When Beetles Were Bugs


This student in his 1950s era dorm room, may have listened to jazz, as did many college students, but he was probably completely unaware of the effect jazz was having on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Poland, as described at the above link.

In the muffled Wayback of the 1950s, jazz was the essence of college cool. More than a musical choice, it was a root-soil of personal identity. Jazz was the only original American art form, its adherents believed, and its social residues enriched literature, television and personal attitude. It signaled the sublime worldview of the not-quite-adult soul, coloring spirituality, morality, and intellectual development. The jazz social constructs of beatniks, rebels and nonconformist alienation were perfectly tuned to the nearly-blossomed mind in the cold-war nexus.
Hard to believe now, but in 1960 jazz was the essence of college chic, and by extension, every-man chic. In those days-long-since, idyllic only in memory, jazz was the college-sapient’s caduceus, as unknown to modern pupilage as spats. The student cognoscenti of the 50s biased toward saxophone and trumpet, the way youth now worship the guitar. Furthermore, there were intricate variations of status and personal taste, similar to those that now attach to the nuances of our many contemporary subcultures.

Charlie Parker biography.

Dizzy Gillespie biography.

There were strict social divisions along the fault lines of the great jazz schism: BBD and ABD, before and after Bird and Diz. Bird, of course, was Charlie Parker, saxophonist extraordinaire, who discovered, within the twelve-tone chromatic scale, unlimited harmonic routes to any desired key-change, thereby freeing improvisation from its European rules. Diz was John “Dizzy” Gillespie, musical prodigy, brainy intellectual, and consummate showman, the Robert Oppenheimer of jazz, who, taking the traditional mantle of trumpet virtuoso from Roy Eldridge, exploded into harmonic complexities seldom dreamed, and never equaled. Every subsequent saxophone player has played Bird. The trumpet players dabble with Miles and play mostly Bird, because no one can play Diz. Together Bird and Diz invented bebop, the Cro-Magnon of modern jazz. All after was ABD.

Buddy Bolden Biography by National Park Service

Link to the Miles Davis Official Site

Before the harmonic innovations of the 1940s, jazz had evolved as a polyphonic, think Mozart and Bach, melody-conscious music. It started sometime in the early twentieth century, by conventional reckoning in New Orleans. It was the invention of African American musicians, who combined traditional rhythmic improvisations and European instruments. Open-air concerts, street parades, and sporting houses were its populous front, and the powerful trumpet was its archon basileus. Royalty traces back to the first remembered jazz trumpeter, King Buddy Bolden, who helped pioneer syncopation from the standard marching rhythm. The crown was claimed by many, but truly belonged only to trumpet players. Freddie Keppard came next, then Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Diz, and, in some tellings, Miles Davis, who may or may not have been the last trumpet king.

If Buddy Bolden recorded, it would have been on early Edison technology, in New Orleans. Here's a link to the National Park Serive at Edison's Museum.

Link to the Duke Ellington Official Site

Jazz comes to us mainly as a recorded music, although composers and notational transcriptions do exist. Most of the pioneers were recorded. One notable exception was long thought to be Buddy Bolden, the man at the very front of the evolution, but now we find recordings might have been made. At least, that’s the rumor. Were Edison cylinders of Buddy Bolden found in a trunk once belonging to a New Orleans Edison salesman? Did the trunk surface in the hands of a career paperboy in a remote New Mexico, mountain village? One thing is certain. Since the man’s death, the recordings have not been seen. Are they stored in a secret underground vault on a nearby Army base, beyond discovery? You can’t make this stuff up.

Jazz aficianados of the 50s knew how to build their own stereo system or at least how to bluff it. Here's a link to a standard resource.

The Boston Globe published the linked obituary for Dave Brubeck

Among the jazz aficionados of the 50s, the mainstream consisted of those who worshipped the New Testament, ABD. These straked off into numerous subcultures depending on the artists favored, their geographical region, and the influences that stimulated them. All the affectations, and manufactured irony of the knowledgeable young, found expression in the myriad tonal flavorings. As with all cultural constructs, paradoxes were the sign of true devotion. It was possible for a young man in 1960 to disparage the piano playing of Dave Brubeck as “the polite plinking of a parlor musician,” behind the improvisations of his stellar saxophonist, while never missing one of his albums, especially “Take Five.”

Even a young man proud of his Garrard turntable, twelve inch

This link to Stereo Review will tell you how to balance your system.

Saxophonist Lester Young was called the President, or Prez, and he called singer Billie Holiday, Lady Day. Prez was inspiration to the Allen Ginsberg and his beat generation.

speakers, and ten-tube amplifier, might, in a secret moment, eschew his Yardbird Suite for a moment with Armstrong's Wild Man Blues. Once, when the campus radio station played a Hot Five number by decidedly BBD Armstrong, the abashed DJ spent the next half hour justifying his selection to those calling in to punish his apostasy. He recovered by playing some Duke Ellington, a name synonymous with "jazz composer," and one of the few jazzfolk welcomed by all congregations.

The truly cool on campus had a relationship to stereo technology similar to that of the less cool with cars. Some built hot rods, although that practice was becoming passé by 1960. Others built, or at least wired together, stereo components, assembling speakers, amplifiers, turntables, tuners and such with the care of a physicist building a cyclotron. Everyone, even the uncool, had to have a passing ability to bluff through a conversation about sound equipment. Woe be unto the novice who couldn't get the verb "drives" in proper sequence with the nouns, "amplifier" and "speakers." Countless cynical eyebrows arched over that gaff.

Frank Teschemacher was a clarinetist with the Austin High Gang, one of the seminal jazz movements from Chicago, described at the above link.

This picture of Kid Ory links to a history of traditional jazz from Tulane University.

Although the ABD congregations claimed the "cool" mantle, they were not alone. You can't have cool without the uncool, and there were plenty of admirers of BBD jazz. You could spot them by their dispositions. There were the somber-faced young men who reveled in the history of New Orleans jazz, collecting hard-to-get recordings of early heroes like Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Joe Oliver, and, of course, the commercially successful Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and others. Then there were the bright-faced extroverts who loved Chicago jazz, as defined by the Austin High Gang, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon, Frank Teschemacher, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke and the boys. There were even unabashed enthusiasts for Dixie Land jazz, Bob Crosby, Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain and their imitators. Although the term today has become synonymous with all BBD music, at the time it was reserved for popular, vaudevillian syncopation, and its adherents were so clueless they didn't even know where the cool table was.

This picture of Allen Ginsberg in Paris is linked to a blog about him and Young. It hints at a version of the famous "kneeling" meeting between them.

The picture is the cover of Allen Ginsberg's history of himself, but the link is to a Ginsberg oriented blog featuring a post on Lester Young.

American intellectuals loved jazz, or at least the idea of it. The popular manifestation of intellectualism in the era, the Beat Generation (think Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, San Francisco coffee houses, berets, and goatees) worshipped jazz musicians. By 1960 beats were all ABD of course, but a decade earlier, it's important to remember, they could be iconoclasitc with Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." The most idolized of the 1950s musicians became Lester Young, whose improvisational number, "Lester Leaps In," inspired an ethereal response from Ginsberg and his friends. An apocryphal sounding story involves a visit to New York by Ginsberg shortly before Lester Young's death in 1957. Ginsberg, so the story goes, swept into the great man's presence, fell to his knees, and began reciting poetry about this-or-that aspect of life's great mysteries. Mr. Young remained flumoxed for a while, and then asked, "Hey man, what are you doing on your knees?" The answer has not come down to us.

Everyone expects the trajectory of their youth to continue. We expect the weather tomorrow to be the same as today. Of course, it always is until it isn't. Then we wonder if it ever was. The 50s echoed all the way to 1964, then they vanished. They've not been seen since. What was all that about? The answer has not come down to us.

That was a time. That was a time.



What does Cool even mean? Here's an answer from "Humanities," the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Some music links.




Back to the Attic



Where in the World are the Jazz fans?