Sunday, February 28, 2010

St. Louis Blues March

Although a fragile form of interracial dialogue had been established within the pre-war swing subculture, after the end of the Second World War—and with it, the end of the swing era—the color line was firmly re-established. There were a couple of post-war Hollywood films featuring an integrated cast exploring the history of jazz music (New Orleans, 1947, and A Song Is Born, 1948), but perhaps the most revealing evidence of the post-war period’s resumption of the color line is in the rise of the white jazz biopic. A biopic about George Gershwin with Robert Alda playing the role of the famed composer, titled Rhapsody in Blue, was released in 1945, featuring Al Jolson as himself. The following year, it was Jolson who became the subject of what was a highly successful biopic (more so than Rhapsody in Blue had been), The Jolson Story (1946), the success of which inspired a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). A biopic about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, The Fabulous Dorseys, was released in 1947, while a film starring Kirk Douglas that was loosely modeled on the life of white jazzman Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man With a Horn, was released in 1950. By the time The Glenn Miller Story was released, early in 1954, the World War II era had become strongly associated with the famed trombonist and his orchestra, and with songs such as “In the Mood.”

Predictably, the biopic of Miller concludes with the bandleader’s death, his disappearance over the English Channel in December 1944. His band seems to be America in microcosm, the proverbial melting-pot, with, for instance, Germans, Russians, and Jews, but black musicians, who’d played such a crucial role in the development of swing, are conspicuously absent among its members. Gary Giddins observes about the film,

It was James Stewart who created a suitable posthumous personality for Miller, in “The Glenn Miller Story,” the 1954 film that inaugurated a genre of musicals about white bandleaders. These pictures, though basted in conformity, flattered the taste of the nineteen-fifties audience by recasting them as young radicals braving ridicule. Miller was depicted as an innovator hunting for an elusive sound, and Stewart had to recite breathtaking inanities like “To me, music is more than just one instrument. It’s a whole orchestra playing together.”

The film shows an integrated military during a sequence in which a general is reviewing the troops, but this was historically untrue, as there was still a Jim Crow military during the war. Miller’s hutzpah is dramatized in this same sequence, in which he instructs his band to play “St. Louis Blues” at march tempo, a bit of deliberate recalcitrance for which he is later upbraided by his commanding officer (see a video clip of this important sequence here). But perhaps the more revealing sequence of the film, illustrating the segregated lives of black and white jazz musicians, occurs in a studio while Miller and his band are recording “Tuxedo Junction.” As the song is being played, two black dancers appear merely as images being projected onto a screen. Black and white, in other words, exist in different spaces.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Some time ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the one-hit wonder, a designation used within the music industry to refer to a musician or band known almost exclusively for one hugely popular hit single. The phenomenon of the one-hit wonder undermines the Romantic image of the artistic genius, supplanting it with the image of the idiot savant, an individual with an extraordinarily narrow area of expertise or brilliance. Hence, the existence of the one-hit wonder is a postmodern phenomenon, destabilizing the traditional understanding of what constitutes genius, (re)defining it by the vagaries of consumer culture.

Although occasionally one-hit wonders can be considered “novelty songs,” some do not display such ad hoc characteristics. One-hit wonders have no identifiable characteristics other than they must conform to the material requirements of the 7” 45 rpm single—that is, the time restriction. In its more pejorative formulation, one-hit wonders are characterized as “flukes,” that is, anomalies, the evidence being an empirical one: the individual musician or band was never able to repeat its success. Hence one must conclude Time is the final judge, but certain one-hit wonders have shown a remarkable durability, remaining as popular as songs by bands whose work consumers have endorsed repeated times. The late, lauded auteur Ingmar Bergman—always uneasy with fame—once remarked, “No one remembers those who built Chartres,” by which he meant, among other things, the thing that endures is the art, not the artist, and while the names of the artisans who built that grand cathedral are not remembered, their artwork is, a testament to their resilience, their commitment, and their dedication to an idea greater than themselves. One-hit wonders are proof of the same idea, that the work remains long after the artist is forgotten.

“Best of” lists are, of course, merely an expression of individual taste and aesthetic judgment, and as such they cannot appeal to any sort of empirical verification. The keyword here is taste, and with that in mind, here’s my current and updated list of the ten best one-hit wonders, confined, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hits in the United States during the years 1960-82. Ask me to repeat this exercise in six months, my list most likely will be different. As Ralph Waldo Emerson one remarked, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Ten Top One-Hit Wonders:
10. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
9. Danny O'Keefe – Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues (1972)
8. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard (1966)
7. King Harvest – Dancing in the Moonlight (1972)
6. Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (1965)
5. Wall of Voodoo – Mexican Radio (1982)
4. David Essex – Rock On (1973)
3. The Sanford Townsend Band – Smoke From a Distant Fire (1977)
2. Walter Egan – Magnet and Steel (1978)
1. Sniff ‘n’ The Tears – Driver’s Seat (1979) (check out the very cool video here and the later video redux here)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wholesome Behavior

In Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter war occupies a central place, serving as a crucial factor in media transformation. Kittler argues that modern storage and transmission technologies were developed primarily for purposes of warfare. Employing a rather witty aphorism, Kittler claims the entertainment industry constitutes “an abuse of army equipment” (111). There’s perhaps no better illustration of his point than the World War II war movie, which recreated war as a series of clichéd or stereotypical actions, for instance, unshaven, grim-faced but keen-eyed soldiers in soiled uniforms creeping stealthily with fixed bayonets through clouds of smoke toward the enemy’s stronghold (that is, Certain Death), the very image of authentic war. (In contrast, in Hemingway’s war fiction, soldiers spend most of their time in the trenches flat on their stomachs.) During the Second World War, Paul Fussell observes in Wartime, Hollywood films such as Bataan and Guadalcanal Diary (both 1943) “established the paradigm of the ideal infantry situation the audience was expected to credit” (190). (“Credit” became one of the oft-used means of maintaining morale among the various branches of the military.) The ideal infantry unit represented America in microcosm, the “melting-pot” metaphor employed as an agent of ideology, representing what Fussell refers to as the “universal platoon” (190). The typical platoon, or America in microcosm, was represented as follows:

·      The Experienced Leader (the Moses figure; doesn’t make it)
·      The Inexperienced Youth (makes it)
·      The Comic (think “Private Joker” of Full Metal Jacket)
·      The Cynic (the Saul of Tarsus/St. Paul paradigm, transformed by the idealistic and selfless sacrifice he witnesses into The True Believer)
·      An African American and/or Hispanic
·      One Private Each From:
1.     Brooklyn
2.     Texas
3.     The Middle West

Although there were various plot permutations in the Hollywood war movie, as indicated above The Leader always died (strictly adhered to even in post-war war films such as 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the John Wayne character is, unfairly, killed by a sniper after the battle is over). The Inexperienced Youth always survived (validating youthful idealism as opposed to cynicism), while the various other emblematic characters would survive at the screenwriter’s whim. Fussell observes about Guadalcanal Diary (still above) that there’s so much choral music “it functions as a virtual musical”—songs include “Sweet Genevieve,” “Rock of Ages,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and “Home on the Range.” In addition to the music, the members of the universal platoon are all “crazy about sports,” all having deep loyalties “to various baseball teams” (190-91). The narrative dictates that American stoicism prevails, of course, and the jokes and wisecracks are unremitting. But there’s more, relevant to Kittler’s quip about “the abuse of army equipment”:

Because no film company could be expected to possess its own tanks, bombers, or warships, the services’ had to be used, and the services refused to co-operate without approving the screenplay in advance, insisting on changes to make sure that little remained but the bromides of wholesome behavior and successful courageous action. (191-92)

The trouble is, for propagandistic purposes, these wholesome representatives of the American “melting-pot” had to relish, with obvious sadistic delight, in “the pain and death of others” (192). Good triumphs, which is the Hollywood equivalent of the success story. But as film historians Koppes and Black observe, “Few pictures . . . dared breathe what everyone knew but found hard to voice aloud—that death was random and success only partly related to one’s deserts” (qtd. in Wartime, 191).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The "Segregated Musical"

By 1940, both America and the rest of the world recognized swing music as America’s “most distinctive contribution” to world musical culture (David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America 142). After Pearl Harbor, or around the beginning of 1942, perhaps not surprisingly, Stowe observes, “swing found itself transformed into a galvanizing symbol of national purpose” (142). In the years preceding the war, beginning around 1935, swing had accrued a distinctive and highly functional ideology, representing the values of “American exceptionalism . . . ethnic pluralism and democratic equality,” and therefore was seen as an ideal weapon with which to fight fascism (Swing Changes 143). Hence, like jazz, swing functioned as an agent of ideology. “It repeated,” as Michael Jarrett has observed, “on an aesthetic level, myths of identity-through-integration. It naturalized and helped shape a social regime, state apparatus, or, more kindly, values we hold dear.” (Drifting on a Read: Jazz As a Model For Writing 31). In short, swing embodied the utopian impulses of pluralism, ethnic inclusiveness, and racial tolerance.

Strange, then, that a wartime film such as Cabin in the Sky (completed late October 1942, released April 1943), would be, as Thomas Cripps observes in Slow Fade to Black, a “segregated musical.” It is true, as Krin Gabbard observes, that as part of the war effort “Hollywood was trying to pay more attention to African Americans, largely because they were fighting and dying in World War II” (Jammin’ at the Margins 178), but as an “all-black film,” despite its rather obvious purpose—to call attention to the lives of African Americans and to fight long-established attitudes toward the participation of blacks in the work force—it nonetheless was evidence of the state apparatus supporting segregation, as was, at the time, the Jim Crow military. Therefore, the fact that the musical was made, but made with an all-black cast, reveals one of the ideological stresses of the war, the great divide between the symbolic content of swing and the actual social realities of the time: it was made, but rather than having been made with an integrated cast, it was made with an all-black cast—Cripps’ “segregated musical.” Hence Cabin in the Sky duplicated, but within the culture industry and therefore on an aesthetic level, the ideology that supported a segregated military. For instance: Kenneth Spencer, who plays the Reverend Greene character in Cabin in the Sky, also plays in the film the role of the heavenly emissary addressed as “The General.” He would also play the role of the token black soldier in Bataan, also released in 1943, appearing just a couple of months after Cabin in the Sky. While Krin Gabbard argues that the sequence in Cabin in the Sky featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra performing “Goin’ Up” serves “to gently sabotage the film industry’s racial stereotyping” (184)—hence revealing the existence of an ideological crack or fissure—the film nevertheless suggests the way that war, and wartime behavior, serves to naturalize other cultural behaviors and practices.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hard Bop

An oft-repeated tale in the annals of modern jazz has it that bebop was born at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City in 1940, where the house band included pianist Thelonius Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Joe Guy, and bassist Nick Fenton. (See, among other sources, David H. Rosenthal’s fine book, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965, Oxford UP 1992.) Rosenthal quotes at length a passage about bebop from Ross Russell’s novel The Sound (1961), in which Russell writes, “It [bebop] seemed to reflect the turmoil and insecurity of the war years. At the same time it implied a profound contempt for those who had been foolish enough to become involved with the war” (13). If bebop was connected to the wartime mood of the 1940s, and (following Amiri Baraka) with frustrated black hopes in a desegregated America which adhered to the principle of “freedom for all” as well, the post-bebop form of jazz referred to as “hard bop,” emerging in the early years of the Cold War, was influenced by the post-war rise of R&B. Incorporating blues and gospel elements, hard bop, according to jazz expert Michael Jarrett, “combines the melodicism and crisp rhythm attack of r&b with harmonies and minor modes associated with bebop” (Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1-3, 239). Largely associated with jazz musicians such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and with labels such as Blue Note and Prestige, hard bop “provided bohemians with a soundtrack for living” (239). The first important hard bop recordings roughly coincided with the popularization of rock ‘n’ roll, and 50s hipsters found in hard bop records an alternative soundtrack to the music of pop-oriented Top 40 radio. For those such as myself born in the 50s, hard bop (and cool jazz) formed the soundtrack to many of the television shows that form my earliest memories. For hard bop signified, in the words of Michael Jarrett, “fast cars, loose women, hard drugs, shady deals, and weak or addled minds” (239).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.