Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
By Terry Teachout
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 475 pp., $30)
Duke Ellington’s America
By Harvey G. Cohen
(University of Chicago Press, 688 pp., $40)
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D.G. Kelley
(Free Press, 588 pp., $30)
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
(Pantheon, 449 pp., $30)
During one of his engagements at the Cotton Club in the mid-’30s, Duke Ellington spotted Leopold Stokowski sitting near the stage a short time before the start of the show. Stokowski had always wanted to meet Ellington and hear him conduct his music, and when Ellington came over to greet him Stokowski asked what he was “striving for.” By one account, Ellington replied: “I am endeavoring to establish unadulterated Negro melody portraying the American Negro.” And, indeed, at the show’s end, Stokowski thanked Ellington, invited him to a concert the next night at Carnegie Hall, and exulted: “Mr. Ellington, now I truly understand the Negro soul.”
Stokowski, himself a bit of a showman as well as a renegade in performing the works of living composers, was not alone in the classical world in admiring and learning from jazz. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Ravel all acknowledged the influence of jazz rhythms and syncopation in their compositions, as did Aaron Copland, who thought in 1927 that jazz could become “the substance not only of [the American composer’s] fox trots and Charlestons but of his lullabies and nocturnes.” Together they demonstrated how deeply embedded and generative jazz had become in the musical and artistic culture of modernism in the early twentieth century. Yet the encounter between Stokowski and Ellington suggested something more: how entwined ideas of race and communities of ethnicity or nationality could be in the modernist project itself.
Jazz is widely understood as America’s great and distinctive contribution to a world of music in which Europeans commonly held pride of place. Less well understood, or appreciated, is the rapidity with which this musical form grew from a relatively small node of expression among the country’s most socially and politically suppressed people into one of the most dynamic, complex, and internationally recognized cultural idioms. By the time Leopold Stokowski met Duke Ellington, jazz was little more than three decades old, and jazz recordings were less than two decades old; the era of the big bands, when jazz briefly became America’s most popular music, was only dawning. Twenty years later, Eric Hobsbawm could write that “there is probably no major city in the world in which someone is not playing a record of Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker, or of players influenced by these artists,” and the Department of State could send jazz musicians on overseas tours as valuable resources in the Cold War. By the 1950s and 1960s, in fact, the audience for jazz was undoubtedly larger outside the United States than in it, and the interplay among the musicians themselves encompassed the Caribbean and Africa as well as Europe. How this happened, and the role that people of African descent played in it, is one of the great cultural stories of the past century. The lives of some of jazz’s most revered artists help us to glimpse the rich relations between the music and the tumultuous world in which it grew.
For many Americans who came of age in the years after World War II, Louis Armstrong, with his white handkerchief and sweaty brow, his cascading trumpet notes and gravelly voice, his wide eyes and his broad toothy grin, was what we would now call a pop icon: a regular on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and best known, perhaps, for his charttopping version of “Hello Dolly” in the early ’60s. He was one of a handful of black entertainers who managed to win a large white audience, and at a time of escalating agitation for civil rights and black community empowerment this broad appeal brought him grief as well as fame. More than a few African Americans, especially among the young, bridled at what they saw as Armstrong’s accommodating demeanor, his apparent subservience to whites, his “Uncle Tomism.” But the harshest verdicts were pronounced by those musicians and critics who believed—erroneously—that Armstrong had strayed from his jazz roots, had “sold out” for a run at the main chance and stardom.
Armstrong was present at the creation of what we have come to recognize as jazz, and his part in the early development of the music was nothing short of extraordinary. Born in black New Orleans just after the turn of the twentieth century—he always insisted that his date of birth was July 4, 1900, but in truth it was August 4, 1901—to poor and struggling parents, Armstrong had more than his share of difficulties growing up. His father, who worked in a turpentine factory, soon abandoned the family, and his mother, a domestic who likely worked in the sex trade, left him with his paternal grandmother. At age twelve, after being arrested for firing a gun during a New Year’s Eve celebration, he ended up in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys for a year and a half. But the young Armstrong lived in a musical environment that pulsed with creative energy and innovation.
New Orleans was an old Southern city, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was at a vibrant social and cultural crossroads. Long influenced by French, Spanish, and African peoples, and by the Creoles who came of their intermixing, the city also became an important meeting ground for the first generation of Southerners born after emancipation. Not incidentally, a light-skinned man of color, Homer Plessy, whose forebears were among the refugees from the Haitian Revolution, challenged the constitutionality of a new Louisiana law that required racial separation in railroad cars (this was the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896), attempting as it did to choreograph encounters between the races. It was, in fact, the confluence of a number of novel musical forms heard up and down the Mississippi Valley at roughly the same time—say, between 1880 and 1910—that flowed into the making of jazz, and may explain why New Orleans became its apparent birthplace: ragtime in the river towns of Missouri and blues on the plantations of the Arkansas - Mississippi Delta combined with the tradition of brass bands in the Crescent City. Jazz began as a Lower Mississippi Valley phenomenon—though unlike the blues, it was decidedly urban and depended on the cultural magnetism that New Orleans exerted.
As a young boy Armstrong was drawn to the music of the local cornetists Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, and King Oliver. With money borrowed from an immigrant Jewish family for whom he briefly worked (he would later wear a Star of David in part as a testament to their kindness), he bought his first cornet. He probably taught himself a few tunes and then, at the Colored Waifs’ Home, got a chance to play in the band, where he seemed to thrive. “Me and music got married at the home,” Armstrong later reflected. By the time he left the Home, the term “jazz” (often spelled “jass”) was first appearing in print—though the distinction between jazz and ragtime remained hazy—and he could play well enough to earn some cash and to attract the attention of King Oliver, who took Armstrong under his wing and tutored him informally. Drawn to older men who could serve as father figures, Armstrong formed a particularly significant bond with Oliver.
Although Terry Teachout does not add much that is new to this story, he does paint a vivid portrait of Armstrong and his early world, and his book identifies the historical forces and events that would mark Armstrong’s musical ascent: most prominently the Great Migration, which took many thousands of African Americans out of the rural and urban South and into the urban North. Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in 1918, and Armstrong, now a top-rate local cornetist, took his place in Kid Ory’s band. With an assortment of gigs in brass bands and on Mississippi River steamers, and a reputation as one of the best jazzmen around, Armstrong seemed quite comfortable staying in New Orleans, at one point turning down an offer to go to New York and play with the famous Fletcher Henderson band. But in 1922, King Oliver summoned him to Chicago, and Armstrong headed north.
Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was among the most popular dance bands on Chicago’s South Side, and although Oliver’s concern was with ensemble work rather than with individual improvisation, Armstrong was happy to settle in as second cornet. But the band’s pianist, Lillian Hardin, with whom Armstrong became involved (he was already married, though his wife had stayed behind in New Orleans), pushed him to go out on his own. Before too long Fletcher Henderson was able to hire him away, and Armstrong soon attracted notice at Roseland and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Most important, he stepped forth with trailblazing solos that stunned his audiences and fellow musicians alike. With those solos, jazz took an enormous leap forward.
Armstrong had made some recordings with the Creole Jazz Band and the Henderson orchestra, but it was a series of sessions in the OKeh studios (a central player in the production of “race records”) in Chicago between 1925 and 1928 that defined the moment in jazz history, putting his startling new music within reach of a large listening public. With combos known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven, eventually joined by the pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, Armstrong cut sixty-five sides, including the swiftly canonical “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Potato Head Blues,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” and, perhaps most influential of all, “West End Blues,” with triplet arpeggios reaching high C that Teachout calls “the most technically demanding passage to have been recorded by a jazz trumpeter up to that time.” The sides also included “Heebie Jeebies,” where halfway through an otherwise unremarkable piece Armstrong first begins to sing in his distinctive raspy voice—“I’ve got the heebies, I mean the jeebies”—and then goes on to scat—“eeef, goff, oomff, dee-buht, deedle-la-bahm, rrrip-bip-di-doo-di-doot”—a New Orleans invention that Armstrong made his own. Selling like hotcakes in Chicago, these records established him as “the most important soloist in jazz” and “the man to whom other musicians looked for inspiration.”
The commercial success of Armstrong’s recordings would set him on a new track. Already in the 1920s, Harlem’s stride pianists, the emerging rhythms and dance steps of “boogie-woogie,” and the orchestral dispensation of New Orleans - Chicago brass helped inspire the big bands of what would come to be known as the “Swing Era,” with a popular appeal well beyond anything jazz had yet known. Indeed, the big-band sound would be closely associated with white musicians and band leaders such as Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James, and Glenn Miller, and it would vibrate in many corners of the United States. Sensing the prospects, OKeh recording director Tommy Rockwell, and a bit later Joe Glaser, began to “repackage” Armstrong less as a purveyor of hot jazz and more as an entertainer capable of attracting white as well as black listeners.
It was a move that reflected both new mass marketing sensibilities and racial boundary-crossing in what was still the age of Jim Crow. For the next two decades, Armstrong worked chiefly with big bands rather than small combos, and dramatically expanded his repertoire and artistic activities. He played and recorded blues, ballads, show tunes, and pop songs as well as jazz standards, with his voice probably surpassing his trumpet in recognition. He crisscrossed the country on a grueling schedule of performances and toured Europe, following in the footsteps of the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He appeared in a number of Hollywood films, mostly in musicalcomedic roles. He sang with Bing Crosby. And he helped open the radio airwaves to black performers. At a time when the Great Depression crippled the recording industry and undermined the careers of many black jazz and blues artists, Armstrong was rapidly becoming a star.
Ironically, the crisis would come for Armstrong well after the Depression had ended and as the country entered the postwar era. The days of the big bands came to an abrupt end around 1946 - 1947, owing to the impact of the war, the costs of the operation, and probably the limitations of the musical genre, which tended, in the hands of many practitioners, to the formulaic. Perhaps equally important was the birth, in the early ’40s, of bebop. It was a technically demanding style, oriented to listening rather than dancing, most suitable for small groups and rotating solos, and generally disdainful of swing-style showmanship. Armstrong, who had eclectic musical tastes, nonetheless reacted quite negatively, telling one columnist that bop “doesn’t come from the heart the way real music should” and that it threatened public interest in jazz.
But with the help of Glaser, Armstrong found his way back, leaving the big band behind and resurrecting a combo—the All Stars—who would be his touring companions for the rest of his career. They debuted at Billy Berg’s Vine Street jazz club in Los Angeles, and soon could be found in the pages of Time, with Armstrong on the cover, and on television. By the mid-’50s, Armstrong had, in the words of Teachout, “settled comfortably into middle-aged renown,” commanding “top fees” and working “as often as he liked.”
Indeed, given his early troubles with the police (he was arrested more than once), the tax office, and the Mob (through one of his agents), Armstrong emerged in remarkably good shape, at least for a mid-century jazzman. He avoided the narcotics that destroyed many of his colleagues, though he did smoke marijuana nearly every day. He found a stable home life, including a modest house in the Corona section of Queens where he remained despite his growing wealth, though his marriage to Lucille Wilson was his fourth, and on the road he did tend to stray, fathering more than one child. And he achieved enormous public recognition. Armstrong was also a prolific writer. He published two books, including, in 1954, the well-regarded Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and more than two dozen magazine articles. He left hundreds of letters and many pages of unpublished autobiography, and he recorded hours of music and conversation on tape. His typewriter and his tape recorder joined his trumpet as essentials that he would carry everywhere.
But Armstrong was stung by criticisms of his musical choices and racial demeanor. As Teachout notes, he never considered his time with big bands and then the All Stars as a retreat or defection from his musical creativity of the 1910s and 1920s. Quite the contrary. He thought that he did his most “interesting work as I have gotten up into the older age bracket.” Armstrong also reminded critics of the many things he did to “uplift my race.” He flouted the color line in many states by refusing to play where he could not stay. He avoided socializing “with the top dogs” even if he was invited. He always performed with integrated bands and combos, feeling it important for audiences to watch “Negro and white musicians play side by side.” When the state of Louisiana prohibited interracial groups from playing in bars and clubs, he stayed away from New Orleans until the Civil Rights Act was passed. “I don’t care if I never see New Orleans again,” he scowled.
Privately Armstrong spoke more pointedly, insisting that the “majority of white people ... [don’t like] niggers, but they always got one nigger that they just crazy about, goddamn it.” But in the midst of the attempted desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, he went dramatically public, deriding the Eisenhower administration for its cowardice. The president, he exclaimed, was “two-faced” and had “no guts,” and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was a “no-good motherfucker.” “It’s getting almost so bad,” Armstrong sighed, “a colored man hasn’t got any country.” Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop hero who once called him “a plantation character,” took due note.
Duke Ellington struggled more self-consciously than did Louis Armstrong with the relation between his music and his sense of racial identity. His extended composition Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America, his musical revue Jump for Joy, his film projects such as Black and Tan and Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, and the many benefits he played for the NAACP and other black organizations—all this not only represented a musician’s efforts to disturb racial stereotypes and to offer a complex, historical rendering instead; they were also means to express racial pride and translate the black experience into musical form. By the 1930s, Ellington became known in various black communities as a “race leader.”
But Ellington struggled also for artistic recognition, for a renown that was difficult to come by for any American musician or composer during the twentieth century, let alone for one of African descent. And this pursuit, as Harvey G. Cohen shows in his impressive biography, set him on a trajectory that bears a resemblance to Armstrong’s. To be sure, their origins, for black Americans, could not have been more different. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899 to a family that was economically secure in a city that was a bastion of the black middle class. His mother, who played some piano, doted on her son and may have contributed to the demeanor that earned him the nickname “Duke.” (There are several stories about the moniker, some involving his dress.) He liked sports and art, and was offered a scholarship to New York City’s Pratt Institute; and he attended segregated schools that took black history and talents seriously, countered negative racial imagery, and encouraged students to feel self-confident and proud of who they were. If anything, many of the black students looked down their noses at the white youth with whom they otherwise might have been schooled, accounting perhaps for Ellington’s later misgivings about school desegregation.
Ellington gravitated to music and, other than some early piano lessons, he was, like Armstrong, effectively self-taught. Despite the urging of friends and family, he never went to a conservatory, where, he assumed, the black musical tradition would be ignored. Instead he received informal mentoring in sight reading and musical theory while he hung around with local and touring jazz and blues musicians, especially stride pianists, from whom he learned technique. By the time he was in high school, he was forming bands and, helped by his father’s connections (his father was a society caterer and does not otherwise figure in Ellington’s life story), played for white and black audiences alike, mixing dance tunes with waltzes, ragtime, blues, and the new sounds of jazz.
After being scammed by a booking agent, Ellington learned how to manage the band’s musical and business affairs, a skill that would serve him well. He started to earn a good living, bought a house, got married and had a son, and drove a car. But as Washington, D.C. came under the pall of Jim Crow during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Ellington looked for a new base. In early 1923, leaving his family behind, he headed to New York.
New York was a tough town to break into, and Ellington was increasingly interested in composing and arranging as well as performing. Some of New York’s top stride pianists—Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith—heard him and offered encouragement, and Ellington managed to put together a band and make some recordings. Most important, however, was his decision, in 1926, to take on Irving Mills as a business manager. Somewhat in the manner of Armstrong’s Joe Glaser, Mills was white and Jewish and had experience in the music business. For the next thirteen years Mills and Ellington carried out what Cohen, in his best and most innovative chapter, calls a “marketing plan” designed to make Ellington a national and international star with a reputation as an important composer.
Mills pushed Ellington and his band to play the “sweet jazz” that suffused the dance halls of the 1920s, as well as the hotter and more experimental jazz, marked by shifting time signatures, bluesier rhythms, and instrumental dissonance. Indeed, Ellington soon made it clear that his band performed both for dancing and for listening. Availing themselves of new recording technology, the emergence of national music charts, new media outlets such as Variety, and the radio airwaves, Mills and Ellington secured wider recognition. The band had a lengthy and spectacularly successful run at the Cotton Club before going out on tour, where they effectively desegregated a raft of theaters and clubs. Mills insisted that the band play only its own material, and Ellington’s experimentation with long compositions enhanced his developing image as an artist apart from popular conventions, as a musical “genius.” By the mid-’30s, according to Cohen, “Ellington had become a serious and respected figure, selling out concerts all over the world, featuring on network radio and in national magazines and newspapers, all the while contradicting the precepts behind centuries of American racial discrimination.” Along with Armstrong, he was one of the few black artists to prosper during the Great Depression.
Ellington and Mills parted company amicably in 1939, and although Ellington found representation with the William Morris Agency, he now seemed less interested in the mass market of swing than in the artistic possibilities of the jazz form. He began his extended collaboration with the composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn (whose “Take the ‘A’ Train,” recorded in 1941, became the signature number for the Ellington orchestra) and in the early ’40s entered a period of enormous creativity. Yet it was a time that also brought disappointment. Ellington’s “revu-sical,” called Jump for Joy, which had an all-black cast and “was supposed to bury Uncle Tom,” ran for eleven weeks in Los Angeles in the summer of 1941, but with mixed critical reviews (contrasted with exuberant reactions among black audiences and the black press) it never made it to Broadway, as Ellington had hoped. Eighteen months later, at Ellington’s first Carnegie Hall concert—with an audience that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Leopold Stokowski, Marian Anderson, and Langston Hughes—the orchestra premiered his longest work, the forty-five-minute Black, Brown, and Beige. It had been in composition for years, meant as a sweeping musical treatment of African American history from the sorrows of slavery and “Jim Crowism” to the world of Harlem, with a kaleidoscopic rendering of the cultural landscapes. The music, very much defying European modes, embraced African-inflected rhythmics, work songs and spirituals, Latin beats, and blues.
Cohen devotes an entire chapter to this work, and, by using the unpublished script that Ellington wrote to accompany it, he reveals the composer’s vision of enslavement, the West Indian saga of emancipation (especially the Haitian Revolution), the role of American slaves in gaining their freedom, and the struggles that engulfed black people in the twentieth century. Ellington’s vision shared much with the thinking of W.E.B. DuBois, and like DuBois he was well ahead of his time. The three sections of the work—Black, Brown, Beige—captured both chronological development and the social and cultural complexity that it always embraced. But reviewers were unsettled by Black, Brown, and Beige, and Ellington never performed it in full again, though he remained committed to what he called the “Negro idiom.”
The late ’40s and early ’50s proved to be trying times for Ellington, as they were for Armstrong. There was the collapse of the big band audience and the rise of bebop (not to mention rhythm and blues and rock and roll); there was a falling out with Strayhorn over artistic credit; and there was Ellington’s refusal to sign an NAACP pledge not to perform before segregated audiences (though he generally avoided them), along with his intimation that blacks were not ready for integration.
Ellington later claimed that he had been misunderstood and strongly backed the fight against segregation. He clearly had much high ground on which to stand. Cohen writes of the many ways that he supported battles for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as of his warm meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. But Ellington did insist that breaking down the edifice of Jim Crow was a massive and costly undertaking, one that required almost full-time effort and significant financial resources: in short, a huge mobilization of black community power. It was a perspective on African Americans and race that did not fit neatly into an integrationist framework, and may have influenced Ellington’s sense of the “unadulterated Negro melody” he tried to identify and convey.
At the very moment in the early ’40s that Ellington was moving away from swing and the sweet jazz that audiences and dancers craved, a related rebellion was erupting in the after-hours clubs of Manhattan, especially at Minton’s Playhouse, Clark Monroe’s Uptown House, and Dan Wall’s Chili Shack up in Harlem. Unlike Ellington or Armstrong, the rebels were not the early pioneers and band leaders: they were roughly two decades younger and, at best, they were sidemen who played for Ellington, Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman. Like Ellington, they regarded themselves as artists and modernists looking to move beyond the current musical fashion and its commercial orientation (though they didn’t speak of tapping into the “Negro soul”). They were searching for new sounds, rhythms, and syncopations, distinctive instrumentalities and improvisations. What they created came to be called “bebop,” and among its creators was Thelonious Monk.
One of the great strengths of Robin D.G. Kelley’s extraordinary biography of Monk is his ability not merely to evoke the context of an important cultural moment, but also to provide a rich and dynamic historical setting. His book is not least an excellent social history, so that we come to know the streets and the neighborhoods and the hangouts, the ethnic and racial mixes, the sounds and rhythms that seemed to fill the air, while also feeling the cultural and political pulse of the surrounding world. Kelley reminds us of the important generational moment that the 1940s represented, the black assertiveness that had marked the New Deal era, the tension and unrest in black New York, the modernist effervescence in classical music and painting, and the developing war against fascism in Europe and Asia.
Kelley has no interest in reiterating jazz’s legendary origin stories. He presents Minton’s and Monroe’s as more than the founts of bebop; they were, more precisely, musical thoroughfares, bringing a variety of young musicians together to learn, experiment, and jam, lending a powerful sense of the collective to the transformation that was under way. Instead of validating the tales of ruthless “cutting” that emanated from the nascent beboppers, haughtily keeping lesser players at the margins, Kelley suggests a far more edifying atmosphere, as much patience and teaching as intense competition. And Monk comes forth as a generous, if brusque, teacher. “Man,” he told the trombonist Ted Kelly after a particularly rough outing, “come by the house tomorrow, because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
Kelley’s biography makes a special effort to dispel many of the myths that came to surround Monk—eccentric, elusive, mysterious, mad, brooding, reclusive—while at the same time helping us to understand how those myths developed. Whereas the lives of Armstrong and Ellington had similar arcs and cadences, with both achieving financial success and public renown, Monk’s path, befitting his music and his generational cohort, was more jagged and halting, more challenging to follow and to comprehend, more likely to veer in unanticipated and destructive directions. Monk would become an international jazz star but would still fail to gain the recognition and rewards that he believed he deserved, or the medical aid that might have allowed him to weather the storms in his life.
Born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to a poor family whose forebears had been enslaved, Thelonious Monk was brought to New York City by his mother, Barbara, at the age of five, while his father, with serious health problems, remained behind and effectively out of his life’s orbit. The Monks moved into the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan, the largest black community in the city before Harlem’s heyday, heavily populated by migrants from the South and the Caribbean, as well as by black musicians. Barbara wanted her son to play violin and he wanted to play the trumpet, but the family had a player piano and it carried the day. He had a keen musical ear and took early lessons in the classical mold, but by the time he was thirteen jazz was his first love. Neighborhood musicians became his new teachers and the Columbus Hill Community Center something of a second home: there he formed his first band and regularly played the Friday-night dances.
Monk attended the highly regarded Stuyvesant High School, largely owing to his musical abilities, but he dropped out at age sixteen, intent on pursuing a career in music. Before too long he was on tour with a Pentecostal group, and although there are few details of his experience, Kelley notes that Thomas Dorsey and Charles Tindley had just begun to transform black gospel and sacred music, and that the ecstatic expressions Monk witnessed likely influenced his later performance style. After two years on the road Monk tired of the peripatetic life and returned to New York, where he formed a quartet and had his first love affair. He also began to hang out at a club inside the Cecil Hotel in Harlem called Minton’s Playhouse. In 1941, he became the house pianist. It was his first regular job.
Minton’s proved to be an exceptionally fertile environment for Monk, though Kelley cautions against claiming too much for the early years there. An assortment of important jazz musicians came through, some playing with the band and some jamming on Monday nights: Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, and Coleman Hawkins, among others. Also turning up was the young trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, born in South Carolina and already influenced by the Afro-Cuban sound, who spent hours working with Monk on the chords, voicings, and harmonics that could modernize swing. Although Kelley is clear that what was being played in Minton’s in 1941 could not yet be called bebop, he regards the club as “a kind of laboratory for new music.” It was also the site of Monk’s first recordings, and of important compositions such as “Epistrophy.”
As the “new music” gained energy during the 1940s, the spotlight focused chiefly on Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the remarkable alto saxophonist from Kansas City, who played with blistering speed and an almost surgical precision, a style that would epitomize bebop. Since they performed some of Monk’s music, notably “’Round Midnight,” which quickly became a jazz standard, Monk was especially distressed at his apparent relegation to the sidelight. “I feel like I have contributed more to modern jazz than all of the other musicians combined,” he later reflected. “Dizzy and Bird ... [are] supposed to be the founders of modern jazz when most of the time they only interpreted my ideas.” Parker, it should be said, regularly gave Monk credit as a true “original,” but it was Parker and Gillespie who got the work.
Eventually the acknowledgments had an effect. In 1947, Down Beat magazine did a feature story on Monk. Soon thereafter Blue Note Records signed him, put together a marketing campaign (echoes of Irving Mills and Joe Glaser) that packaged him as the “High Priest of Bebop,” and constructed a lens through which the world, to the end of his life, would come to see him: mysterious, eccentric, unpredictable, childlike, exotic. “Nineteen forty-eight,” Kelley writes, “became the year Thelonious Monk was invented.” It was a moment of public recognition for the modernist impulse in the arts more generally, and it was easy for observers and critics to liken beboppers to their counterparts in painting and symphonic music. In the pages of PM, Ira Peck depicted bebop as a form of high art and spoke of its “analogies” with the “works of Picasso and Dalí.” “Be-bop is to jazz,” Eugene List argued, “as atonality is to classical music.” With his beret, his goatee, and his dark glasses, Monk became the emblematic image of jazz at its far reaches.
In truth, Monk was anything but the archetypal bebopper. Although he enjoyed being regarded as a progenitor of bebop, he preferred to think of what he did as “modern music.” His sound was distinctive, one of a kind, slower paced, self-consciously deliberate on the keyboard, uniquely dissonant. And while a growing number of black musicians, writers, and artists—Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Leroy Jones, Romare Bearden—were drawn to and deeply influenced by Monk’s music, he did not sell many records. He never would.
The difficulties of earning a steady and decent living—worsened by arrests for possession of marijuana, which, for a time, cost him his all-important New York cabaret card—weighed heavily on Monk, especially once he married and had two children. Suffering from what would much later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he spiraled into intermittent depressions, all the more so as friends and colleagues in the jazz world (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Elmo Hope, Bud Powell), as well as close relatives, succumbed at young ages to narcotics or illness or both. He would be hospitalized on several occasions, and treated with an assortment of drugs that may have worsened his condition. But he did continue to play, record, and tour, and in France in 1954 he met Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild, who loved jazz, marveled at Monk’s talents, and, next to his family, became Monk’s most important supporter. (She also befriended Charlie Parker, who died in her New York hotel suite.) The baroness stepped in when Monk needed financial help, and her American home in nearby Weehawken, New Jersey became an important retreat.
Despite emotional ups and downs, tragic turns, and ongoing financial disappointments, Monk was keenly aware of the turbulent world around him, particularly the struggles of Africandescended peoples at home and abroad. He participated in numerous benefits for civil rights and social justice causes, including “Jazz Sits In” sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). And he was embraced by black nationalists and other radicals, who saw him as something of a heroic figure for his daring brilliance and iconoclastic style. Indeed, in 1967 artists associated with the Organization of Black American Culture placed him on a “Wall of Respect” alongside Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Billie Holiday, Muhammad Ali, John Coltrane, and W.E.B. DuBois. Even so, unlike Ellington, who spoke of the close relation of his artistic form and racial heritage, Monk was inclined to distinguish between the two. “My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty or the like,” he told an interviewer in 1959. “I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro.” More a “defense of artistry” than a “rejection of politics,” as Kelley observes of Monk’s remark, it nonetheless revealed a sense of tension in the “modern music” that Monk created, and set him apart from many of the era’s jazz musicians.
Nina Simone, who appeared with Monk on several occasions, was far more direct—in her music and her public persona—about her politics and her social identity. Her songs “Old Jim Crow,” “Go Limp,” and “Mississippi Goddam,” her appearances at civil rights benefits and Black Power rallies, her insistence on lecturing and provoking audiences (at times bordering on contempt for them) often caused controversy and made her a political lightning rod. “I feel my origins very deeply,” she told an interviewer in 1965. “My art is anchored in the culture of my people and ... [whenever I sing] I want people to know who I am.”
In fact, Nina Simone was something of an invention. Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in February 1933, she early turned her obvious musical talents toward classical piano. With financial help from two local white women (Northern transplants for whom her mother worked) and instruction from the British-born Muriel Mazzanovich, known to all as Miss Mazzy, Waymon eventually won a summer scholarship to Juilliard and set her sights on admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where her mother and younger siblings had moved in 1950. She was not accepted, and she was devastated by the news.
Some family members blamed the rejection on racism, but Waymon feared that she simply was not good enough to become a concert pianist. She found an instructor at Curtis to give her lessons and took a job accompanying, and soon assisting, a local voice teacher; and through her students she found a summer job in Atlantic City playing piano in, of all places, a bar on Pacific Avenue. When asked by the owner how she wanted to be “billed,” and worrying about her mother’s likely view of the job, Waymon told him “Nina Simone.” She later explained that the name was cobbled together from a boyfriend’s nickname (he called her Niña) and the name of the French film star Simone Signoret.
In her new and potentially intimidating environment, Simone did very well, showing range and flexibility. She was able to draw upon the gospel and blues music that undoubtedly infused the world of her youth, and when the bar owner told her that unless she sang she would be out of a job, she not only sang (working in the voice studio in Philadelphia may have given her the necessary confidence) but also seemed to enjoy it. Within a short time, Simone had an Atlantic City following. By the next summer she was a local celebrity, and one of the bar’s regulars introduced her to Billie Holiday’s recording of the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You, Porgy,” from Porgy and Bess. Simone worked up her own version and it quickly became the bar favorite, and eventually one of her hits.
Simone was now a long way from the classical concert stage, and, as Nadine Cohodas points out in her wellresearched book, her sets had become a “merry-go-round of styles,” mixing folk songs, show tunes, and pop hits along with some of her own creations. But she parlayed her Atlantic City success into club dates in Philadelphia and Manhattan, a contract with Bethlehem Records, and a marriage (the first of two). Despite her eclecticism, she came to be regarded chiefly as a jazz artist. Bethlehem was known as a small jazz label, and Simone soon performed in a number of well-recognized jazz venues: the Village Vanguard in New York, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago, and the Newport Jazz Festival, not to mention Town Hall concerts that included Horace Silver, Max Roach, and Sonny Stitt, in addition to Thelonious Monk.
Politics and racial identity had not, up to that point, been a part of the mix. Simone admitted to feeling politically disconnected and a bit embarrassed by it, especially since she had fallen in with black artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry, who were very much involved in the black struggle. “The Waymon way was to turn away from prejudice and to live your life the best you could,” she reflected. Hansberry, with whom Simone was especially close, did the prodding; but it was the murders, in 1963, of Medgar Evers and the four black children in a Birmingham church bombing that, by Simone’s reckoning, “lit the fuse.” It took her an hour to write “Mississippi Goddam.”
From then on, Simone’s political self-consciousness became a central part of her musical and performative artistry. It was evident in where she sang, what she sang, and how she sang. “The most important thing these days,” she told Ebony in 1968, “is to make certain that I make some statement on the stage about how we feel as a race.” Not all of Simone’s audiences appreciated her pedantry, impatience, and occasional rudeness. But for all the controversy, she had developed a following that was far larger and more devoted than her record sales might indicate.
Her voice did not have the octaval range of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Her songs lacked the complexity of Duke Ellington’s arrangements. Her phrasing and intonation were not as unusual or distinctive as Thelonious Monk’s piano. But there was a depth, a timbre, and a poignancy to her singing, in the best of the jazz/blues tradition, that proved riveting and soul-wrenching to her listeners. “To hear her sing,” one critic wrote, “is to be brought into abrasive contact with the black heart and to feel the power and beauty which for centuries have beat there. It is like a journey to a dark and uncharted nether region of the soul where hate has been mated with love.”
Yet by the late 1960s, Simone was clearly suffering from some sort of personality disorder that compromised her ability to maintain important relationships and to perform at the level her fans expected. Her marriage to Andy Stroud, who had become her business manager, broke up. She was prone to chastise those around her and to dress down other musicians who, by her lights, had misbehaved. She became estranged from her daughter. And her efforts to “shake people up” by blending art and anger on the stage often failed to work as she might have wished. Complaining more and more about promoters and producers who did not pay her, she also had tax troubles. She lived on and off in Europe, and although her financial situation ultimately improved thanks to savvy legal help, her physical and emotional decline seemed impossible to arrest. Soon after her mother died in 2001 at the age of ninety-nine, Simone was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
Cohodas’s book lacks the social depth and the historical perspective that can be found in the works of Cohen and especially Kelley. But, implicitly at least, her biography of Simone raises at least two issues that studies in jazz history such as these rarely take on. One is gender. Throughout the ages, the musical arts—as well as painting, sculpture, and literature—have generally recognized the predominant authority and creative contributions of men. They are the ones associated with innovation, distinction, brilliance, and “genius.” Blues music is a bit unusual in this regard: from early on, women played an important role—the “classic” blues singers included Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Memphis Minnie—not only in advancing the genre but also in translating what began as a largely rural and acoustic phenomenon into something for the ears of new urban listeners, South and North.
But jazz, in so many other ways a culturally progressive force, developed as an almost self-consciously male art form. From the instrumental and compositional virtuosity of Armstrong or Ellington to what Ted Gioia, in his terrific The History of Jazz, calls the “testosteroneinfused sounds” of bebop and its legatees John Coltrane, “Sonny” Rollins, and Ornette Coleman, jazz and its history have celebrated the male pioneer and master, with his competitive chops, pushing at the boundaries of what was thought to be musically possible. Small wonder that Nina Simone could insist that “though I include jazz in what I do, I am not a jazz pianist at all.... I play jazz and blues, but they are not mine. The root is classical.” It should not be surprising that, given their history of repression, subordination, and cultural belittlement, African Americans would be eager to identify and to encourage certain types of “genius” in a world in which “genius” was chiefly coded male—especially ones that defied the racial stereotypes that had long burdened them. This was one of Ellington’s goals, even if it was quietly pursued. And there can be no denying the end result, in which the mostly male jazz icons are widely regarded as cultural giants in American life.
Yet in our tendency to commemorate the pantheon of individuals who appear to be the pathbreakers—and to prefer the instrumental over the vocal and the bandstand over the dance floor—we can easily forget, or construct as mere “background,” the important sites of collective activity, where the gender balances would be very different, that gave rise to the individual achievements themselves. Think of the work songs and field hollers of the slave and post-slave South, the church choirs and gospel music that made their way from South to North in the Great Migration, the juke joints and dance halls that gave the music special intensity. Kelley comes the closest to recognizing and capturing this dynamic, though a fuller appreciation may require something other than a biography.
The second, and related, issue is the audience, or what might be called the “jazz public.” For the first few decades of its history, jazz went hand in glove with dance, and the dance halls, whether on Chicago’s South Side or in New York’s Harlem, were the main venues of jazz performance and development, in both arrangement and improvisation. As one might expect, the audiences were principally young and black, though whites came to frequent the halls as well, turning them into one of the few sites of interracial sociability in the United States. With the emergence of swing and the proliferation of white swing bands, the jazz public and its white component grew apace, though the music became less edgy. But with the rise of bebop and the collapse of swing, jazz made a significant transition: from big bands to small combos, from dance halls to clubs, from dancers to listeners, and from larger interracial and mixed-gender to smaller, and mostly white male, devotees.
The jazz scene of New York City was emblematic in this regard, shifting during the 1940s from black Harlem down to 52nd Street. By the early ’50s, jazz record sales in the country had dwindled to about 1 percent of all records sold, and the public vitality for the music appeared to have moved to Europe, where a serious fan base had come into being. Popular audiences in the United States had turned in droves to rhythm and blues and rock and roll, with their driving beats and danceability.
Despite the many variants that would develop—cool jazz, neo-traditional jazz, soul jazz, free jazz—and the revitalizations and fusions of several sorts that have enlarged the interested public, the music would never quite recover from its postwar popular decline. The proliferation of jazz studies courses at institutions of higher education, as well as of historical documentaries and other related film representations, are both a measure of the music’s artistic status and a sort of epitaph. Yet the creative energy that jazz has marshalled and expressed over the past century has not only been felt internationally but also continues to mediate the encounters between musical genres across the globe. As Robin D.G. Kelley suggests elsewhere, “If we think of ‘jazz’ as improvised music created in and for its own time and place, a music that draws on the sounds and sensibilities of the moment,” its life is all around us.
Still, when Duke Ellington spoke of “endeavoring to establish unadulterated Negro melody portraying the American Negro,” he reminded us that jazz, like other modernist artistic forms, grew out of the historical experiences of specific social groups—that in many ways the African diaspora set the vectors and rhythms for the emergence of the modern world. And when Louis Armstrong turned a stint in the Colored Waifs’ Home into the remarkable music of the Hot Five, he showed us that cultural innovation, more often than not, gushes from the bottom up.
Steven Hahn teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press). This article ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.