Monday, April 1, 2019

The Origins of The Jazz Institute

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I remember Richard Gehman as one of the busiest writers on the literary magazine scene in the 1950s with his articles appearing in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Harper’s and a slew of other monthly publications.

He generally wrote about subjects that dealt with - broadly speaking - Arts & Letters so in recently tracking back for a used copy of Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz,  guitarist’s Eddie Condon’s “other” book on Jazz [he is widely known as the author of We Called it Music], I was delighted to note that Richard was the co-editor along with Eddie of the Treasury compilation which was published in 1956 by The Dial Press [New York].

Although it’s been at various locations and affiliations on the Rutgers University campus in Newark, New Jersey since 1966-67, perhaps few of its current visitors are aware of the more modest beginnings of The Institute of Jazz Studies as described by Richard Gehman in the following introduction to Marshall Stearns’ Rebop, Bebop, and Bop, which is one of the essays collected into Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz.

“IN JULY, 1954, I did a piece for This Week on Marshall Stearns, who may very well go down in history as one of the most important Jazz lovers of all time. We have decided to reprint most of it here, first because it contains a good deal of information about Marshall available nowhere else and second because it calls attention to the increasing interest in Jazz on the part of the intellectual community:

“I visited Marshall Stearns the other day at his Waverly Place duplex in Greenwich Village. Stearns is tall and loose-jointed, with a sober visage behind dark-rimmed spectacles. He is an Associate Professor of English at Hunter College, an expert on medieval literature; Harvard Sc.B. '31, Yale Ph. D. '42. Special interest: Chaucer. Extra-special interest: Jazz. In addition to teaching English at Hunter, he lectures on Jazz at the New School for Social Research and New York University.

"People always ask me, 'What's a Chaucer man doing fooling around with Jazz?'" Stearns said. "They seem to think it's a joke. Well, it isn't. Chaucer and Jazz are quite similar: they both swing, they both have the same punch, vitality and guts. Why, they're not far apart at all."

For years, Stearns has been trying to get people to take Jazz seriously as an art form. He defines Jazz as "improvised Afro-American music, with strong European influences." Some people might disagree with this definition. Nothing could be more pleasing to Stearns. He is never happier than when he is surrounded by people wrangling over Jazz. "We had twenty-eight down here last Friday to listen to records," he told me. "One argument lasted until four in the morning. Wonderful."

As a step toward organizing Jazz discussions, Stearns six years ago inaugurated an annual Roundtable on Jazz at Music Inn, Lenox, Mass. The Roundtable is held at the conclusion of the annual Tanglewood festival. Musicians come and play, singers come and sing, and students of Jazz come and listen  —and, of course, argue. Out of the Roundtables has come a more serious, permanent project — The Institute of Jazz Studies, Inc., of which Stearns is one of the founders, the president and executive director.

The Institute, Stearns told me, has a five-point program. It aims to assemble a complete archive of recordings and literature on Jazz and make it available to students. It will sponsor trips by scholars to collect data on the history of Jazz. It will publish material on Jazz, and it will work out a series of Jazz courses on a university level. Finally, it will go on sponsoring the Roundtables. The Institute is non-profit.

Producing a letterhead, Stearns pointed to the list of the Institute's Board of Advisors. It included such disparate names as Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton and Artie Shaw; Stuart Davis, the painter; Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, writers; Monroe Berger, Willis L. James, S. I. Hayakawa, Lorenzo Turner and Melville J. Herskovits, college professors. "Herskovits, the anthropologist, was one of my sponsors when I applied for a Guggenheim fellowship to write a book on the history of Jazz," Stearns told me. "So was Duke Ellington," he added, smiling.

The book was published in the spring of 1956. Stearns hopes it will be regarded as the first scholarly work on Jazz. He believes passionately that the recent academic interest in Jazz is long overdue.

After all," he said, "it's our only native American music. You could say, too, it's the only art form that ever originated in America. Charles Seeger, former head of the Pan-American Union music division, said once that our music history will be done largely in terms of popular music. It's true. Jazz is a prime force in our popular culture, and I'm interested in trying to evaluate its effect.

"And," Stearns continued, warming up, "I'm not the only one. S.J. Hayakawa, the semanticist, is going to do a study of the semantics of Jazz. Dr. Maurice R. Green, of Roosevelt Hospital, is working on a study of the psychological implications of Jazz in our society; Tremaine McDowell, head of American civilization studies at the University of Minnesota, has incorporated Jazz material into his courses. For the purposes of my book, I've had to get out of English and into anthropology, sociology and even psychiatry."

Stearns now led me on a guided tour of the headquarters of the Institute, which is in his own spacious living room, a room the size of a small concert hall. The ceilings are eighteen feet high and the entire right-hand wall is covered with paintings by Stearns' wife, Betty. The left-hand wall is dominated by huge shelves which reach almost to the ceiling. The shelves contain Stearns' — and the Institute's — record collection.

"We've got about ten or eleven thousand here," Stearns said. "I've been trying to get a sample of everything ever recorded— everything from the music of the American Indian up to classical stuff, and excluding both."
Stearns keeps the Institute's files in several large cabinets. As he pulled out drawers, I saw folders headed AFRICA, BLUES, GOSPEL SINGERS, JAM SESSIONS, LINDY HOP, MUSIC: HINDU, JUG BLOWERS, One cabinet is completely devoted to original photographs, another to letters and diaries of Jazz musicians.

"Been collecting this stuff since I was a boy," Stearns said. He said he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1908, son of a Harvard graduate whose father was a Harvard graduate. The father, an amateur singer, bought him a set of drums when he was thirteen ('To keep me off the streets"). He began drumming along with recordings, then took up a guitar, and finally graduated to C-melody saxophone. He played in small bands around Cambridge but gave up his musical career and followed his father to Harvard. After graduation, Stearns went to Harvard Law School for two years, was bored, and switched to Yale to take up medieval literature. All this time he had been soaking up all the Jazz and folk music he could listen to and developing his record collection. While at Yale he began writing for Down Beat. His first article was a blast at the big, organized heavily-arranged commercial bands. ....”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is planning more features based on the Condon-Gehman Treasury of Jazz and Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz.

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