So Much Jazz

My essay, “So Much Jazz,” about the  inspiration for the musical elements in Emancipation Day, has been posted on Retreat by Random House. To read it, and to listen to a playlist of the music mentioned in the novel, please click here.

So Much Jazz

Music is about dreaming, and for my father, his trombone was his magic wand to a better life. In 1943, he was an eighteen-year-old African-Canadian trombone player in Windsor, Ontario, light-skinned enough to be playing in the Sea Cadets’ marching band (known as the All-Whites because of their white uniforms, but also by implication because all the members were white). His trombone would only work its magic, he realized, if he used it to play for white audiences. And only if he pleased those audiences. Because, as James Baldwin wrote in 1953, it is “a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.”

Detroit in the 1940s was an important stop for big bands making the trip from St. Louis and Chicago to New York. Many of those bands were black – Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington – and they played in big venues like the Graystone Ballroom and the Paradise Theater (the old Orchestra Hall on Woodward Ave.). But after hours, many of the musicians would jam in the smaller black-and-tan clubs on East Hastings, where they were joined by local jazz musicians like Milt Jackson and Yusef Lateef. The Horse Shoe, Club 666 –clubs mentioned in Emancipation Day – were among the most popular. I imagined my character, Jack Lewis, a young trombone player from Windsor, frequenting these after-hours clubs, and I tried to figure out what he would think of the music and the musicians who played it.

cab-calloway-and-his-orchestra-1936-1-m
Cab Calloway. Borrowed from “Songbook”.

BooSince Jack as a character was inspired by my father, I started with what I knew about my father’s attitude towards jazz. He loved the big-band sound, swing music, which was essentially jazz tunes taken from individual black artists and arranged to be played by groups of twenty to thirty musicians to white audiences. Sort of like the Hollyridge Strings playing the Beatles, or Michael Bublé singing Hoagie Carmichael. I always thought the raw, emotional, impetuosity of jazz was flattened out and stylized by the big bands, so that what started out as an improvisational solo by, say, Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, which might sound different every time they played it, would be written out in practically military precision by Tommy Dorsey or Cab Calloway and played exactly the same way every time, upon pain of dismissal.

There is a story that Cab Calloway, whose band was regularly featured at the Cotton Club in New York and who was making $50,000 a year in the ‘30s, wanted to hire the trumpet player Jonah Jones in 1939, but at the time Jones was playing with Stuff Smith’s sextet, and so Calloway hired Dizzy Gillespie instead. But he never liked Dizzy, because Gillespie took the solos that Calloway had so carefully scored for him and went off on his own riffs. So when Jones became available in 1941, Calloway fired Gillespie. Jones, he said, was more of a crowd pleaser, and he didn’t like what he called Dizzy’s “Chinese music.” Neither did my father.

So there were several wars going on at the same time in the jazz world of the 1940s. New Orleans jazz versus Chicago jazz; real jazz versus swing; black versus white; and, within the context of the novel, black versus black. These ironies attracted me as a writer. Both white (Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller) and black bandleaders (Calloway, Basie) were taking black music and mellowing it out for white audiences. Which means there were white musicians playing black music, and black musicians playing music for whites. This cross-over seemed particularly delicious for my characters, especially ironic in Jack’s case, who was a black musician passing for white: his preference for white music derived from the black experience fits thematically with the novel, as does that of another character, Jack’s friend Peter Barnes, a white trumpet player who loves the progressive jazz (soon to be called bebop) of Dizzy Gillespie.

I don’t recall my father ever mentioning Dizzy or the Bird or any of the great black jazz musicians of the 1940s and ‘50s. I do remember him rehearsing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” Tommy Dorsey’s theme song, in the living room of our house in Windsor before going out to play dances at the Chrymoto Club or at one of the taverns in Essex County. This was in the 1950s, when his lip was still strong enough to reach the high notes and make them sound effortless. I watched him playing, his eyes squeezed shut, sweat beading on his forehead, the trombone’s slide stretching down towards the linoleum floor and the smooth notes flowing out of his trombone. I think of him imagining he was Tommy Dorsey, that he wasn’t a Chrysler’s lineworker hunched over his $75 trombone in an over-furnished living room in Windsor, but standing tall on a stage with thirty musicians behind him, playing to a crowd of white couples dancing sedately before him, or, stunned by the perfection of his performance, facing the stage with tears in their eyes and their hands poised to applaud when the last, lingering note faded away into the upper reaches of the Paramount Theater.

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