Nov 14, 2012

A Review of Benjamin Schwarz's Book Review in "The Atlantic"

A friend sent me a copy of Benjamin Schwarz’s review of Ted Gioia’s "The Jazz Standards," in this month’s The Atlantic magazine. I reviewed Gioia’s book myself, in a previous post. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to review Schwarz’s review. His article is titled The End of Jazz: How America’s Most Vibrant Music Became a Relic.”

The title is kind of a red flag, isn’t it?

First, please read the article. Schwarz is an excellent writer. I’d expect no less from The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

In his first two paragraphs, Schwarz lavishes praise on Gioia, and on Gioia’s book. The second paragraph concludes, “The value of such a work, of course, depends on the acumen of the author. In virtually every instance, Gioia delivers.”

In the third and fourth paragraphs, Schwarz examines Gioia’s writeup of “Lush Life,” and finds it praiseworthy: “...Gioia’s entry, in its own way definitive, is but one of a quarter-thousand assessments in this monument to taste and scholarship.”

In his fifth paragraph, Schwarz discusses four songs that he thinks Gioia should have included: “Where or When,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I’m sure that anyone who reads Gioia's book will have some opinions of this sort. I guess Schwarz is partial to Cole Porter. That’s all right with me.

In the sixth paragraph, Schwarz briefly touches on the line of thought that relates to the article’s title:
The great overlap between the [Great American] Songbook and the jazz catalogue largely explains a fact that troubles Gioia—that his book can enshrine “few recent compositions”—and raises doubts about his assertion, supported by passion rather than by argument, that “the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant, present-day endeavor.”

The seventh and eighth paragraphs develop the idea that the “jazz catalogue” and the “Great American Songbook” are closely intertwined, and the ninth paragraph describes Frank Sinatra’s role in establishing “Great American Songbook” titles as essential jazz repertoire.

The tenth and final paragraph continues the argument that jazz is closely identified with “Songbook” compositions - but at the very end, Schwarz takes a sudden turn:
...despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an “expansive and adaptive repertoire.”

This, then, leads us back to the article’s title, “The End of Jazz: How America’s Most Vibrant Music Became a Relic.”


I’d have to say that the content of the article does not support the assertion in these last two sentences, or the shallow sensationalism of the title. I could charitably imagine that someone else at The Atlantic besides Schwarz is in charge of creating titles for articles.

The “End of Jazz” is an idea that is meaningless to those who are actually involved with the music.

Here are a few more comments on the subject. I’ll keep it short; a rant isn’t worth the effort.

What do we think “jazz” actually is? I might say that it is improvisational music with a particular history and a self-referential vocabulary; it is creative and exploratory by definition.

Or as Louis Armstrong supposedly said, “If you don’t know, don’t mess with it.”

It’s not limited to straight-ahead performances of "Great American Songbook" tunes - far from it - although I love that stuff.

As my wife put it, “Improvisation isn’t going to die until people stop thinking.” (Thanks, Patricia!)

Let’s let it go at that.

For some further thoughtful comments and some ranting by others, have a look at the comments at the end of the Atlantic article.

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