Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Lost Generation: The Unsung Lyrics of Jazz

Sidney Bechet
Wikimedia Commons: William P. Gottlieb
When you think of jazz, what comes to mind? Acrobatic melodies floating across a coffee shop, creating a romantic euphoria and perfect complement to the whiffs of the cozy, delightful drink itself. The music stops. The double bass gently returns with a calming “dum-bum-bum-bum-da-da-de-dum-bum”. So simple, yet so complex. So individual, yet so communal at the very same time. Similar was the music of Sidney Bechet, who entranced the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the glories of jazz, as he and his audience danced onto magical tangents, explored through his musical variations. 

Royal Irish rifles in the Battle of the Somme, WWI
Wikimedia Commons: Imperial War Museums, UK
Born in 1897, Bechet, although an American saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer, brought his unique and individual personality to Montmartre, Paris. As one of the first notable jazz players, he was quite innovative for his time. Ah, but what time was it? To answer this question, we must travel back four or so years to the date July 28, 1914. The words of Wilfred Owen illustrate this time best. “Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all went blind; drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots of disappointed shells that dropped behind. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile…” These were the horrors of WWI, and the artists to follow were named the Lost Generation. Yes, lost they were; thrown away from the soothing melodies of religion, and jolted into the requiem of war.

Standing Female Nude by Pablo Picasso
Wikimedia Commons:
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Enter Sidney Bechet, a complicated jazz musician; enter Gertrude Stein, a gay novelist who lived openly with her partner; enter Picasso and Matisse, painters of reality and imagination with complex shapes; enter Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both heavy drinkers who conveyed the disjunction of human society through their writing. Each of these artists have one thing in common – they lived like the “dum-bum-bum-bum-da-da-de-dum-bum” of the double bass followed by the blare of trumpet and the liquid voice of the saxophone. If the hierarchal nature of classical music embellished the traditional ideals of the generation before them, then the varied melodies and rhythms of jazz defined the post-war generation. Improv was the key. The Lost Generation was a tossed salad, a jumble of social experiments and falters in an effort to make sense of 20th century life.
So the next time you hear the romantic, peaceful, and yet tangential and sporadic melodies of jazz, maybe listen a little closer to the unsung lyrics of the “Lost Generation”.


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