[Dixielandjazz] Dadaism and early jazz

Robert Greenwood robertgreenwood_54uk at yahoo.co.uk
Thu May 29 13:06:27 PDT 2003

Rob McCallum wrote: "Dadaism and early jazz have many connections." 

They were contemporaneous, certainly. Duchamp’s "Fountain" (the urinal) was from 1917, the same year as the ODJB’s Livery Stable Blues, but I think you are stretching the point a little when you describe Livery Stable Blues as "the musical equivalent of penciling a moustache on the Mona Lisa". In some quarters it may have been viewed as such in 1917, but the intentions behind Dada and early jazz were not the same. The ODJB and their contemporaries set out to entertain, but Dada was a political/art movement motivated, as you rightly say, by disgust and disillusionment. To turn, for a moment, to black musicians: if their music was "revolutionary and completely at odds with what the mainstream of both concert hall and popular music was "supposed" to sound like", this must be due, in large measure, to their lack of access to the mainstream world of "culture". This was not true of the Dadaists, most of whom, as far as I know, came from "good", middle class homes and were not so alienated from their "own" societies. Of course, WW1 changed all that. Dada first manifested itself at the Caberet Voltaire in Zurich and was an art (or a practice) of exiles. This can not be said to be true of jazz. I’ll go back and read the relevant chapters in Richard Sudhalter’s excellent (and essential) "Lost Chords" and see if he touches on this, but I wonder if some of the white musicians at this time who took up jazz may not have taken it up as a result of feeling a similar disillusionment to that of the Dadaists? Although, here, I would not want to draw exact parallels. You say that "the whole modernist notion that what is real takes place in the moment and is a product of one's psyche (Virginia Woolfe, James Joyce etc.) is mirrored in jazz because jazz is an improvised music." Is this not complicated by the fact that jazz is a collectively improvised music? It isn’t surely the product solely of one atomised individual’s psyche? By the way, do we know what Virginia Woolf thought of jazz? I shudder to think.

Best wishes and thanks for stimulating this fascinating discussion.

Robert Greenwood


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