We recently published an interview with Guthrie Ramsey, author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop, a thought provoking read that explores the history of jazz and jazz criticism through the life of the bop legend. In this interview excerpt, Ramsey discusses the concept of jazz manhood and how bop’s move from Harlem to 52nd Street impacted the way the music was critiqued.
JJM You wrote, “I have employed the term Afro-modernism to describe a specifically African American response to modernity, especially in the United States. Its concerns are not just aesthetic, but also social, political, and economic. Expressive practices such as music, photography, visual art, poetry, and literature both reflect and shape these domains. All these factors intersect in the world of one musician: Powell.” Can you explain that?
GR At the time that Powell rose to prominence, there were lots of social changes afoot for African Americans, and for Americans in general. I see Powell’s career as emblematic of many of those changes.
“Throughout his lifetime, jazz developed from a cultish, ethnic-infused vogue to the sound of American pop to a demanding avant-garde.”
– Guthrie RamseyOne of the things I focused on in the book is the idea that he was one of the experimental musicians of his time. That to be a black man in the mid-’40s where people were still working on or beginning to work on civil rights for all Americans, he was focusing on what could only be thought of as a craft at the time. I employed the term Afro Modernism to take up all of the fantastic work that was going on in the arts at that time, but also social progress that we made in the political, economic and other cultural realms.
JJM Concerning jazz manhood, you wrote, “The young black men in the bebop movement found in its aesthetic and assorted politics a patriarchal, heroic performance space, one that became the new musical language of ‘jazz manhood.” What constitutes jazz manhood?
GR When I was coming up as a musician, we would often say among ourselves that he is “the man,” which meant he is supreme on his instrument, that he has a great knowledge of jazz standards, a virtuoso technique, and possesses an original voice within all the many voices available out there, particularly on the level of style. It’s just a term of respect when we say he is a jazz “man.” I actually took that “man” part of it seriously and tried to understand how the figure of the jazz man fit into larger patriarchal structures that we know exist in the world. It was a way of positioning the art of jazz within a larger field of cultural and social meaning.
The jazz players were mostly men at that time, and they were attempting to gain for themselves many of the advantages of traditional patriarchy – which also meant they wanted to be paid handsomely for what they did, and that they wanted traditional levels of respect for what they did. They also wanted to be thought of as a success, and as someone who had obtained the American dream. Rather than take those kinds of sentiments for granted, I had to try to rebuild them for what they really were, and to talk about these things musicians were negotiating in their everyday lives.
JJM In order for them to accomplish one of the goals of manhood, which, as you say, is to make a living, the geography of jazz had to change from Harlem to 52nd Street. How did this change alter the way their music was viewed?
“Harlem was a woodshed. It was a rite-of-passage experience in which bebop musicians came of age. Fifty-Second Street, on the other hand, represented the larger marketplace, the media, the commercial industry. With proper exposure on the Street, an artist could gain access to record contracts and prestigious concert bookings in halls that previously had been off-limits. A bebop musician’s career soon depended on having others manage or navigate this move. Thus, bebop’s journey to 52nd Street represented another important rite of passage: it became a mainstream business. The economic reality that bebop musicians could not sustain careers in Harlem is an important point to keep in mind while reevaluating the notion that bebop was somehow exclusively anticommercial.”
– Guthrie Ramsey
52nd Street Theme, played by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (complete song on You Tube)
GR That change of geography from Harlem to 52nd Street meant that many of the musicians would no longer be in that very specific realm of after-hours experimentation. It took them “off the beaten path” and into a space where more people would hear them because, at that time, Harlem was in a state of economic decline and people weren’t flocking to hear music there as they did during the 1920’s.
It was a blessing for these musicians to be able to break the color line and get a gig on 52nd Street. It gave them an opportunity to be “in the sun” for a while, which means they were making money. This was seen as a new thing, and it was seen as a good thing, but it was short-lived because other forms of popular music like rhythm and blues were starting to emerge. That is where the money started going, and with it the popular attention, which left the bebop musicians to just continue on this creative path of experimentation that, in fact, took them out of the mainstream of economic opportunity.
JJM Miles Davis said, “You went to 52nd to make money and be seen by the white music critics and white people.” These white audiences and especially the white critics were critiquing the music in a way that was elevating it from a popular music to an art form. One of those critics, Rudi Blesh, wrote that recognizing the jazz being played on 52nd Street jazz as an art form would ultimately lead to “an increasing awareness of the Negro’s stature and integrity as a man.” Another critic, Martin Williams, believed that jazz critics needed to take the music and the profession of jazz criticism more seriously. So, you inform your reader that there was a lot going on here other than just musicians playing in different rooms in a different part of town – the perception of the music was changing, and with it the way African American musicians and people were viewed…
GR Yes, indeed. One of the ways to increase a music like bebop’s social pedigree is to talk about it in a universal aesthetic that everyone can understand, and that transcends its social setting. Now, if you start talking about the specifics of it, as I try to do, it really shows the push and pull of all of that, revealing that there were advantages and disadvantages of this. So, there were people taking the music seriously, but one of the ways they felt like they were taking it seriously was to not discuss the social aspects of it, and to just write about it as something to be praised or criticized just on the level of style. What I’m trying to do in my book is to infuse back into those objects some of the traces of the social history that they were part of.