Five More Articles on Jazz

A Jazz Novel
What’s Wrong with the Clubs
Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals
Ornette Coleman
Charles Mingus




A Jazz Novel

John Clellon Holmes is famous as the inventor of the Beat Generation. But if he is himself a Beatnik, he is a Beatnik with insight, a coherent Beatnik. His novel Go was not so ambitious as a “work of art” as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, let alone The Subterraneans. But it is far more comprehending. I know the point of beat literature is precisely its lack of comprehension — oh, I dig — but if you want to understand the little group of Greenwich Villagers Allen Ginsberg so pathetically called “the best minds of my generation,” Go is the book.

The Horn is about Negroes and jazz, subjects about which the Beatnik, by definition, knows very much less than nothing. So The Horn is hung up on its own dilemma, but not badly hung up. Holmes shares the jazz mystique, the fascination with jazz as a way of life common to all — American and foreign — bohemia today. If (as Norman Mailer has characterized him) the hipster is an imitation Negro, the characters in The Horn are the kind of Negroes the hipster tries to imitate. Holmes is a conscientious craftsman, with considerable understanding of humans and their motives, and his fictional honesty redeems him. He says, “Finally Negro people are forever out of reach of white people, no matter how the whites strive or how they yearn.” This is certainly the worst sort of Negrophile mystique. In jazz they call it “Crow-Jimism.” The only answer to it of course is, “Well, what are you doing writing this novel?”

Nevertheless, his people are, for many pages at a time, simply people, with rather special conditions of tragedy, but finally with purely human tragedies, like you and me. The mystique distorts; this is not the life of Negro jazzmen, but it is remarkably close. As a matter of fact, The Horn, like Go, is a roman à clef, and the distortion of Negro life and of the jazz world is proportionate to Holmes’s inventions and departures from the facts in the lives of his originals.

His people are close enough to real life for one powerful conclusion to come through and slap you in the face. What a horrible life! Now the hipster, the Beatnik, imitates the horror. He likes it. The characters in On the Road don’t have to live that way. The Negroes in The Horn do, and they don’t like it a bit. As a social document The Horn is a shocking exposé of working conditions of the Negro in the entertainment business.

The writing is pretty dithyrambic. Algren and Kerouac are not the best models for Holmes, with his more pedestrian talents. In spite of this, the mystique slowly drains out. What finally emerges is a novel of tragedy and disgust — “The Jungle” of the life of a jazzman in the days of bop. What a life for artists to lead! Thousands of Modiglianis and Soutines and Utrillos and Artauds in all the ugly jazz joints of America. No center possible for life at all except the immediate act of art which is jazz — so beautiful and gone in an instant into a smoky, noisy, drunken room, like Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight” in Doré’s “Inferno.”

On one point the mystique does not catch Holmes out. Carried away by the fervent bop propaganda, he does attribute far too much to the music as music. All the storm and stress of the bop revolution was about nothing more than the introduction of a few chords which were commonplaces to Beethoven, the use of the saxophone as a woodwind, which is what it is, rather than as a novelty instrument, and a slightly more flexible treatment of the standard jazz beat — 8/8 or 12/8 instead of always 4/4. Even today the new “1958 Harlem Hard Bop” sounds like nothing so much as very simple, extra loud Berlioz. Like almost all jazz buffs, Holmes shows no signs of knowing what goes on musically in jazz — he digs it — it sends him. It doesn’t really send the musicians, they just tell the customers that. They know what they are doing. The real touchstone of musical appreciation in modern jazz is the young bassist — called Billy James in the book, but obviously a real person well known to all modern jazz fans — whom Holmes puts down with a series of sneers. To be brutal about it, he has something of the tone of “Who’s this uppity nigra with his Juilliard education?” Holmes is still looking for that jungle note.

It so happens that in real life this man [Charles Mingus] got his first date as a high-school boy with Kid Ory, who is jungly enough for anybody, was brought out in New York by Oscar Pettiford, who is pretty funky still, was known all through the bop era as “The Bird of the Bass” though still just a kid, and today is the foremost single pioneer of the kind of modernist jazz that Holmes mistakenly thinks bop was. He is anything but a snob and if he did walk to the mike once in Minton’s and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not jazz; these are very sick men,” nothing shows how right he was more than the retelling of the episode in this very book. (But then, what is a novel for? Revenge is sweet. He — the original — recently drove a bunch of noisy Beatnik would-be “jazz poets” out of the club where he was performing. They were friends of Holmes’s.)

Fortunately, things are no longer quite so bad as they were in the days of this novel, the Thirties and Forties. A period of minor musical revolution in the till then extremely hidebound world of jazz happened to coincide with humanity’s worst world war and with the concomitant social and cultural breakthrough of the American Negro. The story of Lester Young’s persecution in Army stockades is far more awful than any of the episodes from his career reworked in this book. Los Angeles or Harlem, Buddy Collette or Don Byrd, the young Negro musician coming up today will never comprehend just how awful it was, what a cruel price, the price of life itself, older jazzmen paid to put him where he is. The Horn is a pretty accurate picture of that life — that life and that death. They can read about it there. I don’t think they are going to have to live it. If some of them do, it will be because they want to — like the Beatniks who think it’s kicks.

(August 1958)



What’s Wrong with the Clubs

This is a very presumptuous piece; I don’t really know enough about the subject to write about it. You’ll probably be better off reading Nat Hentoff’s book The Jazz Life, because he does know what he is talking about. Anyway, I’d like to explore what trade unions call “working conditions” and, in my opinion dependent on working conditions — and race — the living conditions under which many jazz men have to operate.

Music is an art, and its expression should be a joy, but the brutal fact is that the average jazz musician works far too hard, too long hours, under absurdly bad conditions, for too little pay. All musicians of course know this, but the lay public, including the jazz audience, does not. In San Francisco, where I live, a checker in a supermarket or chain grocery makes over four hundred dollars a month for a five-day week, eight-hour day, with fairly liberal time breaks. He, or she (women get the same wage as men), gets overtime, vacations, depending on the company, and often a considerable number of side benefits. The work is certainly nerve-racking, but the hours are normal, and the customers are ordinarily decent human beings.

Compare this with the lot of the average jazz musician. How many make four hundred dollars a month, every month in the year? How many have any prospects of steady employment at all? How many work in clean surroundings? Granted “meeting the public,” even banging a cash register in a grocery, is no fun at best, how do the relations between a grocery clerk and the passing stream of housewives compare with the audience relationship enjoyed by a jazz musician in the average night club? What kind of people by and large go to night clubs? Swindlers, rascals and tyrants may, here and there, run grocery stores. How do the worst of them compare with the average night-club owner? How long would the average night-club owner stay in business if he were selling cornflakes to women with children? And how many grocery clerks have to kick back part of their salary to the owner?

You get the point. The final question of course is, why on earth does anybody go on playing jazz for a living? A lot of people don’t. Like nursing, where the girls drop out early, most of them, and get married, jazz is pretty much an occupation of the young. The world is full of house painters, psychiatrists, bell captains, ship captains, who tell you, “I used to play trombone when I was in my twenties.” As long as you are young and foolish enough to look on the working conditions of the jazz musician as romantic and glamorous, you may have fun. Come thirty, you’ve got to be pretty good and pretty devoted, or pretty dumb, to stick it out.

The working conditions of jazz have produced in much of the jazz audience, and in all too many musicians themselves, a kind of mystique — a glorying in the disabilities of jazz employment. Due to the fact that a majority of jazz musicians are Negroes, this has merged with a similar mystique — the glorification of the American Negro for the effects of his disabilities. I have always said of the leading Beat novelist [Jack Kerouac] that he has exactly the attitude toward the American Negro that any redneck gallus-snapping Southron chauvinist has. He is considerably less informed about the realities of Negro life than even Senator Eastland, who, I suppose, in his own evil way, does “know Nigras.” The Beat novelist just likes them that way. Mailer was right when he said that the hipster was a white Negro — but he neglected to point out that the Negro model the hipster imitates is the product of white imaginations. One of the saddest things I ever saw in my life was a couple of Negro Beat bars out near Thirty-fifth Street in Chicago — misguided young Negroes industriously imitating silly white people imitating Negroes who don’t exist. We are all familiar with this sort of thing in jazz. Long ago somebody called it “Crow-Jimism.” You can find it on both sides of the color line — Negrophilism is not by any manner of means a purely white phenomenon. It used to be a mass sickness in France, and it’s still pretty strong over there.

Did you ever hear Juliette Greco sing “Dieu est Nègre”? It’s about as corny a song as can be imagined — all about Tjeemmy, le saxophone, dying in the gutter in Place Pigalle, and saying, as he vomits blood, “God is a Negro.” I have seen strong-minded French intellectuals weep in their Pernods as she sings it, totally unaware of its hidden chauvinism. Not only that — but Greco herself believes it so intensely that she carries a powerful conviction. She affects me, although I know that it is all tosh.

It is not easy to be a Negro in America. Discrimination has its effects and they are not all good by any manner of means. Anybody who considers the evil effects of discrimination as virtues is pretty silly, and he is unlikely to be a Negro — unless he has been corrupted, usually financially, by silly Negrophiles. True, there exists, to match Crow-Jimism, a kind of Tom Uncle-ism — Black Chauvinism as a commercial racket. Some people have found it very profitable. A few of them, unfortunately, have been jazz musicians.

Once again, this returns us to the question of the jazz audience relationship. It is because the audience is not a normal musical audience, sitting out there beyond the stand primarily to listen to music, that these stereotyped responses have grown up and been turned into rackets. It doesn’t do any good to be “cool” and pretend there is nobody out there. They are out there all right, for better or worse. It doesn’t do any good to get up with a horn and pretend that you are Elijah Muhammad and the Vassar girls at the front table are the Georgia mob that lynched your grandfather. You aren’t and they aren’t.

Jazz is music. Music is not black or white. Leonard Feather demonstrated that the musicians who said they could always recognize the race of anybody on a record not only couldn’t tell Negro from white, but often couldn’t even tell the race of men they had themselves played with for years. The important thing is to secure conditions where the jazz musician plays music for an audience which is there to listen to music.

Now, true, jazz is not chamber music. At least most jazz is not. Some of the best jazz still is dance music. Certainly most of it is social music — music for conviviality — music which needs a certain kind of audience participation to be most effective. There is nothing unusual about this. This is what all music was, everywhere, until the emergence of “serious” music in modern times and in Western European civilization.

How many clubs provide such a setting? The answer is: how many clubs are primarily in the business of selling music? How many club owners could distinguish between Miles Davis, a glockenspiel and a C clef? The fact is that the night club is a lineal descendant of the speakeasy, and is at least as much an underworld operation, in most cases, as ever was its parent. Jazz is permeated with the underworld. By this I do not mean that jazz musicians are underworld characters. Quite the opposite. The boy who works hard, studying piano or trumpet, gaining scholarships, living in a poor flat in a Negro ghetto, perhaps helped by a mother who works as a domestic, is about as far from the underworld, black or white, as could be. As a matter of fact, a large proportion of Negro musicians come from the middle class; two I know well are the sons of doctors who have always carried on an “integrated” practice. Certainly most musicians in their teens start out as what people call “church” rather than as hippies.

But the exploiters of the musicians are underworld characters, with only a few honorable exceptions. Managers, agents, cheap record companies, owners, bartenders, cocktail waitresses — they all bear a singular resemblance to the people who prey on boxers. Of course, pushing drinks with no chemically analyzable alcoholic content, and all the other little swindles of the trade, produce a grifters’ mentality in even the best. An appreciable number of night clubs all across the country are run by the Mafia. Now, spreading out of Vegas, has come a new invasion of the entertainment business by a new kind of crook — naïve, cheap, brassy and rich. Behind them, I suppose, lies the sophistication of the Mafia Old Guard, now the business executives of a major American enterprise. They themselves are straight out of Damon Runyon. I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was taught by my gangster friends that life’s greatest motto was, “Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer.” These boys are like the comic relief in an old George Raft picture.

What the hell kind of environment is this for the practice of an art? No wonder heroin is a problem among jazz musicians. Is it a problem among abstract painters? Members of the Symphony? Architects? Poets? Oh, I know, the Beat poets used to talk about heroin on TV, but the sight of a luer would make any of them faint, and besides, they couldn’t afford it. They were just pretending to be like what they thought Negro jazz musicians were like, man. Dope is a problem in jazz because of the nature of the exploitation of the musician. If I had to work till 4 a.m., picking up casuals in gangster-run joints and living in Harlem or in a filthy pad in the New Village east of 2nd Avenue, I wouldn’t take heroin, I’d take prussic acid.

Clellon Holmes’s The Horn is as good a novel as has been written about jazz. Partly it’s based on Lester Young’s life — but it doesn’t hold a candle to the facts. Cast as a novel, the true story of misery and exploitation would not have been believable. Lester Young was no more neurotic nor insecure than a good many painters and poets of his generation, Negro or white, but he is dead and they are still alive. What killed him was a working environment with which no artist but the most powerful could be expected to cope. I met Bird [Charlie Parker] when he started out, and, as they say, a nicer young fellow you’d never want to meet.

What is the answer? I don’t think the concert hall is the answer. Jazz is essentially, whatever the cool boys thought, an audience-participation art. The only place I have ever seen musical excitement so directly communicated as by Ornette Coleman in the crowded Five Spot was in a sand shuffle in a country dance in Little Egypt. Performing out here in California a few months later at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the whole group showed signs of acute unhappiness — the vital connection with the audience was gone. Some jazz survives the concert or the jazz festival. It seldom seems to matter to Count where the band is playing, the old gismo flows out regardless. But the concert hall could not have produced Count Basie. Moten, Basie, even Mary Lou [Williams] came out of as close, as all-involving, an audience relationship — the intense and special dance halls and joints of the old Kansas City circuit — as ever was Congo Square.

Almost by definition the good clubs — the “jazz rooms” — in the States are those that book the Modern Jazz Quartet, Coleman, Coltrane, Mingus. This is not because these are modernist musicians, but because, by and large, a club that books them has an audience primarily interested in music. How many such clubs are there? Damn few, and even some of them are not all that good. Some of them are just night clubs that graduated into jazz rooms without the owners ever realizing it.

I would like to see the revival of the old-time cabaret of the 1900’s. Plenty of room between the tables. Good food — not just packets of stale sandwiches to get by the law, but real high cuisine. Really fine wines and imported beers and a de-emphasis on hard liquor — or better, “limited license.” No bar whatsoever. Waiters, or at least fully clothed, well-mannered waitresses . . . that you have to call to get served. In other words — no pushing at all. Put the nut on the door. Floor show, if necessary, to match the quality of the jazz. There’s plenty of this stuff now — Dick Gregory, Moms Mably, Les Frères Jacques, Greco, Montero, Severin Dardan and that group that played the Second City recently — imagine a prestidigitator who took rabbits out of people’s ears babbling along like Mort Sahl. . . . . Imagine a Negro girl singing songs like those of Apollinaire, Queneau, Prévert, MacOrlan, Carco — the stuff that made Greco famous. Why don’t American poets write songs like that? Of course blues singers, too. But a bill that automatically reduces the audience to the kind of people the best jazz is for anyway. John Coltrane is not for drunks.

Of course, there already are a few clubs like that — most of them, significantly, not in New York — the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, the hungry i in San Francisco (there are several more in San Francisco), the Second City in Chicago. They are fairly expensive, and they don’t feature jazz, but they could, or new places like them could. One of the most important things to my mind is to get the take off the drinks and put it on the door. Another, perhaps more important, is some sort of physical arrangement worked out with the authorities that control the sale of liquor so that older teenagers can have a section where they can drink pop or coffee, eat, and listen. The Blackhawk had a good setup here in San Francisco, but one day, without warning, they got knocked over by the town clowns.

The cops were unjust to the Blackhawk, but you can’t expect a copper to know any better. They are right in thinking the average night club is no place for a teenager. It’s no place for me either. And it is no place for a musician who considers himself a creative artist.




Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals

I guess there are those who expect a big think piece from me about the Monterey Jazz Festival. I didn’t go. I don’t like jazz festivals. I don’t even like “concert jazz” of the sort made popular by Norman Granz.

For me jazz is intimate music. It depends on a close audience participation. One of its points of origin was the New Orleans brothel, certainly an intimate enough atmosphere. Another was the intense group “folkloristic” life of Congo Square. Another was the small and even more intense group of the revivalist church. Even in the period of the craze for big ballroom dancing, jazz was most successful in the smaller places. True, the big bands of the swing period played for immense audiences, but in the years since, the trend has been back to the small group in the small club and only a few big bands have been able to keep going.

I think the audience relationship determines the music. I can’t bear the Dixieland Revival. It’s music for drunken college boys who bang on the table, clap, and stand up, blubber, “Shay fellows, lesh have good ole ‘Tiger Rag’,” and fall down. Good time music if that’s your idea of a good time. If not, not.

The music of Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, is essentially popular chamber music. It is a product of a special kind of night club. It is true that the ordinary night club atmosphere destroys it. But that just goes to show.

Jazz belongs in dark and quiet dens full of natural shoulders and bouffant hair-do’s. It needs the light tinkle of glasses and the brittle laughter of would-be dangerous women. It is not football, polo, or sulky racing. The Modern Jazz Quartet playing in the middle of a race track to 8000 people is just as ridiculous, no more, no less, than the Budapest String Quartet would be under the same circumstances.

Furthermore, what is wrong with modern jazz is the exclusive domination of “stars.” This has destroyed all but the most childish form — “You take a chorus and I’ll take a chorus and he’ll take a chorus, and we’ll all go out together.” In other words, everybody is a star, and each one, except sometimes the poor drummer, has his chance to show off.

I am longing for the day when I can go into a club, sit through a set and not hear a single instrument solo for more than four bars. I don’t care how good the musician is — this is why most people “outgrow” jazz — the form is insufferable after a few years. Think of the effectiveness, and the inexhaustibility of the solo instruments in [Stravinsky’s] The Firebird or in Debussy’s Trio Sonata. We never grow tired of them. Both pieces have had a powerful influence on modern jazz. Think of how tedious they would be reduced to the form of theme and variations and broken up into 32-bar solos with “rhythm section” accompaniment!

This is the real primitivism of modern jazz — not its imagined African background. Amusingly, this is the principal formal difference between modern African “jazz,” if you want to call it that, and our own. The popular African music is incomparably more complex and contrapuntal.

Obviously, the jazz festival only reinforces this star system. A premium is places on Big Names, virtuosity, gimmicks and stunts. The circus atmosphere corrupts the natural response of the jazz musician to the closely participating audience. Serious new musical developments are appreciated for the wrong reasons, as though they were quadruple somersaults and double barrel rolls in mid-air or home runs. Jazz is not a spectator sport. It is an art which depends entirely on audience participation. . . .

Ornette Coleman is another dish of tea. He is one bright hope in jazz in this period of worn out clichés. (Charles Mingus is another.) Next week I’ll write about him. Go and hear him at the Jazz Workshop.

(2 October 1960)



Ornette Coleman

[After seeing Verdi’s opera Aida] I went down to hear Ornette Coleman at the Jazz Workshop. Although my head was full of Verdi at his best, I must say that these four young men stood up very well.

I don’t understand all the furor about this music. The public is one thing, but aren’t the critics familiar with modern “classical” music? Why does everyone find Coleman so difficult and strange?

An evening spent with a few easily available records by Webern, Boulez, the later Stravinsky and Bartok, would acclimatize the ears to Ornette Coleman. These are the Old Guard, the comparatively orthodox modern musicians. These is no need to adventure into the truly modernistic contemporaries.

I don’t mean to imply that Ornette Coleman is importing devices from classical music directly into jazz, in the fashion of Gunther Schuller or Fred Katz. He is not. Most of his novel material comes from close musical study of the novelty passages of so-called rhythm and blues orchestras; the popular bands of the Southwest style.

The rest of his innovations are only a natural development of the main stream of modern jazz since the bop revolution. What is wrong with jazz is lack of scope. It doesn’t say enough, in enough different ways.

Coleman has succeeded in giving it new scope. He says more, about more. He does this, however, by purely musical means, and without ever going beyond the rather defined limits of the jazz idiom. People say he doesn’t swing, but they say that about everybody new and different. The group doesn’t just swing, you could roll and bump to it if you wanted to. Underlying all the musical adventuring is a solid foundation of the music of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana country dance halls and cheap clubs.

Last week I spoke about how bored I was getting with the endless virtuoso solos of modern jazz. Of course I am quite well aware that the Coleman group uses the same form. But I think there is a difference. There is not just a close musical relationship between the solos of each member of the group, there is a strong dramatic relationship, too, a genuine passionate conversation. It’s like Aida.

Furthermore, although I find people who jabber about Bach and jazz in the same breath absolutely insufferable, I am afraid I know of no better example of how Ornette Coleman develops a musical statement than Bach’s famous Chaconne. By which I do not mean that he is as great as Bach or even in the same category. It is just that each restatement refers back to its predecessor and ahead to its successor in the same way. It is a kind of one-line counterpoint. The solos of Lester Young, on the other hand, are a continuously unfolding harmonic development.

I do think, however, that the group is at its most exciting in ensemble. It’s when they all get going at once in all directions, with Cherry and Coleman crossing each other in the most extraordinary dissonances that they are at their best. I do wish they’d do a whole set like that sometime. It might be the Lexington and Concord of modern jazz.

(9 October 1960)



Charles Mingus

Tuesday night we went to hear Charles Mingus open at the Jazz Workshop. Not only is Mingus one of the two or three most important jazz musicians in America, he is one of the three or four most important musicians and composers of any sort. In jazz only he and Thelonious Monk never tire me or bore me. After one set of Ornette Coleman, I’ve had enough, he’s wearing. Also, he is a young man and the iron has yet to bite as deeply into his heart as it has into Mingus and Monk.

The Modern Jazz Quartet neither bores nor tires, but John Lewis is not in deadly earnest either, as are Monk and Mingus. The MJQ is not, as has been said, salon music, but it is light chamber music. There’s nothing wrong with that — so was Vivaldi.

It is not just that Mingus is both musically profound and enormously facile, he, like Thelonious, thinks in wholes. Each piece begins to build the minute it starts. It grows organically, in form and meaning, like a child grows into a man. Not only that, but the meanings are clear and cogent. Sometimes you wonder about Thelonious Monk. What are the complex ideas he is talking about as a composer at the piano? Something he read in a book he found in Lost Atlantis? Mingus is much less an uncommon man; his insights and his pain are something everybody can share.

It is tragic music, with a tragedy that far transcends current American conflicts that have come to obsess so many jazz musicians. I never sit and listen to him, now that he is famous, without my mind going back to the Black Cat in the last years of the war, long before it was a gay joint, with young Mingus spinning beautiful self-supporting structures of sound out of his bull fiddle while some clown made a jazz-like racket on the piano and somebody else blurted and bleated on a pawnshop horn.

He used to carry that big fiddle around with him as though it were a piccolo, everywhere he went. I remember late one winter night, coming on Mingus leaning against a lamp post, dense fog whirling around him, bowing softly to himself a long wandering melody, infinitely sad, rather like the Gregorian chant once sung in time of plague, “Media Vita,” or like some desolate Russian church music. My girl and I stopped short with a start and stood listening to him for a long while, till at last he returned and looked at us and said, “Rexroth. Peggy.”

The other night it happened again. In the midst of a similar, but wiser, more mature, more complex passage he looked up again and grunted like Lionel Hampton and said, “Rexroth.”

I almost burst out crying.

(24 May 1964)


These five articles are by Kenneth Rexroth. The first, a review of John Clellon Holmes’s The Horn, appeared in Saturday Review (2 August 1958). The second originally appeared in Metronome (1961) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). The last three are from Rexroth’s columns in the San Francisco Examiner. Copyright 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Some Thoughts on Jazz]
[Jazz Poetry]
[Rexroth reading four poems to jazz]