Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz
“Did you know that Scott Joplin died penniless in New York, that Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz in 1902?” Thus the dust jacket asks the would-be buyer of Jasen and Jones’ new book, and one certainly suspects that this series of biographical sketches was a publisher’s proposal for a generation of readers unlikely to know such things. Where even serious students of ragtime history could learn a lot from the pair’s previous publication, That American Rag, most of the subjects here have been covered repeatedly by full-length bios and/or autobiographies—Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith—and there is little to be added to the picture for readers of those books, except in the cases of Luckey Roberts and Tom Turpin. The writers also missed a golden opportunity to disseminate important recent discoveries by Doug Seroff and Llynn Abbott about ragtime’s early years in the Turpin chapter. All of that said, these two authors do a lot of things right. A deep love of the music informs the writing, which focuses almost unerringly on what’s important to the story. Time after time the writers come up with a quote or anecdote that buoys the narrative perfectly, and as often as not it’s an unfamiliar or at least unexpected reference.
Most of this book is very enjoyable, but one weakness that has cropped up in earlier books is unfortunately more evident here, which is the tendency to gild the lily. Particularly when faced with the desirability of saying something new about a familiar subject, the writers too often respond with overblown pronouncements, as in their introductory remarks about Louis Armstrong, who is set up as a great paragon because, rather than playing what critics or musicians wanted to hear, he gave John Public what he wanted. All modern jazz would be off-handedly damned by such a criterion (which, I suspect, to be the point of it), though I guess Madonna would score high. But who’s to say that Mr. Public wouldn’t have preferred “Cornet Chop Suey” to a lot of Louis’ swing-era efforts?
The pluses do easily outweigh the minuses, and Black Bottom Stomp will be a good introduction for readers who don’t know something of the transition from ragtime to jazz. But given the place that Jasen and Jones have come to occupy, almost by default, among writers who specialize in jazz’s early years, it would be gratifying to see them get their teeth back into something more demanding, and edit themselves just a bit better.