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

RUNNING TIME, 3:06

Can a jazz work be appreciated without reflecting on the cultural context that surrounds it?

One of the reasons we have several narratives in the book is there are different ways to listen. My feeling is that a work of art exists all by itself and should be able, you should be able to appreciate it all by itself. You don't have to know how old Herman Melville was when, that he was in his 20s when he wrote Moby Dick or that there was an attack on a whale boat called The Essex or all of that. . . . The book itself is an experience. But if you know all that other stuff it's a different way to approach the book, as a historical work, as an expression of nineteenth-century Romanticism is some ways. So the more you know, the more different avenues you have.

Now my feeling is, you listen to Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues," you're, you don't have to know a damn thing. Either that piece is going to move you or not. And if it does move you, you'll be curious enough to listen to it again and again and understand the way the piece is made. But the, for the next step, is to understand the social context, and that's a different narrative. It's a different way to look at art, which is to say, what is going on in the world at this time, why are the swing bands happening in the 1930s? Is there a connection between that and the Great Depression? Yes. When people are really at their lowest point, they want escape. They want to see Fred Astaire dancing in a tuxedo. They want swing dance, they want that kind of luxury because they're not getting it in most of their daily lives. Is there a reason why bebop coincides with the postwar years, the so-called noir years? You bet. Jazz reflects the time. Nineteen fifties jazz reflects the Eisenhower period. Wynton Marsalis' big, you know, success in the ‘80s reflects Reagan-era conservatism. The avant-garde of the 1960s reflects the assassinations, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the utter chaos. Our art reflects its time; and that's a different way to approach it. That's another narrative.

The third narrative would be the way jazz (and any art) reflects its own historical background and its historical imperatives of any given period. So that in the 1930s people are nostalgic for Dixieland, which has been erased by swing, so they try to bring it back as a revival. Another group of young musicians are bored with swing and they're moving forward to bebop. So you [have] these two, you know – reactionary and radicals at the same time. But its very interesting to me that it's not totally avant-garde when musicians say, you know what, we can play bebop, we can play Dixieland, we can play swing, we can play whatever the hell we want. It took that long to get to a place where jazz was comfortable with its own history. It took until the 1950s when jazz began to be taught in a serious way. Um, so there are various ways to go back and look at the performance, but it begins, I think, or should begin with the naïve response to a particular performance. Listen to Sonny Rollins' "Autumn Nocturne." Does it move you? Does it make you laugh? Does it excite you? Then it's already - everything else is gravy.