14 February 2016

Why I Hate "Young Man With a Horn"

Doris Day and a fraught-looking Kirk Douglas
Okay, I guess I really don't hate it. I'm tempted to say I hate it (because this movie really bothers me) simply because I love Bix Beiderbecke, whose brief life was purportedly the inspiration for the hero of the novel, Rick Martin. But there's more to it than that. 
First of all, it has to be admitted that the music is great; Harry James, also a Bix fan, was in peak form (though he played trumpet rather than cornet), and Doris Day's vocals are among her best.
This story, however, film and novel, is based on several cliches that are insulting to musicians, music, and humans in general. It's also pretentious and annoying.
The imaginary jazz virtuoso who is the center of Young Man With a Horn loves jazz at first not because it is great music that just happens to have been invented by black people, but because he seeks escape from ordinary life. His background is barren of any kind of enjoyment or artistic feeling; his need to get away from what Shaw termed "middle-class-morality" drives him to "jungle music."
Jazz is seen as an emotive, anti-intellectual force, a "natural" music that bypasses the rigorous training that classical music requires. This was another common theme in fiction and criticism from the 1920s through the 1950s. And it is patently ridiculous.
Jazz is one of the most rigorous forms that there is; the top players are gifted with immense talent, it's true, but they became the virtuosi they were through endless hours devoted to practicing and honing their skills. Louis Armstrong did not just pick up a horn and become the greatest trumpeter ever; he picked up a horn and from that moment dedicated himself to mastering it in every way possible. Although he was a young teenager at the time, he had the discipline and strength of character to spend long, grueling hours practicing. So did Bix, and so did all great musicians.
The difference between geniuses like Louis and Bix and other musicians is that when they had mastered their instruments, they were vastly more technically proficient and intellectually creative than anyone else.
Another movie convention about musicians in general is that they are seeking a "sound" they can never find; so they have to keep trying harder and harder, and subside into drink and despair when they fail. You see this over and over in the movies, whether it's jazz or classical.
Bix Beiderbecke
This is also nonsense. The great jazz musicians found the sounds they were looking for practically every time they played. (When Mae West was asked "Haven't you ever found a man who could make you happy?" "Sure I have; lots of times!" she replied.) Innovation and expressiveness poured from their instruments. They found the sound; we, the listeners, were the ones who were in search of it. Louis' fanfare opening to West End Blues sounds like it came directly from one of Moses' tablets; it sounds like it was always there, a part of our life, a justification for being a human being. So does Bix' famous Singing the Blues solo (though I love his solo on Royal Garden Blues even more). This music is technically brilliant, but more importantly it speaks with incredible clarity. That clarity is no accident; it's the result of thought and what can only be called study. That sequence of notes, in that key, with that rhythm, and that intonation, have the effect on us that they do because that's what they were created to do. They knew how we would feel when we heard it. They knew when it was right, and so did their listeners.
Generally I love Kirk Douglas, but he was totally wrong for a role generally considered to be based on Bix. Douglas was always at his best -- even when he was funny or charming -- in a part with a strong undercurrent of anger; often righteous anger, to be sure, but still -- rage seemed very close to the surface. From all accounts, Bix Beiderbecke, a cornet genius who rose to jazz stardom with his first few recordings, and died basically of chronic alcoholism at the age of twenty-nine, was a self-effacing, soft-spoken young man. Louis Armstrong described him as "timid." His confidence in his abilities was oddly yoked with an uneasy feeling that he needed formal training to better himself. Contrary (again) to popular legend, he had a loving, supportive family. He wasn't particularly interested in "society" one way or the other. Or in passionate love affairs; he seems to have had various flings with the usual showgirls but (unlike some of his pals) was never a woman-chaser. He was engaged to be married at the time of his death, to young woman his friends described as ordinary. Speculations that he might have been gay have never been substantiated. But he was never aggressive or violent; when angry, he was more likely to be sarcastic than loud. He was not an angry young man.
So one reason I hate Young Man With a Horn is because of the confusion it displays regarding jazz as an art form, and the misconceptions it has fostered regarding Bix Beiderbecke as a person.
It's also a pretty common theme in music-based drama that a wealthy dilettante, male or female, gets romantically involved with a musician of lowly origins to disastrous effect. Sometimes the rich one is serious, sometimes not, but the whole thing is a recipe for disaster. and in fiction it always leads to trouble.
It has happened a couple of times that a wealthy society girl married a musician from a humble background, but real life was not as dismal as fiction always seems to be; first there was the wonderful romance of heiress Elin McKay and Irving Berlin, and then that of Alice Hammond (whose mother was a Vanderbilt) and Benny Goodman. But both of these couples married happily and spent about fifty devoted years together. Real people are in fact able to overcome social differences if they love each other, it seems, in reality, anyway.
Paul Whiteman
But to my mind the worst thing about Young Man With a Horn is the disrespect it offers towards a man who was a real hero of early jazz, and with it racial equality and American culture in general -- Paul Whiteman. Because far from feeling trapped in Whiteman's extremely prestigious orchestra and contemptuous of its arrangements and musicians, Bix loved being with Whiteman. As well he might have; Whiteman respected him greatly as an artist and treated him almost like a son. Instead of forbidding Bix from recording on his own with small jazz groups while in the orchestra's employ, Whiteman gave him carte blanche to play and record with anyone he wanted. And he paid him a fabulous salary, too.
Whiteman was the man who had such faith in George Gershwin that he commissioned him to write Rhapsody in Blue; the Whiteman Orchestra was the first to record it. He discovered the great singers Mildred Bailey and Bing Crosby (who started with Whiteman as part of a hot singing trio, the Rhythm Boys, which included Bailey's brother). His orchestra at this period was practically a laboratory for modern 20s jazz; among the personnel during these years were great players like Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trombauer, Miff Mole, and Chauncey Morehouse. The suggestion that true jazzmen had contempt for Whiteman and hated playing with him is most unfair.   
Bix, 3rd from right back row
I guess I don't cut this film the slack I would usually allow a 1950s musical drama; after all, I quite like the movie of James Cain's Serenade, with Mario Lanza, despite some downright bizarre scenes at the opera house. But poor Bix has been the subject of so much myth-making, much of it simply silly that devoted fans tend to be overly defensive, probably.