A new book on Italian-Americans in jazz distorts history | Bleader

Friday, June 19, 2015

A new book on Italian-Americans in jazz distorts history

Posted By on 06.19.15 at 02:00 PM

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Chicago authors Bill Dal Cerro and David Anthony Witter attempt to spell out the abundant contributions Italian-Americans have made to jazz over its century-long history in a new, self-published book called Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience. As a catalog of Italian-American jazz musicians—some of whom changed their names to sound less ethnic such as Flip Phillips (ne Joseph Filipelli) and Louie Bellson (ne Luigi Balassoni)—the book provides a worthwhile service, a kind of low-key encyclopedia featuring short biographies of important figures. In their preface the authors write, "our goal with this book was to be celebratory, not chauvinistic," and I don't have any reason to doubt that claim. But it isn't quite borne out in the writing.

It's indisputable that Italian-Americans have been important to jazz. But so have countless other ethnic groups in the U.S. Dal Cerro and Witter acknowledge that jazz was a black creation, but they not only strain their credibility when they say they noticed "some links between patterns of Italian immigration and some elements in the birth of jazz," they engage in absurd historical revisionism. It's hardly a secret that jazz was a brilliant hybrid music that freely borrowed all sorts of ideas from European culture—Italian opera among them—but it's offensive to posit that Italian immigrants has such a direct hand.

The authors came to the book project as Italian-American historians rather than musicologists, so it's not surprising that the musical analysis is rather light, focusing more on personalities, history, and social aspects. There's nothing wrong with that, although some of the errors are hard to swallow. In the first chapter, which discusses the music's emergence in New Orleans, the authors bizarrely mention the Connecticut composer Charles Ives, erroneously labeling him Creole. They seem to have confused the very white New Englander—who did draw upon a wide swath of influences in a polyglot fashion akin to jazz—with New Orleans composer Louis Gottschalk. In a chapter about Philadelphia organist Joey DeFrancesco they write that he "introduced the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument largely used in church settings, into the modern everyday jazz vernacular," an assertion that would probably confuse Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Baby Face Willette, Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, or Bill Doggett if they were still living. One of the problems with self-publishing is a lack of editorial oversight.

An entire chapter is devoted to New Orleans cornetist Nick LaRocca, whose import is distorted because he played on the first commercial jazz recording by the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose race made them early ambassadors for the burgeoning form despite a lack of originality and technical brilliance; they were to King Oliver what Pat Boone was to Little Richard. It's also a bit insulting that the authors felt the need to lump female subjects into a single chapter, as if their gender disqualified them from fitting in with the men. Still, the book is readable and the extended chapter called "Italian Americans in Jazz: the Ensemble Cast" delivers a thorough chronicle of lesser-known figures including Chicagoans like Joe Vito, Danny Polo, and Gene Esposito.

Today's playlist:

David Murray Infinity Quartet, Be My Monster Love (Motema)
Anne Guthrie & Richard Kamerman, Sinter (Erstaeu)
IPA, Bubble (Moserobie)
Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway (New West)
Wiktor Kociuban, Penderecki & Xenakis: Complete Works for Cello Solo (Dux)

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