Re: Muldaur Interview

by Barb Wascher

Geoffrey Muldaur makes some insightful and obviously knowledgeable comments about Bix and jazz in this excerpt.

I like what he has to say about the artistic integrity (for want of a better term) of jazz pioneers like Bix and the others he names, including those revolutionaries from the Chicago suburbs. They listened to and appreciated the work of other musicians like Louis Armstrong, but did not seek merely to emulate them; they were finding their own voices. This to me is one of the most endlessly fascinating and romantic things about early jazz, and about Bix in particular.

Another important thing Muldaur addresses is the emergence of a harmonic and rhythmic complexity, and I would add a lyricism, that seemed to come specifically from the Midwest as evidenced in the Trumbauer small-ensemble recordings. And that happened largely if not exclusively because of Bix's influence. It doesn't mean it happened in a vacuum or that others weren't working on much the same thing in other places. They were. But there's something uniquely, compellingly, timelessly fresh about those recordings. Perhaps "sick good" is the best term after all.

Muldaur is not the first to notice this. Hoagy Carmichael -- himself a Midwestern jazz pioneer -- had this to say about it in his 1965 memoir Sometimes I Wonder: "I don't know about genius, but I've had a lot to do with talent---and I've been struck by a fact: the middle west producing all those musical mutations in the twentieth century." He goes on to chide "professors in thick glasses" and the "piddling of pundits" who've attempted to explain the phenomenon; much as I'd love to find such an explanation, I can't say as I blame him. And Muldaur quite rightly stops listing specifics and simply refers to the fact that "music was everywhere."

At no time, however, does Muldaur (or Carmichael, for that matter) exclude other jazzmen. I think it's obvious that Muldaur's points should be taken in context, that context being a discussion specifically about Bix Beiderbecke, a Midwesterner. A laundry list of "foci" or geographical locations is quite beside the point.

I would add only a couple of things to Muldaur's comment about the reason(s) for the ascendance of big bands (not necessarily black, as far as I'm concerned) over the more harmonically advanced music like the Trumbauer recordings. One is the increasing demands of radio catering to popular tastes as the 1920s ended and the 1930s began. And I would cite Duke Ellington's work as a very important exception to this trend.

Finally, I agree that talent and character are not necessarily related, although I'm very much not like Muldaur, or Alberta, in that I make it my business to try to understand the human beings who created the music I admire as much as I possibly can. That includes dealing head-on with whatever unsavory details of their biographies may come to light, however difficult that may be. Muldaur appears somewhat conflicted, though; while he states he isn't attracted to the "historical parts" of musicians, he seems nevertheless to have informed himself about Bix's alcoholism and letter-writing style. Perhaps this is as good an indication as any that trying to separate the artist-as-person from his art is more problematic than might be supposed.

I'm looking forward to reading more of this very thoughtful interview. Thanks, Brendan.

Posted on Feb 26, 2010, 12:38 PM

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