NOTE: The following paper was presented on April 18, 2021 in the class “The Opposites in Music,” taught by Barbara Allen, flutist and Aesthetic Realism Consultant, and Dr. Edward Green, composer, musicologist and Aesthetic Realism Associate. This class is part of the curriculum of classes (currently offered via Zoom) by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. And the beginning point for this particular semester—Spring 2021—was Jazz, with thrilling relations made to other music of America and the world, of various genres and periods: from the Baka people of Cameroon, to Ludwig van Beethoven; from medieval times to the 20th century. And throughout, we were learning about beauty and ourselves so deeply—and having an exciting, joyous time! The central text for the semester was the poem “Hymn to Jazz and the Like,” by Eli Siegel.
In junior high school, I was introduced to and began playing the ragtime of Scott Joplin; a little later, I started playing the blues with some friends, for the first time making music that wasn’t written down; then, at about 16, I fell in love with Jazz. Fast forward, and this semester in the Opposites in Music class, I’ve fallen in love with it all over again—and all new again. In these classes, I’ve had some of the largest emotions of my life for Jazz and for not-Jazz. For all this, I thank our teachers Barbara Allen and Edward Green, and so much Eli Siegel himself for stating:
“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
A Jazz recording I love is “Potato Head Blues,” recorded in 1927 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven, which featured Louis on cornet, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, joined by John Thomas on trombone, Pete Briggs on tuba, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano, and Baby Dodds on drums. While this piece doesn’t have the Greatness—with a capital “G”—of “West End Blues” or “Weather Bird”, recorded a year and half later, it sure is good! Here is how it begins:
[Ex. 1 – 0:00 to 0:42]
That’s the first chorus and the beginning of Louis’ first solo—and while it’s not actually a blues, there are plenty of blue notes and blues effects. But the style of that first chorus—that polyphonic improvisation the New Orleans musicians were famous for—is one of the things I love about this recording. The cornet plays the melody—with embellishments—while the clarinet improvises above, generally in faster notes; the trombone improvises below, generally in slower notes; and the tuba plays a bass line. All this is accompanied by the piano, banjo and drums. It’s wild, it’s cacophonous, it’s wonderful! Earlier in the semester, our teachers quoted this from “The Novel of Our Time and Jazz,” by Eli Siegel:
It was smoothness, the expected, the flowing, the recurrent, the easily melodious which was contradicted by jazz as music….A mess, a clutter, a confusion can be that defiance of false smoothness which is a beckoning to unseen grandeur. Contradiction is needed by man as thoroughly honest and thoroughly lighthearted.
This music does have terrific contradiction, but it is also lighthearted. It has “a mess, a clutter”—in the best sense of those words—and what a delightful criticism of my desire to be falsely smooth. In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I asked about myself and how I used my hands, Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, with whom I am so fortunate to study, asked me:
Ellen Reiss: Do you think you can want to present yourself as more comfortable with yourself than you really are?
Alan Shapiro: Yes, absolutely.
Ellen Reiss: Do you think hands can be used to smooth things, and also poke things? Do you like the relation in you of poking and smoothing?
I didn’t. To a large extent throughout my life, my smoothness was really hiding, and my poking was in behalf of contempt, like making a point in order to show how “smart” I was. I’m grateful to say I like the relation of these opposites in me more today through what I’m learning. This music is poking and smooth. The instruments interrupt and contradict each other—but the effect is continuous, toe-tapping and joyous. That’s because beneath the contradiction there is a deep agreement—not a neat agreement—among the musicians. Each is fair to the beat and harmony, and they listen to each other. When this style of collective improv is done well, there is good will and beauty. It’s done well here—and as we’ll hear, it’s done even better in the final section of the song.
After the opening chorus we heard a moment ago, there are two solos: Louis first, followed by Johnny Dodds on clarinet. While these solos are very good, if that was all there was to “Potato Head Blues,” I wouldn’t be writing about it. But that isn’t all there is. After the Dodds solo and a 4-measure break on banjo, Louis comes back in—and, man, does he ever! While the rest of the band plays stop-time—one short chord on the downbeat of every other measure—he takes off. Here is that solo, with the banjo lead-in:
[Ex. 2 – 1:47-2:34]
In the poem “Hymn to Jazz and the Like” by Eli Siegel, there is this beautiful line:
Sound is looking for new illustrations showing the might, glory, findingness, and abandon of man.
Don’t we hear might and glory in Louis’s playing? And, no matter how many times I listen to this, I always feel Louis Armstrong is finding those notes—they always sound new. I feel, too, he stands here for the true abandon—the accurate abandon—of man. That’s how I want to be!
What a relation this section is of the world as orderly, strict, and the world as surprising, free. Those hits by the band are so firm and regular, like towers on a suspension bridge. Then Louis spans the distance between those hits—never the same way twice, and with surprising, thrilling syncopation. But no matter how much he plays with it, no matter how much he keeps us on the edge of our seats with the feeling, “will he make it?”, we know the beat is in him; the band’s next hit affirms him, and sets him going again. This solo broke new ground in the history of Jazz. But, with all its boldness, I was moved to learn that Louis had humility and gratitude in his mind. He said, “Every note I blew in this recording, I thought of Papa Joe,”—referring to his mentor, the great New Orleans cornetist Joe “King” Oliver. And in the happy cacophony of the conclusion that follows Louis’s stop-time solo—we feel he has also had a good effect on all the members of his band.
This music says to me: You can be rough and smooth, precise and wild, an individual and rightly related to other people at the same time—and if you’re not going for that, you’re not true to Jazz, to music, to the structure of the world. I could say much more but, before I play the whole piece, I’ll add only: how lucky I feel, as a person and as a Jazz musician, to be learning from Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism, Ellen Reiss and the Opposites in Music class.
[Ex. 3 – entire recording]