Saturday, February 6, 2010

"The Music of Savages"

As Ted Gioia observes in The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (1988), in the early years of jazz studies, the first important critics were European, all of whom employed the discourse of “primitivism,” i.e., they were heavily influenced by the writings of Diderot, Rousseau and the idea of the “noble savage.” As he rightly points out, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” art started attracting the attention of Western artists and became the sources of new ideas and artistic forms; les choses Africaines “began appearing with great frequency in Paris around 1906” (21). “The idealization and theorization of primitivism in French culture was soon followed by an equally enthusiastic . . . reception for another import from foreign soil,” he writes—American jazz, which arrived in Europe toward the end of World War I, in the form of jazz records brought over by American soldiers (21). In other words, primitivism and exoticism became both a fashion as well as a source for “high” art. Gioia provides an illustration in the form of a quotation by the French critic Charles Delaunay, an early pioneer of jazz studies: “In fact, certain masterpieces of Negro sculpture can compete perfectly well with beautiful works of European sculpture of the greatest periods” (27). Or, in the words of Hugues Panassie, the jazz critic known as “the venerable frog”: “In what way would the music of savages be inferior to that of civilized man?” Many scholars have observed, “Jazz, in particular, has provided the raw material for a critique of the attitudes of white musicians, critics, and listeners drawn to black music culture” (see Georgina Born, Western Music and Its Others, 22). She points to an article by Amiri Baraka published in Downbeat in 1963, titled “Jazz and the White Critic,” in which he points out that one of the distortions of jazz resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive.”

One need look no further than the work of Belgian critic Robert Goffin, who, in his early work Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan (1944), observed about Louis Armstrong, for instance, “[he] is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music” (167). Gioia argues that it was Goffin who was the first to formulate the stereotype which has lingered with jazz “until the present day,” the stereotype “which views jazz as a music charged with emotion but largely devoid of intellectual content, and which sees the jazz musician as the inarticulate and unsophisticated practitioner of an art which he himself scarcely understands” (30-31). Gioia calls this “the primitivist myth,” a stereotype which rests upon a belief in the primitive’s unreflective and instinctive relationship with his art. But lest one think the primitivist myth is exclusively European, I should point out that the association of jazz and primitivism was uncritically accepted by American jazz critics once the works of the first European critics reached American shores. Few insightful works were written by Americans in the early years of jazz, primarily because it was generally perceived as both passing fad and as the musical form of a decadent race.

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