Book review

Ted Gioia – Music: A Subversive History

Ted Gioia – Music: A Subversive History
(Basic Books, 2019. 528 Pages. Book review by Peter Jones)

Ted Gioia is the author of many books about jazz, including West Coast Jazz (1992) and The Jazz Standards (2012), plus in-depth studies of blues, love songs and work songs. This substantial new volume has been in gestation for at least 25 years, and casts its net wide – wide enough to encompass not just jazz but the whole of music, the whole of human history, and even the origins of the universe. He is nothing if not ambitious.

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It isn’t usually advisable to invent theories that try to explain everything; you become so attached to your theory that you can end up forcing the facts into your invented mould, whether or not they actually fit. In the case of Music: A Subversive History, however, the theory is broad and flexible enough to allow Gioia to get away with it. And he really has done his research. A Subversive History of Music is not merely fascinating, but scholarly, thought-provoking and accessible.

The central idea is this: musical innovation never springs from society’s officially approved sources, but from its despised outsiders, those with little or no power in everyday life – women, black people, young people – who develop their ideas in isolation from the mainstream. Very often they live in port cities like New Orleans or Liverpool, which are flooded with influences from elsewhere. At first the musical innovations are furiously denounced from on high, then grudgingly accepted, before being finally celebrated and incorporated into the mainstream.

There are plenty of persuasive 20th century examples – blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, punk, hip-hop – but the difficulty of making the case becomes apparent when it comes to innovators like Monteverdi, Bach or Mozart. Weren’t they fêted in their day? Weren’t they showered with gold by princes and kings? Well, yes. But at the beginning of the 17th century Monteverdi met resistance from traditionalist critics who disliked his modern use of harmony and modes (sound familiar, jazz fans?).

And Bach, it turns out, was not the bewigged conformist we had imagined: he was a rebel who fathered at least 20 children (“Bach’s organ had no stops”, as one wag has it), did a month’s jail time, and once pulled a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. His music was accused of being “bombastic” and “confused”, “darkened by an excess of art”. Mozart was another badass, whose personal conduct and musical subject matter made polite society blush. Gioia quotes the celebrated opera director Peter Sellars, who has labeled Mozart as “one of the most intensely political artists in history” in his critiques of the ruling class of his day: The Marriage of Figaro caused a riot on its debut, in which three people died.

Leaping forward to the birth of jazz – largely though not exclusively created by the descendants of slaves – one of its innovations was its syncretic approach to music. It didn’t begin merely as an extension of the blues, although blues was and remains one of its central elements. As Gioia argues, jazz “demonstrated a remarkable ability to devour and digest other performance styles” – ragtime, religious music, the songs of musical theatre and film, modern classical composers like Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, pop, funk, soul and hip-hop. And although earlier musical styles had often incorporated improvisation, jazz made it an essential ingredient. But subversive? Well, I was surprised to learn that the oldest known original jazz song is called Funky Butt, and it was Buddy Bolden’s theme tune. It changed every time it was played, but Sidney Bechet recalled that “the police put you in jail if they heard you singing that song”.

When music seems dangerous, it’s at its most interesting.

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