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How The Atlantic first made sense of jazz

How The Atlantic first made sense of jazz
How The Atlantic first made sense of jazz


In 1922, a musicologist imagined how future historians might judge the day’s jazz cynics.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: PhotoQuest / Getty

February 8, 2024, 12:09 PM ET

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The year 1922 was an auspicious moment for America’s greatest original art form: A young cornetist named Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago to join King Oliver’s band, and the dowdy old Atlantic undertook its first efforts to make sense of the new musical genre known as jazz.

To explain the fresh sounds, the magazine turned to Carl Engel, a composer and musicologist who served for years as the Library of Congress’s music-division chief. His approach is almost parodically scholarly; I imagine him setting his monocle down on a music stand to deliver this definition of the blues: “What the uninitiated tried to define by that homely appellation was, perhaps, an indistinct association of the minor mode and dyspeptic intonation with poor digestion; in reality, it is the advent in popular music of something which the textbooks call ambiguous chords, altered notes, extraneous modulation, and deceptive cadence.”

Whatever you say, professor. But Engel is not as square as his diction suggests. He makes a progressive argument against those, like G. Stanley Hall in the June 1922 issue, who would dismiss jazz as merely “shocks, discords, blariness, siren effects, animal and all other noises.” Engel imagines how future historians might judge the day’s highbrow critics: “I frankly think that it would set us down a rather jaundiced lot, if those investigators were to discover no sign of unbiased appraisement, nothing but wholesale ranting against a laxity of morals.” And he insists that the music can be good or bad: “I am not defending bad jazz any more than I would defend a bad ballad or the bad playing of Beethoven … Good jazz is a great deal better, and far more harmless, than is a bad ballad or the bad playing of Beethoven.” (And the equal of good Beethoven, I would add.)

Engel grasps that jazz comes from the blues, but he fails to understand or convey jazz as a creation of Black American culture, born in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Still, one can imagine the great scholar of American culture Albert Murray nodding in approval at Engel’s depiction of jazz as a product of racial and ethnic mixing. Jazz, Engel writes, is “unequivocally American. Yet this Americanism is not exclusively a tribal one; it is not content to borrow from the negro, to filch from the Indian.” And he shows a real appreciation for the music: “Chaos in order—orchestral technic [sic] of master craftsmen—music that is recklessly fantastic, joyously grotesque—such is good jazz. A superb, incomparable creation, inescapable yet elusive; something it is almost impossible to put in score upon a page of paper.”

Since Engel’s first chorus, The Atlantic has published many of the very best jazz critics, including Whitney Balliett, Francis Davis, Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, and Robert Palmer—though conspicuously none of the best Black jazz critics. You’ll find no Murray or Stanley Crouch or A. B. Spellman or Greg Tate or Amiri Baraka (previously known as LeRoi Jones) bylines in our archives. The Atlantic, like many legacy publications, has always lagged in representation, but the absence here is also characteristic of jazz writing. “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been,” Baraka wrote pointedly in 1963.

From nearly the moment when music critics stopped dismissing jazz, they began worrying that the music was dying. In 1962, Milton Bass glumly reflected on “the sad state of jazz today”—this in the year that gave us John Coltrane’s Live” at the Village Vanguard, Sonny Rollins’s The Bridge, and Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby. In 1996, Francis Davis worried that listeners stubbornly held a dated idea of jazz, leaving the genre with little room to evolve and survive. In 2012, Benjamin Schwarz declared that the demise of the Great American Songbook had doomed jazz.

As The Atlantic’s current resident jazzbro, I am not entirely innocent of this kind of pessimism, but I still throw my lot in with Arnold Sundgaard’s 1955 prediction. “Since the time of New Orleans, jazz has run the gamut from simplicity to complexity. Life, it has been observed, has run a similar course,” he wrote. “As long as this is true, jazz—as a voice from within—will find expression and survive.”



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