...on Jazz and Pop

by David Berger


As I sit here about to embark on a new school year at the Juilliard School, where I teach, I would like to try to put the issue of jazz (America’s indigenous art form) and its relationship to popular music into focus or at least reflect upon and sort out some facts and issues (musical and personal) that concern me.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, jazz and popular music shared the great American songbook. Everyone in America knew thousands of the same tunes, so when a jazz musician like clarinetist Artie Shaw made a record of Stardust, the 14-year-old song was instantly recognizable to every American, and, due to the musical quality of Lenny Hayton's exquisite arrangement and the poignant playing of Shaw, trumpeter Billy Butterfield, trombonist Jack Jenny and the ensemble, it became an instant hit.

Even still there was always a rift between the sweet bands and the hot bands. Benny Goodman was hot, Kay Kayser was sweet, Shaw was hot, Guy Lombardo, sweet. The Black bands like Count Basie had little access to white American audiences, but they were hot, however several of them, like Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford courted the hot and sweet audiences. Glenn Miller modeled his band after both Lunceford and Ellington and was the most commercially successful at capturing the entire audience.  In the White world Tommy Dorsey was also highly successful at courting both audiences as were Harry James and Artie Shaw when they added strings. 

We had a unified country.We fought the Depression and World War II together. We were a singular people made up of different races, nationalities and religions. We all spoke Americanized English, saw the same movies and sang the same songs.  Even the racial chasm was bridged by our music.  America was singing and dancing to the tunes of the mostly New York Jewish Tin Pan Alley songs put to the rhythms and style that came out of an even more persecuted outsider community—Black America.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, pop music and jazz shared the same language and the same base of musicians. A good jazz musician could play in anyone's band and frequently did. For instance in 1943 trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell left Benny Goodman's band to do studio work (radio shows, jingles and popular recordings). He was in great demand from 9 AM until 1 AM every day. He also played 4th trumpet in the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini, principally so he could play lead trumpet on the popular material they played. In addition to all this he played in nightclubs with singers and bands.

Many other musicians followed suit and left the road for studio work so that they could be home with their growing families. Even some black musicians were starting to be accepted into this scene—remember, even baseball wouldn't begin being integrated until 1947. 

Jazz musicians spoke the same language as popular singers—only better. And because of this, they had access to the American airwaves as long as they performed from the great American songbook in a manner not too far from the simple tastes of Middle America. Swing pushed down a huge barrier, so that there was a much greater common ground. After the war, bebop and other later jazz styles were clearly outside of this shared territory—and were ignored.  When jazz great Charlie Parker died in 1955, most Americans had no idea who he was.  We had changed that much in only ten short years.

The common ground between jazz and popular music lasted into the early 1970s. By then, popular music had moved away from the songs and blues-based music and the swing rhythmic feel, so jazz knowledge was separate from the repertoire and rhythms of pop. Some young musicians could still do both, but the number of bands that shared a common ground with jazz became smaller and smaller because the American aesthetic was shifting; not just the music, but the society's structure, values and aspirations.

The lyrics were no longer about adult love, but about teenage infatuation. Music was not being aimed at an adult audience anymore. Record companies openly courted an audience of 12-year-old girls and ignored their parents and grandparents. 12-year-old girls bought records in large numbers. Adults did not. 12-year-old girls felt insecure socially and personally. Pop music could pat them on the back and say, "You're OK. Don't change. Immediate gratification is good. Mediocrity is where it’s at. Excellence and hard work are for nerds."

Nowadays the gulf is so wide that I don't know even one popular song of the last 30 years. There is little usage of jazz instruments in pop music. Although a few pop producers like Quincy Jones who came out of the jazz world are still around and create jazz-influenced pop, they are extremely rare and fast becoming extinct.  Jazz musicians have become a world unto themselves, much as classical musicians are.

The fact is that although the media has homogenized America, and to some extent much of the world, music has become Balkanized with less crossover than ever before. The swing dance craze of a few years ago was a small deviation from this. Although it only affected a small portion of the huge pop market, for a hot minute young pop bands were trying to play swing, and a few jazzers (like me) were able to capitalize on this and to a lesser degree reach a young pop audience. The dancers that were really into it quickly realized that the pop bands were pitifully inferior to Ellington and Basie, so they sought out jazz bands like mine, but the majority couldn't tell the difference between jazz musicians playing authentic swing and rockers trying to capture the superficialities of a retro-swing culture, and so the audience went where the media told them to go. With no particular fanfare that short chapter ended. The jazz world gained a few fans, but reality has set in—once again we must face that jazz is no longer the heartbeat of American society.

Author Albert Murray's mantra, "Swing is the American imperative," may have been true for his generation seventy years ago, but Americans no longer move, talk and make love with our kind of rhythm and grace. It's a whole new world, and we pre-rockers are nearly irrelevant—as irrelevant to American society as Beethoven is.

Oh sure, I learned Beethoven's music as a child in the '50s and a teen in the 60's, and recognized its genius and beauty, but it wasn't the rhythm of my life or the song in my heart. That was reserved for Sonny Payne and Philly Joe Jones, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. My schoolmates turned to a different drummer. Jazz was as foreign as Beethoven to them. They marched to the Beatles and James Brown. A generation later, jazz and Beethoven aren't even known to the vast majority of Americans. Some have heard the names Beethoven and Ellington, but the music doesn't reverberate in their souls, and for this they are much poorer and so am I.

That day in 1961 when I discovered the difference between jazz and other music (in my life comparable to when Adam and Eve realized they were naked), I knew that I would be forever different from almost everyone I would ever meet, but then it had a generational component; there were still survivors from that world. Now the swing survivors are in their 70s or older, or deceased. That world is coming to an end. Sadly. Well, mostly sadly. I don't miss the racism, anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and other ignorance of those days, but I do miss the community, humanity, individualism, simplicity, subtlety, optimism, love and romance. These qualities live on in our music, and hopefully we can continue to communicate this to future generations.

I remember going to Duke Ellington's funeral in 1974. When I walked out of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and looked at the sea of people flooding Amsterdam Avenue (right next to the hospital where I was born), I felt this one man and his giant soul connected us all in spirit. When the funeral procession headed across 125th Street in Harlem, and the sidewalks were packed with people from all walks of life with their banners and signs that read, "We love you Duke" I truly had no idea that the aesthetics I strove for were so deeply imbedded in the American psyche. Looking back on that day, I am distressed to see what 30 years of rock and roll (now hip hop, heavy metal, et al) and corporate greed did to the spirit of our people.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not giving up the fight. It's the central meaning of my life. I couldn't do anything else, but sometimes I think that few people understand the alienation that I feel from my neighbors and television set. Maybe you feel some of that too.

In the 1970s Jimmy Maxwell used to refer to himself and his swing contemporaries as dinosaurs. He once told me that I would never know what it felt like to walk up Broadway in the early '40s when he was playing with Benny Goodman. I don't remember his exact words, but he loved the closeness that everyone he met felt toward him. It wasn't the power of fame; it was that he felt connected. Many of the things he loved in life were of value to the average man. The American Dream was intact. I remember thinking even then, "What a feeling that must have been."

Maybe I am no different from any aging human being who longs for the world of his youth. You start out as the youngest musician in the band, and by the time you reach your fifties, you are one of the oldest. Instead of being the student, you have become the teacher, the last connection to a world of aesthetics that will soon become a modern Atlantis. We believe that the Atlantan society happened and was great, but it is forever lost and exists only in our mythology. No one alive knows what those people were about, but we know they were great.

Regardless of what I see on television, on the Internet and in my daily life, I cling to my mythical world and all its best values. I am unshakable. I belong to a diverse subculture called jazz musicians. The world doesn't particularly want us. After all, we challenge people to look deep inside themselves and strive for excellence—not always a comfortable feeling.

I know my idealized world (the one I learned from Jimmy Maxwell and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong) will never exist here on earth, but there is something built in the human spirit that keeps trying, even though the situation is un-winnable. And so it comes down to passing on this wonderful legacy that was handed to me, the one that I was so lucky to have inherited from my elders and betters. I'm not just talking about the music. I mean the love and sense of dignity and humility that the music embodies and that these giants lived. Maybe I can touch a few lives with this message, and maybe some of the others who have also been touched will pass the message on. Thank God for small victories and the hope they engender in us, and thank all my brothers and sisters who care. Happy Labor Day, and as the great jazz composer Billy Strayhorn used to say,

Forever onward and upward,

David Berger

David Berger and his Sultans of Swing
play Tuesday nights at Birdland in NYC.
Widely known for his transcriptions
of Ellington music, his compositions and
arrangements are played by jazz bands all over
the world. He resides in NYC where he teaches at
the Juilliard School.