Writing Jazz History: The Emergence of a New Genre

Writing Jazz History: The Emergence of a New Genre

Mario Dunkel

I have been asked hundred of times if I thought “Hot Music” would die out. I said NO INDEED. I should say: “Hot Music” shall last for ever. There'll probably be new names for it, that's all. There has been several names since I can remember way back to the good ol’ days in New Orleans, Louisiana, when Hot Music was called “Rag Time Music,” “Jazz Music,” “Gut Bucket Music,” “Swing Music,” and now “Hot Music.” So you see instead of dying out, it only gets new names.

Louis Armstrong (cf. Panassié 13)

Jazz History: A Hybrid Genre

The ubiquity of jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century triggered the emergence of a new genre of texts that tried to make sense of the still undefined sounds: the jazz history. It is a genre which has mostly been neglected by academia. Various jazz historians have written a great number of jazz histories, but only a few of them have looked critically at jazz historiography itself. Only within the last twenty years have scholars increasingly investigated the processes that came to shape the fashioning of jazz history. In a seminal essay first published in 1991 and subsequently reprinted, Scott DeVeaux provoked an increasing awareness that a study of the history of jazz must also investigate the processes that shape the production of the texts concerned with the music.1 His essay raised numerous questions and opened a new field of jazz studies concerned not so much with the music itself, but rather with texts written about the music and with the contexts in which they originated. Only recently have scholars begun to take up his challenge and explore major discourses in jazz criticism in various articles and in two landmark monographs: John Gennari provided a seminal history of American jazz criticism from its beginnings to the present in Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, his 2006 study of the development of jazz criticism and the figure of the jazz critic. In 2009, Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University in New Orleans, published New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History in which he investigates how the idea of a discrete New Orleans style of jazz came to be conceptualized.

However, the discussion of the development of jazz criticism throughout the decades remains biased as it focuses almost exclusively on American jazz criticism. Gennari indeed admits to this, calling the concentration on American writers “a serious limitation,” because it ignores that jazz's “exalted image has much to do with the reception it has received the world over” (15). From its beginnings, jazz criticism has been an international phenomenon. Some of the very first works of jazz criticism, for example, were not written in the United States but rather by Belgian jazz critic Robert Goffin whose Aux Frontières du Jazz was published in 1932, and by Hugues Panassié, a French jazz enthusiast who is the author of Le Jazz Hot, published in 1934. In the 1950s, the German jazz critic and historian Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote Das Jazzbuch, which sold 400,000 copies over 20 years and is still regarded a standard work of jazz historiography. It appeared in its seventh, revised edition in 2005 and has been translated into twelve languages (Berendt 1976; Geller 1).2 In Italy, Arrigo Polillo's Jazz (1975) has achieved similar standing as a reference work of jazz historiography. Moreover, countries in the former Eastern Bloc had their own jazz critics and historians such as André Asriel, who was a jazz historiographer in the GDR.

In addition to neglecting the internationality of jazz criticism, Gennari also disregards the different ways in which critics have articulated their ideas throughout the years. As Hayden White points out in The Content of the Form (1987), the form of a text decidedly influences its meaning. The way in which a jazz critic chooses to format his or her study, for example as an alphabetical encyclopedia of musicians as opposed to a chronological history of jazz, has important implications for the meaning of the text.

What is necessary is an analysis of jazz historiography that incorporates its international scope as well as the importance of form. An approach to an analysis of jazz historiography that draws on formalist theories can elicit the texts' discursive roles.3 It is especially helpful in studying the texts about jazz that appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Whereas jazz had hardly been regarded as a subject worthy of serious and extended study before the 1930s, jazz critics started to publish independent volumes that tried to critically analyze the musical phenomenon beginning in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s—a development that eventually led to the emergence of the jazz history. In attempting to describe the genre, I have developed a working definition that concretely defines a jazz history as a work that fulfills all of the following criteria: It is (1) a study that regards jazz as a form of art and musical expression; (2) a work concerned with the development of the music from its emergence to the time when the history is written; (3) texts which seek to identify the nature of the music (sometimes achieved by the suggestion of a canon) and which (4) take the form of a study that is long enough to justify its publication in an independent volume. Inevitably, there will be cases in which it is difficult to decide whether a book qualifies as a jazz history. This, however, is a problem innate to categorization. In my study, I intend to include as many of the books as might possibly be seen as congruent with this working definition.  

One of the reasons why I regard jazz history as a distinct genre is the fact that the majority of jazz histories have been conceived outside of the general historiographical discourse of academic historians. None of the early jazz histories were written by academically trained historians. As John Gennari points out, the first American jazz historians were “art and literary critics, a lapsed art music composer, a cartoonist, and freelance writers of various persuasions who took on the study of jazz as an avocational interest” (121).4 The works thus include a great amount of music criticism; they discuss aesthetic questions and are very often informed by personal tastes. In contrast to the works of professionalized historians, they are less concerned about offering substantiation of their often audacious claims. Therefore, I contend that jazz history is a hybrid of historiography on the one hand and music criticism on the other. It is a genre whose content hides behind its form—behind a facade of objectivity often used as a means of giving personal opinions the appearance of facts.

Music history, as a subgenre of art history, is an invention of the Enlightenment. It was professionalized and institutionalized during the nineteenth century, based on the aesthetic principles of German idealist philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Stephan Richter have noted, music history’s tradition of aesthetics is “inhärent chauvinistisch, nationalistisch und rassistisch,” (Richter 24; Gates 129).5 Nineteenth-century art history became one element in a complex system of cultural productions that served the nationalist demand to assert and corroborate the overall superiority of European culture. It was a means to appropriate cultural productions for political purposes, as Donald Preziosi points out in The Art of Art History:

Art history was a complex and internally unstable enterprise throughout its two-century history. Since its beginnings it has been deeply invested in the fabrication and maintenance of a modernity that linked Europe to an ethically superior aesthetics grounded in eroticized object-relations, thereby allaying the anxieties of cultural relativism, wherein Europe (and Christendom) were, in their expanding encounter with alien cultures, but one reality amongst many. (503)

By the 1920s and 1930s, Western anxieties of cultural relativism were expressed in multiple references to jazz as a potentially dangerous and harmful music (see Raeburn 81). In its deliberate reference to non-Eureopean traditions, the omnipresence of jazz music presented a new challenge to traditional Hegelian aesthetics that could hardly be ignored. In this context it is highly significant that many of the early supporters of jazz used art history as a primary medium of jazz promotion. If indeed art history originally served the ethnocentrism described by Preziosi, then the use of the genre in order to promote an aesthetic antithesis to its ethnocentric foundations is elementary to understanding the role and function of the jazz history, as it exposes the subversive qualities of many early jazz histories. Jazz historians appropriated a subgenre of art history to gnaw away at the validity of its ethnocentric ladder “on whose apex [was] the aesthetic art of Europe, and whose nadir [was] the fetish-charm of primitive peoples” (Preziosi 494).

Jazz Historiography, 1930-1950

In New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History, Bruce Boyd Raeburn distinguishes two periods of early American jazz criticism. As he argues, the first phase of American jazz criticism was marked by the cultural anxiety mentioned above with regard to the “transformational power of jazz” (81). While some of the criticism was hopeful, the major part of it expressed a fear of change, using jazz as an embodiment and a scapegoat for a perceived “decline of morality, cultural decadence, the rebellion of youth, and encroachment by racial and ethnic minorities” (81). Texts dealing with jazz eschewed critical analyses of the music style itself, but rather used the musico-cultural phenomenon of jazz to express concerns about larger sociocultural, political, and economic changes.

The first phase of jazz criticism, marked by contradictory, unsubstantiated opinions and cultural anxieties, was followed by what could be termed a promotional phase which began in the 1930s. According to Raeburn, jazz criticism in this second phase was shaped by supporters of the music who aimed at promoting the music’s implicit value as art. The critical consensus lay in the critics’ attempt to establish order by explaining and defining jazz, and by educating the public about what they deemed valuable, or “real,” jazz (81). This phase was marked by divergent opinions on the nature and the quality of the music. Winthrop Sargeant, a somewhat conservative jazz critic, for example, expressed the popular sentiment about the quality of jazz, when he argued in Jazz: Hot and Hybrid (1938) that “the jazz artist is no Beethoven. He has small talent—a sort of talent that is by no means uncommon. He is a ‘natural musician,’ with a feeling for certain Negroid rhythmic and melodic styles. What he does involves little study, no meticulous workmanship, no acquaintance with a great tradition of art. It does not necessarily even involve intelligence. It may, in fact, be laid down as a general rule that the more intelligent he is the worse his jazz, and vice-versa” (220).

While nowadays such a statement seems intolerably prejudiced, during the 1930s, many readers accepted it as truth and jazz critics had to counter similarly biased assessments if they wanted to support jazz musicians and their music. As Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann point out in The Social Construction of Reality, “social change must always be understood as standing in a dialectical relationship to the ‘history of ideas’” (128). Not only can a theory confirm a socially constructed truth, it can also contradict a previously held belief and thereby effect its abandonment. It is therefore not surprising that this second phase of American jazz criticism spawned jazz history as a genre in its own right. The form in many ways suited the critics’ pursuits: If they could show that jazz music had a history of its own, they could support their claim that jazz was a valuable form of art with a considerably long period of development. Moreover, a history would allow them to illustrate the complexity and diversity of the music while maintaining their claim that all “real” jazz—from its emergence to the present—was “essentially” similar.

For an investigation of the emergence of jazz historiography, it is imperative to consider early French jazz criticism. As Bruce Raeburn points out, the French jazz critics Hugues Panassié and Henry Delaunay provided “models for Americans wishing to write about jazz” (49). Their European perspectives on jazz were very influential in shaping the ways in which future historiographers would tell the history of jazz. According to Raeburn, they proffered definitions of jazz and advocated the study of jazz as a valuable form of art. The importance of these early French jazz critics is obvious in the continuation of Panassié’s ideas throughout some of the early American jazz histories. As Panassié explains in his foreword to Le Jazz Hot (1934), he regards “hot” jazz as a repressed art. Consequently, jazz is “loin d’avoir triomphé” (far from having triumphed), and Panassié is convinced that what he calls “vrai jazz” (true jazz) has not yet been recognized as valuable music. He provides several reasons for the repression of “good” jazz, most important among them the commercialization of the music which has prevented critics from assessing the music “correctly.” Panassié thus proclaims himself as the first critic to present the whole field of jazz in an “exposé strictement objectif”—a strictly objective account (Panassié 22). With his ambition to purify jazz from the mandates of the market, Panassié introduces a theme that is characteristic of many of the early jazz histories: a tendency to draw a dichotomy between good, valuable jazz on the one hand, and bad, oftentimes commercial jazz on the other. During the 1930s and 1940s, many of the jazz critics portray what they deem to be the valuable form of jazz as an essentially proletarian music that is repressed by a commercialized and thus less valuable version of jazz. Charles Edward Smith, for example, distinguishes between “hot” and “sweet” jazz, arguing that hot jazz was an “authentic” expression of sincere spirituality and feeling and sweet jazz its antagonist—hardly more than an insincere, artificial, and commercialized musical rip-off (Raeburn 24).

This dualism has a firm hold on jazz criticism until today and recurs, for example, in Rudi Blesh's Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz (1946). Blesh’s jazz history, however, attributes the dualism not only to class struggle—for him it is also a question of race. Similar to Panassié's Le Jazz Hot, Blesh’s history takes a purist stance. To him, “hot” jazz is the highest form of jazz. “Hot,” however, is inseparable from black skin color:

Hot piano playing began when the American Negro first approached the instrument. A frank and realistic approach, the Negro’s, one deeply formed and motivated by a native musicality in which intuition serves him better than academic learning, this approach leads him to explore each instrument as if he himself had just invented it. His exploration extends technical possibility by disregard or ignorance of supposed limitations, directs those possibilities into new channels through which the characteristic African creativeness can flow, abstract but vivid, personal as only a true racial distillation within the individual can be. (293)

Blesh locates the origins of jazz in Africa and, in a biological-determinist position on the nature of jazz, defines jazz as an African heritage preserved over time. According to Blesh, in 1946 jazz was in decline, constantly deteriorating in quality after its artistic zenith in 1926. Similar to Panassié, who would later even argue that bebop was not jazz, Blesh claims that the highest form of jazz was its racially pure, New Orleans version, and thus concludes that “only New Orleans Negros can play real jazz” (qtd. in Gennari 131). Both Panassié in Le Jazz Hot and Blesh in Shining Trumpets express a preference for New Orleans-related jazz as the most valuable style. They both also define jazz as inseparable from what they consider an essentially African race. Where Panassié claims that the “swing nègre” was the most important element in jazz, Blesh follows suit and argues that all valuable jazz was essentially African. They thus foreshadow a view of the nature of jazz that would become prominent among supporters of the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s, such as LeRoi Jones, who in Blues People takes a similar stance.

Unlike Le Jazz Hot, however, Blesh sketches the development of jazz in a chronological succession of styles. His history of jazz is the first to suggest a chronological emergence and successive progression of musical styles. Blesh begins “Book II” of Shining Trumpets in 1870 with a chapter on “New Orleans and the Beginnings of Jazz,” followed by chapters on “Classic Jazz,” “Black and White Rag,” “Chicago,” “Golden Discs,” “Manhattan Swing,” “Hot Piano,” and “Trumpets for Tomorrow.” Blesh’s history covers more than seventy years of musical development. It is a precursor to later jazz histories, such as Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Das Jazzbuch, which went even further in their chronological classification of the history of jazz. Berendt’s book, for example, even distinguishes between decades of jazz styles: Around 1890, we find Ragtime, the 1900s were the New Orleans jazz era, in 1910 we find Dixieland, in 1920 Chicago Jazz, and so on.

However, early jazz historians during the 1930s and 1940s were not agreed on chronological development of styles as the only explanatory model. Frederic Ramsey’s anthology Jazzmen, a collaborative jazz history published in 1939, offers an alternative interpretation of the development of jazz that, true to its title, is organized around the protagonists and central sites of the music scene. Three of its four parts focus on places—“New Orleans,” “Chicago,” and “New York,”—with the last part providing an overview of “Hot Jazz Today.” Consisting of fifteen essays written by nine authors, Jazzmen is designed to “represent […] a divergence of opinion” (xii) rather than trying to subordinate the complexity of the music to one explanatory structure


Despite a diversity of approaches, most of the early jazz histories were written with a political motivation by supporters of the music who considered their texts cornerstones of what was often called the “righteous cause.” Drawing on Hayden White’s terminology, DeVeaux suggests to call this early period of jazz historiography Tragic, in contrast to the historiography of the 1950s which cast the history of jazz in a predominantly Romantic way. The classification, however, is misleading and reductive. Blesh, for example, does see positive developments in the jazz world. For him, the revival of New Orleans jazz during the mid-1940s signifies that “hot” jazz is still alive. Thus he claims that “some of the greatest and purest jazz has been recorded … in 1944 to 1946” (337). Rather than trying to subsume the different strands of jazz historiography under White’s meta-historical label Tragic, studies ought to account for the great diversity of approaches that characterize jazz historiography of the 1930s and 1940s. A feature shared by all of them concerns the view of jazz as an indicative other. Jazz to them was simply not American yet. It had to be explained by the attribution of ostensibly essential African characteristics. Whereas Marshal Stearns, in 1956, proclaimed that “jazz has played a part […] in forming the American character” and thereby contributed to a revaluation of jazz as part of American culture as a whole, early jazz historiographers still tended to view jazz as exotic. They stressed the ‘African essence’ that jazz seemed to signify. For them, the emphasis was on jazz as a music whose essence was imported and preserved from the African continent. Citing Cocteau, Panassié thus argued that “le grand défaut des critiques, même de ceux qui s’intéressent aux nouvelles expressions d’art, c’est d’en prendre pour défaut, pour maladresse, tout ce par quoi elles contredisent les expressions précédentes” (the great mistake of critics, even of those who are interested in new expressions of art, is to regard all those aspects that contradict previous expressions as flaws and as clumsiness). Critics therefore had to put themselves into “un état d’esprit neuf” (a new mental state). Jazz ought to be judged according to its own non-Western standards. Listeners would only be able to understand the music, if they acquired this new mental state. The “other” could only be understood in its own terms, and it remained exotic. A shift of jazz’s image from the periphery to the center—from an exotic, essentially African phenomenon to an American one—became imaginable only during the 1950s, when the U.S. Government discovered jazz for its own purposes, and started to export the music, trying to sell it as the acme of American culture.

1 Scott DeVeaux's essay, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography,” originally appeared in the African American Review in 1991. It was reprinted in O'Meally's The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (1998) and partly in Robert Walser's Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (1999).

2 In a personal conversation, Katrin Geller (Fischer-Verlage) enumerated translations into English (American and British), Turkish, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Polish, and Estonian (Geller).

3 I use “discursive” in the Foucauldian sense as denoting “any coherent body of statements that produces a self-confirming account of reality by defining an object of attention and generating objects with which to analyze it” (Baldick 68; see also Foucault 141).

4 In this quotation Gennari refers to the early jazz critics and historians Frederick Ramsey, Jr., William Russell, E. Simms Campbell, Edward Nichols, Wilder Hobson, Otis Ferguson, Stephen Smith, Roger Pryor Dodge, Rudi Blesh, Sidney Finkelstein, and Barry Ulanov (121-144).

5 “inherently jingoistic, nationalistic and racist” (my translation).

Works Cited

Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. Das Jazzbuch. Hamburg: Fischer, 1953. Print.

—, and Günther Huesmann. Das Jazzbuch: Von New Orleans bis ins 21. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2007. Print.

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor, 1966. Print.

Blesh, Rudi. Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1946. Print.

DeVeaux, Scott. “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Ed. Robert E. O'Meally. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. 484-513. Print.

Geller, Katrin. “AW: Joachim-Ernst Berendt.” Message to the author. 6 Aug. 2009. E-mail.

Gennari, John. Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006. Print.

Goffin, Robert. Aux frontières du jazz. Paris: Sagittaire, 1932. Print.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. Print.

Panassié, Hugues. Le jazz hot. Paris: France Empire, 1934. Print.

Polillo, Arrigo. Jazz—La vicenda e I protagonisti della musica afro-americana. Milano: Mondadori, 1975. Print.

Raeburn, Bruce B. New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2009. Print.

Ramsey, Frederic, Jr., and Charles Edward Smith, eds. Jazzmen. New York: Harcourt, 1939. Print.

Sargeant, Winthrop. Jazz Hot & Hybrid. New York: Arrow, 1938. Print.

Stearns, Marshall. W. The Story of Jazz. London: Oxford UP, 1970. Print.

Walser, Robert, ed. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.

—. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. Print.


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