Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. Show all posts

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hip And Corn

There's hip, and then there's corn, what Louis Armstrong in his autobiography, Swing That Music (1936), calls "corney." Most likely it was Armstrong himself who introduced both of these terms into the American vocabulary. The terms are often used to imply binary oppositions: if hip names some sort of positive existential condition, corney is its opposite. What do we mean by saying something is corney? The terms, vaguely, seem to distinguish the new (the hip) from the old (corn), but corn also seems to mean anything that is déclassé, antiquated, "old-fashioned." Thus hip and corn are what Fredric Jameson calls ideologemes, seemingly neutral or banal words that actually designate different relations to political or cultural domination.

In the late 1930s, by which time swing had caught on, the jazz of the Twenties had become "corney," that is, held in contempt. Previously a slang term within jazz subculture for non-jazz (meaning popular) music, "corney" was redefined by Armstrong in Swing That Music as "the 'razz-mah-jazz' style of the Twenties." It's possibly a metaphor derived from traditional Southern food: fried chicken, barbecue ribs, corn bread, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and collard greens. Thus the word corney implies something common and everyday, ordinary, routine, overly familiar. A basic, if bland, staple. In his marvelous book, Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins believes that corn is the "negative face" of hip. He writes:

Hip is witty and daring. Corn is meretricious and safe. Hip, because it is honest and takes risks, may withstand passing fashions. Corn incarnates those fashions. (89)

How are we to understand GIddins? Hip implies otherness, subjects standing outside of the dominant culture. To be hip is to be real, that is, authentic or genuine, detached from the mainstream, values associated with individualism, and hence with jazz. In contrast, corn suggests the masses (the corn-fed), that which is common or vulgar, that one is a follower of trends and fashions, and hence artificial. If you're hip, you swing, which is to say, you seek genuine pleasure. You acknowledge desire. If you're corney, you displace and defer pleasure, preferring instead material commodities and promoting utilitarian ethics. You're a creature of duty and of habit.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song Of The Vipers

In Chapter 2 (“The Rise of Individualism and the Jazz Solo”) of James Lincoln Collier’s book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), Collier discusses how the forces of modernism enabled the transformation of jazz bands from ensembles to vehicles for soloists. Modernism privileged the individual, championing the virtues of “individualism.” It valued “freedom of the spirit, the virtues of primitivism, belief in living spontaneously . . . and . . . individual expression” (44). Adherence to these values led some to refuse to read, study, or rehearse music, “for fear that a conscious knowing of what they were doing will inhibit spontaneity and the free flow of feeling” (45). However, if modernism privileged freedom of the spirit, primitivism, and spontaneity (the latter expressed in the form of the improvised jazz solo), modernism also was a consequence of the so-called “machine age,” which valued predictability rather than spontaneity, the planned rather than the improvised, and interchangeability (replaceability) rather than individuality.

It’s possible — to theorize a little — that drug use became a fixture of early jazz (sub)culture as a reaction against modernism, that is, the machine age that was dominated by spirit-crushing, that is, mindless and unfulfilling, labor. I’m aware that what was called Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called “Modernism” in the twentieth; drug addiction (such as Charlie Parker’s), as a form of self-destruction, conforms to the Romantic myth of early death as a sign of heightened sensitivity and consciousness. Yet it is also true that the early “drug subcultures” arose in Paris in the early modernist period, the city to which the mercurial Sidney Bechet was drawn in the early 1920s, to the detriment of his recording career in the United States. Among the first of the Parisian drug subcultures (or at least one of the most famous) was the Club des Haschischins, which flourished in Paris in the 1840s and ‘50s. Its members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin revived the myth of the “Hashishin” or “Assassins” — a secret group of drug users at odds with the material culture in which they lived — as a way of conceptualizing the modern “drug subculture” or so-called “drug underground.” The important point is to notice the link between esotericism and the individual’s need for a quasi-religious transcendence that can occur only with the secrecy of ritual. “The structure of modern life tends to eliminate possibilities of radical change,” Luigi Zola astutely notes, which is why secret or esoteric societies hold such imaginative power for individuals in modern desacralized urban society (see Mike Jay, Ed., Artificial Paradises 367). Mike Jay has observed that drug subcultures “share many of the underlying dynamics with initiatory secret societies” (Artificial Paradises 366). Such occult or secret societies are premised on initiation ceremonies  (employing drugs) allowing individuals access to a higher state of being — what is meant by “high” in the first place. The French expression for being high — “il plane” — expresses the meaning of being high as being metaphorically elevated to a different plane, or level of conscious awareness. The urban jazz subculture, in turn, shared many of the features of a secret society (exclusive membership). “Speaking of 1931,” Louis Armstrong wrote in “Tight Like That Gage,” “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days.”

Coupled with what Ted Gioia has called “the primitivist myth” (The Imperfect Art, 1988) that has informed much of the early critical writing about jazz, drug use (or perhaps excessive drug use, addiction) became the imprimatur of authenticity—the positive indication of tortured artistic genius.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Although the word “groove” is generally understood as a musical term referring to a song’s rhythm—its groove—the word can refer to a number of issues besides rhythm, among them sex, class, and whether you're "high," that is, on drugs. Although the word is strongly associated with the 1960s—The Young Rascals had a #1 hit in 1967, for instance, with “Groovin’,” and there was also a hit song titled “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”—the word dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier. A quick search of the word at indicates that the origin of the word is 1937, but it is highly likely that the word was introduced (first) into jazz vocabulary by Louis Armstrong—who has been credited for coining and popularizing slang words such as “cool,” “cat,” “pops,” and “daddy”—sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. One can imagine that, for Armstrong, "to be groovy" meant in the mood to make a record (since all records had grooves), or high, since he was admittedly a life-long user of marijuana (referred to as a "joint" in the 60s, marijuana imbibed in the form of a rolled cigarette was, in jazz culture, referred to as a "viper").

The first to be in the groove were African-American jazz musicians, early in the 1930s. They are no longer around to tell us where this groove came from, but scholars have speculated. Maybe it began with that relatively new invention, the phonograph, whose sound came out right when the needle was in the groove; maybe the musicians—virtually all of them men—were creating yet another metaphor for sex.... “The jazz musicians gave no grandstand performances,” wrote an admiring reviewer in 1933, “they simply got a great burn from playing in the groove.”

Apparently the word was defined in 1937 as meaning a “state of mind which is conducive to good playing,” but by the process of metaphorical elaboration, soon most any pleasant or pleasing activity could be “groovy.”

Before long, there were groovy audiences as well as groovy performers, and by the 1940s things in general could be groovy. Love was groovy, skating was groovy, even pitching a no-hit baseball game was groovy.

In the 1950s the word was adopted by the Beats, whose music of choice was jazz; from jazz culture Beat culture borrowed both a vocabulary and a sensibility (for Beat Jack Kerouac, the preferred form of jazz was “bop”). By the mid-60s, the word was adopted by the rock culture, which borrowed a number of styles, including a strong non-conformist posture, from the earlier jazz culture (the Dionysian one descending from Charlie Parker) including drug use, which presumably put you "in the groove," that is, enhanced your musical creativity.

Groovy was in the air everywhere in the hip, laid-back counterculture of the 1960s, when feeling groovy was the ultimate ambition and praise, as well as the title of a hit song. To groove was “to have fun.” “Life as it is really grooves,” declares a fictional letter from a group of groovy young dropouts in a 1969 short story by John Updike.

By the mid to late 1970s, however, “groovy,” as an indication of approbation, had fallen out of favor. “In the groove” could still refer to musical rhythm (or a great sex life), but no one who wanted to be perceived as “cool” dared use the word “groovy.” Hippies were no longer hip, and if you were “feelin’ groovy” it meant you were decidedly un-hip, an anachronism, déclassé. I suspect that no one born, say, after 1970 ever considers using the word "groovy," although it does crop up occasionally, in pastiches of the 1960s (Austin Powers), for instance, or when used by nerdy protagonists (such as Ash in the Evil Dead films).

The Groove Tube (1974)
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Army of Darkness (1992)
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)