Today I took out a collection from my local library called "The Best American Essays of the Century," edited by Joyce Carol Oates. It's a good collection. I was just flipping through it and found an essay titled "Bop" written in 1949 by Langston Hughes. It's only a little over two pages.
In the essay, Hughes (or I'm assuming it's him for the purposes of this entry) meets a black guy on a stoop and they discuss the origins and meaning of bebop. Hughes says bebop reminds him of scat from the 1930s: "'All that nonsense singing reminds me of Cab Calloway back in the old scat days..." Then he calls "Be-Bop" "Re-Bop". The other guy, named Simple, disagrees. He says that "'Re-Bop was an imitation like most of the white boys play. Be-Bop is the real thing like the colored boys play.'"
They talk for a little about race, Hughes reluctant to make the distinction Simple is pushing. Then Simple says where the name bebop came from: "'Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, 'BOP! BOP!...BE-BOP!...MOP!...BOP!'"
"'That's where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro's head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it,'" Simple says. That's heavy stuff. And Hughes doesn't really want to accept it. "'Your explanation depresses me,'" he says to Simple. But Simple says: "'Your nonsense depresses me.'"
That's how it ends. Sorry to give it away. I recommend you read it because it brings to light some of the complex--and often frustrating--historical issues that you can't really avoid if you delve into jazz. I think it says more about America than jazz, though. That's probably why it's included in the book of essays. But it also says a lot about art itself, and how people perceive art.
Simple's explanation of bebop depresses me, too--because it's sad, but also because it doesn't seem right. Here's some critical theory I've got:
In an essay from 1954 titled "The Honesty of Goya," John Berger writes: "The despair of an artist is often misunderstood. It is never total. It excepts his own work. In his own work, however low his opinion of it may be, there is the hope of reprieve. If there were not, he could never summon up the abnormal energy and concentration needed to create it." He goes on, but what I've put is, I think, sufficient. And it makes a lot of sense. People like to romanticize the sad, hopeless artist. They shouldn't. Hopeless artists probably aren't going to make good art.
To apply it specifically to jazz, here's something from a book by Ben Ratliff. The book is called "Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings." And if the title actually described the book, I probably wouldn't like it. But the book is really a well-rounded, thoughtful collection of essays on jazz. In one of them, number 14, he gets to talking about Lester Young's sadness. (If you didn't know, Lester Young was very sad and that sadness is usually attributed to his army service.) Here's a paragraph-long passage:
"Young's remarkable playing has a sort of wise-zombie quality to it; if an actor embodied it, he'd have Peter Lorre's enormous, haunted eyes, hooded with hipster anomie. The art critic Arthur Danto once wrote of Francis Bacon's screaming-pope paintings that they present a philosophical impossibility: a picture with such high formal composition and high-religious symbolism depicting screaming just doesn't add up. You cannot say, 'I am screaming' while screaming. That gets at the conundrum here: if a man were really this sad, how could he also be this expressive?"
When I first read that, I was like, "What?" But I've thought about it on and off for about four years--maybe longer--and I think it's such an important question he's asking.
If you're sad, fine. If you make art that makes me sad, fine. But maybe I shouldn't associate your sadness with the sadness I feel from experiencing your art. There's distance between the two. Creating a piece of art--whether it be a painting, a composition, an essay, a sculpture--takes such a profound leap of faith. One might say the best--and saddest--artists are the most hopeful of us all.