[Dixielandjazz] Book Review - Birth of Jazz

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Jul 20 09:13:50 PDT 2008

Maybe worth a look by the historians on the list? From the All About  
Jazz web site.

Steve Barbone

Subversive Sounds - Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans
Published: July 20, 2008
By Nic Jones

Subversive Sounds - Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans
Charles Hersch  Hardcover; 210 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-32867-6
University of Chicago Press 2008

In avoiding any pre-planned model with which to simplify the subject  
of this book, Charles Hersch has produced something that's far more  
closely reflective of human experience and actions than it otherwise  
might have been. He also is clearly not an author for whom determinism  
serves any great purpose, and it's to his credit that he's produced a  
book the arguments of which are put across both cogently and  

Hersch's understanding and appreciation of the racial climate of New  
Orleans in the early decades of the twentieth century, and by  
implication the social and cultural milieu from which jazz sprang,  
isn't clouded by a jaundiced eye. The clarity of his thinking  
illuminates what was—and arguably still is—an immensely complicated  

In view of this—and despite the fact that there's more than a little  
weight to the argument that it would have taken such a state of inter- 
racial fluidity to produce the music at all—what emerges from his text  
most strongly is the idea of music as a bridge for crossing racial  
divides, and this despite the efforts of some of its practitioners.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band's cornetist and leader Nick La Rocca,  
a white man, emerges particularly discreditably in this instance— 
whilst it's a measure of Hersch's value as a prose stylist that he  
manages to place trumpeter Louis Armstrong, one of the most visible  
black men of the last century, in more closely argued and sympathetic  
perspective over the course of a few pages than many writers have  
managed in the course of entire books.
Hersch shows a similar appreciation of the music's essentially low  
social origins, and in that respect arguably has no option but to tack  
closely to the time-honored but entirely spurious superiority of white  
over black, wealthy over poor and the like.

But he artfully avoids addressing such issues in terms dogmatic or  
otherwise, and in so doing also avoids the present day attitude which  
implies that today, in the early years of the twenty-first century,  
we're living in the best of all possible worlds—and that the past is  
not only a foreign country but also a place in which things were  
immeasurably worse. In short, Hersch has the grasp of time and place  
that is the hallmark of all the most worthwhile historians. He has  
brought that to bear effectively here, and the results are  
illuminating for anyone wanting to understand how this music called  
jazz came to be.

Steve Barbone


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