Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History

By Robert Walser | Go to book overview

Preface

Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We've fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great pail of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we've arrived at any given moment in our national experience.

-- Ralph Ellison1

When jazz musicians "keep time," they organize the flow of experience. Their sense of what is happening, what has happened, and what will happen is framed by their unspoken collective agreements on the tempo and rhythmic feel of their performance. Jazz historians, critics, and fans also keep time: their activities are framed by their collective understandings of jazz history. What we know about the past provides the basis for our evaluations of the present, and what is evoked for us by a word like "jazz" depends on the effects of many perceptions, arguments, constructions and reconstructions, some ongoing, some apparently vanished. Keeping Time assembles a great variety of ways in which people have understood and cared about jazz. It records a history not of style changes, but of values, meanings, and sensibilities.

It is often said that recordings are the primary documents of jazz history, but written documents can help us understand the disparate reactions of those who heard those recordings as contemporaries, so that we do not take our own reactions to be the only possible or rational ones. These selections include the words of many who have been hailed as jazz's greatest musicians -- Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie -- but they also engage with music usually ignored by jazz historians -- for example, that of Paul Whiteman, whose music defined the jazz of the Jazz Age for most Americans in the 1920s. The present jazz canon has been constructed over time, and for historians, knowing what was left out is often as important as learning about what has been included.

In retrospect, it seems that four themes have guided my selections and annotations for Keeping Time. First, I wanted to present jazz not only as a virtuosic art form, but as a social practice of great historical significance. Jazz musicians have produced not only great music, but great understandings -- of culture, race, gender, nation, the body, creativity, tradition, individuality, co-

____________________
1
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act ( New York: Vintage Books, 1972 [ 1964]), p. 250.

-vii-

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Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgments xii
  • First Accounts 1
  • The Twenties 23
  • The Thirties 71
  • The Forties 121
  • The Fifties 193
  • The Sixties 251
  • The Seventies 295
  • The Eighties 325
  • References 364
  • The Nineties 387
  • References 424
  • Editing Notes 425
  • Select Bibliography 427
  • Index 439
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