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Let’s take a stroll down East Garfield Boulevard, on the south side. You won’t need a police escort: we’re going back 50 years and the joints, as they used to say, are jumpin’. Just off the corner of State Street is the swanky Club DeLisa, run by three Italian brothers who made a fortune selling moonshine up and down State until repeal came, when they opened this place. They’ve got a chorus line bouncing onstage, cards and dice are flying in the basement, but the real action in here is music–the sublime and ravishing sounds of jazz. And so it is all along the boulevard: at Michigan we pass the 65 Club and the Speaker’s Inn, a little farther on Bruce’s Lounge, then the El Rado at Prairie. It’s one spot after another up to the Rhumboogie near South Parkway (Martin Luther King Drive), which happens to be owned by the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis.

Garfield is Chicago’s answer to Harlem’s Seventh Avenue: an all-night blaze of dance, drink, and gambling–to name a few of the prevailing means of jollification–every minute fired by the hot and sexy swing of jazz. Think of it as folk music, but one just a couple of generations old: born in New Orleans, then raised in the north when blacks came up and were quickened, for the first time in their history, by the friction of the city. Their music is above all urbane, erupting with pride, pain, sophistication, and a sumptuous sense of style. To the masses it’s classy; to the players, supremely creative. When the movie stars step out of their limousines in front of the DeLisa, no one would ever think they’re slumming; when the big bands finish their shows at the Regal or the Savoy on 47th Street, the Great White Way of the black metropolis, East Garfield is where the musicians come to jam the rest of the night.

That’s the way it was; today even the remains of the old hotels and night spots are hard to find. Some of the buildings they were in are derelict, others are gutted, but most are just gone. One that has survived is a place next to the el where, on the second floor, there used to be a club called White’s Emporium. (Mr. White, a black man and well-known numbers racketeer on the south side, was also a patron of the arts.) When Coleman Hawkins came back to Chicago in the winter of 1941, he blew his “Body and Soul” in White’s, and he was so hot that it was a week before the general public could get past all the musicians who packed the joint to see their idol. If you go there now you’ll find Jardan Food & Liquor, one of the few businesses thriving on East Garfield, and on the el tracks right above it a billboard that faces west down the boulevard. It’s so big that if you stand five blocks back on the corner where the Club DeLisa used to be you can easily read, in washy pastels well chosen for the product being touted, the call letters of a radio station and the words “Smooth Jazz.” In the city oblivion is always just around the corner.

The fate of Garfield, and a hundred other streets like it on the south side, is well known. But what about the music? Did jazz really pass through a golden age, or do we succumb to a gauzy, not to say reactionary nostalgia when we think so? It’s impossible to know for sure, but two books have just been published that throw a little light on the matter: The Jazz Scene, by Eric Hobsbawm, takes the onwards-and-upwards view of artistic progress; Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal, celebrates a bygone period with a loving and vivid portrait.

Hobsbawm is an Englishman who works a day job as preeminent historian of labor, banditry, nationalism, and the 19th century, among other subjects; he only moonlights as a jazz writer. His book is a reprint, with additions, of one that he published in 1959 and revised in 1961 under a pseudonym. In those days there was still enough of a taint associated with the music to make it unseemly for a professional academic to show too much interest. But in any case the social historian is betrayed by the book’s approach. Surveying jazz, from its roots in Afro-American hollers and work songs, the blues, and New Orleans marching bands up to the latest trends at the time of his writing, Hobsbawm asks at every stage: Who’s playing? Who’s listening? And who’s making the money, if any?

Rosenthal’s book fits more squarely into the standard critical format: there are many pages, some of them quite interesting, telling us about the players and records he digs and why. But he too has a lot to say about the context of the music in his period. The interviews he did with musicians and producers in the last years before his death (Rosenthal died at 47, right after the publication of Hard Bop in 1992) offer an especially lively picture of the jazz scene in the 50s and early 60s. He also has something the historian, in this case, did not: the hindsight of 30 years. Hobsbawm wrote his book just when hard bop was reaching its peak, so he could neither see it clearly in relation to what went before nor interpret the traces of decay that began to appear, in the nature of things, at that very moment.

First, a little history. In the genealogy of jazz, bebop begat hard bop, its first and only legitimate child. As the popularity of bebop–the jagged, dissonant, and intellectual style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie–faded in the early 1950s, a less neurotic, more emotional approach to the music began to take shape. Jazz is naturally volatile and many-sided, but by the second half of the decade it was clear that a new generation had matured, given to slower tempos, stronger rhythm, and a more direct appeal to the blues. Having something to say, rather than frenetic virtuosity, became the standard. But the relation of the new style to bebop was filial, not antagonistic: to its partisans hard bop was a refinement, to its detractors merely a simplification of the original. (Thus the charge that Miles Davis played a spare and lyrical trumpet only because he lacked Dizzy’s technique.)

Hard bop’s true rival was a popular, mainly west-coast style that had come together a few years before as an antidote to the jitters of bebop, so-called cool jazz. Its voice was subdued, almost classical, and in the east it was known for the lack of two things that had been part of jazz from the beginning–black players, and that immemorial swing. New Yorkers like Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, and Sonny Rollins responded with a tough, raw sound that the critics began to call “hard” to signal its dissent from the kind of effeminate chamber jazz being produced in California. (Bebop, too, had been born in revolt. The swing formula of the 30s had drawn the first big box-office in jazz, especially for white bands, but to boppers it was mere jazz-tinted dance music. They sought something more authentic and found it, as the phrase went, in “something they [whites] can’t steal because they can’t play it.”)

Innovation, commercial success, return to the roots–this cycle is intrinsic to the evolution of jazz, and one of the best things about The Jazz Scene is that it tells why this is so. Jazz, Hobsbawm reminds us, is folk music. But unlike the dulcimer strummers and accordion squeezers of other lands jazz musicians are city folk, and their art, like everything else in the city, refuses to stand still. It’s always looking for ways to outdo itself, and is sustained in its search by the rich ground of black urban life. Here is where jazz, for the better part of its history, had to pay its way. Not only did jazzmen have to answer to their tradition, their peers, and their own sensibilities, they also had to satisfy a savvy and demanding black audience. The result was a constant tension between creativity and commercial appeal, but as long as it remained unbroken it was immensely fruitful. Out of it sprang the greatest jazz of the century.

Consider the pop song. Hobsbawm points out that it had no place in jazz until the 30s when the black public–ever more middle-class and sophisticated, and with little reason to get sentimental over life along the banks of the Suwannee–called for something more than traditional stomps, rags, and blues. To the hot players of the time pop was just “Mickey Mouse music,” but jazz absorbed it anyway, turning hits and show tunes into a set of standards that became the vessel for every major experiment in improvisation after the war. The affair between pop and jazz has lasted, though it was never equal. In 1957, when Sonny Rollins took that ripe ball of corn “I’m an Old Cowhand” into the recording studio, he told his band, “I want that cat out on the range all the way.” And so, without a doubt, he is.

That tension between what a musician wants to play and what he has to is at the heart of jazz: whatever else it may be, it has always been music of an in-group. When it was heard only on street corners, in juice joints, or at best in the gaudier bordellos, jazz marked blacks and the dangerous classes who consorted with them off from their betters. Respectable society despised them and their sordid entertainments. Jazz stars were a kind of slum royalty in those days, “the poor person writ large,” as Hobsbawm says. Later, as the music was absorbed into popular culture, the line shifted, dividing not poor from rich but hip from square, and just to leave no doubt about who was who its masters–and slaves–got themselves up in the preposterous costume of the French artiste. Without some sense of exclusion, jazz would not be jazz. Hobsbawm describes his own first experience of the music–spinning 78s on a hand-cranked gramophone with his cousin up in the attic–as a “conversion.” That sounds right. “We preferred to have these sessions at night,” he writes. “When the days were too long, we drew the curtains.” I wonder how many other fans have similar stories to tell.

Hobsbawm, though, is what is called in his profession a Marxist, and for him the special, almost private nature of jazz is the result of its being the music of an oppressed class. That may be, but he goes off the rails when he says that jazz itself is some kind of protest: “The bebop revolution was political as much as musical” is typical of this vein. His reasoning ought to sound dated but unfortunately does not: “All American blacks, like all members of oppressed and underprivileged peoples everywhere, are always protesting against their situation in one way or another, by the very modes of their behaviour, even if not completely consciously and deliberately.” The last phrase is the key. It marks the same paternalistic gaze that looks at riots, street crime, even littering and sees “resistance.” Jazz-as-protest is just a new bottle for the old liquor, by now turned acid: that because blacks have been persecuted and beaten down, their emotional lives are somehow more authentic than whites’. The emotional appeal of jazz is powerful and direct, which is why people like to infuse it with their own unfulfilled desires: the left-wing historian makes jazz a vehicle for the undying insurgency of the downtrodden; the rebel without a cause adopts it as a way of life, becoming a “white Negro” devoted to the kicks he thinks are the specialty of blacks.

Hobsbawm’s political beliefs also color his view of the future of jazz. In his introduction to the new edition he admits that the book now seems to capture a golden age, and wonders if jazz is not in danger of becoming too settled and comfortable, just “another version of classical music.” But the struggle must go on, and in the end Hobsbawm finds hope right where socialists have always found it, in the mere survival of people and ways that one day, they believe, will flourish again: “Jazz,” he writes, “has shown extraordinary powers of survival and self-renewal inside a society not designed for it and which does not deserve it. It is too early to think that its potential is exhausted.”

Maybe so. But in the 50s nobody was worrying about that since, as Rosenthal makes clear, the music still had its roots deep in black city life. The late Clifford Jordan told Rosenthal that when he was growing up on the south side of Chicago, “All the jukeboxes, they had jazz, but nobody called it ‘jazz’ then. It was just music. It was just our music, folk music.” That essential tension in jazz between musicians and their audience had not yet snapped, as it nearly did under the heavy intellectual demands of bebop. Johnny Griffin recalls in Hard Bop that when the promoters “took the music out of Harlem and put it in Carnegie Hall and downtown in those joints where you’ve got to be quiet . . . black people split and went back to Harlem, back to the rhythm and blues, so they could have a good time.” Hard bop arrived just after the R & B explosion of the late 40s and early 50s, and though it aimed higher than the wails and moans of the barrelhouse (a lot of hard boppers had in fact paid their dues in R & B), it never lost sight of its home ground either. It was still “just our music.” In the fall of 1958, when Miles Davis played at the Regal Theater on 47th Street, his sextet–the definitive hard-bop combo, then at the peak of its fame–shared the bill for a week with the supreme populist of big-band jazz, Count Basie, and Sonny Stitt, a tough-swinging bebop saxophonist. And with a generosity that would become unthinkable in just a few years, Miles even went on first.

Hard bop contained multitudes. While the titans of bebop played in essentially the same style, hard bop had stars as different as Cannonball Adderley, who loved to please the crowd with his invincible swing, and Sonny Rollins, a hard-edged and relentless seeker. Yet each man could play in the other’s manner, and did, since the lines were but lightly drawn. That was the virtue of hard bop, and when players like Adderley and Rollins began to go their separate ways it disintegrated as a form. However different, each epitomized the instrumental ideals of hard bop; neither was served by its demise. Cannonball got bogged down in funk a few years later, and Sonny wandered off into the deserts of free jazz.

What happened over the next couple of decades is ably summarized by Rosenthal, and it’s not pretty. The audience of young white hipsters who had adopted jazz in the 50s moved over to rock, and the aleatory noise of free jazz forced all but the most stouthearted of middle-class Negroes to look for something else that was sophisticated, black, and listenable, which they found in soul. The mainstream of jazz, meanwhile, meandered through the 60s and 70s polluted by various forms of electrified jazz-rock “fusion.” That’s where the money was. Most of this stuff has gone the way of the Nehru jacket, but a lighter version, modified into the pap known as “smooth jazz,” seems to have become fixed as a digestive or anodyne background for yuppies getting their stomachs or their teeth filled.

This decline was abetted, as Rosenthal and Hobsbawm both point out, by the exit of middle-class blacks from urban ghettos. It was the social mix in places like the French Quarter of New Orleans, Harlem, and Chicago’s Black Belt that made them the living heart of jazz for three-quarters of a century. When the mix was gone, the heart stopped beating; black kids stopped dreaming of playing that horn. Now, “they got the blaster in their ear and they got it on the wrong stations. . . . They want to hear that slave beat,” laments the young reedman David Murray in Hard Bop. Is there a better emblem of the decay of the postwar ghetto into today’s “inner city” than the annihilation of jazz by rap? Hobsbawm calls it “the opposite of the great and profound art of the blues,” to which he might have added anything that ever went by the name of jazz–except for free jazz, that is: it also vented anger, promoted revolution, and sounded bad.

Free jazz really was the protest music Hobsbawm is looking for. It put up the barricades around 1960 and turned, as has been said, from using music to entertain the white man to hating him with it. The “new thing” not only had no swing, it didn’t even have a beat. Or a tune. It soon became the rage, however, even for older players like Sonny Rollins, who was sucked into the movement for a few years, and John Coltrane, whose mystical bent made him into its avatar. But even Coltrane had his doubts. In the early 60s, when Red Garland asked him if he really believed in what he was doing, Trane dropped his head–“like a shy kid,” according to Garland–and told his old friend, “Yeah, sort of. But I got myself out here, and now if I turned back and started playing the way I used to play, people would think I was a phony. I’d lay a lot of the cats right out because they’ve been following me.” In a few years Coltrane was dead and Rollins had moved on; but free jazz itself kept bumping along, eventually becoming established like any aging avant-garde–honored by critics, consecrated (though not performed) by up-and-comers, and ignored by the public. Ornette Coleman–who started it all about the same time Fidel Castro strolled into Havana, and who was hailed just as lavishly–is still playing today. But after three and a half decades he is, like the jefe maximo himself, the only soldier left in his own revolution.

Bebop defied swing, the ultimate dance music, by making jazz impossible to dance to; free jazz defied hard bop, the ultimate listening music, by making it impossible to listen to. What came between was the last major creative phase in jazz. Hard bop was the last time jazz played from both the head and the heart of black music, the last time it had an audience both downtown and down-home. Neither Hobsbawm nor Rosenthal can quite bring himself to admit this, even though each offers plenty of evidence that the world that made jazz is gone, never to return, that its natural audience has fled, that it has become, in Hobsbawm’s words, “an accepted cultural treasure, consisting of a repertoire of mostly dead styles, performed . . . for a financially comfortable middle-aged and middle-class public, black and white, and the Japanese tourist.” Jazz is not Mozart: caged in university programs and on public radio, it can do no more than survive.

But it’s not just a matter of demography and desegregation. Jazz has to live out its life–and death–like any other art. There are those who still write epic poetry, but is it anything more than an imitation of Homer? In the last century ordinary Italians hummed tunes from the latest Verdi opera; can anyone today hum anything from Einstein on the Beach? Jazz is no different, except that it ran its course from the equivalent of sacred motets to Schoenberg in a few generations, so its early periods still echo in living memory. That makes its exhaustion more poignant, but doesn’t change it: since hard bop, no new style with any staying power has emerged. Where would it come from? We can’t ask any more from the heroes of the 50s–Art Farmer, Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Rollins–who are still around (sadly, many others have died in the last couple of years) refining the more approachable styles of their youths. It has to come from the young.

For the last ten years or so we’ve been hearing about the great revival of jazz among a group of highly skilled younger players. And they have produced a lot of excellent music, but it’s a “revival” in the strict sense: “The basis of what is played today,” says Hobsbawm, “is essentially what was played in the ‘forties and ‘fifties.” Hard bop is once again the reigning style. The best players can now blow hot, cool, and gutbucket jazz too–anything in the “tradition.” (Dixieland seems not to qualify, probably because it already had its revival in the early 40s when middle-aged white audiences adopted it as their own museum music. It now sounds too pale and musty.) Like well-trained classical musicians, jazzmen today are competent in all periods. Marcus Roberts can re-create ragtime, boogie-woogie, stride, and bebop piano styles with marvelous ease. Technically, he’s a much better player than Thelonious Monk ever was. But Monk grew up with those styles and, unlike Roberts, made something original out of them. He didn’t revere the past; he embodied it.

“They haven’t even given us a chance to develop,” says the young trumpeter Terence Blanchard in Hard Bop. That’s possible, but at the age when Wynton Marsalis is hosting PBS specials on the history of jazz and his brother Branford is on the Tonight Show trading jokes with that all-American square Jay Leno, Blanchard’s idol Clifford Brown was dead (car wreck), Charlie Parker was going that way (drugs), and Sonny Rollins had already cut his most indelible records. The achievement of hard bop is just too monumental to be overcome. Its creators grasped the basic materials that the jazz musician has to work with–the blues, swing, tunes, and the vehicle that sets them in motion, improvisation–and by stripping away what was cloying, fulsome, and indulgent in the legacy of their elders, they revealed the hard kernel at its center. So it’s natural that the youngsters of today reach back across the Dark Ages of fusion and free jazz to the 1950s, which by now wears the patina of classical antiquity. They recapitulate its styles and even refine them technically with the virtuosity of music-school training and clean living, but it’s a renaissance and not a revolution because, as Johnny Hodges sang years ago on his horn, things ain’t what they used to be.

The Jazz Scene by Eric Hobsbawm, Pantheon, $25.

Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965 by David H. Rosenthal, Oxford University Press, $21.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.