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Highbrow/Lowbrow: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class by David Savran

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Of all the sections in Highbrow/Lowbrow:Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class, the section that discusses the legendary American composer George Gershwin followed by a very succinct and compelling account of the groundbreaking black musical,” Shuffle Along,” is the most interesting. Among other things, Savran, a professor at City University of New York, refers to Gershwin as “the most famous composer” America has ever produced. Savran, however, has even greater praise for the 1921 black theater musical, “Shuffle Along,” because it is here that Savran asserts that Gershwin and his brother, Ira, owe a huge debt to that revolutionary musical for the development of their own music theater efforts.

Gershwin is important because of his loose ties to jazz music but “Shuffle Along,” for those in the know, is early jazz and theater becoming one. Composed by musicians, Eubie Blake, and Noble Sissle, “Shuffle Along” represents the clash Savran is seeking to illuminate between jazz’s rising power and theater’s sinking popularity. Add in the rise of moving pictures in theaters across the country, and you can understand Savran’s story: he is describing a cultural cataclysm.

Savran states his intent a bit differently but the direction is clear: “In this book, I am attempting to write a political economy of culture during a key moment in U.S. history: an analysis of the relationship between particular theatrical and musical practices and the changing shape of social and economic resources.”

Technological changes and the rise of urban culture also dramatically altered entertainment in America according to Savran. More and more people moved from the rural areas to the city, and movie theaters with cinema sprang forward. Theater had no choice but to become something else.

Theater’s answer to this dramatic shift in importance was to become more dramatic and important; thus, serious plays about serious events and ideals began to be written, and according to Savran, the playwright of choice for the nation was Eugene O’Neill. This is the second most interesting segment in the book, and the section that pulls Savran’s narrative together.

According to Savran, “jazz is constructed in O’Neill.” A clever statement, but one that Savran, does not explain very well. Indeed, this section, the summation of the Savran thesis is the most academic of all sections, and this hurts the book a little. However, there is much to learn here; Highbrow/Lowdown, is a secret revelation, a cultural awakening, though at times, the overall theme is elusive.

Originally Published