Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Jazz | Fiction | Is That Jazz?

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. We’ve got a wonderful show planned for you tonight.

Mr Gil Scott-Heron, who knows a lot about jazz and a certain something about fiction, defines jazz as ‘miscellaneous’ – that is, he refuses to define it. He talks about ‘real’ jazz music as the stuff you can never find in the record store, because you’re not sure exactly which section it should be found under. The essence of the undefinable; that which can survive Bruce Willis.

(Scattered laughter; one man, a cigar in his mouth, brays and claps his hands together, too loudly. A couple of people at the bar turn away, as if to make a point.)

Sweet, sad, irreverent rebellion of jazz. Playing all the wrong notes; playing all the right notes at the wrong times; singing the sorrow of a nation through the sorrow of an individual; wordless or wordful; the cataclysm of Rhapsody in Blue has it right, because it must be a rhapsody if it is to be anything; saying complex things using simple terms; is it right to say that it no longer belongs to any one race, or is that as sly and as self-serving as to claim that Martin Luther King does not belong to any one race?

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, our first performer of the night, a very famous writer and a very fine singer, performing from one of his best-known works, Mr James Joyce.

The mything smile of me, my wholesole assumption, shes nowt me-without as weam twin herewithin, that I love like myselfish, like smithereens robinsongs, like juneses nutslost, like the blue of the sky if I stoop for to spy's between my whiteyoumightcallimbs.

(Scattered, unenthusiastic applause.)

He’s a joker, isn’t he? Big hand, ladies and gentlemen! Big hand! (Growing serious; this new facial expression seems forced and unnatural).

Now, is that jazz? The connection between the white European modernists and jazz as a natural part of the American civil rights movement, most notably the Harlem Renaissance or so-called ‘Black Modernism’ of the post-First-World-War period, has been made.

But take, say, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man;

In this respect the Negro is much in the position of a great comedian who gives up the lighter rôles to play tragedy. No matter how well he may portray the deeper passions, the public is loth to give him up in his old character; they even conspire to make him a failure in serious work, in order to force him back into comedy. In the same respect, the public is not too much to be blamed, for great comedians are far more scarce than mediocre tragedians; every amateur actor is a tragedian. However, this very fact constitutes the opportunity of the future Negro novelist and poet to give the country something new and unknown, in depicting the life, the ambitions, the struggles and the passions of those of their race who are striving to break the narrow limits of traditions. A beginning has already been made in that remarkable book by Dr. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk."

Is that jazz? It’s an articulate piece of social commentary; and it’s intellectual, and dispassionate. But on some level, is there a disconnect between social realism and social commentary and the undefinability of jazz? Is jazz anti-intellectual? Were many of the authors brought into the limelight by the movement, most famously Langston Hughes, too focused on the real, upon accurately portraying the complexities of the lives of black men and women at the time, to write about the unreal?

And then, which is the greater responsibility? Is an author better off by transporting his readers to another place, and through tricks and subtleties, getting them to think, Mr Joyce? Or should an author force the reader down, make them see the full tragedy and the full reality of the life they’re trying so hard to ignore, Mr Johnson? One has had the mileage, and another hasn’t, but which form of modernism, at the time, did more for black men and women in America – the transportations of jazz, or novels portraying social realism?  Is quiet, irreverent humour the correct response to injustice, or does humour, as Mr Johnson's narrator claims, make man a clown?

(Many people have left. The cigar-smoker, at the back, starts a slow clap.)

Isn’t this too many questions? Do these questions lead us anywhere? But modernism is a constant questioning – isn’t it? And isn’t jazz, Mr Scott-Heron, a question too?

(The bar empties. Half an hour later, drunken London revellers stumble in, hoping for a drink.)

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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