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The Jazz Scene.

The Jazz Scene scarcely needs a review. As Eric Hobsbawm explains, he first published the book in 1959 under the pseudonym Francis Newton, as a tribute to the swing trumpeter Frankie Newton and in an unsuccessful attempt to divorce his jazz writing from his considerable reputation as a historian. Subsequently The Jazz Scene was translated into French, Italian, and Japanese; revised (Penguin, 1961); translated into Czech (early 1970s); reprinted in the United States (1975); republished in Italian (1982); translated into Greek (1988); and republished in England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989). Now, in 1993, the edition of 1961 and 1989 appears yet again in North America, together with brief essays that Hobsbawm contributed to The New Statesman from 1958--65 and also together with material published in The New York Review of Books from 1985--89. (No comment on this last item will appear here; it seems perverse to second-guess Hobsbawn by writing a book review of his book reviews.) Such longstanding success rather preempts any vain idea that a reviewer might have about being in a position to influence the book's reception.

Nor is there any need for a reviewer to place the book in its historical context, for Hobsbawm preempts this activity in his thoughtful "Introduction to the 1989 Edition" (pp. xxiii--xxxix). He explains the aims of the book, considers his success in meeting those aims, and describes generally what happened to jazz in the intervening years. A telling sentence, delivered with modesty, comes within a discussion of the phenomenon of the ongoing revival of jazz of the 1940s and 1950s: "The resuscitation of The Jazz Scene is a small and marginal symptom of it" (p. xxxvii).

Nor would there seem to be much point in picking over details with a fine-toothed comb, for Hobsbawm strives to preempt this activity in the first sentence of the book: "I am not an expert as experts go in the world of jazz, which has many" (acknowledgements, p. vii). If in his description of the music he displays a fuzzy notion of how scales and harmony and rhythm work, if in his description of the music's prehistory he stands on a shaky foundation--particularly in a heavy reliance on the testimony of Bunk Johnson, whose various claims are at best controversial and at worst discredited --this sort of detail should be overlooked, attention being directed instead toward grand historical and social concepts, Hobsbawm's strength. He delivers perhaps the best of these in the introduction: "If I had to sum up the evolution of jazz in a single sentence, I should say: It is what happens when a folk-music does not go under, but maintains itself in the environment of modern urban and industrial civilization" (p. xlix). In the pages that follow he lays out an argument in support of this brilliant idea.

Yet in spite of the book's reputation, in spite of Hobsbawm's elegant assessment of his achievements, in spite of his request that experts read sympathetically, in spite of his conceptual strengths, I find the book even more difficult to read than when I first picked it up sixteen years ago. The reason is Hobsbawm's horridly condescending opinion of popular music, an opinion that permeates the book and consequently colors all of his broad-ranging arguments. In several beautifully drawn segments, he lays out cultural, social, technological, ritualistic, and musical distinctions between jazz and European "art" music. This is done in a manner that, while displaying his great enthusiasm and preference for jazz, argues that each tradition should be evaluated on its own merits. How ironic, then, that he proves unable to follow this approach through, in laying out the relationship of jazz to popular music. Evidently blinded by a strong distaste for all popular genres, he instead bahes away, as if it were somehow possible to elevate jazz by denigrating its presumed usurpers and rivals. Never mind the question of actually distinguishing jazz from pop; Hobsbawm rightly acknowledges that the division is "no frontier line, but a vast border zone" (p. lvii), but in his preoccupation with a qualitative difference and in his (perhaps ideologically) simplistic notion of the workings of commercial music in the marketplace, he is unable truly to address the question.

In the "Introduction to the 1993 Edition" he dismisses rap in five words: "musically uninteresting and literary doggeral" (p. xxi); as he was writing those words, American and British musicians were expanding the domain of fusion by developing a jazz-rap style which has taken the name "new jazz swing." In the "Introduction to the 1989 Edition" he surveys the dark period between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, when rock overwhelmed jazz; in attempting to explain what happened, and why, he dismisses jazz-rock fusion too quickly, and he underestimates rock: "the art of amateurs and the musically or even the alpha-betically illiterate" (p. xxxii).

It would be impossible to lay out all of the ways in which this condescending approach makes its way into the book proper. A single example will have to serve the purpose:

Let us not be superior about light and

pop music. Utterly feeble in every other

way, it has at its best, and even at its

top-level average produced numerous

splendid melodies, as witness Stephen

Foster, George Gershwin and others.

That some of us prefer other melodies

is another matter. (P. 107)

Readers who are completely oriented toward European music but who think perhaps it would be good to learn something about jazz should find in The Jazz Scene a literate introduction to the field. Jazz fans who want to hear Miles Davis's So What merged with a hip hop beat, who love Weather Report's Birdland, who melt when Ella Fitzgerald sings the Gershwins' Embraceable You with Nelson Riddle's orchestra, will find in The Jazz Scene a strange combination of stimulating concepts and considerable irritation. Readers whose area of expertise involves popular music--and presumably for this journal there are many such readers--had best seek an introduction to jazz elsewhere.
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Author:Kernfeld, Barry
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:993
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