Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It ain't got that swing

My father had his own jazz orchestra [“Doug Colligan and the Night Hawks”] in the 30's. I grew up listening to Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Earl “Fatha” Hines. I still own my original vinyls of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five,” Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s groundbreaking “Jazz Samba” and Archie Shepp’s slyly subversive “Sea of Faces.” I have shaken Sonny Rollins hand. I once shared an elevator with Stéphane Grappelli in awestruck silence for 10 seconds. I have seen County Basie and Joe Williams perform in Lincoln Center to a packed house. I’ve seen Joe Pizzarelli play practically to no one in a bar on the upper West Side of New York. I’ve heard Roy Eldridge in Eddie Condon’s jazz club, in the waning days of 52nd Street. And I own a signed first edition of Eubie Blake’s autobiography. So when I read that the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris was mounting a show called the "Jazz Century" I was very, very excited.

Paris is an aloof, snobby city paradoxically known for its goofy affection for jazz musicians, the wackier, the better. Just one example: in the 1930s, musical genius and hot-tempered alto saxophonist Sydney Bechet accidentally shot a woman bystander during a street duel in Paris. He was aiming at a producer who told Bechet he played a wrong note. Bechet was arrested, spent time in prison and later was deported. This should have been a hint, but he came back in the 1950s and the French not only let him in, they welcomed him so warmly he stayed there the rest of his life. It was because he played so well, and didn't shoot any more Parisians.

Naturally I had great expectations for the show after I read, “close to 1,000 works have been brought together for this exposition.” So I began my journey along the serpentine “street” that was the labyrinthine layout for the show, a stroll through ten rooms of exhibits representing 100 years of jazz history. It was a layout so convoluted you needed a map, which the museum thoughtfully provided. [See above]. Hours later I was back on the street outside the museum. Five words popped into my head: “What the hell was that?”

Then two more words: "Science Fair." The whole show had that earnest nerdy feel of an exhibit put on by the talented and gifted. The only thing missing was a booth on photosynthesis.

Background for those unfamiliar with it: Jazz is an aural art form. For that reason I expected – there is no other way to put it -- music. Rythmic and/or interesting sounds. Yes, the show had music,
sheet music, acres of it, untouchable, displayed behind glass like religious artifacts. That was OK up to a point, but unless you knew the song by heart, seeing the cover sheet of a ditty like “Grand Pere n’aime pas Le Swing” had limited impact and wasn’t going to get the old toe tapping.

Besides sheet music, the show also had books, magazine articles, record sleeves and more magazine articles and more books and many, many, many more record sleeves dangling by nylon threads from the ceiling. At one point the monotony was broken by an instructional video showing how an actual record of a Duke Ellington recording was made. It looked like someone jamming a black dog turd onto a potter's wheel and squishing with something like a round waffle iron. That video was followed by more sheet music and more books and more magazine articles and more record sleeves, a few posters. And then some more sheet music.

Some of the displays were entertaining in unexpected ways. There was a 1943 Life magazine showing the photo of something known among "hip" musicians as a "jam session." On the facing page was an ad for Lee work clothes. The vaguely homoerotic art shows bunch of big, beefy guys in rugged Lee work clothes hoisting an American G.I high in the air. Hands supporting his taut butt. Big smiles all around. The ad copy is reassuring the GI that someday the war will be over and he'll be able to wear these terrific Lee work clothes that the grinning, muscular guys holding him are wearing: “You’ll wake up some morning with the last belligerent Jap gone the way of his ignoble ancestors . . .”

After I got poked in the head with yet another dangling record sleeve I decided I had been educated enough about the world of l
e jazz hot and it was time to go. Then I heard a faint, faraway rhythmic something, as though I were sitting next to someone who had his iPod cranked up to full volume. That’s when I noticed that every few meters along the display cases there was a three-inch circle of holes drilled into the plexiglass dividers. Out of these holes was leaking actual music. It was like coming to an oasis which appeared to be bone dry but which yielded a little dribble of water if you were willing to claw your fingers to bloody stumps to get it.

Even though it was nearly inaudible, I did manage to detect the faint honeyed notes of Sidney Bechet’s soulful “Petite Fleur” timidly seeping into the public space. And halfway farther along the walk was a cramped little viewing room where was shown a selection of video clips of famous cinematic moments in jazz, including a scene from that jazz icon of films, the Jerry Lewis flick, “Ladies Man.” (No, I didn't see it either.)

Although I did not hear a lot of music I did learn things. Like America was very, very racist. There were photos of atrocities, like an infamous
picture of a charred corpse, part of a horrible story about an innocent African American man who was shot, lynched and burned in Nebraska in 1919, complete with the requisite crowd of grinning white dimwits gathered around the grotesquely mangled body.

Later on there was a news photo of an elegantly dressed Miles Davis in a blood-drenched sports jacket. The article told how in 1959 he was on the sidewalk taking a break between sets outside a nightclub on 52nd Street in Manhattan when a pea-brained New York cop told Davis to “move along.” When he did not, the cop beat one of the greatest jazz trumpet players of all times over the head. (Nice work, officer.) Perhaps after that he walked uptown to Carnegie Hall and pistol whipped Leonard Bernstein.

But I also learned other things. Like according to one movie poster Steve Allen and Donna Reed starred in “The Benny Goodman Story.” (There were no photos of Mr. Goodman himself, by the way, or mention of his historical Carnegie Hall concert or his breaking the color barrier.) And that one of the movers and shakers of jazz in America was Jackie Gleason. That’s right, “The Honeymooners” Gleason. He churned out a series of treacly, easy listening albums in the 50s and 60s which were distinctive for their forgettability and lack of originality. Except for his hiring Salvador Dali to do the album art for one record jacket, the one on exhibit, there was nothing worth noting about them. So where was Barry Manilow? I wondered, as I walked towards the 80s.

A little background. The Musée de Quai Branly is famous for its ethnographic collection of artifacts of all kinds, including drums and other musical instrument, from Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the Americas. (They have over 8700 according to the museum's web site.) This collection was just a floor above where I was learning all about Jackie Gleason's impact on jazz. Logically I was hoping since they had instruments upstairs, they would have them downstairs.

But I should have read the papers. Before the show opened, curator Daniel Soutif warned a reporter, "You won't see Louis Armstrong's trumpet or Django Rheinhardt's guitar," as though it were an absurd expectation. And by god he was right. Except for a tatty Claes Oldenberg-type sculpture of a huge clarinet, there were no musical instruments. That was too bad. I would have settled for just one of Djano Rheinhardt's guitar strings.

Clearly I didn’t get it. Hobbled by a profound lack of sophistication and ignorance about the music created in my country of birth, I came into the place expecting to see something interesting. Instead I found a C+ doctoral dissertation under glass and lots of redundant and marginally relevant jazzabilia.

Again, I should have read the papers. Museum director Stephane Martin cautioned would-be visitors, "It is not an exhibition about music, it is an exhibition about civilization." Of course. I should have figured it out from the title of the exhibit. The operative word was not "jazz" but "century," as in 100 ways to make an inherently interesting subject boring.

Watching French museum goers earnestly studying a technician turning a black turd into a record, or quizzically watching an old film of a minstrel show, I wondered what was going on in their Gallic brains. And I couldn’t help think of something Miles Davis said: “I never thought that the music called ‘jazz’ was ever meant to become a museum thing locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic.” After a day at the Musée, I bet a lot of people would agree.

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