2009-06-23

Martin Williams on jazz romanticism

"We would do such men [King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton] wrong to make them the victims of our own romanticism or nostalgia. Yet the music itself has been the victim of romanticism. A player considered an amiable amateur by his elders is dug up by the more exclusive partisans of New Orleans jazz, who go into verbal ecstasies when he executes a major triad. A ditty originally written in New York City for comedian Bert Williams is hallowed as a "traditional New Orleans piece". A trumpeter adds a few obvious pick-up notes and some doublings to an old blues theme, and his work is transcribed and picked over like variants in a Shakespearean text. Dozens of men who stayed at home, simply because they were not good enough musicians to undertake Chicago or New York, find themselves more prolifically recorded than an important player like Jimmy Noone.

(...)

I ask you to glance with me at two aspects of New Orleans and its traditional music today. First, there is a local jazz appreciation club. It's Jim Crow.

Second, as I write there are a couple of halls in the city hiring the older musicians and functioning as tourist attractions. One of them is shrewdly operated, and some players feel they offer conditions that are awful for performance and in backstage facilities. Both frequently hire honest but third- and fourth-rate players -"ham-fat musicians" the performers call them because they grease their instrument valves with ham fat. Some of them, for all their robust charm and admirable energy, can't keep steady time or play in tune. And some of them are apt to find themselves with a local following and, as a result, get recorded. When they do, they may very well get glowing national reviews as the noble bearers of the great tradition.

It is not so much that King Oliver turns in his grave when such pronouncements are made. It's that a skillful and knowledgeable musician in New Orleans today, now in his late fifties, sixties or even seventies, is apt to be turning in his tracks."


Martin Williams in "Jazz Masters Of New Orleans" (published by The MacMillan Company, 1967)

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