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“I associate jazz with fun and joy. You don’t see much humor and fun in current, contemporary jazz, do you?” asks septuagenarian Tom Scanlan.
I just shrug my 27-year-old shoulders and stare at the garters peeping out from under his slacks.
For Scanlan, jazz means the swing era, a period that mythically began with Benny Goodman’s Aug. 21, 1935, radio broadcast from Los Angeles, and petered out in 1947 when the bands of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Harry James, and Jack Teagarden dissolved. Scanlan’s book, The Joy of Jazz: Swing Era 1935-1947, is a sharply opinionated stab at what he sees as true jazz.
Sitting in front of a bookshelf holding works by such iconoclasts as H.L. Mencken and Paul Fussell, Scanlan explains his definition of jazz in an alternately animated and relaxed voice massaged by years of Lucky Strikes. At least, I imagine they’re Lucky Strikes.
“Jazz to me [is] melody, rhythm, harmony, playing on the melody and on the chord changes,” explains Scanlan. “But not just some, ‘We don’t need any chord changes. We don’t have to play in any key. We don’t have to play a song.’ It might be interesting music of some kind, but it’s not music that I care about.”
The music Scanlan alludes to is the New Thing, which Ornette Coleman led in the 1960s. In The Joy of Jazz Scanlan writes protectively of the musicianship required by swing: “After all, in those days anyway, jazz players needed decent songs to play because meandering around simple chord changes or indeed no chord changes at all, as favored by a jazz avant group decades later, would not have passed any muster.”
Scanlan says critics like Martin Williams supported Coleman because “they didn’t [initially] see the genius of Charlie Parker and they didn’t want to miss out on something else that is new. They didn’t believe in their own knowledge or feelings about music. I never had that hang-up. I didn’t like Coleman then, and I don’t like him now. Roy Eldridge thought he was a fraud. And Roy Eldridge could play.” (Thankfully, I’m not wearing my The Shape of Jazz to Come T-shirt.)
But even such universally accepted jazz forms as bebop get the Scanlan shakedown: “Unlike a lot of people, I found the very sound of Charlie Parker strident. Because I grew up with the alto saxophone sounds of Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.” (I’m extra glad I never got that “Bird Lives” tattoo.)
While Scanlan was in the Army only “three years, two months, one day” during World War II, his relationship with the armed forces lasted several decades as managing editor and jazz columnist for Army Times. In the ’60s he edited the watchdog rag Federal Times (“It was a livelier paper then. We created a lot of hell”), from which he retired in 1985. And while he worked his regular gigs, Scanlan was a frequent Downbeat contributor, even being offered its editorship during the height of the free scene. (He turned it down because of family obligations and having no desire to leave his hometown.)
With his biography of jazz guitarist Steve Jordan (Rhythm Man: Fifty Years of Jazz) already published and his credentials well established, Scanlan was approached by Fulcrum Publishing about writing a history of jazz.
“But what [the publisher] was talking about has been done so many times I didn’t want to do it. I said I prefer to write about just one period. A period I know something about and care something about. When jazz was popularin my mind, when jazz meant joy. I’m not certain what it means now,” Scanlan gripes.
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“I think it means, to younger people, I think they find it arty, frequently pretentious, hard to understand, not melodic, angry. When I was a kid, jazz was popular. It was associated with song and dance and melody. Musicians played songs, for God’s sake. They didn’t call themselves composers when they couldn’t write a good line of melody that was memorable, which is common now.”
At 148 pages (and carrying a $19.95 cover price), The Joy of Jazz looks mighty anorexic. Scanlan says that it was originally supposed to be a coffee-table book, but that the Library of Congress wouldn’t grant him access to the photos he wanted. His dealings with the LC are a part of the book’s genesis he says he’s reluctant to talk about, but his frustration wins out over his reservations.
“At one time I was supposed to go down [to the LC] and pick out all kinds of memorabilia and photos. They had to decide that they wanted to do it. Not to get into age, but I think [the arbiters] were 21 or 22, and they have their own views about what jazz music is that might not subscribe to mine. Some young people down there who take a strange stand and write critiques of the manuscript on a single-spaced, elite typewriter and don’t know what the hell they’re talking about it,” Scanlan seethes. “I really don’t want to go into that.”
Both age and race fire up Scanlan, who during the interview reclines in his chair until something charges him up and he shoots forward, sweeping his hands in exclamation. For the title of his book’s second chapter, Scanlan adds “White” to Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige.” He gets especially riledin person and in the bookwhen he feels the legendary status of his favorite, Benny Goodman, is attacked because of his color.
“[Goodman]’s my favorite clarinet playerpeerless. Revisionists who try to put him down are rather absurd. All they have to do is clean out their ears and listen to them play,” Scanlan huffs.
“I think people should listen to music with their ears, not their eyes. That goes for activists on either side, whether black or white. Today, there’s a lot of Crow Jim around in jazz,” says Scanlan, in a terminological reversal he’s fond of using. “There didn’t used to be. The idea used to be integration, not separatism. It wasn’t mixed up with all this activism and sociological talk. It was musicit was what they cared about.”
“[Goodman] thought all that stuff was silly,” he continues. “When he was talking about hiring four or five other black players there was a lot of grumbling about it, surprise and shock. He just thought that was silly. That’s the truth of the matter.”
Alleged Crow Jimmers, like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, are targeted (but not named) in The Joy of Jazz, as is LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). “I don’t think he’s ever said a kind word about a white musician. It’s kind of absurd,” Scanlan protests.
With the swing era dead for half a century, and Scanlan’s promo-LP days behind him, I was curious if he still cared about the jazz scene.
“I still follow it and occasionally go out and hear good music. There are a few musicians in town I really go out of my way to listen to,” including John Eaton, Larry Eanet, and John Cocuzzi, Scanlan says.
But Scanlan has little use for repertory bands, and especially ones that play theaters.
“I don’t think jazz is the same thing when it’s on a concert stage. I know a lot of musicians feel that way. The late [cornetist] Bobby Hackett felt that way. He always felt uncomfortable there, playing to people in rows. He liked to play for people dancing, you know, having fun. When I was a kid, that’s what jazz was. They call ’em big bands now. They were dance bands,” he emphasizes. “I danced to Duke Ellington. I didn’t watch Duke Ellington onstage.”
“I’ve never understood jazz critics who are proud of the fact they don’t dance. I enjoy dancing and I always have. My wife Mae is a marvelous dancer,” Scanlan boasts.
Despite its pictorial truncation, The Joy of Jazz is still an interesting read, primarily for Scanlan’s personal reminiscences of the Washington jazz scene. There’s a real pro-drinkin’, pro-smokin’ stance (Scanlan prefers the phrase “heavy drinker” to “alcohol abuser”) that is all but lost among criticsof any music.
But it’s particularly Scanlan’s love of soft-steppin’ that transcends the music he so adores, going back to the beginning of his marriage to Mae. “I proposed to her 43 years ago, after dancing to Count Basie’s band,” Scanlan recalls. “I bumped into Ben Webster on the dance floor that nighthe was dancing, too.”CP