Thursday, May 5, 2011

Soaking Up a Fertile Music Era

Thursday, May 5, 2011
[PROHIBITION2]Associated Press

American women rally for the end of Prohibition in 1933.

It's no accident, the filmmaker Ken Burns said recently, that "the period of Prohibition is an era that we also call the Jazz age." Just as the manufacture of spirits, which were banned in this country between 1920 and 1933, entails a process of fermentation, so do politics, morality and culture dissolve into their own potent blend of art and creativity.

Mr. Burns's latest documentary, "Prohibition," won't air until the fall, but this weekend Jazz at Lincoln Center will illustrate how American music benefited from such decidedly non-musical concepts as prohibition and fermentation. From Thursday through Saturday, Wynton Marsalis will lead his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in "Prohibition and the Jazz Age," a program celebrating 1920s jazz icons such as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Across the hall in the Allen Room on Friday and Saturday, pianist Bill Charlap will present an all-star band featuring the British jazz singer Claire Martin in "Songs of the Jazz Age."

It's arguable that the "dry" years brought on by the advent of the 18th Amendment were the most productive in all of American music: Both jazz and the American popular song made amazing strides in these years, and blues and country music equally so. Mr. Burns noted that this was in part because the years of Prohibition were, of course, hardly dry at all. "Prohibition and jazz are not absolutely cause and effect—jazz had already been born in New Orleans without the prohibition of alcohol," Mr. Burns said. "However, alcohol is an accelerant, and it was a kind of accelerant on the music."

Harry Scott/Redferns

Singer Claire Martin will perform in 'Songs of the Jazz Age' with pianist Bill Charlap and others at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Indeed, Mr. Charlap pointed out, with the rise of speakeasies in 1920s came a parallel rise in tempos and rhythms. "The '20s is the time when you start hearing real American music," he said. "What is it about those songs that makes them so American? They swing! And what is it about jazz that makes it so American? It swings. Think of the opening notes of 'Rhapsody in Blue'—nothing is more American than that."

It was in the aftermath of World War I that the nation was eager to blow off steam; yet just when everyone was in the mood to party, Congress passed the Volstead Act, outlawing liquor. If Americans obeyed the law, the celebration would be a rather boring one. "It was when America spread its wings and took a stand, and announced that it was now party time," Mr. Charlap said. Breaking the law made merry-making even more fun—now there was an illicit thrill attached to drinking. The "criminal element," as Mr. Charlap put it, made boozing it up more attractive.

Mr. Burns includes in his film a wide range of music, from period songs about Prohibition and drinking—like the pioneering country artist Charlie Poole picking and singing "If the River Was Whiskey" and Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave"—to classics like Louis Armstrong's "Melancholy" and Bix Beiderbecke's "Blue River."

"In America," the filmmaker said, "we swing between the extremes of prurience and puritanism with no middle ground. When have one extreme, it's almost a given that the other will then come in to help provide some balance." That balance is also achieved in how he tells the story of prohibition. "Most filmmakers do the music as an afterthought, but we record our music in advance, even before we've begun editing, so that the music has the same influence as the still photographs or the interviews or the narration."

To be sure, jazz and American vernacular music were not isolated occurrences: Across the spectrum of the arts and sciences, Mr. Burns stressed, "everybody was making a similar quantum leap," from Igor Stravinsky to Albert Einstein. Yet it can't be a coincidence that the 1920s was the first great decade of jazz—on records certainly—as well as of the American popular song. There are possibly a dozen songs in circulation from the 1910s, but hundreds upon hundreds of standards—songs still being widely performed today—were written during the Prohibition years.

Ms. Martin she said that as she prepared for her Allen Room show, she realized, "I just thought of songs like 'Blue Skies' and 'Tea For Two' as familiar parts of the standard library. I never realized that they went back so far. I had no idea that they had a life before Ella Fitzgerald."

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