Geographies of Jazz: Lonesome Roads and Streets of Dreams by Andrew S. Berish

Your living room could be a ballroom.
— Andrew S. Berish

Andrew S. Berish, currently a professor at the University of South Florida, has renewed research about the story of jazz during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States. What is most impressive is his ability to take his readers on a ride through the history of jazz during one of the most economically trying times in the history of the music. He builds his study around the Casino Ballroom on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Barnet, and in doing so, establishes himself as one of the strongest scholars writing about jazz today.

Berish’s approach to the music of the time is scholarly; his sentiments and conclusions are rarely nostalgic, although the music of the period at times tends to be so. Of the great composer and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, he writes “I will shift the focus away from the Ellington-centric narratives that dominate scholarship on the band.” Such observations offer a different foray into the terrain; the author moves the focus away from the major cast of cats to examine how “minor” figures play a key role in the history of the music. For example, in his discussion of the Casino Ballroom on Catalina Island, he explains why sweet jazz was preferred over hot jazz. While assigning race to music is always problematic, there existed a strong belief that “hot” jazz was African American while “sweet” jazz was “drained of its ‘color’ [and] implicitly ‘white’ music.” And while audiences of the Casino Ballroom were serenaded to the sweet sounds of all-white bands, there was still an African American presence on the island. Berish’s ability to examine the margins of the history of jazz sound are made particularly evident, too, in his reading of a photograph of Duke Ellington with His Orchestra. “The presence of so many people,” he writes, “each occupied in a slightly different way, overwhelms the centrality of the bandleader who seems, in this one instant, an appendage far from the center of our attention.” He does not offer a standard reading of jazz in high places, but does the difficult work of revealing the perils and struggles of geography and of personality of a music that was born in a time of economic prosperity and matured during economic uncertainty.

In his charting of the geographies of jazz, Berish explores the roots and the routes that make jazz a dynamic and democratic art form.

Good scholarship begins with good questions, and the questions in Lonesome Roads and Streets of Dreams are provocative. How did the music selected for the Casino Ballroom help maintain a “white, middle-class social order”? How is the idea of mobility central to appreciating the musical genius of Charlie Barnet? How did the technological advances of the automobile, the train, and the radio shape the development of jazz music? How is musical place a social process? These are just some of the questions Berish addresses in his study. The work itself revolves around the interconnections between music and place. In referring to Ellington’s music as a “locomotive laboratory of place,” Berish connects his compositions with “other black artists of the time working in the vidual arts and literature who also were preoccupied with representing the black experience of travel, migration, and urbanization.” In short, sound evokes a sense of place, and music charts its own geography. As Berish notes, “the power of music” resides in its ability “to participate in the constitution of social and spatial experience.” Even in his brilliant article on hip hop music, Neil Strauss opened with “I live in a country every map maker will respect.” In both statements, there dwells an underpinning that music is both a utopian and a eutopian endeavor that aims to create a sense of place as well as euphoria. Yet Berish always encourages us to see the complexities of any given statement, especially in his discussion of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. By looking more closely at Ellington’s band, Berish shows us “a group of very different individuals held loosely together by a tenuous combination of shared artistic goals and larger economic and social circumstances […] [T]he band was a composite not only of personalities but of American places as well.” In his charting of the geographies of jazz, Berish explores the roots and the routes that make jazz a dynamic and democratic art form.

Berish shows us the deep connections between the musical practices of each artist over the course of his life, and in doing so we leave these pages with a rich understanding of the devotion to craft that makes each artist a valued contributor to the ever-unfolding history of jazz music.

Much like the music and musicians he studies, Berish illuminates the varied frequencies of jazz music — whether it is the sweet jazz of the Casino Ballroom creating “nostalgic modernism,” or the train whistles in Duke Ellington’s music evoking an American South that was both beautiful and brutal, or the saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet using metaphors of travel and the road to explore ways in which “white and black America could mingle on more equal terms,” or guitarist Charlie Christian evoking Oklahoma and the freedom of the “Territories” in his signature piece “Flying Home.” Of the legendary Charlie Christian, Berish writes “To adequately understand [his] musical drive, we first need to outline how the guitarist moved in the musical spaces he occupied and helped construct. Then we need to connect these musical enactments of mobility to his lived experience of space – the places where he lived and worked.”

The task Berish sets for himself is straightforward enough — how does music create a sense of movement? Yet the actual undertaking of this question requires critical and creative thinking. Berish demonstrates both. In considering “how a sense of movement is generated” in music, he tells us “traditional musical analysis is insufficient” and instead “offer[s] some new ways to talk about [the] essential, and frequently overlooked, aspect of musical meaning.” The prose is always engaging and thorough; the close reading of specific pieces of music is skilled and specialized; and the narrative arc of the study as a whole is exhilarating. This work shows us the deep connections between the musical practices of each artist over the course of his/her life, and in doing so, one might leave these pages with a stronger desire to understand the devotion to craft that makes each artist a valued contributor to the ever-unfolding history of jazz music.

“Roads,” Berish tells us, “brought more than music — they brought new ways of hearing and understanding America.” The same can be said of this book. Ranging from the high branches of literary and artistic theory to apocryphal tales, the writing is at once serious and accessible. In his own jazz-inflected way, Berish offers us original ways of grappling with the connections between music and place, and of reading the evolution of jazz music in the landscape and soundscape of a United States that was itself in transition.

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