The First Real Critical Discussion of Jazz
It was in 1918, that a young Swiss writer by the name of Ernest Ansermet saw a performance of Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Cook's Orchestra played mostly ragtime numbers and spirituals and featured a young clarinetist by the name of Sidney Bechet who left a lasting impression on the writer. Though Ansermet had some misconceptions about American music and early jazz, his description of Bechet's musicianship and his vision of what was to come with this music is truly inspirational. What follows are excerpts of the original review. If you want to go straight to his discription of Sidney Bechet, click here .
(appeared in 1918 in the Swiss "Revue Romande")
The first thing that strikes one about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is the astonishing perfection, the superb taste and the fervor of its playing. I couldn't tell whether these artists feel it is their duty to be sincere, or whether they are driven by the idea that they have a "mission" to fulfill, or whether they are convinced of the "nobility" of their task, or have that holy audacity and that sacred "valor" which the musical code requires of our European musicians, nor indeed whether they are animated by any "idea" whatsoever. But I can see they have a very keen sense of the music they love, and a pleasure in making it which they communicate to the hearer with irresistible force a pleasure which pushes them to outdo themselves all the time, to constantly enrich and refine their medium. They play generally without written music, and even when they have it, the score only serves to indicate the general line, for there are very few numbers I have heard them execute twice with exactly the same effects. I imagine that, knowing the voice attributed to them in the harmonic ensemble and conscious of the role their instrument is to play, they can let themselves go, in a certain direction and within certain limits, as their hearts' desire. They are so entirely possessed by the music they play, that they can't stop themselves from dancing inwardly to it in such a way that their playing is a real show. When they indulge in one of their favorite effects, which is to take up the refrain of a dance in a tempo suddenly twice as slow and with redoubled intensity and figuration, a truly gripping thing takes place: it seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy.
The musician who directs them and who is responsible for creating the ensemble, Mr. Will Marion Cook, is, moreover a master in every respect, and there is no orchestra leader I so delight in seeing conduct. As for the music which makes up their repertory, it is purely vocal, -or for one voice, a vocal quartet, or a choir accompanied by instruments -or again purely instrumental; it bears the names of the composers (all unknown to our world) or is simply marked Traditional. This traditional music is religious in inspiration. It is the index of a whole mode of religion and of a veritable religious art which merits a study of its own. The whole Old Testament is related with a very touching realism and familiarity. There is much about Moses, Gideon, the Jordan, and Pharaoh. In an immense unison, the voices intone: Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go. And suddenly, there they are clapping their hands and beating their feet with the joy of a schoolboy told that the teacher is sick: Good news! Good news! Sweet Chariot's coming
Or else a singer gets up, I got a shoes [pronouncing the s to make it sound nice], you got a shoes, all God's children got a shoes. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God's heaven. And the word heaven they pronounce in one syllable as he'm, which makes a long resonance in their closed mouths, like a gong. Another time, a deep bass points out the empty platform to one of his companions and invites him to come and relate the battle of Jericho, and it's a terrible story which begins, with the mighty deeds of King Joshua and all sorts of menacing fists and martial treads; then hands are raised and then lowered, and the walls come tumbling down. In a lower tone, but with such a tender accent, the quarter also sings Give me your hand" or sometimes "Brother, give me your hand. There is another very beautiful part in which a female voice sings the ample sweeping melody (wavering between the major and minor) about those who are going away toward the valley of the Jordan to cross the river, while the choir scans with an ever more vehement motif, "Nobody was heard praying."
Of the nonanonymous works, some are related to a greater or lesser extent to these religiously inspired works, others sing of the sweetness of Georgia peaches, or of the perfume of flowers, or of country, mother, or sweetheart; the instrumental works are rags or even European dances. Among the authors some are Negroes, but these are the exceptions. Even though the author does not have a European origin, the music does, for most ragtime, for example, is founded on well-known motifs or on formulas peculiar to our art -there is one on the Wedding March from Midsummer Night's Dream, another on Rachmaninoff's celebrated Prelude, another on typical Debussy chords, another simply on the major scale.
The aforementioned traditional music itself has its source as could doubtless be easily rediscovered, in the songs the Negroes learned from the English missionaries. Thus, all or nearly all, the music of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is in origin foreign to these Negroes. How is this possible? Because it is not the material that makes Negro music, it is the spirit. . . .
Nevertheless, some works in the repertory of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra mark the passage from oral tradition to written tradition, or, if you choose, from popular art to leanred art. First we have a number for choir choir, soprano, and orchestra, inspired by the traditional works, and signed Dett. On a Biblical text, Listen to the Lambs, which Handel too has treated in the Messiah, this musician has written a work which is very simple yet very pure and has a beautiful rapturous quality. Or we have some works of Will Marion Cook, including a very fine vocal scene entitled Rainsong. Perhaps one of these days we shall see the Glinka of Negro music. But I am inclined to think that the strongest manifestation of the racial genius lies in the Blues.
The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from his home, his mother, or his sweetheart. Then he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away * it is the Blues.
There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I've heard two of them which he elaborated at great length. They are admirable equally for their richness of invention, their force of accent, and their daring novelty and unexpected turns. These solos already show the germ of a new style. Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it * it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to find in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the creation of our art as we know it today * those men of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, who wrote the expressive works of dance airs which cleared the way for Haydn and Mozart * what a moving thing it is to meet this black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but can say nothing of his art, except that he follows his "own way" * and then one considers that perhaps his "own way" is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.