[Dixielandjazz] Dadaism and early jazz

Rob McCallum rakmccallum at hotmail.com
Thu May 29 14:19:47 PDT 2003

Hello Robert and all,

You make some very good points and certainly anytime two different art
mediums from two different places get compared, it's a risky venture. I
agree that there was a difference of intent between the Dadaists and ODJB,
however, as you pointed out, the artistic products have been compared and I
think the comparison is valid.  I think to many listeners (Beiderbecke's
parents?) the Livery Stable Blues would seem a musical equivalent of a
moustache on the Mona Lisa (though Nick LaRocca may not have thought so).
Jazz seemed to mock the accepted Victorian middle class value structure of
the day, at least to the Victorian middle class.

The idea of disillusionment in the period after the war is intriguing and
complex (would probably merit a book length study).  Disillusionment and
exile seem to go hand in hand in this period.  As you mention, the Dadaists
were exiles; the famous literary practitioners were exiles (Fitzgerald,
Hemingway, Joyce, and (let's not forget the Waste Land) T.S. Eliot).
Pertaining to jazz, in a very real way, many black Americans became exiles
(Aren't King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, after moving from the South to the
Urban North of Chicago, very much exiles?).  There are many instances of
black soldiers (and musicians) remaining in Paris after WWI and have been
fictionalized by writers like Claude McKay (himself an exile in the U.S.) in
Home to Harlem and other works.  As well, didn't white jazz musicians (like
Bix) become alienated from their middle class life to a lifestyle
disrepected by their family?  That might be stretching, but I'm suggesting
that the the emergence of Dada and the overnight jazz rage (which lasted
more than a decade and developed into the music of the mainstream), have
something to do with that initial sense of disillusionment with the war, and
a sort of cultural rebellion against the thinking that brought that war

Another interesting point that you make is that the black musicians who were
creating jazz may not have had access to the mainstream world of "culture."
How were they to know what music was "supposed" to sound like?  It may have
sounded revolutionary to a European intellectual or like noise to a middle
class Iowa household, but in reality, jazz was simply growing out of the
tradition of black music and the brass bands that were already a part of the
culture of New Orleans.

You ask whether the fact that jazz is a collectively improvised music
complicates its relation to "modernist" ideas regarding the psyche.  My
thought is that that quality probably made jazz more appealing to modernist
thinking.  After all, you can't (at least not easily!) collectively
improvise a novel, or a painting.  But with jazz, you could have 5 or 6
people pick up their instruments and collectively improvise music.  That's
like collective stream of consciousness!

I did a search to try and discover if Virginia Woolf had any comments on
jazz and so far have come up with nothing!

All the best,

Rob McCallum

----- Original Message -----
From: Robert Greenwood <robertgreenwood_54uk at yahoo.co.uk>
To: <dixielandjazz at ml.islandnet.com>
Sent: Thursday, May 29, 2003 7:06 AM
Subject: [Dixielandjazz] Dadaism and early jazz

> 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
> UK.
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