The Lowdown on “Highbrow/Lowdown”

Tuesday night’s colloquium on David Savran’s new book was simply a gas–as a jazzman might say.  Upon walking into the Segal Theatre we were greeted by William McNally’s live piano ragging of Gershwin (who figures prominently in the book) and other tunes from the era.  So the party had started long before the reception…

That said, it proceeded to be a very heady conversation–no surprise given the seriousness of the author, “guest star” Professor John Graziano (Emeritus of the GC Music dept), and their interlocutor, recently anointed Dr. Kevin Byrne, who just completed his dissertation on minstrelsy under the aegis of these very same men!  David joked up front that he now felt it was he who was “defending” under questioning from his former student.

Among the topics discussed:

-What is/was “Jazz”?  Prof Graziano at one point did grace us with a formal mini-history of jazz as it grew out of ragtime, which spread the country after the 1892 World’s Fair, etc…But David’s book is premised on the observation that “jazz” (by the 1920s at least) was an incredibly and confusingly fluid category.  At one end you have “race records” of small ensembles of largely anonymous African American ensembles.  At the other you have bourgeois band leaders like Paul Whiteman rearranging the same tunes for white dance clubs.  And there’s also composers from Gershwin to Aaron Copland providing their own “riffs” in the classical concert halls with full symphonic orchestras.  All of these pieces at some point merited the label “jazz” in the popular press–which David takes as justification to consider Jazz as a broad “structure of feeling” (in Raymond Williams’ formulation) pervading US culture in the 20s.  (Thus a musicological argument over what jazz is and isn’t is not really in the book’s purview.)

-Jazz and Race:  This naturally led into exchanges over the racial significance of all this “crossing over” and “covering” of musical style, as well as what music means to different audiences.  David provided a wonderful aural illustration of the different ends of the jazz racial spectrum by playing two different recordings of WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”–one a “race record” by blues legend Bessie Smith, the other a dance-hall arrangement by Paul Whiteman’s band.  Same tune–two vastly different pieces of music.  Smith’s vocalization was slow, infused with pain and melancholy yet powerful size.  (“Tragic” was Kevin’s apt description.)  The Whiteman instrumental version was downright toe-tapping.  Quick-paced, jaunty, with even a Latin/”habanera” maraca-shaking interlude to really confuse things.  You could of course see this as the kind of cultural appropriation we later came to know in early rock ‘n’ roll (with Elvis and Pat Boone “covering” and cleaning up the earlier work of black artists).*  And you could see the “love and theft” argument of Eric Lott (regarding minstrelsy), where white musicians–and audiences–flock to this new music for its exoticism while simultaneously claiming it as their own.  In either case, the broad spectrum of the popular jazz movement was there for all to hear in these two recordings.

-A key “lover” and/or “appropriator” of black jazz (depending on how you see it) was George Gershwin, whom David was eager to spend some time talking about.  I think one of the most significant accomplishments of David’s book in the field of Theatre Studies is making the case for a musical composer as a major American dramatist.  It’s telling that when the Gershwin brothers’  Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1931) George was the only one of the collaborators not awarded the prize, since music was clearly considered incidental or just background to the drama.  David points to the complex “through-composed” scores of several Gershwin musicals as evidence of the composer’s intense involvement in the dramatic structuring of his shows.  Graziano also emphasized the sheer harmonic uniqueness of a typical Gershwin song–“surprising” the listener with its modulations–and how, in the live theatre, that has dramatic import as well depending on the song’s placement in the drama and the character singing it….But since Gershwin’s career is perhaps best known for its attempt to win “legitimacy” for jazz in the concert hall (with Rhapsody in Blue, etc.), David’s interest in him also involves this compelling story of one artist’s striving for cultural consecration through this often controversial genre of jazz.

-Speaking of “consecration,” then there’s Eugene O’Neill: the dominant American playwright of the era and, arguably, still today.  O’Neill, it turns out, hated jazz.  But that makes him an even more ideal subject of David’s study because he came to represent kind of the “anti-jazz” in the American theatre.  Those who recoiled at the spreading influence of jazz in the culture took refuge in O’Neill’s aspirations to the high-modernist European theatre: highly aestheticized, catered to a highly educated and self-selecting audience, and concerned with “the popular” only in the sense of “the primitive.”  David said that his interest in O’Neill’s reputation (more than even his work) was a starting point for the whole book.  He concluded that, basically, even if O’Neill hadn’t existed, the drama critics of the time would have invented him–so ready were they to “advance” the American Drama above the popular forms of melodrama, musicals, and vaudeville.  Critics, therefore (like George Jean Nathan and Gilbert Seldes) also emerge as major players in Highbrow/Lowdown.

-Finally, the discussion turned to the nature of audiences and how the book approaches what it calls “the making of the new middle class.”  Here David acknowledged his debt to various sociologists (from Pierre Bourdieu to C. Wright Mills) in finding both methodologies and language to theorize audiences and audience-creation.  It turns out the 1920s offer a similar challenge to such research as earlier eras, since there were none of the convenient “audience surveys” and demographic studies we have gotten used to in the last fifty years.  One source David ingeniously turned to was Emily Post!  (Her etiquette book from the 1920s conveniently focuses extensively on how proper people should behave at a Broadway show.)  Audience and class structure become essential to Highbrow/Lowdown because of this fight for the soul, if you will, of the American theatre over whether it will be a jazz theatre or an “art” theatre.  (Or both–David provides many examples of adventurous highbrow jazzy experiments, like John Howard Lawson’s Processional.)  It’s not a coincidence to him that as Broadway became more middle class, it became less jazzy.

What I came away with most from the evening was something not necessarily in the pages of Highbrow/Lowdown itself, but something that is always evident in studying with David or listening to him speak about the subject.  And that is his free admission of the important–and often neglected–role of pleasure in theatre studies.  Part of his attraction to the form of the musical in recent years, it seems, is an embrace of the pleasure induced by musical performance as a totally valid and quite serious element of theatre.  He prefaced his remarks Tuesday night by noting how rarely he feels pleasure attending the New York theatre nowadays; it is too concerned, he said, with prestige.  And so it was not hard to infer that the loss of “jazz”–whatever that means–in our dramatic arts is a lamentable one.

*The appropriation model also reminds us of the more recent cultural migrations of Hip-Hop.  While he defers to others in analyzing the significance of Hip-Hop, David often references the debates around it as an analog to the cultural and racial tensions (“culture wars”) that once erupted over jazz in the 20’s.

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