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The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America by Peter Belgrad

Belgrad posits as his central thesis that “a will to explore and record the spontaneous creative act” characterized the American avant garde during the 1940s and 1950s,a time when “corporate liberalism” dominated mainstream arts. He applies this thesis to poetry, fiction, painting, ceramics, jazz, dance, philosophy, and sociology. This ambitious investigation works well for some arts, but is unconvincing for jazz.

To Belgrad, the big bands of the 1930s represent stifling corporate liberalism, and bebop (the topic of Chapter 8) represents the liberating new music. But he ignores the “spontaneous creative acts” of the great swing era combos, views bebop emergence as a musical revolution rather than the evolotion that it really was, finds a lofty significance in bebop that most players would find puzzling, and sometimes confuses swing and bebop players. His unfamiliarity with jazz results in misspelled names (Bud Johnson?), strange categorizations (Davis’ Milestones is a free jazz recording? JATP in the 1940s epitomized big band swing?), and scrambled terminology (Harmonic ninth?). He passes on other writers’ mistakes without challenge (the famous Charlie Parker “quote” about “Cherokee,” Kerouac referring to Slim Gailard as a drummer).

He rightly shows the influence of jazz on certain writers, but should have dealt with that point briefly and then moved on to others arts, where he is on more solid footing.

Originally Published