Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 14

In Chapter 14 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée offers his opinions on jazz—both the music and the term, the latter of which he felt strongly was too often misused. He also offers some rather questionable history lessons on the origins of jazz.

Chapter XIV


PAUL WHITEMAN titled his book with this much abused term.
Personally, I would not have dared to have done likewise because I do not believe that I sufficiently understand what the term means to talk about it; and I have found, upon questioning those who use the word frequently and seemingly with understanding, that in reality they know nothing at all specific as to its meaning.
To some it is “peppy” music, to others a lot of noise, and to still others it is the waving of instruments in the air. I have found no two people who give the same definition of the word.
The real propagators of the word were a group of men in New York, who, back in 1918 and 1919, banded together and called themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band. The outstanding characteristic of their records, as I recall “The Ostrich Walk” was that there was no distinguishable melody; every man seemed to be striking out for himself, playing a part of his own and only take care that it did not conflict with the general harmony. These men were the first to use the term, and through their success the word came into wide-spread popularity.
But today “jazz” is applied to almost any form of orchestra or band music which is not strictly classical, and this is a grave error, inasmuch as dance music may be just as sweet and beautiful as true classical music. Therefore I believe it is absolutely incorrect to use the word so indiscriminately.
The unusual feature of my own orchestra is a clearly defined melody at all times, therefore I do not see how we could rightly be characterized as a “jazz” band; and I would not term our music “jazz,” even though I occasionally “laugh” on the saxophone and others in the band play what we term “blue” notes and unusual rhythms.
Whenever possible I correct any publicity that would style our little group of eight a “jazz” band, or me a “jazz” band leader.
“Blue” notes are simply an exaggerated sliding up and down of the pitch of the note and this is studied in legitimate music, just as arpeggios, rhythms, chromatic runs and accents are all studied and used in legitimate music and in the highest of classical music.
Truly, I have no definite conception of what “jazz” is, but I believe that the term should be applied, in view of the fact that such music came up from the South, to the weird orchestral efforts of various colored bands up in Harlem, the Negro section of New York City. These bands have a style all their own, and at times it seems as though pandemonium had broken loose. Most of the time there is no distinguishable melody; in fact even though they are playing a popular tune with a definite melody, it is absolutely impossible for even a musical ear to tell the name of the piece.
It was the similar style of colored musicians in the South (New Orleans to be exact), that first prompted this group of white men, to adopt that type of music and style themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band.
But the public uses many words the meanings of which are very vague and doubtful, and a crusade on my part to attempt to show that the word is incorrectly used in the majority of cases, where the instrumentalist is simply employing legitimate and basic rudiments of music, would be absurd. A little reflection on the part of most anyone who thinks at all will show that the word “jazz” nine times out of ten is misapplied.
Although Whiteman’s music is really symphonized syncopation, occasionally he permits his brass team to play in this Negro style and since he is unquestionably the king of dance orchestra leaders, he is rightly termed “The Jazz King.”

Read Chapter 15

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