Thriving on a Riff

Trevor Herbert finds resonance in an account of the influence of jazz on American books and films

July 30, 2009

In his 1931 essay Echoes of the Jazz Age, a work that today conveys a sense of eerie prescience, F. Scott Fitzgerald used "the jazz age" as a catch-all description for white America's euphoric interlude between the end of the Great War and the 1929 crash. The piece is not really about jazz at all, but in a single sentence he almost captured the complete truth of it. "The word jazz," he said, "in its progress towards respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music." The utterance says something about both the historical progress of jazz and, implicitly, the way America used it.

Graham Lock and David Murray's book is about the effect of jazz on literature and film, and particularly its wider meaning to African American culture. It is less about music (although the music is implicitly and often explicitly present) than it is about the way that jazz gave issue to literary expression and, for better or worse, to the imposing output of Hollywood cinema. It takes account of the critical importance of jazz to African American culture and how its writings reveal that importance.

The idea of a particular scholarly approach to cultural "criss-crossings" (a phrase recurrent in the book) is neatly summarised in the opening paragraph of the introduction, where the word "jazzistic" is suggested as a descriptor for discourse about jazz-related themes, as opposed to jazz itself. It is not such a bad idea, but it may underplay how such approaches cast light on the music itself.

A segment of the book centres on the appropriation of jazz by Hollywood, where it has been routinely and often crudely utilised as a signifier of immorality, sleaze, criminality and lowlife more generally. The cultural power of Hollywood and the ideologies ingrained in its infrastructure and creative processes made such stereotyping important on a much wider social plane in African American culture.

From our present perspective, it is difficult to credit that such connotations lasted for so long and that the achievement of jazz was not recognised in truly its own terms until quite late in the 20th century. The suggestion of one contributor that, despite the achievements of black artists such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, it was only with the arrival of bebop that jazz gained some form of respectability, is probably correct. This may be attributed to a new postwar enlightenment or perhaps more likely to the fact that one of the characteristics of that era of jazz was an instrumental virtuosity so unambiguous and apparent that it could not be denied in any culture.

The book is balanced, consistently well and persuasively written and opulently presented. It also has a genuinely useful website (that actually works) carrying sound clips of music and readings, including Jayne Cortez's evocative reading of her poem A Miles Davis Trumpet, which was written for the great man's memorial service.

Some chapters, such as those that focus very explicitly on film scores, deal directly and revealingly with the music. But the best aspect of the book is its subtle awareness of the effect of jazz and the way it shaped the spinning of words and images to make African American culture distinctive.

At one point, the editors refer to Fats Waller's famous line "Mr Christopher Columbus, he used rhythm as a compass". It is an eloquent summary of the key theme of the book.

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Edited by Graham Lock and David Murray

Oxford University Press 312pp, £58.00 and £13.99

ISBN 9780195337020 and 7099

Published 29 January 2009

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