacing of the class. This takes preparation, skill and experience. There was an interesting discussion on Jive Junction, years ago, where someone pointed out how Frankie’s story-telling skills improved over the years. He became a better story teller. And not every dance teacher is that good at telling a story.

I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that using history in dance culture is hard. You’ve got to have good research skills, you’ve got to have good story telling skills, and you’ve got to have the time to do all this. Here in Australia, we rarely see old time dancers – maybe one a year, if we’re lucky. And bad luck if you can’t make it to that event. So we’re necessarily restricted to using secondary and tertiary sources. And the internet.

Most dance classes are a labour of love, with very little financial return, and a whole heap of political complexity. We shouldn’t be surprised that some people are just crap at it. They might instead be very good at teaching people how to use their bodies. I think we should be kinder to dancers who’re actually talking about history (many don’t!), cut them some slack. And possibly point them in the direction of some useful research.

*NB I used lindy penguin‘s blog post for these search results.

**In fact, I have a ‘how to include history in your classes’ class planned for the next Little Big Weekend teacher-development session (11-12 May 2013, with Lennart and Georgia, yo. SYDNEY). HOW EVEN DOES IT WORK?

NB Laura gives an example of how people tend to do research in the dance world in her post Pitch a Boogie Woogie and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers: it’s a combination of archival work and making contact with other historians who have access to other sources. As with any interesting work in the modern lindy hop world, the best projects are collaborative, and rely on personal contacts, networks of peers, and the generosity of dance scholars (in the dance scene).

Gendering dance talk

My MA used lots of discourse analysis theory, which looks at the way language and words are used in written texts. I’ve also done some spoken discourse analysis work (which isn’t the same as linguistics, though there’s some crossover). I’ve been fascinated by the way spoken discourse analysis theory works in an online environment, where we can talk about online talk as spoken language. And of course, I’m fascinated by gender and power in these settings.

Let’s have a little think about the sort of public talk that women do in the lindy hop world. The lindy hop media world.

Radio (aka podcasts and streaming radio):
Hey Mr Jesse – no women hosts, but occasional women guest musicians (almost always singers) and ‘audience feedback’.
Yehoodi Radio Talk Show – Nicole is the new addition to the team (and is also a woman), but she is often out-talked by her co-hosts Manu and Rick.
Yehoodi Radio guest DJ – very few female DJs.

And in the blogging world?

I haven’t done the quantitative work to follow up on this stuff. When I was doing my PhD I did do some careful analysis of the Swing DJs discussion board, where I found there were far few women than men, and that they posted far less frequently than men. I think this is even more the case today, where I think I might be the only woman posting regularly. Though no one posts on Swing DJs regularly any more.

One of the things I noticed, and keep noticing, is that women tend to do more of the supportive talk online. They’re the ones who respond to people’s tweets about feeling bad with supportive comments (but not necessarily advice – they just make ‘comforting noises’ that helps people feel less alone). This was definitely the case in discussion boards – almost all the ‘supportive noises’ came from women. I was quite shocked when I realised this, because I thought it was a stereotype.
Men tend to be more combative, and to use more declarative statements. I’m like this, which is why I’ve always been confused for a man in places like Swing DJs where I’m not talking about gender. Though offering to kiss Reuben right on his face might have given me away. Because I don’t know a single queer male lindy hopper who’d have made that offer sincerely to another man in a public online forum.

This article, Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much, talks about perceptions of women and men talking. Or, how much we think women and men talk. The upshot is that people think women talk a lot, even if they’re talking very little. I’d have thought that anyone with half a brain has noticed that men dominate mixed gender settings, even if there’s just one man in the room!

It’s interesting to think about this in relation to dance classes. Who does most of the speaking in dance classes? The male teacher? The male students? And what are people’s perceptions of these amounts of talk? I have noticed, in almost every dance class I’ve ever been in that has mixed gender, men dominate talk. They ask more questions, and they are asked more questions.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about teaching follows and leads in class, and how to do it. Nathan Bugh wrote a piece Ladies First, which loses points immediately for unselfreflexive use of the word ‘ladies’, and then loses more points for some of the thinking. But it gains points because it suggests that we need to talk to the follows in class if everyone is to learn more. Though I’d argue that the fundamental point of Bugh’s piece is that we should give follows more attention in class so as to best improve the leads’ dancing. Yeah, nah.

My teaching partner and I have recently made a concerted switch from talking about leading first and mostly, to clearly setting out tasks for both leads and follows in class. I know, right? Two women, both of whom follow, and we’re still talking about leads? But we got wise, and realised that we needed to give the follows clear instructions and learning goals, or else they stood about saying things like “If the lead doesn’t lead it right, I can’t do anything.” inorite. But if we don’t actually point out to follows how they might improve their dancing in class, that’s how they’ll think.
Ramona Staffeld pointed out the importance of addressing follows in class to me this year, and it really helped me rethink my approach to teaching. It also made me rethink my leading, and to revalue following which is interesting, and tells you more about my own biases than I would like :D

I think, what I’m saying, here, is that if teachers address follows specifically in class, we give them something to work on, and more pertinently to this post, we give them something to talk about in class. We give them subjects for discussion, and we give them the language to talk about them with. We also make it clear that following is important enough to talk about, and that we invite their engagement – as learners and discussors – as follows. And, by extension (through gender tropes in our scene), as women.

So if you want women to participate more actively in class, you have to give them a way to participate (language tools, thinking and learning tools), you have to give them something to talk about (by talking about following as a craft requiring particular skills and practices) and you have to make the space more welcoming to women’s speech (ie actually shooshing the men, or addressing women as active participants in the lead-follow partnership).

In this way, you make a shift from thinking about following as some sort of natural state of grace, tied up with ideas about idealised femininity, to thinking about following as a craft. A craft which requires extensive thinking and practice and experimentation.

Isn’t it strange to see that old, old nature/civilisation gender dichotomy at work in lindy hop? Where we can map the masculinised ‘civilisation’ (doing and making and building and engineering and acting) onto leading, and the feminised ‘nature’ (being and feeling) onto following? It seems we need to do some second wave feminism work, here, my friends.

References
Ortner, Sherry (1974) Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Anthropological Theory, John McGee and Richard Worms, eds. California: Mayfield Publishing Press. Pp. 402-413.

Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Tannen, Deborah, ed. Gender and Conversational Interaction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Deborah Tannen has written both scholarly work and popular publications about interruption and gender in conversation. She’s a great place to start if you want to get a quick introduction to this stuff.

You might also want to look up some interesting stuff on politeness and gender. I don’t have references off-hand, but if you use ‘feminist’ and/or ‘gender’ with ‘polite*’ as keywords, you’ll find useful stuff.

NB ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ is not a useful source. It essentialises gendered behaviour, and my type of feminism is very sceptical of essentialism. In fact, we think it’s bullshit.

The Reconstructionists

This is such a fabulous project. Lisa Congdon and Maria Popova are creating the Reconstructionists:

The Reconstructionists, a collaboration between illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova, is a yearlong celebration of remarkable women — beloved artists, writers, and scientists, as well as notable unsung heroes — who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender.

Every Monday in 2013, we’ll be publishing an illustrated portrait of one such trailblazing woman, along with a hand-lettered quote that captures her spirit and a short micro-essay about her life and legacy.

The project borrows its title from Anaïs Nin, one of the 52 female icons, who wrote of “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world” in a poetic 1944 diary entry — a sentiment that encapsulates the heart of what this undertaking is about: women who have reconstructed, in ways big and small, famous and infamous, timeless and timely, our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.

Here is one entry that seems especially appropriate for this blog:

When 23-year-old Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) first walked into the recording studio in 1938, she likely didn’t dare imagine that she would one day be celebrated as gospel music’s first superstar. The godmother of rock and roll. “The original soul sister.” But that’s precisely what the talented singer and electric guitarist went on to become, bridging the spiritual lyricism of gospel with the secular allure of rock and roll arrangements.

Joann Kealiinohomoku and ballet as ethnic dance

One of the most important articles I’ve ever read is “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” by Joann Kealiinohomoku (What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49). You can read the article here but I’ll try to upload it somewhere myself.

If you’ve any interest in ethnicity and dance, and concurrently in the appropriation or adoption of black dance by white dancers, then you should read that article.

Some of my posts on these topics:
Another look at appropriation in dance (1st Dec 2011)

black-white dance (19th Apr 2006)

gimme de kneebone bent (19th Nov 2011)

News: Coleman Hawkins and Lomax

This Jazzwax post “Coleman Hawkins: 1922-1947” is an interesting complement to the Mosaic Coleman Hawkins set and to the idea of Anthologies or collections of individual works as a creative product in its own right (as I began discussing in my post “More thoughts, also illness-addled and pseudoephedrine-fuelled.“).

I’m also interested in the new film Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass directed by Alan Lomax and featuring lots of lovely archival footage from the Folkways project

Things I would like to read:

  • A critical discussion of the New Orleans jazz revival movement in the US and in Australia (ie not just some awful ‘jazz journalism’ style ‘history’, but an actual engagement with the politics and ideology of these projects
  • A critical engagement with the Folkways and Lomax projects (particularly stuff on the New Deal projects)
  • A critical history of jazz associations in Australia (again, not just another fansquee written in that awful ‘jazz journalism’ style).

…and more.

I also want to look at how Black Power Mixtape (which is a collection of footage taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960s, edited together and with a commentary by modern black activist folk and accompanied by a modern sound track) is related to all that Music Inn/Stearns’ Jazz Dance work with Al and Leon.
…part of my brain is also thinking about the French reception to and feelings about Australian Aboriginal art and the Utopia community.

Edit:

This piece Reflections on Anthologized Recordings: The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records and the John A. and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip on the Library of Congress American Memory Website (vol 4, issue 2, 2002 of Echo) by Anthony Seeger is an interesting start. I was especially caught by the discussion of the future of anthologies in a digital environment.

The name Seeger catches my eye for a number of reasons, but most recently for its association with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band:

Edit 2:

I need to follow up this panel discussion on ‘Teaching Controversial Topics in American History‘ in Echo (6.2)

Edit 3:

I’ve just seen This review of John Szwed’s book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World which may be useful. Szwed is pretty good stuff, but I’ll have to read the book to see.

A snot-addled, animated wander through San Francisco

Forgive the messiness of this article, please. I have a rubbish cold and I’m trying to string thoughts together, and not doing so well. But I want to wack down these ideas now before I forget. They’re not properly researched, and I apologise for that. This post has also suddenly changed tack, and goes a bit far away from my original goal: telling you guys I’m discovering Turk Murphy for the first time.

I’m never an early adopter, and I like coming to new musicians slowly, when I’m ready. So I’ve just discovered Turk Murphy. Turk Murphy was in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, and he did some interesting work with Sesame Street, including this cool animation for ‘the Aligator King‘:

and ‘#9 Martian Beauty‘:

Turk Murphy was friend with Bud Luckey, the animator for these films. He was also friends with Ward Kimball, a Disney animator, and trombonist for the Firehouse Five. I tend to lump the Firehouse Five Plus Two in with this group of New Orleans revivalists, though I think I favour the YBJB. Kimball is responsible for the 1969 animated short ‘It’s Tough to be a Bird‘:

I’ve been following other San Francisco musicians in a haphazard way for quite a long time, but I haven’t really put much thought into them. Let’s look at them in context.

These guys are pretty much all white (though they did do work with people like Bunk Johnson), and they’re really what we could call ‘New Orleans revivalists’, or even ‘moldy figs’ (which I’ve written about before: here are some links). They’re all really good musicians, and the music they make is exciting and fun. I don’t play them that often, though, as I find they lack that little twist that 1920s New Orleans jazz and blues, and event later NOLA based music holds. It’s almost as though this New Orleans revivalist stuff ignores the complexity of jazz and blues and focusses on the fluffy, light hearted stuff. I know that’s unfair. And I know that though many of these bands are associated with stuff like the Walt Disney Studios and Sesame Street, these relationships are actually more likely to signal a complex relationship with power and politics than ‘silly cartoon fluff’. They use humour and talk to children in a way that is utterly subversive, and really quite clever. Particularly in the case of the Children’s Television Workshop. But I find this stuff just doesn’t combine that seed of pathos that makes comedy and humour really work. Particularly in the blues.

But then, maybe I’m just not paying attention.

Lu Watters, of course, was a musician with a long history in San Francisco jazz, and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, though formed in the late 30s, is still an important band in jazz history (this somewhat irritating story about the history of the band is useful). The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation kicked off in about 1939 (reference: SFTJ website), and the Yerba Buena band was central to this association. Lu Watters was a trumpeter and band leader, founding the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, setting up the original gigs at the Dawn Club, and then pushing the group on to other shows and recordings. Watters was nuts for King Oliver’s Creole Band, and much of the YBJB’s early stuff echoed Oliver’s band’s recordings. YBJB members included singer and banjoist Clancy Hayes, clarinetist Bob Helm, trumpeter Bob Scobey, trombonist Turk Murphy, tubist/bassist Dick Lammi. The band broke up in the mid 50s, but reformed for one album in 1964. Later on (and here I’m a little fuzzy – I’m so tired of wading through the awful jazz ‘journalism’ that sets out these histories) the Yerba Buena Stompers stepped up, and that band featured Duke Heitger, whose name should mean something to fans of modern day hot jazz. Dood’s got game.

In the 1960s and 70s many of the San Francisco jazz musicians were loosely (or even closely) associated with anti-nuclear power and anti-development causes, particularly the development of the (never built) Bodega Bay Nuclear power plant on the San Andreas Fault and Bodega Bay, 50 miles north of San Francisco. Interestingly, the 1964 album ‘Blues over Bodega’ was recorded by the (reformed) Yerba Buena Jazz Band and features Barbara Dane, prominent protest singer and blues singer:

The founding of the anti-nuclear power movement in San Francisco (and California) is popularly attributed to the Bodega Bay protest
I don’t know much about this at all, but I think that the blues revival in the 1960s is inextricably linked to the counter culture movement and general rejection of mass-produced pop culture in America at the time, particularly in San Francisco.

I’d be curious to see just how close the relationship between this movement and the New Orleans jazz revival scene in San Francisco really was. Today I tend to associate the Australia hot jazz scene with revivalist impulses (which assumes an even more complicated status when you consider the history of jazz in Australia), but not with particularly lefty or progressive politics. It’s difficult to speak of an ‘Australian’ hot jazz scene, for the most part, as each city has quite different local culture and politics. I’ve a book here about it that I need to read, but I can’t get past the bullshit racist language and terrible ‘jazz journalism’ writing style.


(That’s Marshall Stearns there.)

I’m quite interested in the way these ‘revivalists’ researched past masters and then hunted them down in person. That’s pretty much how the lindy hop revival came about – dancers in the 80s researched past masters and then hunted them down. There are all sorts of complicated issues of power and race at work here. White jazz fans hunting down black musicians… hmm. I’m sure – I know – they meant well. But I’m not sure they were really aware of the complex patterns of power and privilege at work in their activities.


(That’s Alan Lomax recording in Spain in 1952, from CulturalEquity.com.)

Frederic Ramsey jr. and Charles Edward Smith wrote a book called Jazzmen (1939) which is important in jazz history because it involved research into jazz history, and later led to a series of scholarships for the researchers, some of which were associated with Folkway records, which is now of course owned by the Smithsonian. This research in the 50s in particular reminds me of the Lomax work.
While I’m on the topic, I want to mention two other interesting examples of white historians and jazz music and dance.

One: Clemens Kalischer‘s photos of Al and Leon from 1951:

of John Lee Hooker in 1951:

and of Marshall Stearns at the Music Inn in 1951:

led me to this story about the Music Inn, a project founded by Stephanie and Philip Barber, but prompted by Marshal Stearns (and of course I always get a bit cranky about the absence of his wife, Jean, from these sorts of histories). The Music Inn was pretty much a big musical party in the country, hosted by rich white patrons. Reminds me a bit of the stuff that happened just outside Melbourne at Heide House, except with music and dance rather than visual arts. Apparently there’s a film about Music Inn, but I haven’t seen it or looked for it yet.

I don’t know anything about Music Inn beyond the stuff in these links, and I need to chase it up. I think I need to revisit Stearns and Stearns’ book Jazz Dance just in case.

Two:
This Roger tilton film ‘Jazz Dance’:

features Al Minns and Leon James (and lots of other important jazz figures), and is positioned as a sort of historical record of ‘jazz’ music and dance.
I don’t know anything about this film at all, besides what’s on the youtube page, but I suspect some interesting things are going on.

(This drawing by Brett Affrunti is an illustration for a UTNE Reader story about the recordings Jelly Roll Morton did with Alan Lomax in 1938 for the Library of Congress.)

All this research into jazz music and dance history by enthusiastic white men in the 50s (and 80s) of course, is marked by some really interesting responses from the musicians and dancers themselves. Bunk Johnson, contacted by Ramsey and Smith, was a notorious liar, fabricating not only his birthdate but various other ‘facts’ as well. Jelly Roll Morton, stalked by Lomax and recorded by the Smithsonian, was also quite good at decorating the truth. And my favourite story is of course about Al Minns and Leon James, spinning a whole heap of awesomely bullshit stories about the Savoy and Harlem nightlife for Marshall Stearns. Not to mention Al Minns’ own description of the Swedish Mafia chasing him down in the 80s.
I do like it that all this desperately earnest research by (moderately exploitative) white researchers desperate to capture and pin under glass the ‘original jazz’ was derailed by the tactics of artists who’d lived through segregation and hardcore American racism. I’ve written about it before. It reminds me so much of cake walk, and the long tradition in black dance of sending real meaning underground, and peppering the surface with a fair dose of derision and mocking.

While I do sound quite critical and a bit narky about this well-meaning research, I don’t really mean to be. As I’ve realised in reading about 1950s jazz music and dance ‘ethnographies’, this research was motivated by largely egalitarian, liberal principles. Many of the patrons and researchers involved realised that their high opinion of this art – music, dance, whatevs – was not shared by their largely racist and conservative peers. They repeatedly ran up against the belief that jazz was ‘common’, that (black) music and dance culture was less valuable than white, and that their interest in jazz culture was misguided. As that Music Inn article notes, this was made clearest in the simplest ways: they couldn’t find beds for visiting artists in segregated hotels because those artists were black.

So I think there are lots of interesting things going on here. As I’ve said about a million billion times before, I feel a real tension between my own interest in historical recreation and revival and my awareness of my own privilege. A recent misunderstanding on twitter has made me even more committed to pointing out that while I regard archival footage and older dancers as ‘resources’ for my own research and dance work, this is a relationship of absolute respect. I am aware of the power dynamics at work here. I know that I make money (though very little of it) from the creative work (mostly choreography) of dancers who were exploited in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But I am also very strict with myself about acknowledging my sources, about promoting projects like the Lindy Hoppers’ Fund, and about remembering the social and cultural context of this music and dance that I love so much. Finally, I also take care not to position these artists simply as powerless victims of the historian-pillagers of revivalism. All those lies, all that misdirection, all that meaning-gone-underground reminds me that power is complex.

Side note: I’m currently working my way through a documentary film called ‘Black Power Mixtape‘ which features footage of black American activists taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960s: