Monday, May 2, 2011

Anatole Broyard and Bebop

I used to scorn hipsters. Then I realized that posture might make me a sort of reverse hipster.  I live in Montreal--whose Mile End neighborhood, near where I live, might pass for modern day Williamsburg, or perhaps SoHo in the 1970s--and having just gone through four years of university, I'm well acquainted with notions of hip.  Yet they're changing constantly.  They have been for a while.

I recently read Anatole Broyard's probing "A Portrait of the Hipster," first published in 1948 for the Partisan Review.  It's an easier read than Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," another important take on the hip, published in 1957 for Dissent.  In both essays, the writers associate the hip with jazz.  Writes Mailer:

"But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation—that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously, some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War."

Later, he writes:

"For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, 'I feel this, and now you do too.'"

Maybe.  I mean, I wouldn't have wanted to be on Mailer's bad side, but I have to say that his valuation is reductive.  I'm intrigued by his association of the hipster with the psychopath--which is a big point of his essay--but this is a jazz blog.  I'm more intrigued by Broyard's essay, because it made me reconsider how I value a music that I respect.

Anatole Broyard--who was the daily book critic for the New York Times for 15 years--lived in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and "A Portrait of the Hipster" is probably a critical response to his environment.  In his book "Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir," published in 1993, he wrote: "In fact, one of my problems was that I was alienated from alienation, an insider among outsiders.  The young intellectuals I knew had virtually read and criticized themselves out of any feeling of nationality." 

So the essay comes off as diagnostic, and it seems as though he is writing fact.  An impression of ambivalence often comes to override any value judgments he might be making.  And his word choice is so precise--and disarming--that you'd want him by your side in an argument (l'esprit de l'escalier be gone!).  You can see the nascent critic within him.

That's why I furrowed my brow when I got to his valuation of bebop, and jazz in general.  He offended me, in a good way--in a way that the film critic Pauline Kael could.

Of jive, he writes: 

"Since articulateness is a condition for, if not actually a cause of, anxiety, the hipster relieved his anxiety by disarticulating himself. He cut the world down to size—reduced it to a small stage with a few props and a curtain of jive. In a vocabulary of a dozen verbs, adjectives, and nouns he could describe everything that happened in it. It was poker with no joker, nothing wild."

This relates to Broyard's supposition that "the hipster longed, from the very beginning, to be somewhere."  By cutting his world down to size, he could keep it in check.  Then Broyard locates jive in music, making a chronological and evolutionary distinction (three stages of jive music) between, first, the Blues, then jazz, then bebop.  The Blues, Broyard writes, "represented a relatively realistic or naturalistic stage of development."  Of jazz:  "Blues turned to jazz. In jazz, as in early, analytical cubism, things were sharpened and accentuated, thrown into bolder relief. Words were used somewhat less frequently than in Blues; the instruments talked instead."  I imagine he's talking of the big band era here.

I find this appraisal deterministic, reductive, and devaluing.  But it works for the purposes of his argument.

Then he gets to bebop: 

"Bepop, the third stage in jive music, was analogous in some respects to synthetic cubism. Specific situations, or referents, had largely disappeared; only their 'essences' remained. By this time the hipster was no longer willing to be regarded as a primitive; bebop, therefore, was 'cerebral' music, expressing the hipster's pretensions, his desire for an imposing, fulldress body of doctrine."

I can dig that.  I bet a lot of people in the 1940s liked bebop because they thought they should, not because they really did.  "That which you heard in bebop was always something else, not the thing you expected; it was always negatively derived, abstraction from, not to," writes Broyard, explaining how the hipster perceived bebop.

Broyard presents bebop not as a manifestation of hipsterism itself, but as a music which offered hipsters what they needed, which could mirror their solipsistic world.  Yet that presentation does cheapen bebop. 

It will never be proven--though it is contested--whether bebop emerged as a revolution or through evolution, whether it was a reaction against and break away from the artistic confines of the big band era or if the big band era contributed to bebop--with its dissonant melodies, breakneck tempos, complicated chord changes.  I'm partial to the latter, which is why I find Broyard's argument too simple.

"All the best qualities of jazz—tension, élan, sincerity, violence, immediacy—were toned down in bebop. Bebop's style seemed to consist, to a great extent, in evading tension, in connecting, by extreme dexterity, each phrase with another, so that nothing remained, everything was lost in a shuffle of decapitated cadences," writes Broyard.

Remember that he's making a distinction between jazz--which "was almost always coherent and its intent clear and unequivocal"--and bebop.  I know Broyard is writing in 1948.  Listening from 2011, I don't associate bebop with evading tension.  I often picture bebop as a tightrope walk: It's difficult and dangerous if you don't know what you're doing and takes a lot of practice to get right.

But Broyard might have me there:

"[Bebop] presented the hipster as performer, retreated to an abstract stage of tea and pretension, losing himself in the multiple mirrors of his fugitive chords. This conception was borne out by the surprising mediocrity of bebop orchestrations, which often had the perfunctory quality of vaudeville music, played only to announce the coming spectacle, the soloist, the great Houdini."

It is true that bebop orchestrations are often predictable, and the chief template for jazz jamming, which can leave the listener bored.  But I like this music for the same reason that Broyard seems to criticize it: the soloist.  Charlie Parker.  Dizzy Gillespie.  Max Roach.  Bud Powell.  They found their voices.  I can identify them on a record almost immediately.

"Bebop rarely used words, and, when it did, they were only nonsense syllables, significantly paralleling a contemporaneous loss of vitality in jive language itself," writes Broyard.  Yet I recognize Lester Young or Cootie Williams or Louis Armstrong in the same way that I recognize the musicians associated with bebop.

"Associated" is an important word.  Because bebop is just a name--a category--and in the end, names reduce.  The point of Broyard's essay, however, is not only to associate bebop with the hipster.  Broyard concludes that the popularization of the hipster's alternative way of life returned him to the mainstream:  "He was in-there...he was back in the American womb. And it was just as hygienic as ever."  But that never happened with bebop.  If one thing is certain about jazz, it's that its popularity has been dwindling since the 1940s.  Which makes this music ripe for appropriation by any alternative culture, by aesthetes and sophisticates and dilettantes and, of course, hipsters.  Yet which reinforces the authenticity of jazz as a sturdy, viable art form that remains un-cheapened.


  1. A spot-on and more articulate examination than I could muster. I still don't completely get Mailer's essay!

  2. Thanks, Cristin. Not sure if I get Mailer's essay either. Maybe that's why it's worthwhile. (Or perhaps why it's not.)