Revisiting “The Jazz Problem”

February 27th, 2014


   In 1924, jazz was becoming popular in the major cities of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and New York, and with Paul Whiteman’s Aeolian Hall performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, it was being judged in some critical circles as a serious musical art form. That wasn’t the opinion of everyone, of course.

    “‘Jazz’ has created a ‘malarious’ atmosphere in the musical world. It is abnormal. The air needs clarifying.” So wrote popular music composer Robert M. Stults in the August 1924 edition of The Etude magazine, an issue dedicated to what they defined as “The Jazz Problem.”

      The Etude was published from 1883 – 1957 and was a popular music publication of the era.  Its primary audience was made up of popular music teachers, and the debate of the time of this particular edition was the legitimacy of this controversial new music known as “Jazz.” To solicit opinion about jazz, The Etude posed the question “Where is Jazz Leading America?” to composers, educators, musicians, members of the clergy, playwrights and novelists.

  The debate inspired by this question featured fascinating perspective from some of the most prominent cultural figures of the time. Arguments like the one made by Stults (whose 1924 credits include the musical The Cross Patch Fairies) were challenged by no less an important voice than Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, who wrote: “Jazz has come to stay. It is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, super-active times in which we are living, and it is useless to fight against it. Already its vigor, its new vitality, is beginning to manifest itself.”

    This is a debate worth sharing, but because there are too many responses to include in this blog post I took the liberty to choose the ones most critical (and entertaining) to the discussion, and by the most prominent voices — among them Stokowski and John Phillip Sousa.

      The Etude‘s introductory editorial titled “Where The Etude Stands on Jazz” precedes the contributions made to the discussion about this incredible new musical form sweeping the country known as “Jazz.”



A complete version of “The Jazz Problem” can be found in Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, edited by Robert Walser.



Where The Etude Stands on Jazz

     The Etude has no illusions on Jazz. We hold a very definite and distinct opinion of the origin, the position and the future of Jazz. The Etude reflects action in the music world. It is a mirror of contemporary musical educational effort. We, therefore, do most emphatically not endorse Jazz, merely by discussing it.

     Jazz, like much of the thematic material glorified by the great masters of the past, has come largely from the humblest origin. It its original form it has no place in musical education and deserves none. It will have to be transmogrified many times before it can present its credentials to the Walhalla of music.

     In musical education Jazz has been an accursed annoyance to teachers for years. Possibly the teachers are, themselves, somewhat to blame for this. Young people demand interesting, inspiring music. Many of the Jazz pieces they have played are infinitely more difficult to execute than the somber music their teachers have given them. If the teacher had recognized the wholesome appetite of youth for fun and had given interesting, sprightly music instead of preaching against the evils of Jazz, the nuisance might have been averted.

     As it is, the young pupil who attempts to play much of the “raw” Jazz of the day wastes time with common, cheap, trite tunes badly arranged. The pupil plays carelessly and “sloppily.” These traits, once rooted, are very difficult to pull out. This is the chief evil of Jazz in musical education.

     On the other hand, the melodic and rhythmic inventive skill of many of the composers of Jazz, such men as Berlin, Confrey, Gershwin, and Cohan is extraordinary. Passing through the skilled hands of such orchestral leaders of high-class Jazz orchestras conducted by Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, Waring, and others, the effects have been such that serious musicians such as John Alden Carpenter, Percy Grainger, and Leopold Stokowski have predicted that Jazz will have an immense influence upon musical composition, not only of America, but also of the world.

     Because The Etude knows that its very large audience of wideawake readers desires to keep informed upon all sides of leading musical questions, it presents in this midsummer issue the most important opinions upon the subject yet published. We have thus taken up the “Jazzmania” and dismiss it with this issue. But who knows, the weeds of Jazz by be Burbanked into orchestral symphonies by leading American composers in another decade?

     We do desire, however, to call our readers’ attention to the remarkable improvement that has come in the manufacture of wind instruments of all kinds and to the opportunities which are presented for teaching these instruments. Jazz called the attention of the public to many of these instruments, but their higher possibilities are unlimited, and thousands of students are now studying wind instruments who only a few years ago would never have thought of them.

John Alden Carpenter – Distinguished American Composer

     Replying to yours of the 2nd, I am afraid that I shall not have time to do justice to the theme; but I should like to be allowed to go on record as deprecating the tendency to drag social problems into a discussion of contemporary popular American music. All music that has significance must necessarily be the product of its time; and, whether we believe that the world of to-day is headed toward Heaven or Elsewhere, there is no profit in any attempt to induce the creative musician to alter his spontaneous mode of expression in order that he may thus affect the contemporary social conditions. Nor shall we make any better progress attempting to legislate contemporary American music out of popularity by resolution of clubs or civic bodies. I am convinced that our contemporary popular music (please note that I avoid labeling it “jazz”) is by far the most spontaneous, the most personal, the most characteristic, and, by virtue of these qualities, the most important musical expressions that America has achieved. I am strongly inclined to believe that the musical historian of the year two thousand will find the birthday of American music and that of Irving Berlin to have been the same.

Arthur Foote – Famous American Composer

     I have unluckily no acquaintance with “Jazz” in its finer and more refined forms. It does seem a thing that easily turns in the direction of commonness and that can have a bad influence in music. The Ampico and other instruments that reproduce music by means of mechanism, I am sure, do lead their hearers to better appreciation of good music – in fact constitute a very important part of such influences. It seems doubtful if “Jazz” can be counted on for anything of the sort. The truth may be that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find melodies and harmonies that are fresh (not to say new), that this interest in “Jazz” means exploration of new and striking rhythmical dances – odd, but after centuries of musical development we should be returning to the primitive.

Lt. Com. John Philip Sousa, U.S.N. RT. – Famous Composer-Conductor

     “Jazz, like the poor, are ever with us.”

     I heard a gentleman remark, “Jazz is an excellent tonic but a poor dominant.”

     It is unfortunate that the newness of the term has not allowed lexicographers time to define it properly. My Standard Dictionary gives forth, “Jazz: — Ragtime music in discordant tones or the notes for it.” This is a most misleading meaning and far from the truth and is as much out of place as defining a symphony when murdered by an inadequate and poor orchestra, “as a combination of sounds largely abhorrent to the ear.”

     Jazz can be as simple as a happy child’s musings, or can be of a tonal quality as complex as the most futuristic composition. Many jazz pieces suffer through ridiculous performances, owing to the desire of a performer wishing to create a laugh by any means possible. Sometimes it has as little to do with the composition as the blast of a trombone, or the shrieking of a clarinet in “Traumerei” has to do with the beauties of that composition; it simply makes it vulgar through no fault of its own. Jazz, as far as my observation goes, is simply another word for “Pep” and has a counterpoint in the written drama of “hokum” although that word has not been honored with a line of explanation or definition in either my standard or my slang dictionary.

     There is no reason, with its exhilarating rhythm, its melodic ingenuities, why it should not become one of the accepted forms of composition. It lends itself to as many melodic changes as any other musical form. Forms go by cycles. There was a time when the saraband and the minuet occupied the center of the stage, and to-day the fox trot, alias jazz, does, and like the little maiden:

     “When she was good, she was very, very good

     And when she was bad she was horrid.”

Walter R. Spalding – Professor of Music, Harvard University

     In reply to your request that I send you a few words concerning the burning jazz question of the hour, it seems to me in this, as in so many other human affairs, that it is a matter out of proportion.

     Everyone, I think, feels the excitement and refreshment which has been brought into music by means of the new and stimulating rhythms connected with jazz and ragtime. Some of us only take umbrage when we hear the extreme devotees of Jazz say that it is the greatest modern contribution to music and is destined to supersede all other music. As a matter of fact, Jazz is a development of the rhythmical side of music, which is the most vital factor in music, but which in many ways may be considered somewhat of a negative virtue. It is taken for granted that a normal, healthy man will have a good heart beat; and it is taken for granted that good music will have rhythmic vitality and variety.

     But good music must surely have many other qualities, such as melodic outline, deep emotional appeal, sublimity and ideality; and if the best that we can say of Jazz is that it is exciting, it seems to me that many of the highest attributes of music are left out. In this, however, as in many other aspects of music, the good features will gradually be incorporated into the conventional idiom, and extreme mannerisms will be eliminated; for, whatever music is or is not, it is a free experimental art and has always been developed by composers trying all sorts of new possibilities in the way of rhythmic melody and harmonic effects, the possibilities along these lines being boundless.

Dr. Stephen Wise – Rabbi of the Free Synagogue, New York, N.Y.

     I am not sure jazz is leading America. I think that jazz is one of the inevitable expressions of what might be called the jazzy morale or mood of America. If America did not think jazz, feel jazz and dream jazz, jazz would not have taken a dominant place in the music of America.

     The substitution of jazz for Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and Handel is no sadder than the substitution of Phillips Oppenheim or Rex Beach for the novels of my youth, George Eliot and Thackeray. Mencken is a sort of literary jazz, though perhaps a little less light-footed than jazz helps folks to be. I would not prohibit jazz or discredit it. The fear of which jazz is an inharmonious symptom is far too deep-seated for censorship or inhibitions or prohibitions. When America regains its soul, jazz will go; not before – that is to say, it will be relegated to the dark and scarlet haunts whence it came and whither unwept it will return, after America’s soul is reborn.

Dr. Leopold Stokowski – Distinguished Orchestral Conductor

     “Jazz” has come to stay. It is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, super-active times in which we are living, and it is useless to fight against it. Already its vigor, its new vitality, is beginning to manifest itself.

The Negro musicians of America are playing a great part in this change. They have an open mind, and unbiased outlook. They are not hampered by traditions or conventions, and with their new ideas, their constant experiments, they are causing new blood to flow in the veins of music. In America, I think, there lies perhaps the greatest hope in the whole musical world.

      In France today there are many clever musicians, most outstanding of whom are Debussy and Ravel. In England a school is growing steadily, and shortly it will burst into bloom like a flower. But though there is much talent, the world is still in the throes of a big unrest, for which it is striving to find expression. There is no great spirit, no great genius, such as Wagner, dominating the world of music at the present time.

     With the very complex music of today, an interpreter is a very important factor. The composer creates a work. The interpreter recreates it and breathes life into it and makes it a living pulsating, vibrating thing. He it is who must correlate the instruments, the different kinds of phrasing and the various types of technique and make plain to the public that which, unaided, it could not understand or appreciate.

     Art is going to develop in the future, speedily and in multiple forms. There will be no prohibition going on in music. There is going to be greater and greater variety, because it is going to reach more and more persons. Music is going to enter more and more into our lives and become a part of our philosophy.

Robert M. Stults – Composer of “The Sweetest Story Ever Told,” one of the most successful songs ever written – reputed to have sold over 3,000,000 copies during the last three decades

     I have expressed myself so frequently on this subject, in casual conversation, and in such a vehement manner, that it will be rather difficult for me to put my opinion in public print, and leave out certain expletives. It is hard to talk about this “mongrel” music and keep calm.

     For years past I have watched the gradual deterioration of the so-called popular music of the day. In the modern dances this is particularly noticeable. I don’t object to the dances as such, for I have always enjoyed dancing; but the infernal racket that usually accompanies them, and the monkey shines of some of the performers, are enough to give even a musician of my type a chronic case of “jim-jams.”

     One cannot help comparing the dance music of thirty years ago with the travesties of the present day. Think of the stately old lancers and quadrilles, the dreamy waltzes of Waldteufel and the inspiring Strauss numbers! And then contemplate the “rot” that we are obliged to “hop around to” today. Recall, if you are old enough, the well-balanced dance orchestras of the old days, and then listen to the combination of fiddles, banjos, saxophones, scrub-brushes and tom-toms that are now in vogue. Shades of Terpsichore! Happy are ye that your ears cannot hear the pandemonium that now reigns!

     The jazz epidemic has also had its degenerating effect on the popular songs of the day. In fact, nearly every piece of dance music we now hear is a rehash of these often vulgar songs. But I am optimistic! There is every indication that the ballad of the past, with its strong heart appeal, is again coming into favor. This is strongly indicated by the number of love songs that have recently sprung into popularity. I may be pardoned if I mention “The Sweetest Story Ever Told,” a song written thirty-two years ago, and which during the past two years has seemingly taken on a new lease of life, the sales now approaching the 3,000,000 mark. Another happy sign is the fact that publishers are demanding more and more songs of a higher and more refined sentiment; and publishers are not given to printing music that the people do not want. “Jazz” has created a “malarious” atmosphere in the musical world. It is abnormal. The air needs clarifying!


A complete version of “The Jazz Problem” can be found in Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, edited by Robert Walser.


The 1924 recording of Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”

Read our interview with Joshua Berrett, author of Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz

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2 comments on “Revisiting “The Jazz Problem””

  1. I am a jazz musician and I was trying to find the word “black” on this page, and found none. Interesting, when the subject is “jazz”. I really don’t get it.

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