Sunday, March 25, 2007

André Francis's Jazz: preface

Wanting to read a jazz book, I randomly picked up Boris Vian's Chroniques de Jazz and André Francis's Jazz in a second-hand bookshop. The former is a collection of Vian's writings for magazines between 1948 and 1958. Vian is often cited as one of the great French jazz writers, but I've yet to read his work. The latter is a jazz history written by the guy who does the announcements on Coltrane's live version of A Love Supreme. The preface and first chapter of this 1982 revised edition (original published in 1960s) are so infuriating that I'll probably be discussing the book piecemeal as I get further into it.


Francis makes his grand opening statements. It's chock full of bombshells, I underlined almost everything. From the preface alone, it's hard to know where he stands.

The sacred theory of swing, the engine and morality of all jazz from Louis Armstrong to Louis Armstrong is almost absent from the major free jazz works.
But in other places he doesn't appear opposed to free jazz. He does deplore the uniformity of the "screams, formless facility, destructive disorder, blind force" of then-recent radical jazz, but is optimistic that these "salutary elements" will be integrated and that "the adventure will continue, with more courage and means." A brutal proto-CEF, in short.

Ambiguity extends even to how Francis expresses his view of jazz in general:
It is not even close to being a music that can compete with or replace the true, classical, art of music. It is a middle path between popular and learned musics. It is also in much closer contact with the current experiences of the literary and visual arts than contemporary classical, which is weighed down by difficult techniques. (...) Jazz is passion and screams, the culture of the primitive eros. It is trance and ectasy.
His haughtiness knows no bounds, though he would probably like to think of it as winkingly fraternal. Take, for example, his description of the typical jazz fan:
Most of the time, he likes music without knowing music... Looking for strength rather than swing, preferring shiny effects to transcendant invention, he first responded to the rock and roll tenor saxophone's direct call or the showman's frenetic drumming.

He divides the evolution of jazz into three areas: by the people (dixieland, blues, gospel), for the people (elaborate, bourgeois; Swing, rhythm and blues, soul jazz, JATP and MJQ) and without the people (bop at one time, free and post-free today; music for "cultural and political marginals" and the musicians themselves). Francis himself would probably rather have nothing at all to do with "the people" of any kind, though.

Francis ends a nutshell summation of the origins of jazz with the affirmation that it draws upon "a particular kind of physical inaptitude of the first Blacks (sic) to speak English correctly. Unable to articulate it (like a Latin language), they deformed and syncopated it." I'll assume that by "first Blacks" he means the first Black Americans and that he believes that the people of Scotland, Birmingham, Texas or India are afflicted with a similar "physical inaptitude."

There are a few good points. On the difficulty of renewing the critical language: "Vocabulary evolving slowly, how can we say that Louis Armstrong's music was very original, when the same adjective suits the very different musics of John Coltrane or Ran Blake?"

More anecdotally, he spells out one aspect of the Romantic view of the artist that has been deeply challenged in the current DIY era: "When you are talented, you have no time to lose organising your profession or your art."

In chapter one, we shall move on to the Mythical Negro.