The Jazz Problem: the shifting image of the saxophone in the 1920s

A couple of years ago, I picked up an old copy of The Etude from July of 1924. The editorial in that issue promised the next issue would be dedicated to jazz. I was one month too early. Luckily, the August 1924 issue is archived online. This issue is a great resource for jazz and saxophone scholars researching the shifting attitudes about jazz, race, class, and American culture.

The question on the cover is not really a question; rather, it’s a clear statement to the music teachers who subscribed to The Etude. “We, therefore, do most emphatically not endorse Jazz, merely by discussing it.” (pg. 515) One of their objections to jazz is it destroys pupils’ technique and encourages careless and “sloppily” playing. It’s not that they see absolutely no value in jazz. The next paragraph goes onto state “On the other hand, the melodic and rhythmic inventive skill of many of the composers of Jazz, such men as Berlin, Confrey, Gershwin and Cohan, is extraordinary. Passing through the skilled hands of such orchestral leaders of high-class Jazz orchestra conducted by Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, Waring and others, the effects have been such that serious musicians such as John Alden Carpenter, Percy Grainger and Leopold Stokowski, have predicted that Jazz will have an immense influence upon musical composition, not only of America, but also of the world.” (pg. 515) This framing The Etude sets up clearly shows they believe jazz can have value if it’s passed through the hands of skilled white composers and conductors. They are not objecting to jazz as musical genre per se, but creating racial boundaries that denigrate and minimize the contributions of black composers while elevating white composers who borrow from black musicians.

To underscore their views on jazz, The Etude asks 15 white men, and one woman (Amy Cheney Beach listed as Mrs. H. H. A Beach) to give their opinions. These views range from positive: John Alden Carpenter–“I am convinced that our contemporary popular music (please note I avoid labeling it ‘jazz’) is by far the most spontaneous, the most personal, the most characteristic, and, by virtue of these qualities, the most important musical expression that America has achieved.”(pg. 518) Some opinions were indifferent: Amy Cheney Beach–“The future will determine the exact place in music, to be occupied by jazz, whether it is merely a joke or a force that can be utilized in a legitimate way for the glory of art.”(pg. 517) And some were racist: Dr. Frank Damrosch, director of the Institute of Musical Art–“If jazz originated in the dance rhythms of the negro, it was at least interesting as the self-expression of a primitive race. When jazz was adopted by the ‘highly civilized’ white race, it tended to degenerate it towards primitivity.”(pg. 518) Perhaps the most entertaining views on jazz came from John Philip Sousa–“When she was good she was very, very good–and when she was bad she was horrid.”(pg. 520) I’m not sure if he stole that one from Mae West, but her version of the joke is better.

What I found surprising in these opinions, many of the writers expressed views and opinions on the changing nature of the saxophone. The composer, Henry F. Gilbert sums up transformation of the saxophone in a footnote. “A word about the saxophone. This instrument may be said to be the principal instrument in the jazz orchestra. It is so much in evidence here, and so little in evidence in the regular symphony orchestra, as to give many persons the idea it is a special development of jazz. But the saxophone was invented by Adolph Sax, in Paris, about 1840. Meyerbeer, Massenet, Bizet, Thomas, and many have written for it. Bizet has written for this instrument a naive and pastoral melody of much beauty, in his music to Daudet’s drama, ‘L’Arlesienne.’ However, it has never become an integral part of the standard symphony orchestra. It has always remained a special instrument, used on occasion to impart its rich and expressive tone-color to certain isolated phrases or melodies. It has remained for jazz to exploit it. And this has been done in a way to make the angels weep (with laughter). Originally an instrument having a richly pathetic and lyrical tone quality, it has been made to perform all sorts of ridiculous stunts, amounting to an indecent exposure, of all its worst qualities. It is as if a grave and dignified person were forced to play the part of clown at the circus.”(pg. 518) Gilbert is essentially correct in his views on how romantic composers wrote for the saxophone. Up until the 1920s, the saxophone was mostly known for playing sweet and pretty melodies, a tradition that Puccini followed in Turandot as the saxophone accompanies the children’s chorus for the Chinese folk song, “Jasmine Flower.”

As the decade progresses, the saxophone takes a darker tone in it’s stage works, influenced by jazz and popular culture. What Gilbert saw as insult or a joke, ended up pushing the boundaries of technique and performance. Jazz opened up a new world for saxophonists to explore. And composers from the likes of Milhaud–La création du monde, Honegger–Les Aventures du Roi Pausole, Weill–Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Die Dreigroschenoper, Krenek–Jonny spielt auf, and even Vaughn-Williams–Job: Masque for Dancing explored this new side of the saxophone in their works for ballet and opera.

To explore more works that demonstrate this shift in symbolism, check out the database and search “192” in the date for all works written in the 1920s. And to explore more opinions on jazz in the 1920s, Percy Grainger and others give their answer to “the Jazz Problem” in the following issue of The Etude.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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