“Writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture.” That bon mot has jostled about in jazz circles for a while, ever since being uttered by Thelonious Monk. Or Charles Mingus. Or, um, Frank Zappa. Try to track down the origins of the phrase and you’ll lose yourself in a loop of endless attributions. Some maintain, credibly, that the original quote had “music” in place of “jazz” and came from Elvis Costello. Or was it Laurie Anderson?
This murky provenance is only fitting for a phrase that analogizes imprecision. What we all recognize in the saying is the often-deadly mix of pretension and futility that haunts any attempt to write about jazz, both critically and creatively. But let’s take the facetious comment at face value for a moment and consider postmodern choreography, which has actually made “dancing about architecture” something we can almost envision. In similar fashion, a substantial literature of jazz has developed over the years, and it’s well worth considering even if it has yet to catch up with the music.
Of course, literature, like jazz, can be strictly or loosely defined. A somewhat permissive understanding of the term would include oral history and folklore, and by that measure jazz has fared handsomely. Hard evidence abounds: in Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff’s landmark Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It (Dover, 1966); throughout drummer Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (Da Capo, 1993; 1977); and in the autobiography-studded first section of Robert Gottlieb’s laudable survey Reading Jazz (Pantheon, 1996). Last year, the mother lode of oral histories got its due when Rounder released The Complete Library of Congress Recordings of Jelly Roll Morton as an eight-CD box set. “This aural narrative belongs to a subgenre of jazz literature that also includes Lady Sings the Blues, Beneath the Underdog, and Miles: The Autobiography,” wrote Francis Davis in his Village Voice review, just before citing scholar John Szwed’s assertion that Morton was endeavoring to do for New Orleans what James Joyce had done for Dublin with Ulysses.
That interdisciplinary connection brings us into the realm recently explored by David Yaffe in Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton University Press, 2006). Yaffe, an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, developed his work as a doctoral dissertation after and during a stretch as a jazz critic, and his book often gives off the odor of academic discourse. Chief among its conclusions is the notion that jazz literature, at its most gripping and least egregious, has involved some species of cross-cultural transmission: among African-Americans and Jews, between high modernists and vernacular operators, across the fault lines of background and class.
A good portion of Yaffe’s study involves cold analysis of material that flirts with, but falls short of grasping, this ideal-like J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Hart Crane’s poem “Black Tambourine,” the frothy posturing of Norman Mailer and the Beats. Yaffe also takes a swing at the autobiographical “subgenre of jazz literature,” as Francis Davis defines it, casting Billie Holiday and William Dufty’s Lady Sings the Blues (Doubleday, 1956), Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog (Knopf, 1971) and Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe’s Miles: The Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 1989) as habitués of a “red-light district of African-American narrative.” Yaffe’s complaints are such that you’d think jazz literature was a lost cause if not for a handful of exemplary texts, like the Richard Powers novel The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and, of course, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Random House, 1952), the closest thing jazz has to an actual novel in the league of Ulysses.
Ellison isn’t the James Joyce of jazz literature, really; he’s more like a conflation of Mark Twain, guitarist Charlie Christian and philosopher-critic Kenneth Burke. The last name in that roll call (which, of course, could be endlessly augmented or easily challenged) provides a linchpin in another recent academic text, Michael Magee’s Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing (University of Alabama Press, 2004). Starting with Burke’s documented influence on Ellison-the former proposed a concept of “language as symbolic action” that informed the latter’s work in intense and sophisticated ways-Magee investigates a web of ideas aligning Ellison with his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and placing both writers in line with the American school of philosophy known as pragmatism.
Yes, this is intricate and somewhat arcane scholarship, offering its full glory only to the committed and intrepid reader. (I’ve had plenty of time with it: I was a younger colleague of Magee’s during his doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania and digested sections of the book as it developed.) But Magee, now a senior lecturer in English at the Rhode Island School of Design, advances a perspective that has implications for any literate jazz fan. What Ellison gave us, Magee argues, was a vision of jazz literature that emphasizes form over content, process over pose. Jelly Roll Morton knew this instinctively, but novelists, playwrights and poets have had a devil of a time making it work on the page.
Yaffe brushes against a similar idea in his poetry chapter, when he suggests that “the most successful jazz poetry results when the music has been, in the words of Keats, ‘proved upon the pulses,’ when it has become so internalized, the poet no longer needs to transpose it at all.” But aside from Komunyakaa, Yaffe offers no evidence of such poets, nor much insight into the beat of that proven pulse. Magee is more acute in this regard, especially in a chapter on the poets Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and the scene at the Five Spot on the cusp of the 1960s. I can’t plumb the depths of that chapter here, so I’ll confine myself to singing its praises: It would be worth the investment just for Magee’s invigorating treatment of “The Day Lady Died,” a much-anthologized jazz poem by O’Hara that Yaffe applauds but ultimately misreads.
If, as Ellison maintained, American culture is “jazz-shaped,” it stands to reason that there would be a literary legacy in the same mold. I see it in the work of Nathaniel Mackey, and in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage, 1996), and in the poetry of Robert Creeley and Harryette Mullen. What resonates most in that writing, and in Magee’s scholarship, is an understanding of jazz as a means rather than an end, and as a language that embodies action, ever evolving. In other words: not the architecture, but the dancing.