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Allen Lowe
That Devilin' Tune : A Jazz History, 1900-1950
(Music and Arts Programs of America)

In 1958, Sonny Rollins wrote this about his Riverside recording Freedom Suite:
"America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."
Diction aside, in a mere two sentences, Rollins expresses the central tenets of what was come to pass—and what we've become accustomed to as—jazz criticism in the past 40 some-odd years. Perhaps Ken Burns was right when he diagnosed jazz intellectuals with chronic inability to arrive at civil consensus on even the most trivial musical facts. But Burns mistook the symptom for the disease, and missed completely that jazz criticism still suffers from a hereditary weakness, a lack of collegial trust that stems from perceptions of race and power. Whether Sonny Rollins, since typecast as modern jazz's most lasting enigma, ever envisioned or currently approves of the racialist ideologies of Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch is something which we will perhaps never know. But Rollins' statement, like so many of profound cast, presents truth and obfuscation in equal measure. It's up to us to separate them, to see what justice time has meted out to them, and to peel back the layers of paraphrase and misinterpretation that now cling to these ideas.

When this reviewer first read on page 13 of tenor saxophonist, arranger, composer and scholar Allen Lowe's That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950, about the "deep African and African-American roots of all [emphasis mine] American culture", a tiny bit of despair entered into the reading experience. But what quickly becomes obvious over the course of the next 250 pages or so is that Lowe is perhaps the most rational writer to attempt a project of this subject and scope. Take, for example, just these few sentences on Thelonious Monk's career:
"Who was Thelonious Monk? No one really seems to know, though toward the end of his life (he died in 1982) the pianist was revered as the last of jazz's great eccentrics and offered large amounts of money (which he refused) to perform in public. The very things which had once made his music so difficult and incomprehensible to many—the odd melodic turns of phrase, the percussive primitiveness of his touch, the unresolved dissonances, and, most of all, his reputation for inscrutable eccentricity—were now, in a more modern and tolerant age, the stuff of marketer's dreams... From his earliest days as a professional musician Thelonious Monk had gone his own way... Though his stance—his absolute refusal to do anything but play his music in his own way, without compromise—was seen by many as heroic, it was more likely the only choice he had. In truth, Monk had a kind of artistic tunnel vision, something which was to his and jazz's benefit, though he was lucky to have a built-in support system—his wife and, later, record companies, promoters, and booking agents—that allowed him the luxury of such a principled life." (193)
The personal, the political, the musical—there it all is in a package that is not so tidy as to be smug, but tight enough to withstand the jostlings and pryings of dissent and rebuttal. Incorporating historical investigation (sometimes impertinent, but most questions are), discographical detective work, personal interviews, and, most crucially, often pithy and memorable musical analysis—such as his likening of Frankie Trumbauer's C-melody saxophone playing to "a painter using only straight brush strokes" (112)—Lowe combines the best features of the musicological and (often "amateur" or "enthusiast", as Terry Treachout defined in an essay from last year's Nation) jazz critical traditions.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this book is that Lowe returns to the notion that jazz is a popular music, with all the wonderfully fascinating and difficult complexities that entails. His consideration of the music's growth and transformation during the first half of the 20th Century yanks jazz out of its isolation as "art music", an aesthetic phenomenon only, without confusing the music's socio-historical context for its actual and sole meaning. Citing Richard Gilman, Lowe views "artistic creation... [as a] counter-history, the generation of a psychological and aesthetic alternative to the prevailing artistic and social order". (176)

Yes, this book could be five times its current length, and it sometimes moves too swiftly, especially when one is not all that familiar with the recordings under discussion. But That Devilin' Tune is criticism of the best sort. It does not evaluate, rank, or taxonomize—it elucidates and makes relevant to the way we perceive the totality of the music, the way we recreate these sounds in our own imaginations. It is a perhaps the first real jazz morphology; in That Devilin' Tune, jazz is a musical attitude, a loose alliance of very different kinds of information, that manages to cohere and flow through any available circuit, and across any geographical and anthropological borders:
"We've discussed in earlier chapters... issues of musical black and white, acknowledging jazz's roots in the techniques and experiences of 19th century black America. That truth notwithstanding, jazz could not long be contained in one community, so strong were its powers of musical persuasion, and so tempting and attractive were its expressive elements—as a matter of fact, an argument can easily be made that jazz's racial and multinational proliferation was a tribute to the genius of its African American inventors. They had devised cultural and musical strategies that were so irresistibly populist and ingeniously community-based, while still amounting to great art, that jazz itself held, in the very essences of its aesthetic and mass appeal, the key to its racial and commercial dispersal, to those very things which would aid and abet its separation and ultimate flight from the African American community." (147)
Aside from it's dramatic irony, this thesis points toward Lowe's other major achievement in That Devilin' Tune. Suppose we do as he has done, and we consider early jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw, 1920's cornetist Thomas Morris, swing-era saxophonist Rudy Williams, and European band leaders Ray Noble and Spike Hughes? Or, as Lowe himself writes:
"And then there are those groups and musicians whose impact and visibility is like that of a hit and run driver, who are here one day and, though sometimes traceable by label (rather than plate) number, nearly gone the next, having vanished into the fog of the jazz and dance band's world of economic uncertainty." (106)
The image, for this reviewer, immediately recall the Joe / Josephine and Jerry / Daphne of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, musicians in dresses and heels madly scrabbling across boundaries not in self-conscious violations of taboo, but in search of some safe haven (and maybe a little fun). One of the most often-repeated tenets of early jazz research is the fact that we know so little. We have tall tales about Buddy Bolden, first-hand accounts of the brothels of New Orleans and we know that the Gennett studios were almost literally on the wrong side of the tracks, etc. But Lowe exposes this assumed paucity of knowledge for the canard it is. Throughout That Devilin' Tune, Lowe reminds us that, if we just open up the established canon of jazz recordings even the slightest bit—if we deign to turn critical attention to the likes of Wilbur Sweatman, Guy Lombardo, Raymond Scott, and Hank Garland—it comes to light that we know more than we expected we did. Recordings, for all their flaws (and early recordings may not be so much flawed per se as much as they are a different form of expression altogether) are the most important documentary resource we have. Working from these assumptions, Lowe is also able to devote much needed attention to musical styles that, existent—and in some cases, still evolving—parallel to jazz as it's canonically defined, both drew from and contributed to the music's vocabulary: The rural blues, minstrelsy, and Western Swing. Some may argue that his hunting for hints of jazz in the acetate dross of the early 20th Century is an attempt to pollute the music with allegations of influence that run counter to "the facts". But, consider, as Lowe does, the impact of the recording as a technology:
"Jazz and its categorical offshoot popular blues still largely emanated from the African-American community, but as soon as the music reached shellac and national distribution any proprietary ideas of ownership had to be abandoned." (73)
Doubtless it is no accident that That Devilin' Tune's final paragraph is dedicated to a quick, "coming attractions" appreciation of Sonny Rollins"[i]n everything he played there was a sense of a work in progress, of structures built to last yet still unfinished". (258) This very thing is what Sonny Rollins was trying to communicate to us in 1958; the punning overtones and sorrowful, indicting inflections that surround the words "humor", "people", "humanities" and "inhumanity" as Rollins employs them in his little annotation to Freedom Suite still ring clear and harsh today. Like any good jazz player, Lowe has the ear to hear it, and to know that, in many ways, the attempted remedies have been worse than the affliction itself. At times cauterizing, That Devilin' Tune cannot help but heal without hurting. With Lowe currently at work on a companion volume that brings us through the 1950's, another period that saw "white" and "black" forms of jazz sharply defined in the critical and popular imagination, we will see if his cure takes.