Alfred Appel, author of Jazz Modernism

June 2nd, 2003



How does the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker fit into the great tradition of the modern arts between 1920 and 1950?  In  his book Jazz Modernism, cultural historian Alfred Appel compares the layering of sex, vitality, and the vernacular in jazz with the paper collages of Picasso, and the vital mix of high and low culture found in Joyce.

Appel believes that the musical construct of jazz was pared down by the idiom’s masters as sculpture was in Calder’s hands or prose in Hemingway’s, and points out that Armstrong tore apart and rebuilt Tin Pan Alley material in the way modernists in the visual arts arrived at wood assemblage and scrap-metal sculpture. He argues that Ellington’s “jungle” style was as un-primitive as Brancusi’s self-conscious Africanesque sculpture.#

A work not without controversy, Jazz Modernism is an illuminating study that allows fans of art and culture a new way of understanding jazz.  Appel discusses his book with us in a June, 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician interview.







“To call Armstrong, Waller, et al., ‘modernists’ is to appreciate their procedures as alchemists of the vernacular who have ‘jazzed’ the ordinary and given it new life.” – Alfred Appel


JJM  What is the goal of your book, Jazz Modernism?

AA  Jazz Modernism came out of a larger book I was doing about modernism. As the millennium approached people were making lists of the one hundred best of everything; movies, novels, music, etc. As a Professor of Modern Literature, I was being asked to list twentieth century books that would last, and I realized that the books that would endure were not necessarily the books taught from the essential reading lists. While James Joyce’s Ulysses would last, it is too difficult for most people to read. I thought it would be fun to make a list of books based on their accessibility — books that stood on their own and didn’t need to be explained in class. I decided to write a book about this, and as I did I included jazz because it was my first love prior to literature. The list of jazz titles became a chapter, and the chapter became ninety pages long, and the more I wrote the more I realized that jazz is a form of modernism. Thus, the birth of Jazz Modernism.

JJM How is jazz analagous to other forms of modernism?

AA  In all the years I loved jazz, I hadn’t ever worried about whether jazz was analogous to Joyce or Hemingway, and the only time I would make the analogies with modern art was with Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” but I didn’t press that or dig deeper. But as I wrote the book, I discovered that I could make the case that the important artists of jazz were as great as Hemingway and Joyce were, and they brought me as much pleasure personally as did the literature I taught professionally.

JJM  And you have hopes Jazz Modernism will inspire jazz becoming part of the university curriculum…

AA  Yes.  I believe that this approach of understanding jazz as a form of modernism is a way to get it into the curriculum. I was surprised to learn that of two hundred people in my lecture course, only three or four would admit to having ever listened to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. It was a shocking realization to discover that America’s great musical art form is listened to in any serious way by such a small group of people. As a result, I started to teach it. In the last five years I taught, I included jazz in my course in hopes of enriching students who may not otherwise be exposed to it in any meaningful way. I believe now that one of the great failures of American education is that jazz is not in the curriculum. I would like to think that books such as Jazz Modernism would convince educators on all levels to change that.

JJM  You write in your book, “The social history and importance of racial integration has never been properly appreciated.” What was the best attempt at writing a study of jazz as it relates to our social history?

AA  It hasn’t really been done. Jazz history and jazz biography lag behind other fields because the jazz historian can’t take for granted what the literary or historical biographer can, which is to “follow the paper trail.” People have left all sorts of letters, archives for the great statesmen and great writers, but not necessarily so in this field.

JJM  Your book has incited some interesting commentary on both sides. In his column titled “Mr. Ellington, Meet Mr. Matisse,” Village Voice critic Gary Giddins says Jazz Modernism “vastly extends the territory, pushing buttons and framing arguments in ways that demand fresh responses.” Critic Earl Dachslager, on the other hand, wrote in a Houston Chronicle review called “Jazz and Modernism” that Jazz Modernism is a “puzzling and often frustrating mix of sense and nonsense, cogent commentary and outlandish opinions.”  How do you respond to critics who have referred to your opinions as “outlandish?”

AA  With due respect, and I don’t say this resentfully, the Chronicle opinion was ridiculous.  It is not to be taken seriously. He said that music is music and visual art is visual art and they are not to be compared. That is nonsense. The author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov — who I have written a lot about — once put it very nicely. He told me that when a reviewer calls him either stupid or brilliant, he smiles, which is to say that is the critic’s opinion. But if a reviewer says his facts are wrong, he runs to the dictionary or the encyclopedia. A fact is either right or wrong, and whether you are good or bad, handsome or ugly, that is someone’s opinion. So, when someone says that what I wrote is nonsense, I smile because it is his opinion. But I have to say that it was not a good review.

JJM  In Jazz Modernism, you are talking about jazz in way it rarely gets discussed…

AA  I grew up loving modern art and jazz at age twelve, and appreciated the work of Matisse and Armstrong and Charlie Parker long before I even heard the name James Joyce. In a way, they were all compartmentalized in my head for years. What I hope to accomplish is to open the doors between the compartments and let them all come together. The result is “jazz modernism.”  I know from experience that what I say about jazz helps people read Ulysses. I introduced the idea of reading “Molly Bloom” as if it were jazz in my classes. Years ago, I began playing Errol Garner records as students read the first paragraph of Ulysses in that beat, so they could see the disparate disciplines of music and prose work together. And Joyce was the most musical of writers.

JJM  The notion of someone being the “most musical of writers” is not always easy to understand. It is hard to really know what that means. How do you explain that?

AA  Just read from Ulysses and see how it goes. On the first page of “Sirens,” he writes, “Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappycap,” which sustains the contrapuntal play of verbal themes, songs, and sounds ranging from hoofbeats and the expanding tap-tapping of a blind man’s cane. When Nabokov taught at Cornell, he would end his year-long course reading the last two pages of “Molly Bloom,” reading it in his beautiful voice. I once saw his own copy of Ulysses, and noticed that he used four colors to highlight certain words on those two pages, which was his own private code for musicality.

There have been many painters who work while listening to music. Paul Klee would warm up for painting by doing duets with his wife on the piano.  Mondrian listened to boogie woogie while painting.  Stuart Davis listened to swing music while painting and actually named his son after Earl Hines. Joyce loved American pop songs. There are hundreds of references to songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and others.

JJM  Is there any evidence to suggest that jazz musicians were readers of any particular writer, let alone readers of James Joyce?

AA  Not much. There was an interview in the Wall Street Journal recently on Artie Shaw, who has always been self consciously quite literary, who lamented the fact that there weren’t more literary jazz musicians. He mentioned Bud Freeman and Paul Desmond as being the exceptions. I don’t know how to explain that. It may have to do with education, but can’t be sure.

JJM  On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of evidence that other artists were fans of jazz.

AA  Yes.  Hemingway loved jazz, had an extensive jazz record collection, and was especially crazy about Fats Waller. I met him by chance in Paris once, and we talked about jazz, big bands, Chicago jazz, and Waller, above all. In stories like “The Killers,” you can find what I call “syncopated prose,” where his writing can even be called “jazz like.” Hemingway’s work is very accessible. He once said that although he considered himself a modernist and loved James Joyce, he wanted high school graduates to understand him. Consequently, he limited himself to what might be called a high school vocabulary of about two thousand words. You don’t need to look up a word in the dictionary to read Hemingway, as opposed to Joyce, who invented thousands of words, punning words, and so forth. And you might say that the great jazz musicians like Armstrong are accessible because he sang songs that people knew and varied them in a way listeners could understand. The difference between Parker’s bebop — harmonic improvisation which was a retreat from entertaining a mass audience — and Armstrong’s melodic improvisation is that the listener could always follow what Armstrong was doing, even when he was varying his singing. “Stardust” is a good example of that. His scat singing on songs like “Lazy River” enabled him to sing provocatively.

JJM  Yes, you write that scat covered up naked self expression.

AA  During that era there was a certain propriety regarding what you could express. The primary thing to remember is that Armstrong performed during a time when the wrong glance from a black man to a white man could end in a lynching. He had to circumvent racial prejudice at every turn. There was great danger for a black man singing erotic songs. When he sang on the “race records” that were aimed at black audiences, he was openly sexually rambunctious. But when he switched to Tin Pan Alley material, as a son of the South during a time when violent racism was so common and segregation so paramount, he chose songs that were not so erotically charged, but rather sorrowful and melancholy like “Body and Soul.” A song like that was not threatening to a white man’s wife or girlfriend. He developed a way of singing erotically by using a kind of coded language, for example interjecting the word “Mama” in a Tin Pan Alley song. It was well understood at the time that “Mama” was a term of endearment reserved for Negro women, used in countless blues songs. Because no one would say the word “Mama” to a white woman, it was a coded way for Armstrong to let his integrated audience know he was singing to a black woman.

JJM  And it was a way for him to connect with a double audience.

AA  That is right. A double audience. Finally, in the performance of “Hello Dolly” in 1963, this son of the South, a man from a truly dark era, could address Dolly as “Dolly” and sing in a way that even upstaged Barbara Streisand.

JJM Are there similarities in the way artists like Armstrong, Fats Waller, Picasso, Miro, Matisse and James Joyce communicated sexuality?

AA  Well, that is a large question. In many of the artist’s work, regardless of whether they are jazz musicians or painters, joking and teasing about sex is frequently communicated. In the case of Picasso, his work is more horrific than the others. You could say that some of the violence in Robert Johnson’s singing is analogous to Picasso’s art, where violent depictions of women are very evident and often dismissed as misogyny. Someone once said to me that they didn’t like Picasso because he was a misogynist. I said that in some ways that is letting him off the hook because in some of his paintings he looks more like a murderer. He is often very violent toward women. But if you look at it as Picasso’s own struggle with his very deeply conflicted feelings about women, one can conclude that he is courageous for revealing this conflict through his art and not rage, which is how many men express their anger. Picasso is never known to have beaten a woman, but you see the urge to do so in his pictures. I suppose there are jazz numbers where that kind of aggressiveness is displayed, as when Robert Johnson sings, “I will beat my woman until I am satisfied.” But you would see that in the blues more than you would in the more circumscribed performances.

JJM  Picasso referred to himself as the “King of the Ragpickers,” and you use the metaphor of the “ragpicker” frequently in your book. Can you explain this?

AA  At the beginning of the book I describe Armstrong, Waller, Jack Teagarden and Billie Holiday as “ragpickers” who took liberties with the best and worst Tin Pan Alley songs, and built their reputations with second or third rate material. They treated the song in a manner analogous to the way modernists like Picasso begot paper collage, wood assemblage and metal sculpture, the pickings of which, if I may pun, one might call “Tin Pan Alley.” In 1930, after he created his first welded sculpture, “Woman in the Garden,” Picasso proclaimed himself, very gleefully, “King of the Ragpickers.” It is reported by a friend of his that he said this while a furnace was blowing behind him, soldering some junk. Picasso was going out of his head with delight because he was making “something” out of “nothing.” Hemingway offered a challenge to himself by creating wonderful art out of an ordinary high school vocabulary. That is the greatness of what the ragpicker artist does. He makes something wonderful out of something ordinary, just as Armstrong and Waller did when they ripped apart and rebuilt Tin Pan Alley songs. The greatness of making something out of nothing is a way for an artist to defeat the worst aspects of a consuming commercial culture. A great modernist artist takes a junk song or yesterday’s trashy newspapers, rearranges them, and gives them a new life. They are alchemists, in a way, who have “jazzed” the ordinary. This ragpicking is a central idea of mine around jazz modernism.

JJM What inspired the term “jazz modernism”?

AA  “Jazz modernism” is inspired by Matisse’s large format illustrated book called Jazz from 1947. He created most of it under the arduous circumstances of the German occupation in 1942 – 1944. He couldn’t do easel paintings due to illness, so he created paper images, arranged them as collages, and had his assistant stencil them and made into prints. None of the subjects in the book are literally jazz. They are all non musical, unprepossessing subjects drawn principally from the circus and quotidian life. There was an item called the clown, another called the swimmer. The “Jazz” in Matisse’s title, and as I have adapted it, at once telegraphs an attitude and constitutes a synonym for vitality, vernacular and accessibility.

JJM What was the first work of black modernism?

AA  I believe it to be Ellington’s October 26, 1927 recording of “Black And Tan Fantasy.”  The Black and Tan clubs of that era – “tan” meaning light-complected black — were places where all races could mix. That recording features a combination of a blues strain, the antic playing of Sam Nanton –which is the horse that is pulling the coffin along — and ends with an Ellington quotation from Chopin’s funeral march, which I interpret as his lamenting what racial prejudice is doing to America. And he is using an allusion. We know that the great moderns like T.S. Eliot and Joyce use allusion, but no one gets their allusions without the foot notes on Eliot or what the professor says about the Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses. But what is great about the Ellington quotation is that most everyone knows the funeral march, so there is a fighting chance that a listener can make this “literary deduction” about the Ellington piece on their own, without the assistance of the professor. It seems to me that the radical conjunction of Chopin and the blues is as extraordinary as anything you would get from T.S. Eliot, when he merges the modern and the prosaic and the ugly with the vanished glory of the past — although most readers would not have a clue without his note of what the allusions do. So, “Black and Tan Fantasy” was a great turning point.

JJM  Was that the divide that separated jazz music’s high and low culture?

AA  I think it is a melding of the blues and Chopin. Jazz is very illusive. You can take someone like Fats Waller, who can play one of his own songs in a straight -forward way and then lampoon a trashy Tin Pan Alley song. What you have again and again in jazz, and part of what makes it so thrilling, is seeing the low transformed into the high without any kind of condescension, self-consciousness or special pleading. That is the greatness of jazz. It is a democratic music in the so-called “classic period,” where blues and pop songs are transformed and transfused continually. The idea of improvisation is self-renewal for all of us, and makes jazz an attractive metaphor for human behavior. You can continually ad-lib. As I write at one point in the book, when you see Waller transform a really stupid, worn song like “Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells” into something quite new and marvelous, it is as though he wrote a self-help book called “How to Transmute and Transcend the Stupid in Everyday Life.” It is something we all love to do.

JJM  You described the “Molly Bloom” chapter from Joyce’s Ulysses as the twentieth century’s greatest piece of vernacular prose. What is the century’s greatest piece of vernacular music?

AA  Armstrong’s “Shine” would be near the top because he takes an utterly offensive minstrel song and then deconstructs it, makes nonsense of it, and sends it up. He takes it apart before our eyes. It is a radical act because it is being done in the twenties by a black man who winds up knocking it out of the park. It is as if he were a prize fighter, beating the hell out of the song. If Fats Waller were by the ringside, he would yell out, “Man, stop that fight!”

Another example of a great vernacular piece is Armstrong’s version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” I shock people when I say that the lyrics to this piece are trite, pompous, and really quite corny. Even Carmichael implicitly disliked the lyrics, because of the six times he recorded “Stardust,” he only sang them once. One of the great things about Armstrong is that even though he was not an educated man, he understood which lyrics were silly and overblown, and he changed them and grunts and groans when the song is supposed to be sexy but the lyrics are not. He had a sharp musical intelligence. He chose the best songs as they were written. He recorded the Harold Arlen and Gershwin songs in 1930 and 1931 immediately after they were written. He was not a folk genius. In fact, he was shrewd and very intelligent.



Jazz Modernism:

From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce


Alfred Appel


About Albert Appel 

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

AA  Baseball players for banal and for good reasons. Joe Dimaggio because he did everything wonderfully, and Pete Reiser of the Dodgers because he was a ferociously competitive player who frequently hurt himself running into outfield walls. Outfield walls are now padded because of Reiser, who was actually given the last rites in 1947 after he fractured his skull and became paralyzed for ten days. The last picture in my book is of Pete Reiser barely beating out a hit by swivel-hipping around the first baseman in the 1947 World Series. While I know less about Dimaggio’s inflictions, the reason he is a hero in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is because he played the 1947 and 1948 seasons with terrible injuries, and the old man in the novel kept asking himself if he were worthy of the great Dimaggio. Thus, Dimaggio is seen as the wounded warrior.

So, those two baseball players, particularly Reiser, were heroes to me in a way that doesn’t emabarass me now because there was a deep human factor rather than just a banality of worshipping strength. Reiser said in an interview he was startled to find out that a boy’s home for the blind in Brooklyn always said a prayer for him. They identified with him running into the walls and all the perils they all faced. He played with great abandon and skill. He should be preserved in literature, and if I could call my book literature, he is preserved in the last image in the book.



Alfred Appel products at


Interview took place on June 2, 2003


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our Roundtable conversation on jazz criticism with Stanley Crouch, Martha Bayles and Loren Schoenberg.



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