I was broken off in the middle of my thoughts because Mom came home; I fixed a pizza and put it in the oven. However, I was going to explain that what I love about the earthy–but by means vulgar–textures of Jazz is that it speaks–or attempts to speak–to the lower class and poor people, and if it transformed from a folk music to an art music, it is only accidental: it is being kept alive for a future generation who accept it as their heritage again. I am not blaming young people for liking pop better, but I humbly suggest that however they like the modern bands, they try Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues” with her other songs; Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Sings Gershwin; and Louis Armstrong’s Ambassador Satch. The white bands–my favorites are Harry James and Artie Shaw, but usually people mention Benny Goodman–are not always as great as the black, but should not be dismissed: on the whole they believed in the greatness of the music and wanted to take it to people who might not hear it otherwise. More, they synthesized European culture and flavoring into a style heavily influenced by African beats.
I wrote a book, Poor Folk, about the lower class in Kansas, in a fictive place “Opossum Creek.” In “The Spider Web,” an ex-prostitute turned swindler plays “Nobody’s Business” sung by Billie Holiday. In another story “Lady Sings the Blues in 1920,” in a brothel called “Aunt Bessie’s,” the madam also plays some of Billie Holiday’s greatest hits. Though I try to keep the poverty in the book close to my experiences (after all, I haven’t spent a lot of time in brothel’s), I like to think that even Spider (in so many ways anti-Intellectual) and Bessie (an alcoholic) might pick up what is uniquely black about the blues.
To me it is sad that our culture’s truest and most authentic music is neglected. I remember when I was a kid Jazz was not really the most popular “sound” I could listen to. I simply never mentioned that I listened to it to friends. Of course, part of this was my dad. I loved that Dad was a Jazz musician except for one thing: he really could not be a human being the way even Louis Armstrong could be about kids not listening to his music. Louis Armstrong played “What a Wonderful World” for kids and it got to the top of the pop charts. Why did he play a song he was edgy about at first? Because the person who wrote the song explained that it was for the kids. The kids? After the Vietnam era, there was a dreadful fracture between the old and the young, said the writer, and the older generation needed to put out the fig leaf to its children so they would know that they still loved them. So Louis read the song and saw the gold in it: though it was his only pop song, he played it.
To like Jazz is not to say you won’t listen to pop ever. I’ve listened to Taylor Swift and Sam Smith, once in a while. I even like the strange and dark Lana del Ray (I liked her in the movie version of The Great Gatsby–and I prefer the modern version to the Robert Redford version, in fact). Yet I feel like it takes a certain patience to kids who grew up on rock bands, and though it is not popular to say it, I think it is worth the trouble. I know people think that you are a Jazz junkie you must be on the extreme right of the spectrum–but I know that what makes great music is that it transcends time, place, and politics.