Thursday, July 20, 2017

ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (1): Listening to "Dixieland" jazz, and thinking about drinking a beer.

ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (1): Listening to "Dixieland" jazz, and thinking about drinking a beer.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(This column originally appeared at my Potable Curmudgeon blog on August 15, 2016, and has been lightly edited)

The book is Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945, by the late Richard M. Sudhalter. It is a massive and scholarly tome, and allowing time for numerous visits to YouTube in search of cited songs, my progress reading it was painstakingly slow, though eventually I finished it.

Insofar as there was anyone left alive to care all that much upon the publication of Lost Chords in 1999, the book apparently provoked mild controversy, in that Sudhalter was seen as challenging the orthodoxy that jazz must be viewed almost exclusively as an African-American domain.

However, I don’t believe this criticism of Sudhalter is justified in the main, because he doesn’t seriously question the African-American bona fides. Rather, he offers testimony on behalf of white jazz players of the pre-WWII period, some of whom were neglected even before seven or more decades elapsed.

Naturally, this assumes a coherent definition of jazz itself. Louis Armstrong may or may not have said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” but this sentiment bears a large measure of truth. It’s a very big, nebulous tent.

Speaking personally, I’m not overly concerned that Sudhalter’s book will send me spiraling into bigotry. Growing up in the 1960s, my parents exposed me to both types of their favorite music, swing and jazz, and if there were prejudices about music in the Baylor household, it wasn’t racial in the least.

Instead, it was directed against filthy long-haired hippies of any skin color playing that horrendous rock and roll. In due time, I managed to overcome this homefront institutional bias and revel in the electric guitar. In the interim, I was fortunate to be imbued with jazz from both black and white sources: Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton; Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman; and Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.

Yes, the roots of jazz overwhelmingly lie in the African-American experience, and yes, white musicians are known to have played it, too – and still do. The music long since has become a universal language, capable of being embraced by almost anyone, and may it survive another hundred years in ever widening spirals of diversity.

As this purports to be a column about beer, not books or music, please know that I’m currently in route to the general point, although it must be revealed that books and music are as important to me as beer and baseball. They’re items of long-term personal interest, and as cultural markers in my internal world, they’re seemingly woven together, completely inseparable and mutually reinforcing.

It’s hard to imagine life without them.


In the chapter entitled “Dixieland,” Sudhalter examines a musical genre seemingly defined as much by audience perception as actual notes and sounds. At this late date, the differences may seem academic, but I was deeply affected by the discussion.

It goes something like this: Youthful (read: rebellious) white musicians in 1920s-era Chicago brashly copied what they heard being played by others, both black and white, many of whom came from New Orleans. In the process of creating a “new” amalgam of older forms, they soon experienced a predictable arc: First rejection, then acceptance and a measure of success, before yielding all too soon to typecasting.

Sudhalter holds that black musicians playing music of a similar style were better able to escape a “Dixieland” genre stereotype at least in part because the word originated as dog-whistling marketing code delineating white players from black – and once locked safely into place, predominantly white audiences refused to allow their heroes to evolve.

Why? Sudhalter believes the answer has more to do with rosy audience nostalgia than overt racism.

By the time these jazz players were in their late thirties, white listeners already regarded the music of their youth as akin to “classic jazz,” not unlike today’s “classic rock.” They weren’t interested in hearing new songs or the progressive aural shadings of bebop.

The musicians quickly learned that they could adapt to these expectations and continue to pull gigs, or reject them and be greeted by shrinking pay packets.

They chose to eat.

Specifically, Sudhalter’s description of this phenomenon is as eloquent as any I’ve ever read. He speaks of the 1940s, only 15 years after the Dixieland repertoire (as it were) came into existence.

The listening audience, moreover, was aging; in that generational way peculiar to American fans, it embraced the music more tenaciously, and less for strictly musical reasons than personal and psychological. It symbolized their youth, the well (if selectively remembered) time in their lives when the future seemed limitless, immortality theirs for the asking. Reminded them of a Zeitgeist, vivid and enjoyable, before time and change edged it into memory.

Many years later, Bob Seger stated it more succinctly (and wistfully) in the rock and roll vernacular:

I awoke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

Play it again, author: “When the future seemed limitless.”

That Richard Sudhalter sure knew how to hurt an old fart.


Annoyingly, there is nothing at all inaccurate about the way this ancient Dixieland musical history lesson mirrors existential sub-currents in my own soul, as they pertain to the past and future of better beer and my own place in it … or out of it.

It grates even more because whatever the nature of the topic at hand, I’ve always struggled mightily to avoid nostalgia and live in the present tense, and to remain psychologically (as well as physically) a functional component of the contemporary world as it is.

Unfortunately, those ghosts of mine just won’t let me be.

Thus, comes the time of day when I’m thinking about drinking a beer, and with so many local, regional, national and international choices close at hand – with the abundant fruit of the revolution’s success ripe for plucking right down the street at breweries, restaurants and package stores, even within walking distance in otherwise forgettable places like New Albany – all I can think about are enriching vignettes and tasty beers from my past.

As with this remembrance of 10-degree golden Czech lager from the brewery at Benesov, poured straight from an earthenware pitcher, and consumed in the yard of a Bohemian weekend house in the company of a personable Communist party member and his family.

Like the time in Brighton, listening to the Manic Street Preachers in a pub with the cask-conditioned Brown Porter, then hitting the late night curry house for a bite before stumbling back to the hotel.

Or during most of those glorious times bicycling in Belgium, working up a powerful thirst and slaking it with ales of all strengths and hues in cafés like The Dazzling, ‘t Brugs Beertje or any number of local dives with a Jupiler sign painted on the facade.

Naturally, what these experiences have in common isn’t so much the beers consumed at the time, although they were wonderful, but the timeliness of the situations, yielding to timeless snapshots of suspended moments, when the future seemed limitless and immortality mine for the asking.

Of course, they’re gone; completed, finished and cashed. I might leave tomorrow on a journey to revisit each of these specific locales, and while I’m sure it would be fun, devoting the money and effort to reliving memories would be this fool’s ultimate wasted errand. It cannot be done.

Although agitated in the best of time, I’m no idiot, and I understand that all these previous lives were extinguished milliseconds after they occurred, but in spite of this rational clarity – perhaps because of it – the ghosts flit teasingly about, tempting me, and often I yearn to recapture the feeling of exhilaration and discovery, of being utterly lost in the moment, of refusing to be the omniscient guide, of eschewing the ephemeral cutting edge, and in placing no more significance in the act of drinking a beer than the chain of muscle processes necessary to swallow it.

But it’s so very hard to forget what you’ve learned. A consistent theme of Sudhalter’s is to ignore much (though not all) of the so-called expert musical testimony and judge by the results, because listening to records should be absolutely colorblind.

However, complete objectivity is a myth and an over-simplification ... and maybe those olden times weren't quite as carefree as they seemed.

When it comes to beer, I’m happy to have come so far, and wouldn’t trade this accumulated knowledge for anything, even an hour of previously squandered innocence during Reagan’s first term – when there wasn’t as much to lose.

At least I don’t think I’d turn down the trade. Instead, as usual, I'll try to treat the symptoms by throwing the ghosts a few scraps – listening to Keith Moon play drums, reading a chapter of Ball Four, and writing about a beer I drank somewhere in Hungary back in '87.

The ghosts will disappear for a while, but they’re persistent, and after all, we’ve known each other for a very long time. After every such dispersal, I ponder the same basic question: How does one hold onto his own traditions and values in a changing world, without lapsing into nostalgic self-parody?

Beats me. Whatever it is, I'm doing a poor job of it right about now.

ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (2): A book about Bunny Berigan, his life and times.


Recent columns:

July 13: ON THE AVENUES: Using Deaf Gahan’s dullest razor, we race straight to the bottom of his hurried NAHA putsch launch.

July 6: ON THE AVENUES: Beercycling with or without Le Tour.

June 29: ON THE AVENUES: Back in the USSR, with my old friend Barr.

June 22: ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

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