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Jazz Covered in the 1938 Oxford Companion to Music

by John Cobley

Monday Apr 15th, 2024

I thought it would be interesting to see how this seminal 1938 OUP book of 1087 pages dealt with jazz, which was becoming increasingly popular with the Swing Era. Of course this publication reflects the British outlook of the time, when jazz was played primarily across the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless by 1938 jazz was familiar to the British scene. Indeed the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had performed in London as early as 1919. In 1923 Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra visited, to be followed by Louis Armstrong in 1932 and Duke Ellington in 1933. 


But most of jazz before 1938 came to Britain by way of 78rpm gramophone records on labels such as Brunswick, Parlophone, Decca, HMV and Zonophone.


When I looked up “Jazz” in this Companion, I found no info, only a direction to go to “Ragtime and Jazz.” So on to p. 775 and “Ragtime and Jazz (including ‘Swing Music.’)” I found four full pages under the following subheadings: 1. Historical Introduction; 2. The Melodic Element; 3. The Element of Extemporization; 4. The Orchestral Element; 5. Some Classics of the Movement; 6. Factors in the Success of Jazz; 7. Swing Music. 


Here is a summary of the seven sections. The writing is professional, and jazz is taken seriously. However, a condescending classical-music attitude comes through.


1. Historical Introduction

This entry starts with a definition: “Ragtime is the supplying of syncopation to music on a wholesale order.” Next comes a historical context: “The tendency to ragtime is an African characteristic brought to America by the slaves, used by them in their songs and especially in their dance music, the idioms of which soon after the beginning of the 19thcentury began to be imitated and developed by the whites of North America, and were by business-like composers…communicated to wider circles.”


Next the difference between Ragtime (the rhythmic) and Jazz (the harmonic and orchestral) is established while referring to “the vigorous use of noisy instruments” and “crazy rhythms...deafened by grotesque noises.” After establishing three components of jazz (rhythm, harmony and orchestration) the article adds melody, which “did not matter” as it was usually “borrowed from some popular song” or from the classics (“a detestable practice”), and form, which is “so simple (mere repetition and re-repetition, with occasional alternation and re-alternation).”


The introduction goes on to discuss the spread of jazz in “larger restaurants,” even quoting a British medical authority that claimed that widespread national indigestion might be cured by “taking the din out of dinner.” This spreading of jazz also involved classical composers: “[Jazz] even began to be taken seriously by a certain number of composers, and its rhythmic, harmonic and orchestral elements crept into suites and other orchestral compositions, as also into operas.” Kurt Weill is mentioned here. Then there is an admission that utilization of the best aspects of jazz can “add to the technique of composers a few really valuable procedures.” 


2. Melody

This section starts with a 1926 quote by Paul Whiteman: “At least nine-tenths of the modern jazz music turned out by Tin Pan Alley is frankly stolen from the masters.” While admitting that “at a later date he would probably have lowered his percentage,” the entry still maintains that “this strange admission stands for something.” It then goes on to discuss a 13th century practice of taking old compositions and updating them, leaving the impression that jazz musicians should not be employing this practice .


Next, the issue of “dance players bursting into song” in jazz performances is regretted because few of the dancers had good voices and because the “words sung were not such as to please the listener of any intelligence, being commonly of the most maudlin sex-sentimentality.”


3. The Element of Extemporization

Improvisation is stressed in this section: “Extemporization played, indeed, a very big part in the development of the technique of jazz—a bigger part that it had played in that of any branch of music since the palmy 18th century days of the Italian opera.” This comment refers to the times when a vocalist had to “decorate the composer’s melodic outline.”


After exploring the origins the word “jazz” (promoting the possibility that the origin could be the French verb “jaser,” which means to gossip), the entry goes on to quote a “well-known woman jazz pianist on improvisation: “There might be for me a melody MS. copy, with a “harmony” cued in here and there. I was asked to play it, and as I began to feel what it was all about, to ‘fill it out.’ Then the boys would chip in by ear, a trombone there, a trumpet there. The result was that although the general structure was the same, the performance sounded like an impromptu any time we did it.”


Next there is a return to definitions: Straight Jazz (or Sweet Jazz) is written jazz, and Hot Jazz is where “the extempore element is prominent.” Here Louis Armstrong is mentioned—the only jazz musician to be mentioned in the whole handbook.


4. The Orchestral Element

The importance of the saxophone is mentioned first, while strings “were looked on as relatively unimportant.” Trombones were useful for “lurching glissandos,” trumpets for muted sound and “very high notes,” the piano and banjo for “punctuating powers and the ability to supply chords,” and percussion for variety. 


Finally this entry briefly covers orchestration: “The general aim was not to merge orchestral colours but to make them ‘stand off’ (the same idea as that of Stravinsky and certain other serious composers of that period.)”


5. Some Classics of the Movement


This section claims that “Whiteman became the acknowledged leader of the Jazz movement…by concerts in the US and Europe and by commissions to composers of standing.” It is noted that “Rhapsody in Blue” became popular through Whiteman. The quality of this composition is questioned, partly because it was composed in just ten days. Other popular works created by Whiteman are listed, notably by Ferdie Grofé; they are categorized as straight or sweet jazz. 


Also in this section are “European compositions influenced by or based on ragtime or jazz: Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk and Minstrels; Stravinsky’s Ragtime for Eleven Solo Instruments and The Soldier’s Story; Hindemith’s Chamber Music #1. Other composers listed as influenced by jazz are Wiener, Kern, Weill, Schullhof and Lambert.


The section ends with a quote by Ernest Newman: “The composer who develops jazz is on the horns of a dilemma; if he makes use of the tricks, he fetters his individuality and if he does not he ceases to write jazz.” The implication here is that jazz is a bag of tricks.


6. Factors in the Success of Jazz

In talking about “the amazing success of jazz,” this section makes no mention of the phonograph record, which for two decades had been making jazz accessible to the public at large. (Jazz is not mentioned in the book’s four-page entry on the gramophone.) Instead, the short life of jazz compositions is discussed: “No other successful music has ever had so ephemeral an existence as the average piece of successful jazz.”


Surprisingly, this success of jazz is partially attributed here to the higher remuneration of some jazz players compared to top classical players: “Many an expert symphonic performer…earned at this period [1925] one third to one quarter of the income of a clever young whipper-snapper of a jazz band colleague.” 


7. Swing Music

“Swing” is deemed to have become “current about 1935.” This entry attempts to define swing:  it “consists apparently of a simple harmonic basis supplied largely by guitars, piano, percussion instrument, &c (what is called the rhythm section of the orchestra)…saxophone, trumpet &c.” What the article calls “the accompanimental-harmonic part” is “played in a strong rhythm, rigid, unvarying.” And the improvised “melodic part” uses “a free rubato.”


This description of swing is then summarized and condescendingly assessed: “The contrast between the two [parts] is piquant and constitutes the charm which the devotees of this branch of popular musical art so clearly recognize without, apparently, being capable of the slight intellectual effort required to analyse the nature of their enjoyment.”


The entry on swing finishes with another barb: “There is much that a cultured musician could enjoy in the music were it not that the jazz convention still demands (this is written in December 1936) a great deal of deliberate out-of-tune playing and of sour or harsh tone.”


Upcoming: Another music handbook, The World of Music: A Treasury for the Listener and Viewer (1954) will be discussed.




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