Learn about Life in the 1920s

1927 Article by music critic Ernest Newman debunking Jazz

WHEN THE JAZZ COMPOSERS were recently told "to keep their dirty paws off their betters," the jazzists of this land were in a high state of indignation. The provocateur was Mr. Ernest Newman, the English music critic, who served for a season two years ago as guest critic of the New York Evening Post.

The Best Jazz Album
of all time!
Click on Image to
Buy on Amazon.com

His freedom of speech in handling some of our musical darlings might have led us to expect what we got when he turned his attention to jazz. Some of his critics over here asked him, "with an air of an American dragon that had got St. George down and was biting him hard in a tender spot," why, if jazz is "a dead thing from the neck up"—which was his phrase—he should take so much trouble trying to kill it? Mr. Newman now explains in the New York Times that of the two aspects—the musical and the terpsichorean—he was considering only the former. He goes on to tell us that, in England at least, "musical people have mostly ceased to take it seriously as music." Here is a direct message to us:

"Whatever may be the case in America, I beg to assure the American public that in England the thing, regarded as music, is dead. We all found it amusing for a little while at first; it was like a new cocktail. But when the novelty of it had worn off, musical people became sick and tired of it. I doubt whether a single musician of any standing could now be found in my country to say a good word for it. As music the thing has simply become an infernal nuisance and an unmitigated bore. It is solely its popularity for dancing purposes that keeps it in the public eye and ear; it is still unequaled as a medium by which fair women may perspire in the arms of brave men.

"My 'case against jazz,' then, is purely and simply a musical case. It is as a musician that I object, for one thing, to the ordinary jazzing of the classics. Not that I would ever object to a clever musical parodist exercising his humor at the expense of any master. But to do this acceptably he has to be a master himself; there is nothing more delicious than first-rate parody, but it takes a first-rate mind to do it. The jazzsmiths, however, speaking generally, are not clever enough to make their manipulations of the classics tolerable. They are not artists in the sense that the great literary parodists have been; they are merely hearty, grinning chaw-bacons.

"It is one thing to have a good picture turned into a thing of harmless fun by some one who is himself a quick-witted artist; it is quite another thing to have it scrawled over by a moron. The average jazzsmith, in his would-be humorous treatment of a classic, is merely a street urchin who thinks he has been smart when he has sidled up to a poster when no one was looking and added a mustache to the upper lip of the beautiful lady who figures in it. My gentle exhortation to the jazzers to keep their dirty paws off their betters has been grievously misunderstood; to get the true sense of it, it should be read with the accents on 'dirty,'' paws' and' betters.'"

Neither does Mr. Newman hold the classics sacrosanct, and the agreement of some of his critics was not at all to his liking:

"Roger Kahn, for example, who saddened a whole bright Autumn day for me by saying that he had read my article 'with great indignation,' also 'exprest himself,' to an interviewer,' as opposed to the jazzing of classical music.' I myself would not go as far as that. It any jazzist will write me a musical commentary on something of Chopin's or Grieg's that is as witty as, say, J. C. Squire's parodies of Byron and Wordsworth, or Mr. Sidgwick's of W. B. Yeats's 'Innisfree,' or Brahms's treatment at certain points of a theme by Paganini, no one will be more pleased with his effort than I. All I object to is the practise of a very difficult and subtle art by thick-fingered bunglers.

"Smooth Jazz"
Number 1 Hits -
Click on Image to
Buy at Amazon.com

"Paul Whiteman thought he had convicted me of inconsistency when he said that 'Strauss took other men's themes and developed them characteristically; Newman hails him. We borrow themes and develop them in our style, and Mr. Newman objects.' Quite so; the difference is simply that Strauss is Strauss and 'we' are 'we.' 'There is no protest,' said another jazz apologist, 'when Dvorak puts a negro melody into a symphony.' Precisely; for Dvorak is Dvorak. The negro melody is bettered by Dvorak's treatment of it; but the cantabile melody of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu' is decidedly worsened by Harry Carroll's treatment of it in 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows.' He has simply made the poor tune commit, so to speak, hari-kari on Chopin's doorstep. Let the jazzsmith, if he can, give a new turn to the smile of Mona Lisa; but for heaven's sake don't let him set the lady's charming mouth moving mechanically to the slow conquest of a piece of chewing-gum."

Have the jazzsmiths, asks this critic, "any composers in the full sense of the term, and will jazz ever evolve a composer of that kind?" He thinks, indeed, that the probability is very remote that the jazz orchestra will have any influence on the ordinary orchestra. For—

"The colors of the former are at once too pronounced and too limited for that, I imagine. It is dangerous to prophesy, of course, but I doubt whether the saxophone can ever be made to play more than a subordinate part in a concert orchestra; it is an admirable medium for the saying of certain rather obvious things in music, but a very tongue-tied instrument for saying most of the things that a genuine composer wants to say. It is admirable in its own way, and the brilliant jazz scorers are to be complimented on finding out that way and exploiting it to the full; but it is still not the way of the concert orchestra, and I doubt whether the characteristic jazz scoring has much future outside jazz.

"But will jazz work out its salvation on its own orchestra? Shall we find it, that is to say, developing an art of its own that will be able to bear comparison with what we generally mean when we speak of 'music'? I take leave to doubt this also for the following reasons:

"There is not, and never can be, a specifically jazz technique of music, apart from orchestration. We might as well suppose there can be such a thing as Mohammedan mathematics, or Buddhist biology, or Peruvian psychology, as suppose that there can be, in the last resort, such a thing as jazz music as distinct from ordinary music.

"There is only one way of writing music on the large scale— you must have ideas, and you must know how to develop them logically. Now, in both these respects the jazz composer is seriously hampered. If he writes too obviously in what we call the jazz style, he will not get very far, for the ideas and the devices are too stereotyped. If, on the other hand, he moves very far away from these devices he will not be recognizable as a jazz composer. Jazz is not a 'form' like, let us say, the waltz or the fugue; that leaves the composer's imagination free within the form; it is a bundle of tricks—of syncopation, and so on. Tie a composer down to these standardized tricks and he can not say much in them that has not been said already; let him depart from the tricks, and his music will no longer be jazz. It is an instrument on which little men can play a few pleasant little tunes; but if a composer of any power were to try to play his tunes on it, it would soon break in his hands."

Of course, the big answer of the jazzists is George Gershwin, and his "Symphony in Blue." But this composition to Mr. Newman is not jazz, but a mechanical mixture of jazz and straight music:

"I am confirmed in this opinion by the more ambitious efforts that have been made in America to expand jazz. Deprive Mr. Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' of its jazz orchestration, study it in the black and white of the piano score, and you will be surprized how little jazz there is in it. Mr. Gershwin, it seems to me, in the attempt to sit on two stools at once has fallen between them. His work is not a chemical combination of jazz and 'straight' music but a mechanical mixture of the two. He reminds me of the gentleman in 'Pickwick Papers' who, having to write an essay on Chinese metaphysics, read up first 'China' and then 'metaphysics' in the encyclopedia and 'combined the information.' That essay was never given to an expectant world, but did we possess it we should find, I fancy, that the trouble with it was that the information did not really combine. So with Mr. Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' we say of one passage, 'This is China,' of another, 'This is metaphysics,' but hardly anywhere do we find ourselves saying, 'This is Chinese meta- physics.'

"So long as Mr. Gershwin is exploiting the usual jazz tricks, he gets hardly any further than the average of his fellow criminals; and when he launches out into 'straight' piano concerto music, we begin to ask ourselves what all this has to do with jazz. The work was, in fact, tho Mr. Gershwin may not have known it at the time, a commendable effort to shake himself jazz-free. Mr. Gershwin is a gifted young man with an enviable facility in producing catchy, piquant, pungent tunes. But when, musically speaking, he wanted to become a man and put away childish things, all we got was a series of reminiscences of the 'straight' music he had played on his piano and heard in the concert room— Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Cesar Franck, and others. It was a creditable first attempt to do something bigger than jazz, but it ceased to be jazz as soon as it tried to be big; I would guarantee that if I placed the majority of the pages of this score before any musician, hiding from him the name of the composer and the title of the work, it would never occur to him that it was anything else but an attempt at a piano concerto of the ordinary kind. And I gather that Mr. Gershwin is now of. my opinion on the main point involved.

"'As for jazz itself,' he recently said to an interviewer,' certain types of it are in bad taste, but I do think it has certain elements that can be developed. I don't know whether it will be jazz when it is finished.'

"Precisely; that is what I have been contending all along. The further jazz is 'developed,' and the more musical talent there is in the composer who 'develops' it, the less like jazz will it be. But I should not call such a process 'development'; I should call it the abandonment of all that makes jazz jazz."

A Response by jazz-king Paul Whiteman >>>>