JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


You encourage your readers to imagine jazz as a river. Why is this metaphor apt for the discussion of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz?

One of the oldest clichés about jazz-and like all clichés, it has much truth to it and some that's not quite so true-is that jazz came up the river. And so we think of jazz very often as a river literally because it begins on the crescent of the Mississippi, right as it goes into the Gulf. And then the steamboats travel from New Orleans up through, you know, to Davenport, Iowa. You know, Louis Armstrong as a young man worked those steamboats. So as jazz went north and musicians went up the river to those places, wherever they went they took the music. Louis Armstrong literally took it to Davenport. You know, young white guys would come down to hear the black musicians on the river boat and invariably some of those young kids would turn out to be Bix Biederbecke or Jess Stacy, among the first great white jazz musicians. Then Armstrong went to New York, he took it there. Other musicians went to San Francisco.

Um, so there is that momentum. There's also a watery aspect to early jazz in that New Orleans is unique among American cities because it is in some ways a Caribbean city. It is as much a part of the Caribbean as it is of the continental United States, especially because the slave trade dealt directly between New Orleans and the Caribbean. The Caribbean slave trade legally existed much longer than it did in the United States. So slaves were constantly being imported via that route. And because those slaves came from Africa, they were bringing African rituals and African music to New Orleans, whereas in the rest of the country the slave population was two, three, four generations old and a lot of those African influences were already ameliorated, they were forgotten or they had been much changed. In New Orleans, they were much fresher. So you have this watery connection in between New Orleans and the Caribbean to the south and the east, and then you have the Mississippi bringing it, and also the river is a great metaphor because we tend to think of jazz as a music that chronologically is constantly, it's constantly in movement and chronologically it changes so dynamically from decade to decade.

You know, we look back at classical music and we talk about Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and it's all part of a history; and we understand that there is a progression there but the entire progression is before us. But jazz, when you live through jazz, almost any generation that grew up with any movement is completely put off by the next one, that's how radical the changes are. So that the young people that danced in ballrooms to the Swing Era were completely put off by modern jazz. The young kids who came up with modern jazz and thought it was so hip and beat were completely put off by the avant- garde. My generation, which came up with the avant-garde, was freaked out by fusion, you know, and so to look at jazz as a whole is to see this constant movement, almost from station to station to station, in space, but also in time.