Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ethan Hein on receptivity to Ellington and jazz, a reminder that the debate about jazz continued what happened in late 19th century debates about ragtime

I first learned about Ethan Hein's blogging through Slipped Disc.  Now I'm relatively sure regulars at that website might not be happy to know that their vitriolic reactions to Hein's blogging would pique my interest in his blogging.  Though I think of myself as a moderately conservative stick in the mud sort on many things I'm sympathetic to what might be called avant garde ideas about the arts.  I am particularly interested in restoring a synergistic or, if you will, dialectical relationship between "high" and "low" arts that I believe have balkanized and separated since the dawn of the Romantic era.  So even if I don't share Ethan Hein's fondness for hip hop I am sympathetic to his interest in music theory and showing ways in which music theory can be applicable across styles.  I probably won't agree with him on any number of topics being a semi stick in the mud Presbyterian on the West Coast, but I like reading his blog lately.  Chalk it up to yet another author where irascible comments from the likes of John Borstlap boomerang and get me interested in reading someone to find out if they can even be half as bad as has been said.  I ended up binge-reading about half a dozen Adorno books that way!

So, anyway, here's a post Hein wrote that I want to look at.  It's been interesting reading how debates about the musical legitimacy of jazz in the 1920s seem to have more or less taken up the debates that were had about the musical legitimacy of ragtime ten and twenty years prior. 


While music educators acknowledged the popularity of jazz, they saw its main virtue as being effective bait to lure young people into the study of “serious” music. The Etude, a music education periodical, devoted its entire August 1924 issue to “The Jazz Problem.”

In his introductory essay, editor James Francis Cooke wrote that jazz would need to dramatically transformed by composers before it would have any real value: “In its original form it has no place in musical education and deserves none” (quoted in Maita, 2014). While other contributors to the issue had more conflicted and nuanced views of jazz, the general tone was dismissive. Viewed against this context, Grainger’s enthusiasm for jazz is remarkable—he even wrote a pro-jazz rebuttal in the following issue of The Etude.
Ellington was the first jazz composer to be taken at all seriously by classical critics, though even his supporters found ways to demean him, intentionally or otherwise. In June of 1932, R. D. Darrell wrote the first in-depth critical review of Ellington’s music. Darrell praised Ellington for “economy of means, satisfying proportion of detail, and the sense of inevitability—of anticipation andrevelatory fulfillment—that are the decisive qualifications of musical forms” (58, emphasis in original). However, when he placed the music in context, he was stunningly offensive by modern standards:
[W]hen I upturn treasure in what others consider to be the very muck of music, I cannot be surprised or disappointed if my neighbor sees only mud where I see gold, ludicrous eccentricity where I find an expressive expansion of the tonal palette, tawdry tunes instead of deep song, ’nigger music’ instead of ’black beauty’” (58).
While Darrell came to admire “Black and Tan Fantasy,” his initial reaction was derision:
I laughed like everyone else over its instrumental wa-waing and gargling and gobbling, the piteous whinnying of a very ancient horse, the lugubrious reminiscence of the Chopin funeral march. But as I continued to play the record for the amusement of my friends I laughed less heartily and with less zest. In my ears the whinnies and wa-was began to resolve into new tone colors, distorted and tortured, but agonizingly expressive. The piece took on a surprising individuality and entity as well as an intensity of feeling that was totally incongruous in popular dance music. Beneath all its oddity and perverseness there was a twisted beauty that grew on me more and more and could not be shaken off (58).
In fairness to Darrell, Ellington’s instrumental timbres are startling even now, as I will discuss below.
The British critic Constant Lambert was another early champion of Ellington from within the classical music world, but he too felt the need to qualify his praise with condescension. He prefaced his discussion of Ellington by observing that “Negro talent” was “on the whole more executive than creative” (Lambert 1934, 206). However, he found Ellington to be “a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction, and the first negro composer of distinction” (Lambert 1934, 214). Unlike Grainger, Lambert recognized that Ellington frequently through-composed his music. Also, Lambert recognized that the canonical form of an Ellington piece is the recording, not the score. The Philadelphia Record interviewed Ellington soon afterward and asked him to respond to Lambert’s praise. They probably took wide liberties in representing his responses, describing “a look of simple wonder” on his face and rendering his quotes in dialect, e.g. “Is zat so?” (quoted in Tucker 1993, 112).
Beyond his love for black culture, Ellington was not overtly political. For example, he declined to join the March on Washington in 1963. However, he did play a role in what Kelley (1996) calls “infrapolitics”—subtle protest undertaken in cultural and informal spheres. Ellington cultivated a dignified and decorous public persona, one that demanded respect not just from whites, but from other blacks who disdained jazz as unseemly. His dandyism made a comparable statement to the prewar black fashion for ostentatious zoot suits:

What’s intriguing about Ellington’s public persona of respectability and dignity in his musical work is that he was, in a sense, reproducing what Scott Joplin did in the 1890s through to Joplin’s death in 1917 during the Ragtime Era.  Duke’s regal and well-spoken take had precedents in the black musical community and history of the U.S. which is not to say he necessarily copied Joplin.  As Edward Berlin’s work on ragtime has shown, Joplin felt that the lyrics to ragtime as popular song trafficked so freely in racial stereotypes and caricatures and celebrated violence to such a degree he felt the music would be easier to love and appreciate if it wasn't tethered to the coon song traditions.  

Fortunately for Joplin's work and legacy we think of ragtime now as primarily a genre of instrumental piano music and not as the genre of popular song that it actually was in its day.  The parallels between the vitriol directed at ragtime in the 1890s and early 1900s as musically worthless garbage by colored people and debates about rap and hiphop are hard not to notice.  Whereas in the late 19th century the lament was it took no musical talent to play ragtime compared to the classical piano literature, Edward Berlin and others have highlighted that "ragging the classics" was popular.  To translate that a bit, sampling classical literature into what was then a contemporary popular style was a well-known habit within the style.  It was even done into the 1920s.  George Cobb transformed a Rachmaninoff piece (Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2) into a "Russian Rag", for instance.  

This video is probably the best example online of how "ragging the classics" works. There are other videos where translating classical piano repertoire into ragtime happens but this is a case of a historically known ragging within the ragtime era before it mutated into what has since been called the Jazz Era.


Ragtime as a popular style so permeates the American musical legacy that ragtime scholars have made effective cases that you can't fully appreciate the evolution of country music as we have come to know it without some at least passing knowledge of ragtime.  Country, which is stereotypically thought of as the whitest of white music, has some debt to ragtime.  

I've published this in the past but here's a brief list of some books on ragtime


Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History
Edward A Berlin
Originally published by the University of California Press
Copyright (c) 1980, 2002 by Edward A Berlin
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3064-9

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era (2nd edition)
Edward A Berlin
Oxford University Press
Copyright (c) Edward A. Berlin 1994, 2016
ISBN 978-0-19-974032-1
ebook ISBN: 978-0-19-024605-1

Ragtime: It's History, Composers, and Music
edited by John Edward Hasse
Copyright (c) 1985 by John Edward Hasse
Schirmer Books
ISBN: 0-02-8716507
ISBN: 0-02-872650-2 (pbk)

I feel obliged to cross reference to Raymond Knapp's monograph on Haydn and camp, which I discussed last year.


Making Light: Haydn, musical camp, and the long shadow of German idealism
Raymond Knapp
Copyright (c) 2018 by Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822372400 (ebook)
ISBN 9780822369356 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780822369509 (paperback)

During the late 19th and early 20th century ragtime was regarded as low-grade scandalous popular song.  White and black clergy were set against it because of the bawdy lyrics and degrading racial stereotypes that were seen as presenting African Americans in the worst possible light.  It was also considered noise any incompetent musician might play rather than dignified classics.  Interestingly, some ragtime specialists have suggested that some of the roots of ragtime can and should be traced back to solo banjo music, with an observation that one of the insults shared in correspondence declared that when African Americans tried to play the piano and played their rags they sounded like they were playing the banjo rather than playing the piano.  Lowell H. Schreyer discussed this in the Hasse book on ragtime, pages 55-69.

As if being the musical domains of African American composers weren't troublesome enough for those who believed the future of American music was in the highest of German highbrow, ragtime was also a popular style with some significant contributions by women composers.  Music that was seen as the domain of African Americans and also of middle-class white women entertaining house guests was probably about as far removed from the high ideals of German idealism as you could get, and given the extent to which popular musical styles owed some debt to minstrelsy and African American song many of the more popular American styles simply had the wrong pedigree to please those advocates of high culture music that wanted musical America to sound like Beethoven and Wagner rather than Scott Joplin and his musical descendants ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington through to contemporary African American popular music.  In Raymond Knapp's reading of American musical history, the history of American popular music has been musical camp and that ties back more readily to the legacy of the knowing joker Haydn than to the serious prophet-of-art Beethoven. 

But while I find that comparing some of the polemical writings for and against ragtime to remind me of polemical writings for and against rap there is a difference.  Ragtime was a popular style of song and instrumental music that exploded on the American scene in the 1890s but was already developing. It remained immensely popular into the 1920s when, as ragtime and jazz historians have generally established, the Ragtime Era transformed into the Jazz Era.  Many of the polemics for and against ragtime were, if you will, transposed onto jazz when you compare what was said in one era to what was said in another.  

But one of the key differences between the ragtime controversy and rap was the mediating technology.  Even though ragtime was a form of popular music it was still a form of popular music that evolved within the context of what we would now think of as traditional musical literacy and music publishing.  The ragtime masters such as Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb all had at least some familiarity with and affection for what would be considered staples of the classical music piano literature and concert music.  Joseph Lamb read The Etude, for instance.  In writings about Lamb it's been noted that Scott Joplin advised Lamb to revise a work and replace parallel chromatic lines with contrary motion, showing that Joplin had an understanding of what was considered traditionally good voice-leading and encouraged one of his musical friends to follow in that. By contrast, late 20th century rap and hip hop evolved within the context of a stable and dominant recorded music industry in which machinery for recording and replaying music is the dominant means to create and distribute music rather than the printed page.  

Back in my teens and twenties when I contemptuously referred to "crap" I thought it was unmusical and that sampling was not really being creative.  The more I learned about Baroque music practices and the polemics advocates of the Renaissance "first practice" made against what they regarded as the unmusical trash of what we now think of as early masterpieces of the Baroque, the more I concluded that whether or not hip hop became a favorite style of mine (I also loathed country back in my youthful days before I discovered Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash), I wasn't going to say it was unmusical or that it required no musical talent or thought to make the music. 

I generally don't care for the music of John Cage but I refuse to think of him as a charlatan.  In middle age I've reached a place where I may not enjoy music or I may even hate music but I don't want to say that whoever is making the music has "no" musical ability.  Even the person who makes a song I think is insufferably annoying and stupid has musical ability, I just wish they used it to make something else!  The fact that any time I hear John Mayer's "Love on the Weekend" I want to revise into "Blood on the Windshield" might just mean that I don't like the guitar-strumming bro song genre.   Coffee house rock, for want of a better term, annoys me immensely.  If someone can teach aspiring musicians how they can compose and play their own music using songs I hate, though, I can live with that.  

Which gets me to another point I've been wanting to make as I have been thinking about authors with whom I may disagree on a few things but who I learned about by the polemics of John Borstlap.  I disagree with Adorno strongly on the Marxist side of things, and I think Adorno's Marxism blinkered his ability to appreciate the possibility that art can actually emerge from what he regarded as the trash heap of entertainment music.  But I can also say that when he got into the work of analysis and technical discussions of music he was often brilliant and he distilled better than anyone else in the 20th century the chasm between "argument" listening and composing and "groove" listening and composing.  He was far less successful at articulating how to reunite the "argument" and "groove" that he believed existed in the best Western classical music but that was separated in 20th century art and popular musical styles.  

Another way to put this is to say that I can go read Ethan Hein's blog and see that he's doing the work of a music educator.  I respect that, despite my profound ambivalence about what I have come to think of as the educational-industrial complex.  I'm not against people teaching people by any means, and I like that when I read something at Hein's blog he breaks down how the theory he's discussing can connect to songs.  By contrast ... when I read Borstlap's sweeping bloviating rants on cultural decline and the loss of music I haven't seen him write about music in a way that has a practical application in terms of chords or voice-leading principles or paradigms of formal development.  

If I had to choose one of two bloggers to suggest to people to actually read to learn about the art and discipline of music, music theory and approaches to thinking about and making music, I'd recommend Ethan Hein's blog over John Borstlap's.  Even though on paper I'm a classical guitarist and I am interested in polyphonic music for guitar with particular emphasis on non-Spanish classical guitar traditions, and even though perhaps on paper that might put me more in the John Borstlap taxonomy of music compared to someone who is into rap and hip hop and popular music, I'm kind of a theory wonk.  I was more than just happy to read Elements of Sonata Theory, I love the book.  

I recently finished a dense but fascinating book by Nicholas Cook called The Schenker Project that 
makes an interesting long-form case that as a Galician Jew assimilated into the anti-Semitic Germanic culture of Vienna, Schenker's lifelong project was building a case for a German canon that culminated in Beethoven and had room for Chopin and Brahms but that was arrayed against a post-Wagnerian conception of German music and the "new German" school.  Cook argues that Schenker took this approach in order to create an ur-German musical canon that preceded the explicitly biologically racist anti-Semitic school of thought that evolved in the wake of Richard Wagner's culturally anti-Semitic stance in the mid-19th century.  

Cook thinks that Schenker was trying, paradoxically, to save the best of German music from the worst impulses he saw in the German-speaking people themselves.  Cook then proposes that what happened to Schenker's theories when they were imported to the United States was they were completely shorn of the cultural conservatism and the Jewish legal and literary traditions that Cook argues are necessary for understanding what Heinrich Schenker was trying to accomplish. Cook makes an interesting long-form case that we can (and arguably should!) reject the totalizing conservatism of Heinrich Schenker's theories but that this doesn't mean we cannot or should not try to situate his often contradictory streams of thought in the society in which he lived, particularly as an assimilated Jew who worked in the Viennese milieu that existed up through to the First World War.  

What can look to contemporary American musicologist like a Schenker who was trying to restrict real music to Bach through Beethoven can certainly still look like that, but Cook makes an interesting and I think persuasive case that within Schenker's own time he was arguing for a German musical canon that stopped right up to the point that German musicians advocated for what we think of as classical music in overtly and explicitly anti-Semitic terms as Schenker understood them.  It's not that we can't find evidence of anti-Semitic ideas in J. S. Bach, far from it.  It's not that the same couldn't be said of maybe Haydn. The difference is, in a name, Wagner.  From Richard Wagner onward a new ideological stance began to evolve that had it that Jews could not be real artists in a truly German sense and "human" sense and this was one of the things Schenker was reacting to.  

Now the legacy of a person's creative work can end up being at odds with what they may have thought they were doing.  I doubt that when Joseph Campbell finished The Hero with a Thousand Faces that he realized he was going to codify and commodity the most routine of rote scripting schematics for Hollywood from, oh, Star Wars on into our present day.  The idea that all the world's literature, folklore, myths, fables and religious texts can be distilled down to a single monomyth and/or cosmogonic cycle seems patently idiotic to me.  But Joseph Campbell was formulating his ideas as an American in an American context where we prevailed in World War II, warred our way ouf of the Great Depression, consolidated a global empire of influence and colonial bases, and had mastered mass production and technology.  

If in the dreams of 19th century European modernists the total work of art was to supplant medieval Christendom it lacked a truly compelling religious element for the would be new civic religion.  Joseph Campbell solved that problem, and how!  By transforming all of the earlier religious and philosophical texts into a consolidated monomyth, the Hero's Journey, the stage was set for the total work of art to emerge in American popular cultural as the adventure film in which the hero realizes the heroic destiny.  Campbell may well have been working toward a new conception of self not tethered to nationalist or jingoistic or racialist communal identities but what he inadvertently paved the way for was the most formulaic of formulaic American action blockbusters in which the egoism the monomyth was probably supposed to help tamp down allowed said egoism to flourish.  
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By extension, I'm suggesting that Nicholas Cook has made a case that what American musicologists in the wake of Milton Babbitt made Schenker's theories into is not necessarily the same as what Schenker himself hoped to achieve.  I'm happy to do without Schenkerian analysis myself!  But just as I don't want to think of hip hop as not music because it's not my favorite style, I was intrigued by Nicholas Cook's book and his making a case that Americans would do well to try to engage with Schenker in terms of what he was setting out to do, not what his American disciples transformed his theories into.  

As a godfather, so to speak, of the musical styles that became jazz I don't know if Scott Joplin would have known exactly what to make of the music of John Coltrane, or Sun Ra, or George Russell or maybe even Thelonious Monk.  

The more I read in music history and musicology the more it seems to me that whether we're fans of Baroque music, microtonal string quartets, hip hop, early jazz, ragtime, country, blues or even what would be thought of as high Classic era music, there's a possibility that we all could have common cause in rejecting the music ideologies of the Romantic era that evolved from German idealism.  The music itself I don't necessarily have a problem with.  I can admire a lot about the music of Chopin and Mendelssohn and ... some bits of Schubert.  But I find that I love most the German language music written by composers before Germans became obsessed with establishing how German they were, much like the American music I love most was written by Americans who were more set on expressing themselves as Americans than proving themselves to be the great-American-artist.  Thus Ellington and Joplin and Monk and Hank Williams Sr are brilliant while Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson and many other American musicians who set out to be "the" American musician expressing the people leave me indifferent.  As I think Paul Dini put it in a commentary on Batman: the animated series, the saying is you don't win the Emmy by actually going for the Emmy.  Lately I feel that a great deal of the most brilliant music in the history of the United States and elsewhere was composed by people who were not "going for the Emmy".  

In a typically acidic moment in Aesthetic Theory, I think it was, Theodore Adorno quipped that the people who aim to make "timeless, eternal" art generally never do so and it's often, ironically, because they so completely fail to properly chronicle the struggles and concerns and events and people of their own times.  

That might be something to play with in a later post because I'm reading a book by Daniel Melamed called Listening to Bach, and his thesis about the "musical topic" of Mass in B minor is that J. S. Bach was demonstrating it was possible to develop a fusion of what were in his day the old and new styles of composition, juxtaposing them in various ways and highlighting their points of contrast and overlap.  As a self-designated "fusionist" I am happy to endorse such an understanding of Bach.  What advocates of Bach as "high" culture over against "low" culture might miss in their defense of the high is that Bach fused English and French and Italian and German styles during an era when these nation states and empires weren't always getting along but Bach lived in an era in which such stylistic fusions were praised even if the social and political correlate was not.  Of course the way Bach mediated the fusion and interaction of styles was in the text of the Mass.  As I was saying, that's probably another post for some other time.  

2 comments:

Ethan Hein said...

Thanks for this response! I learned a few things. I don't know much about Joplin's life, and it's intriguing to see the parallels with Ellington. I had also never heard that ragtime Rachmaninov arrangement, it's delightful.

You're absolutely right about how underappreciated the link between ragtime and country is. You hear it everywhere once you're listening for it. The Scruggs banjo style sounds to me like ragtime piano right hand adapted to the banjo. And it's in the repertoire, too, like "Old Salty Dog Blues." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lixoQEE6oek

Joplin might well have been horrified by late Coltrane or Sun Ra, but I bet he would have loved Monk, especially the solo piano material. It feels like a direct and logical extension of ragtime, just with a little more dissonance and empty space.

Rap is a high-tech music for sure, but if you dig into early hip-hop, you're going to find plenty of continuity with earlier forms of black music. The Sugarhill Gang and others of their cohort rapped over live funk bands. The music being made by funk and R&B musicians in the 80s (think Prince or Jam and Lewis) sounds remarkably similar to the more electronic side of early rap. And while turntablism began at clubs and parties, its first appearance on a commercial record was in a jazz context, Herbie Hancock's Future Shock. Sampling and computer-based production had a major impact, but there's an argument to be made that the technology was pressed into service in response to musical demands rather than the other way around.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

thanks for the comment.

I like to think Joplin would have liked Monk and Ellington and agree he might have been horrified by late Coltrane and Sun Ra.

Fun video link there. Those chains of secondary dominants driving the song along are definitely ragtime style chord changes. :)

It's interesting how recording has given us an ability to track how gestures and riffs and harmonic formulas and bass lines persist across styles and regions.

My hunch has been that as use of music technology gets more reflexive and widespread questions of musical thinking. When I was in college I recall some teachers at first felt that technology would be a detriment to musical thinking but then they reconsidered, figuring that if we teach students how to THINK through the creative process then the change in technology doesn't have to spell the nadir of creativity.

Since my interests are a bit more literally Baroque and 18th century on the one hand and ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and some country, it's interesting to hear how gestures can evolve. When I hear the C major fugue in Bach's violin work I can hear how it ties back to a Lutheran hymn that itself can tie back to derivations of the chant Veni Creator Spiritus. Per your other comment at the other post, we have non-musical associations that are bound up with our musical experience and knowing those associations enriches rather than impoverishes our ability to listen. Now having said that I still don't care for Wagner's music because I feel like his musical language seems to work at the level more of a bludgeoning operant conditioning! I get the leitmotiffs are doing their think but they're more interesting when they're not tethered to Wagnerian drama, I can appreciate some Lizst, for instance, if more by way of his influence on Bartok.

Which is to say that it seems more fun to explore the lines of continuity over discontinuity now that we have access to so much recorded music. It's also more fun for giving us a chance to see how gestures can migrate across styles.