Jazzed up

I don’t like jazz. I don’t like it in the way that The Boomtown Rats didn’t like Mondays and that I, in turn, didn’t like the Boomtown Rats. It’s a personal, visceral thing.

Of course, everybody likes Ella and Louis. (That’s Fitzgerald and Armstrong for anyone under 40.) And I love Billie Holiday, mostly because my mum loved her. Which is surprising since a black former teen prostitute with serious addictions to bad men and illegal substances seems an unlikely heroine for a devoutly Catholic, Scottish working class housewife.

Yet the soft wail of Lady Day’s voice, sometimes cracked, carried the experience of wracked relationships, fear and jealousy, racism and drug abuse. She made music, not just entertainment, but also ideology.

So, in truth, it’s really just the noodly, musical masturbation kind of jazz I can’t abide. God knows I’ve tried. People whose taste I trust have tried to turn me on to the likes of Miles Davis, but I put it on and tune out.

Yet, when rhythmic black music entered the counter-culture in the Roaring 20s, living through the ‘Jazz Age’ must have felt so different.

Just look at 1929. At Westminster, the Liberals hold the balance of power. The world economy wobbles on the brink of a deep, sustained recession. Nationalism and fascism are on the rise in parts of Europe. There are riots in the Middle East, and British troops in Afghanistan. So different from today, it’s almost unimaginable.

Now, it’s hard to appreciate the impact that jazz must have had in ‘modernising’ the world of the 1920s. We’ve been under the rock song so long it’s hard to crawl out from under. Rock ‘n’ roll has held sway in popular culture ever since a greasy-haired, side-burned, young trucker called Elvis leapt onto the world stage in 1954. In the Swinging 60s, those who were old enough to discover free love are now old enough to enjoy free bus travel. By the mid-70s, Bowie described rock ‘n’ roll as ‘a toothless, grinning hag.’ He was just too early in his assessment. A few years later punk tried to kick new life into the genre, and now TV’s ‘talent’ shows are finally putting the pillow over pop music’s face. The ‘suits’ are back in charge, inflicting their mypoic musical vision and taste for cynicism on a supine, sated public.

And yet, in its infancy, jazz possibly had more cultural impact than Elvis, The Beatles, Bowie, The Sex Pistols and, erm, Louis Walsh put together. The ‘primitivism’ and improvisation of hot music infected the wider arts and literature in a way that rock hasn’t. It created a backdrop for bold experiments in other avant garde art forms – from Cubist painting to Imagist poetry. The music promised wild abandon, mixing sex and race provocatively in the popular mind. “The white flesh quakes to the negro soul” as Mina Loy put it in her 1931 poem ‘Widow’s Jazz’.

Jazz fomented, for the first time, the desire of young people to dress up and dance, to rebel socially as well as creatively, to challenge the values of the establishment, their elders and betters. Even fashion, the most dubious and self-serving of all the arts, found in Flapper style the symbol of women’s confidence and independence. Women who had found work in the war years now demanded democracy and, in 1928, they got the same right to vote as men.

However, with 20:20 hindsight, you can see the gathering storm. Even Evelyn Waugh’s frothy novel ‘Vile Bodies’, published in 1930, predicts war. But what do the Bright Young Things do? They party.

It’s a classic response of a culture in crisis. Studies suggest that disruptions in societies also create chaos at the personal level. When a way of life is threatened, so is life expectancy. (For example, the Industrial Revolution, American Indians losing their land, the breakdown of the Soviet bloc.) As the world is re-shaped, the cultural and ‘moral’ order changes. Traditional relationships break; social bonds and kinships weaken. People retreat into escapism. Alcohol intake, crime and illegitimacy rise. And, perhaps surprisingly, there’s a decline in personal welfare and public health as social consciousness dissolves.

The late historian Eric Hobsbawn described the ‘Fall of Liberalism’ during the Jazz Age in his book ‘The Age of Extremes’. Disregard for democracy, lack of human spirit and blinkered selfishness created the vacuum of progressive ideals that let the likes of Hitler sweep to power, with all the dire consequences that followed. There’s a big leap from the quickstep to the goosestep, but music is a powerful cultural force. And it makes me wonder where we are in society right now.

In my early teens, I spent countless Saturdays riffling through the album racks in Bruce’s Records, or even in Woolies. It seems obvious now that the late 20th century music business was mostly an adjunct of the plastics and packaging industries, but you still feel that the 12 inch vinyl album was perhaps the most complete cultural artefact ever produced. You only had to look at the typeface on a Marvin Gaye album, see the singer standing in his leather coat looking like a cross between John Shaft, a pimp and a preacher and – without hearing a note – you knew ‘What’s Going On’ would be a glorious confusion of commitment, newfangled protest, peace and love, soul-searching sex and oldtime godliness.

Perhaps the ultimate purveyors of the pop package were Roxy Music. Founded by art school rocker Bryan Ferry, their sleeves usually featured women with too much make-up and/or not enough clothes, in various states of abandon. Their fourth album featured two strange looking girls, all the stranger for standing there near starkers under the words ‘Country Life’. In our home, the sleeve had to be wrapped in brown paper, or my mum would have thrown it out.

It would be fair to say that Perth, where I grew up, wasn’t particularly decadent. But Roxy Music promised a weird, glamorous other-world where everything gleamed and glittered, and the music didn’t disappoint.

But over the years Bryan Ferry did.

I remember NME Christmas edition hailed him as ‘the genius behind the Mother of Pearl’. On ‘Stranded’, their first album without avant-gardist Brian Eno, Ferry proved himself the master of gloomy romance and uber-cool, European sophistication. But he appeared on the front page wearing a silk dressing gown. With his penchant for society beauties, you began to wonder if his social climbing wasn’t an ironic pose or even a fashion statement at all. The son of a Geordie miner meant it.

Over time, his music swapped radical pop for radio-friendly pap – and a curate’s egg collection of cover versions, some brilliant, some cringe-inducing.

Never mind ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, Ferry confessed that his embarrassing moment was telling a journalist that he was sending his son to Eton. These days, the old arriviste isn’t red-faced, not even by the fox-hunting farrago inflicted on us all by his blue-blood offspring Otis. While Tony Blair once confessed himself a little bit in love with David Bowie, you can imagine the current Prime Minister wishing Bryan Ferry were his dad.

Now Ferry is re-making/re-modelling his classic Roxy tracks as jazz in a new album called The Jazz Age. Is it just, as the late Malcolm McLaren noted, that iTunes has made every musical era contemporary? Or does it signify something deeper?

Certainly, it’s not just another of ‘These Foolish Things’ we’ve come to expect from Ferry, like modelling for M&S or H&M. What you put in your ears is a political act. And Ferry knows it. Sure, ‘Face the music and dance’ sounds like UK government policy. But any look at history should make it very Virginia Plain. We can’t party like it’s 1929.


A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’