[Dixielandjazz] the "Dixieland" strand

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Fri Jan 21 23:26:00 PST 2005

Re the "Dixieland" question in jazz---

"Dixie" was of course the term applied to the Southern states in the 
19th century. "Dixie-land" came to be forever applied to jazz by chance 
with the international fame of Nick LaRocca's Original Dixieland Jazz 
Band in 1917--the white group that leaped to fame but by many accounts 
was neither as original nor as jazzy as the contemporary black bands 
that were not recorded until several years later. Just think of how our 
jazz vocabulary would have been altered if the famous LaRocca band had 
called itself the Original Happy Times Jazz Band!

The term "Dixieland Jazz" then came to refer to the smoother, musically 
sophisticated styles that emerged in the 1920s and 30s, notably in New 
Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Many qualities of earlier New Orleans 
jazz were carried into Dixieland styles, but the latter used more 
conventional tones of wind instruments  (horn players avoided rapid 
vibratos), greater instrumental facility, and regular attention to 
solos. Rhythm sections rarely included banjo or tuba but might have a 
guitar. A feeling of 2/4 or a fluid 4/4 rhythm with a driving backbeat, 
especially on final ensemble choruses, was typical.

The blanket charge is often made by early jazz purists that Dixieland 
jazz was just the white musicians' "watering-down" of the black 
jazz.  It's true that early white players were slower in incorporating 
African-based elements into their music (as were the 
Creoles of Color, like Alphonse Picou).  But the Dixieland styles that 
emerged in New Orleans, Chicago, and elsewhere weren't an inept 
imitation but a evolved variation.  Also, many bands that readily fit 
into common understandings of "Dixieland jazz" were racially 
integrated.  Armstrong's All-Stars from the late 1940s on, various 
Muggsy Spanier and Eddie Condon combos, New Orleans bands of the 1960s 
by Al Hirt, George French, and Thomas Jefferson-- these and many others 
make the often-used "white Dixieland" term problematical.

The very fact that the "white Dixieland" label has a foothold in the 
vocabulary of jazz criticism militates against serious consideration of 
best work of many bands--e.g., Bob Crosby's Bobcats, Sharkey's Kings of 
Dixieland, the Basin Street 6, Muggsy Spanier, various Condon units, 
Pete Daily, and Jimmy Dorsey's Dorseyland Jazz Band.  Also, individual  
players like Sidney Arodin, Raymond Burke, Irving Fazola, Armand Hug, 
Bill Rank, Joe Rushton and others tend to be devalued when "white 
Dixieland" is a defining category. (For awhile, the French bleached 
certain modern jazz musicians with the same brush.  They applied the 
term les boppers blancs to players like Alan Eager, Al Haig, Red 
Rodney, and Stan Levey.)

A less obvious trap is also operating in the language. The term 
"Dixie-land" has long been rife with associations with Confederate 
flags, minstrelsy, de-land-ob-cotton, and worse.  Besides this, there 
is the connotation, no, the denotation of absolute racial 
distinctiveness in the label "white Dixieland jazz." It is by no means 
easy for some listeners to cut through the miasma of association and 
simply hear good music. Language philosopher Kenneth Burke calls this 
attention-deflecting function of language a "terministic screen."  Many 
of our observations about the world, he says, are merely "the spinning 
out of the possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms," 
which bend our attention and response in one direction rather than 
another. The theory isn't mere academic musing. A debate recently raged 
in Alabama over a proposal to make the slogan "Heart of Dixie" optional 
on automobile license plates.

The etymology of the word "Dixie" is irrelevant. For many, the word 
calls slavery and postbellum racism to mind. Its associative power is 
oppressive reality to them. Of course, one might propose a new name for 
the jazz that we call "Dixieland," but newly minted substitute
terms seldom make it into the popular lexicon. Down Beat actually 
sponsored a contest to find a new word for "jazz" in the 1950s.  The 
winner was "crewcut" !

Another common charge is that Dixieland jazz--even as an evolved genre, 
whether played by black, white, or integrated bands--is facile and
formulaic. Ralph Collins' 1996 book illustrates this bias with a 
vengeance. His broad brush paints the entire Dixieland jazz genre as
crap.  Ensemble choruses are "collective improvisation, which is a 
euphemistic way of saying every man for himself."  Inbetween such 
is " . . . an assembly of individual soloists held together by loud 
mechanical-sounding drum and cymbal beats. . . Creativity is not 
in such a methodical musical setting, indeed it might prove deleterious 
. . . each man plays fortissimo, as loud as possible.  Artistry is out 
place here and originality a definite handicap."  Of course, Collins' 
description is true of some groups but it fails scandalously to 
excellent Dixieland bands and musicians of the past and present.

I believe that authentic listening isn't bribed by labels, 
presuppositions about styles, devotion to or dislike of particular 
artists, etc. Every listening experience is a chance to respond freshly 
to what enters our ears and our musical consciousness.

Charlie Suhor

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