Jazz in Hard Times

In the annals of recorded music, there may not be a more exuberant three-minute salvo than “Shoe Shine Boy,” one of a handful of sides made by the entity of Jones-Smith, Incorporated. Opening with a spring-loaded piano intro by Count Basie, it rides an irresistible current, both jaunty and relaxed. Lester Young takes his first-ever tenor saxophone solo on record, his tone as bright and radiant as early-morning sunshine. Carl Smith, one of the session’s putative leaders, says his piece on trumpet; Jo Jones does the same, and more, on drums. The effort comes awfully close to a pure expression of joy.

“Shoe Shine Boy” was made in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression. And in that regard it’s hardly exceptional. This was also the period, after all, that gave us Benny Goodman’s small-group sessions, and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra recording “Happy as the Day Is Long.” Then there were Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, delivering equally sanguine work (including their own respective versions of “Shoe Shine Boy”). To put it simply, the hour of our greatest hardship coincided with a golden age for jazz, when the music was not only a creative force but also a popular entertainment, and a national source of comfort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that legacy lately, for reasons that should be evident: The events of recent months have revived the specter of financial calamity. Way back in April—before the Fed bailouts, before the Dow Industrial seesaw, even before much of the economic rhetoric of the presidential campaign—the International Monetary Fund was issuing warnings about “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” What sounded a bit like alarmism back then now seems like conventional wisdom.

For many jazz citizens, the economic crisis may have registered as a sort of solar flare: dramatic and remote. In the short term, life goes on. But given that our musicians as a group tend to be underpaid and underinsured, as an NEA survey confirmed in 2003, it’s worth considering the implications. I haven’t yet noticed a pronounced downturn in club or concert attendance on the New York scene—but these things can take time.

And besides, there are questions beyond the realm of cover charges and CD sales. What will become of the grants and commissions routinely awarded to jazz musicians? What about the constellation of festivals, here and abroad, made possible by corporate or government funds? This fall I had the surreal experience of hearing music at a festival tent sponsored by Washington Mutual—just one day after that banking giant was seized and sold by the FDIC. I found this grimly comical, but then I never had a stake in WaMu.

“We’re going to see, in this city particularly, given our reliance on the financial sector, that public funding goes down for many institutions,” Adrian Ellis, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, told me recently. We happened to be sitting in the main theater of Frederick P. Rose Hall, the organization’s multimillion-dollar facility, awaiting a celebration of the 2009 class of NEA Jazz Masters. (Cross your fingers for the future of that program, which will come under scrutiny by the new presidential administration.) The outgoing NEA Chairman Dana Gioia began the ceremony that evening by noting wryly that jazz was one commodity whose value had not plummeted in recent weeks.

Another question has to do with the so-called Hemline Index, the notion that culture reflects the tenor of its time. Social historians have shown, for example, that Playboy’s Playmate of the Year tends to adhere to a more waiflike standard of beauty during flush economies; leaner times result in more “mature,” fuller-figured models. (Despite the temptation to confirm this, I decided to take their findings at, ahem, face value.) It would be too simple to suggest that the swing boom was a direct byproduct of despair—but surely there was a correlation, given that even the most destitute families had radios. The late Peter Levinson, in his 2005 biography of Tommy Dorsey, points out that musicians like the Dorsey Brothers (who, it should be noted, were white) fared uncommonly well during the Depression, owing to the nation’s hunger for “escapist entertainment.”

But for argument’s sake, let’s look again at “Shoe Shine Boy,” a song created by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn for the show Connie’s Hot Chocolates of 1936. The lyrics, which factor into the Armstrong and Ellington versions (but not the one by Jones-Smith, Inc.), confirm the cycle of struggle:

You’re just a shoe shine boy/You work hard all day

Shoe shine boy/Got no time to play

Every nickel helps a lot/So shine, shine, shoe shine boy.

Even though the child laborer in the song is idealized, wishfully, as “seldom ever blue,” I’d argue that this is a poor specimen of escapism. What transforms the song into something transcendently positive, in its jazz iterations, is that familiar combination of ebullient rhythm and canny improvisation. Prez and Basie and the rest, including bassist Walter Page, are showing us the best of humanity precisely when it’s needed most.

Of course the topical leverage of jazz has waned since, with many more fans digging Young Jeezy’s The Recession than, say, the latest by Anat Cohen. (I’ll add that Jeezy was clearly prescient, and his album is actually pretty great.) The mass audience for jazz has both evaporated but factionalized, for a host of reasons. Loren Schoenberg, the executive director of the Jazz Museum of Harlem, was stating the obvious when he reminded me that the jazz of the 1930s had a social functionality that it now transparently lacks.

But Schoenberg, an expert on the swing era, agreed that the answer doesn’t reside in the past. “They weren’t playing music from the Great Depression of 1893,” he said of Basie and crew. “Maybe in some odd way this might be the spur we’ve all been waiting for,” he added, “in that it forces us to confront the fact that we need people to be engaged.” There’s no magic formula for that outcome, but jazz musicians, as ever, will surely find ways to adapt.

Originally published in December 2008

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