There seems to be a secret history of post-World War II American music, a shadow history to quote the poet Kevin Young.
Lately I have been thinking about the idea of a shadow book—a book that we don’t have, but know of, a book that may haunt the very book we have in our hands. – Kevin Young
The History itself, the one in books, seems to revolve around the fact that blacks “invented it” and that whites and blacks produced it onward. Invented what is one thing but that we break music down into racial expression or composition seems to come from an a priori that we might have about race: that a musician concerns his or herself with his or her race.
I’d like to question / elaborate on two aspects of American musical history that we take for granted. Firstly, that musicians in the late 19th century, and the 20th, were producing dance music, music for dances, sort of like the romantic, classical, and impressionist music of their art music counterparts in Europe (who along with critics and philosophers defined the culture of non-folk music.) Secondly, I would like to question / elaborate on Jazz’s blackness and propose that Jazz was an attempt at improvisation and composition that gave its musicians more meaning than blackness did in an age when minstrels had become classical American entertainment and sophistication meant civilization (the girls loved it – Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll.)
Who were “the girls?” Let’s not get into the fact that Jazz has been sold as having purely male beginnings (though no one knows how it came about.) Let’s not get into the fact that many women at the time played the piano very well. Let’s first talk about: E.J. Bellocq’s pictures of prostitutes in the red light district of the New Orleans of the early 1900’s that was the site for the creation, and consumption of Jazz, which many musicians quite simply considered to be ragtime music in its very beginnings, hint at who were the girls. Many of them were white, in a city that was notoriously very multicultural. Jelly Roll Morton did not specify the race of these women in Mister Jelly Roll. We know that these women probably were Jazz’s first critics and audience and were not black. Furthermore, many were prostitutes, as they exist in impressionist paintings such as Manet’s Olympia, painted in 1865 and a true to the perception that many had about bohemia and prostitutes in French culture. Let’s also not forget that the Mona Lisa might be the portrait and what do we get: the girls who loved Jazz were venerated prostitutes, some in “high class brothels.” What we know is that Jazz played to please both patrons and prostitutes.
What seems plausible is that Jazz musicians, among patrons and prostitutes, quite simply wanted to have the time of their lives: perhaps why Sidney Bechet turned down a middle class creole life to play Jazz. Sophistication seems to be what Jazz attempted: seedy bohemian new world sophistication with its own versions of dances that were own waltzes, polkas, produced for seedy sense and sensibility. The tradition began with ragtime, a term coined by a minstrel (a ragged time.) Ragged perhaps meant to laugh others about blackness and so is probably not the term that the music’s inventors would give it. They would agree that the music is dance music to please their times, syncopated dance music made with a western instrument, as Mozart composed dance music (both for dancing and for listening, as it’s the case today) to please his times.
Classical musicians wrote Sonatas but they also wrote waltzes, minuet, contredanse, etc. Classical music, typified by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn’s music, was developed as a reaction to the heaviness and complexity of Baroque music as a new gentleness: music to feel light and free to. By the 1700’s and the early 1800’s, it had come to dominate Western cities as the music of both entertainment and sophistication. Romantic music, as typified by Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, and others, developed in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and replaced classical music in being at the vanguard of music but not in entertaining. What romantic music brought to music culture was nationalism: the idea that music could express a “national soul.”
We cut to Jazz and later to Rock, American popular music ambitious about musical complexity, and we find ourselves with music that wants to entertain with complexity and music that would like to express “nationality.” Why is that? Not because of copying but because of concept: musicians, black, white, etc., were and continue to produce music that go along with the time’s definition of music. The times that we live have everything to do with the music that we love: military music was once popular but it is no longer: counterculture has come to dominate to the point where music is now perceived as a means to express difference. Jazz and rock musicians want to be more than they first were, white, black, rich, poor, etc., to their times: and thus their aspirations that often lead to a life of poverty. They would like to be musicians, as according to the definition popularized orally and through the press, and that includes doing some of what venerated classical and romantic era musicians did in Europe.
The Velvet Gentleman (The Velvet Underground?) Erik Satie did what few musicians did: he ushered in an age of new music, wherein he was its avant-garde dandy. Did Lou Reed know about Satie? John Cale, member of the Velvet Underground, can be seen performing an Erik Satie piece Vexation a bit before The Velvet Underground were formed on the game show I’ve Got A Secret. What’s the history of American music, if Satie influenced Reed and The Velvet Underground? Unsaid. Unwritten? Furthermore, why the lack of memoirs as a form of silence?
And, for the matter, in Neapolis he (Emperor Cladius) lived altogether like an ordinary citizen; for both he and his associates adopted the Greek manner of life in all respects, wearing a cloak and high boots, for example, at the musical exhibitions, and a purple mantle and golden crown at the gymnastic contests. Moreover, his attitude toward money was remarkable. – Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LX
There’s more: there is a secret history of women in music. Songs that might have been stolen by men from women. Ideas and opinions that women might have had about a specific composition that men did not say were the opinions of a woman. Let’s not forget that women played pianos and participated as artists in the city living that produced much of American music. It’s a secret history that goes beyond riot girl revolution and female affirmation: we’ve yet to speak about what women have contributed to music in private, and in public.