Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jennifer C. Lena's "Banding Together"

Jennifer C. Lena is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Barnard College in New York, and the author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. A classical music composition that Lena helped to commission (“Hilos” by Alias Chamber Music Ensemble and Gabriela Lena Frank) was nominated for a 2012 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Banding Together and reported the following:
Page 99:
distribution systems, and, as a result, was able to realize an Industry-based genre. In the contrast, we see that it was not the case that mass audiences for black music did not exist in the early twentieth century, but rather that a racist production system prevented them from hearing the music except when it was provided by a parallel production system supported by, and designed for, black Americans. This then leads me to investigate the success of rap music, which had its origins at black-owned independent and small record labels, but came to be embraced (in a limited economic sense) within the mainstream mass media. The history of racial organization of musical production in the United States is, therefore, a series of stages whereby black-owned industries are created and eventually come to facilitate the mainstream popularity of particular music.

The music designated here as “New Orleans jazz” is also known as Dixieland jazz, hot jazz, or early jazz, and emerged in Louisiana during the opening years of the twentieth century. The style reflects the cultural mélange found in the city of New Orleans: a blend of brass band marching songs, French quadrilles, ragtime, and blues. The emphasis on collective, polyphonic improvisation and its definitive sound are created by a front line of trumpet, cornet, trombone, and clarinet and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, banjo, drums, double bass, and tuba. The term “Dixieland” was widely used to describe the form in the wake of the first million-selling hit records by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, although Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars may be more commonly associated with the music. The rise of swing in the 1930s ended the careers of many early jazz players, but the music experienced a revival in the 1940s and 1950s. New Orleans jazz is an early example of racist exclusion from Industry-based genres.

The New Orleans jazz style had coalesced by the time trumpet player Oscar Celestin led the Tuxedo Brass Band, around 1910. Some historians trace the music to 1897 and the cornet playing of professional barber Charles “Buddy” Bolden.112 By 1901, Bolden was listed in the city directory as a musician, although it appears that most early jazz performers worked manual labor or in the trades in addition to performing music.113 Early performers, including Bolden, played multiple styles of music including ragtime, quadrilles, waltzes, “sweet music, and ... nothing but the blues,” according to bassist George Foster.114 Steadily working musicians heard each other’s music, drifted in and out of each other’s bands, and were linked through kinship and neighborhood ties.115
Buddy Bolden, the New Orleans jazz player I discuss toward the bottom of page 99, is one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the history of American popular music. He was, by all accounts, a musical genius, but it may have been that genius that led to his confinement in a sanatorium for the last twenty-four years of his life. Few records of his life and work remain, although several tribute songs (including “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” performed by Jelly Roll Morton) carry his name and legacy forward. In Banding Together, I introduce readers to musical geniuses in more than 60 popular musical styles, from bluegrass and rap to South Texas Polka and Techno; however, my argument is that a musical history that places responsibility on “genius performers, opportunistic promoters or divisive wives” is incomplete at best.

I argue that musical history can be understood as “a series of stages,” as I state above—starting with small groups of friends messing around in garages or basements, to local scenes where groups of performers work out technique and style and play gigs, until finally some of this music is picked up by record labels and becomes popular music. After these three stages, which I call Avant-Garde, Scene-based, and Industry-based genre forms, we sometimes see a group of old timers come along to preserve the music, reissue albums, and hold conferences with other members of the Traditionalist genre.

My theory of genre forms and the trajectories of musical styles across them (a process I document in brief for New Orleans Jazz on page 99) suggests that communities matter more than individual people. We do tend to view music as an intensely collaborative, community-based activity, and yet we really don’t understand much about how these communities operate. For example, when we consider the racist actions taken by individual bandleaders or record labels, of the kind we find in histories of New Orleans Jazz, we’re distracted from the institutionalized racism of the music industry, that later limits the sales and reach of other “black” music, including gospel and rap, an argument I’m starting to make on page 99.

For those of you who are like me and are passionate about music, I’ve created a Spotify playlist (free software, search for user name “lenajc”) so that novice and expert music fans can hear the tunes I describe.
Learn more about the book and author at Jennifer C. Lena's website.

--Marshal Zeringue