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When Change Is Unnecessary

A FRIEND GAVE me a lot of albums documenting small jazz bands from 1940 to the late ’50s. Even though all were Dixieland groups, as the recordings moved forward in time I could hear the style regress from its original intent. And it made me wonder why.

When jazz was new, musicians played a style we now call Dixieland. I guess the name came about because early jazz moved north from New Orleans and other cities south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is a classic and enduring style. When good musicians perform it, the results can be impressive. Among the musicians on the albums were Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Dick Cary, Matty Matlock, Dick Cathcart, Abe Lincoln, Moe Schneider, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Nick Fatool, George Van Epps, Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy Dorsey, Dave Tough, Cliff Leman, Peanuts Hucko, Jerry Fuller, Eddie Miller, Joe Rushton, Cutty Cuttshall, and Lou McGarrity.

The big bands of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s commercially eclipsed their smaller counterparts and formalized jazz. But, as bebop emerged in the 1940s, so did a “traditional” jazz revival. Dixieland may never have set any sales records but was popular enough to generate major label albums into the 1960s.

If you listen to bands from the early 1930s to the early ’50s, the common denominator is energy. The playing is hot and the music enthusiastic. It is fun to listen to. It makes you want to get out of your chair and move around. Remember, early jazz was analogous to today’s rock.

Bebop began as a hot form of jazz, too, and Dizzy Gillespie wanted people to dance to it. But few did.

The next phase of jazz, emerging in the early ’50s, seemed to develop on the west coast as a style many called “Cool”. It refined the harmonic sophistication of bop and tamed bop’s chaotic nature by slowing things down and applying an almost classical elegance. That supposedly gave jazz a degree of “legitimacy” its critics demanded.

And what do you suppose I heard as I listened to a couple of dozen Columbia, Capitol, CBS, and Roulette albums? The same evolution. Jazz from the the ’40s was unabashedly hot, commanding, exuberant, danceable, and fun.

Some recordings from ’50s are overly arranged and unbearably “cute”. Some fool masquerading as a producer seems to be trying to apologize for the genre by making it “more interesting”. Frankly, I find the arrangements pretentious at best; sometimes even obnoxious.

The recordings from the late ’50s into the early ’60s sound more mature and the playing is excellent but the original energy has transformed into an easy going, laid back approach. Urgency has given way to introspection; the music no longer commands attention.

Dixie had lost its way. I wondered whose brilliant idea it had been to take something that worked so well and change it into a caricature with a contemporary veneer.

Remember the assinine Hooked on Mozart and Hooked on Beethoven recordings from late night television commercials of the ’80s? Some nincompoop decided to make classical orchestral music more contemporary by overlaying an obnoxious 8/8 disco beat. They were all the rage for a few weeks and then, mercifully, succumbed to an ignominious death.

History never teaches idiots a lesson. You can’t improve anything by distorting its original intent. And you are what you are; a dog wearing fake antlers will never convince anyone he’s a deer.

And that brings up a most important question: Why must those who dictate commercial fashion eradicate something good to make room for something new, especially when newer may not be better? Why not keep both? Why eliminate choice?

Some people call that “progress”. I call it entropy: the gradual decay resulting from energy turning inward, the inevitable descent into disorder. It is manifest in the decline of our culture, the arrogance and corruption of government and big business and, sadly, even the ravages of old age.

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something.

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