May 4th, 2009

On Gumbo

By Bart

When addressing the diversity of musical styles that were present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz, popular histories often described the genre as a uniquely American melting pot (or gumbo). What’s frequently lost in this origin story is that jazz didn’t remain anymore pure in the years that followed, and it wasn’t immediately accepted as the great American art form.

Musicians in the 1920s were frequently expected to perform songs from multiple genres. People shouting “Freebird” at inappropriate times and bands isn’t novel development. Audiences want to hear what they want to hear, and by gum, the band had better be able to play it or that audience is walking out. Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Deltadoes an excellent job at showing how even celebrated country blues musicians of the delta performed the Broadway and Vaudeville hits of the day. When we classify things into neat categories like country blues, ragtime, or swing, we tend to miss the overlap and communication that occurred across the boundaries we try to impose.

Take this video for example. Red McKenzie and his Mound City Blowers. The band’s members were all from large cities and were quite skilled musicians, and here they are performing “St Louis Blues,” Handy’s technically brilliant melding of ragtime, blues, and habenera. Yet how does one reconcile that with the choice of instrumentation, including a suitcase and comb? Or with the choice of blacking out the percussionist’s teeth and the intentionally comedic speed?

Jazz histories with a bent on proving that jazz is a true art form tend to write off such silliness as record company gimmicks or sacrifices that were necessary to get jazz heard, but I’m not so sure that’s the entire story. McKenzie spent his on-stage career with comb and kazoo in hand, and I find it difficult to believe his associates, like Condon and Lang, needed to suffer through such corniness when their own bands fared so well. Maybe it’s naiveté on my part, but I hear a certain joy in these performances. For all the talk of jazz as the art of spontaneity or invention, there’s certainly room to consider combs, kazoos, suitcases, and jugs as suitable tools for achieving it.

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