This piquant, playful book scrambles and quickens the senses by
showing the parallels between key jazz influences such as Fats
Waller and Louis Armstrong, their literary contemporaries Ernest
Hemingway and James Joyce, and their fine-arts compatriots Matisse,
Picasso, and Alexander Calder.
By explaining how their social context led such masters to flex
their artistic muscle and so broaden the scope of popular culture,
Alfred Appel teaches us how to "look at" jazz and "hear" art.
Linking Matisse's "Jazz" series to the sculpture of Alexander Calder
and the evolving artistry of Armstrong illuminates all three.
But, if Appel can be impish, he also can be pedantic. And by
restricting his discussion to artistic developments in the first
half of the 20th century, he fails to address more recent, more self-
consciously modern movements such as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and
Jackson Pollock's Action Painting. Perhaps this Nabokov expert and
professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University either has
not assimilated such material or doesn't like it.
In any case, Appel certainly has attitude: "The millennial
blather of 1999," he writes, "included the selection and publication
of lists of the 100 Best in most everything, from athletes to
novels. As a longtime university teacher, I was frequently asked,
'What will last?' Forced to the wall, I gradually formed a short
list of the modern masters who were still definitely holding their
own with the educated public."
Appel argues effectively that the racially subversive, ultimately
integrative jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, and Waller (and,
tangentially, Benny Goodman) is "the touchstone of accessibility,"
largely because when these men made music, jazz was popular. It no
longer is, however; long marginalized by rock and pop, jazz is more
than ever the equivalent of fine art and, as such, as likely to be
heard in museums as in nightclubs.
Meanwhile, Appel puts it all together. He is an engaging critic
who parses everything from Calder mobiles to Monk tunes, drawing on
his own rich experience to illustrate how culture crosses and
One of his strongest anecdotes involves a night in 1951 when Igor
Stravinsky (and Appel) caught a gig by bop saxophone master Charlie
Parker at Birdland: "Parker immediately called the first number for
his band, and ... was off like a shot," he writes. "They were
playing 'Koko,' which, because of its epochal breakneck tempo - over
300 beats per minute on the metronome - Parker never assayed before
his second set, when he was sufficiently warmed up. …