From jazz jam to labour law

Americana
June 18, 1999

The jam session is the crucible of jazz style. So says John White, in "Kansas City, Pendergast, and all that jazz", in this energetic and eclectic collection. He quotes a memorable passage from Ralph Ellison, written in 1959: "Today jam sessions are offered as entertainment by night clubs and on radio and television, and some are quite exciting; but what is seen and heard is only one aspect of the true jam session: the 'cutting session' or contest of improvisational skill and physical endurance between two or more musicians. But the jam session is far more than this, and when carried out by musicians, in the privacy of small rooms ... or in such places as Halley Richardson's shoeshine parlor in Oklahoma City - where I first heard Lester Young jamming in a shine chair ... with and against Lem Johnson, Ben Webster (this was 1929) and other members of the old Blue Devils orchestra - or during the after hours in Piney Brown's old Sunset Club in Kansas City; in such places as these with only musicians and jazzmen present, then the jam session is revealed as the jazzman's true academy."

Fittingly, Americana is something of a jam session in itself. A Festschrift for the civilised and civilising Americanist Marcus Cunliffe (1922-90) - actually a second, affordable, edition; a bid to reach the apprentices of the academy - it takes its cue from the polyphonic output of that stylish scholar, and it fairly swings. Seldom does such a work succeed in communicating so directly the inspiration of a great exemplar. One can only marvel at the range.

Among others, Louis Billington, on "British Methodists in the United States", takes off from Cunliffe's evocation of early 19th-century evangelical Protestantism, "a world of piety, missions, bible-reading, sermonising, worries over money and status, ministerial alliances and jostlings, theological wrangles, apposite anecdotes, strain, bewilderment, full-lunged exuberance". Malcolm Bradbury, on "Transcendentalism, irony and American culture", picks out his perception that for most Europeans, instead of being a "real" place, America has served as an image: "a theorem, a symbol, a Never-Never Land". Vivien Hart, on "Fairness and minimum wage laws in Britain and America", poses his brilliantly simple question: why write "fair" into the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) instituting a federal minimum wage - do not lawmakers normally assume their laws are fair? Robert Lawson-Peebles, on the lives of George Washington, quotes his punning conclusion that "the man is the monument; the monument is America". Rupert Wilkinson, on "Journeys to American character" (studies of Margaret Mead, David Potter and David Riesman), pays tribute to his inquiry into "the martial spirit" in America, 1775-1865, with its three archetypes, the Quaker, the Rifleman and the Chevalier, each representing a variety of attitudes and styles (and contradictions). If they still hold good - and if, as Cunliffe also observed, "the nation gets the president it deserves" - it would be interesting to characterise Bill Clinton. After Monica, the Quaker is beyond the pale. So too, notoriously, the Rifleman. The Chevalier of Kosovo, perhaps?

The Chevalier of Kosovo would surely have interested Cunliffe. His cultural explorations suggest that he might have been sympathetic. "The English reader ... needs to make a double approach to American literature. He should come off a certain English high horse, and, putting aside what seems to me a hereditary disdain, should look for common elements in his and in the American experience. The task will be easier if (like me) he is a native of industrial England. For those who live under the northern soot-pall (this was 1961), in the wilderness of factories and housing estates; whose ancestors came from villages of which the family has preserved no memory; and who will probably move in a few years to another home, another town; who know those bleak English landscapes so well evoked by W. H. Auden, where mill and mine squat among the moors, neither urban nor rural, recent and yet of archaeological antiquity: for millions of such people the time-scale, the undercurrent (however faint) of alienation, the knowledge of ugliness, are closer to the American experience than is the England of our Christmas-tree supposition."

Cunliffe's appreciation of the American experience - his "second identity", in Richard Cobb's revealing phrase - was as profound in its way as was Cobb's of the French. In its variety, its sympathy, and above all its zest, Americana is a wonderful tribute to the spirit of his engagement.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Americana: Essays in Memory of Marcus Cunliffe

Editor - John White and Brian Holden Reid
ISBN - 0 85958 670 7
Publisher - University of Hull Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 380

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