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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: "Jammin' at the Margins"

Once again, the academic slavies in Brilliant Corners U. (Uber-Graduate division) have been plowing through a book about jazz and popular culture: "Jammin at the Margins" by the prolific Krin Gabbard, who's been reviewed here before ("Horns and Hormones"). Published in 1996, the book might seem like old news, but as far as I can see, no one ever wrote a review of this book longer than a paragraph.

Having other Gabbard tomes under my belt, I anticipated his approach: an academic/general reader hybrid, using cultural theory, some historical research and, in this case, plot summaries to back up his theses. All such theses stem from a central precept, which we've seen before from Gabbard: jazz as manifestation of black sexuality and the ways that white culture attempts to come to terms with/subvert/co-opt this sexuality.

On the plus side, Gabbard is a close observer. Looking at a movie with enough detachment to notice details of how music is used, placing on and off screen musicians in jazz history and tracking character interactions has value.

Hoagy is Cricket
I liked the author's analysis of Hoagy Carmichael's film persona. Gabbard is convincing in classifying Hoagy as a kind of benign trickster and asserting that Hoagy's parts actually fall within the scope of those that a black performer might have been allowed to do.

Tony is instant trumpet player
I also appreciate Gabbard noting the bizarre fact that whenever a (white) character picks up a horn, whether he hasn't played it in years or never touched it at all, he is able to pick it up and deliver dazzling jazz (improvising and playing a horn is oh so easy). He also makes the valid point that in a number of movies, the "natural" skill that blacks bring to jazz needs the white man's touch to bring it to fruition.

But what is telling and enervating in this book is the number of times Gabbard uses "maybe," "perhaps," "it is tempting," etc. to leap from observation to theory. My analytical antenna start to twitch when such equivocators start to pile up. And, so much of this conjecture is based on parsing the shades of people's skin. Not just white/ black, but lighter skin/darker skin. Yes, much can be explained by racism, sexuality, prurience, censorship and sublimation, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  Sometimes people show up in a band or onscreen because the regular guy has the flu, they happen to be in town, or the producer happens to actually like their music; not because they're cyphers plugging a cultural hole. To co-opt a phrase, the whole approach seems "over-determined" to me.

Here is the last footnote in the book: "In the late 1940's, [Annie] Ross bore a child to the canonical bop drummer Kenny Clarke while they were both living in Paris; she has had long-lasting affairs with Lenny Bruce and Tony Bennett and she was married to the Irish actor Sean Lynch for twelve years."

Such unadorned presentation of facts is too rare here. Maybe the approach is middlebrow, but at least such things have the ring of flesh and blood, not of people being moved around by The Man as if on some giant pathological chess board. Extrapolating theories-ok, but citing only one or two examples per decade fuels the thought that the theory came first and that evidence was chosen to support it. Where have you gone when you posit that a black musician going to college has undermined his sexual potency?

Herr Adorno
Finally, we get a fistful of Theodor Adorno dragged into the mix. If you don't know Adorno (part of the "Frankfurt School"), he's been a university cultural studies department's best friend for a while. I struggled through some of his stuff myself and saw a sharp mind there, but I also saw that Adorno is a dope when it comes to jazz. Pardon my German, but he doesn't know shit about it. Mr Gabbard keeps bringing Adorno in to try and decide whether he agrees with him or not. Well, jimmy crack corn. I don't care.

The author draws on much work previously done on jazz in film and, to his credit, has created a framework in which the subject can be approached. He does give those less familiar with this area data to discover. Unfortunately, his pre-selection of examples to buttress questionable theories narrows the potential range of that discovery.

To get my previous take on jazz and movies go here. I dished it out. I hope I can take it.


Anonymous said...

A very good friend of mine (some would call him my alter ego) posted the jam session with Tony Curtis, faking the trumpet with Red Norvo's great little band:

Tony Curtis Jam (1958)

The very same band toured Australia with Frank Sinatra.

Steve Provizer said...

Credible miming job... At least Condoli gets to hand him the horn. I don't like how Tony throws it after he's finished-too blatant that the horn is just a way to get sex. We trumpet players have more than sex on our minds (although we have that too).

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