Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear.
By Court Carney.

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0700616756, $34.95. 219 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

While much ink has been spent on the role of jazz in America, its broad cultural and societal influences within cities other than New York, Chicago, and New Orleans has not received such extensive treatment. Court Carney’s new book, Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear, has ventured beyond existing work in the field of jazz studies. Carney’s study synthesizes and reconciles the basic information about the origins and cultural implications of jazz in a clear and convenient manner. The book spans the 1890s to 1930s, combining both musical and historical analysis in order for the reader to gain a greater understanding of the larger cultural and social issues that contributed to the birth of the genre. The primary objective of the study is to “establish an emphasis on the shifts in American culture as well as the process of diffusion” (7), and it does so by discussing the broader cultural aspects of the dissemination and acceptance of jazz in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. He does so by diving the book into three parts and further dissecting it into six chapters. The essential details in each chapter are supplemented by focusing on a particular jazz musician within that geographic area during that time. Part 1: Creation, consists of Chapters 1 and 2; Part 2: Dispersion, consists of Chapters 3, 4, and 5; and Part 3: Acceptance, consists of Chapter 6 and the Conclusion. The book also contains an index of all the songs written during the time span that the book covers. Part 1 discusses the origins of jazz from ragtime and the blues and its earliest versions within New Orleans. Part 2 is dedicated to the way in which jazz was disseminated in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Changes in society led to corresponding changes in taste, and these changes are an important key to establishing a greater understanding of the dissemination and acceptance of this new musical genre. Part 3 examines jazz as the new American music, concluding with the contributions of Benny Goodman.

The greatest strength of this study is that it is based on a much more thorough discussion of the cultural implications of jazz in various cities than has previously appeared in print. Carney’s writing style is clear, succinct, and accessible and avoids the use of jargon, making the book easy to read for both the expert musician and the layman without seeming simplified. My one main criticism of the book is that at times, Carney seems to do what he says in the introduction he does not plan to do: to “retell the totality of the early jazz narrative” (4). In some instances, especially in the early chapters, it seems as if he is attempting to reinvent the wheel and writing a jazz history textbook rather than composing a cultural history.

This book is a fascinating study of jazz in its earliest forms and how the music, contemporary culture, and society were intertwined. The information presented in Carney’s book asks new questions and reinforces the need for a more holistic approach to the study of early jazz than has so far been the case. Such a vast amount of information is provided in this book that it is impossible to do it justice in such a brief review. For any scholar undertaking research in jazz and early American music, this book is an invaluable source of information. Carney’s study brings a new perspective to musicological and cultural studies and deserves a central place on the map of jazz studies and studies of early American music.

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