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Posts tagged ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Baz Age

gatsbyI’ve a hearty liking for jazz music, especially Irving Berlin’s. It’s most artistic. One of the first principles of dancing is abandon, and this is a quality that jazz music possesses. It’s complex. It will, I believe, occupy a great place in American art.

That’s Zelda Fitzgerald speaking to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, who paid the celebrated couple a visit in October 1923, 18 months before the publication of The Great Gatsby. The interview took place in their house in Great Neck, Long Island, which Scott Fitzgerald used as the principal setting for his most celebrated novel. Zelda’s opinion of jazz was pretty advanced for its time, even if she did nominate Irving Berlin rather than King Oliver or Jelly Roll Morton to illustrate her enthusiasm. She was certainly right about its place in American art.

I wrote about her husband’s description of the quasi-jazz in Gatsby in a post on this blog a couple of weeks ago (“Yellow cocktail music”, May 5), and now I’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s film, in which music plays almost as prominent a role as the actors, the script and the locations.

There are things I dislike about it, principally Tobey Maguire’s dorky portrayal of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the otiose framing device that involves plonking Carraway in a rehab clinic where he writes a novel called The Great Gatsby. Oh, and a one-dimensional Elizabeth Debicki, grievously miscast as Jordan Baker. But there’s a lot I enjoyed, too, particularly the wholly convincing and affecting performances of the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, and the general exuberance of the whole thing, to which the music is crucial.

It’s sourced from all over the place and woven into Craig Armstrong’s score in such a way as to create an aural tapestry whose careful balance between light and shade is important to a film that is constantly whacking you in the eye (probably just as true for the two-dimensional version as for the 3D in which I saw it).

I was interested to note that Luhrman and Armstrong use “Rhapsody in Blue” as a stand-in for Fitzgerald’s fictional “Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”. This was obviously an easier solution than getting someone to write a pastiche of such a piece, and it works well enough; there’s no point in quibbling that Gershwin didn’t write his classic piece until two years after the action described in the novel because Jay Z,, Alicia Keys, Lana Del Ray and The xx weren’t around then either, but places are found for them in the soundtrack. Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is a particularly good fit, and Armstrong’s orchestral fills allude to Ennio Morricone’s peerless Once Upon a Time in America score, evoking the New York underworld of the early 20th century.

Bryan Ferry, his musical director Colin Good and their Jazz Age orchestra (see my post on February 13) make a subtle but notable impact throughout the film, backdating modern songs such as “Love Is the Drug”, “Bang Bang” and “Crazy in Love” (with a vocal by Emeli Sande). In addition to the regular soundtrack CD, their versions are available on an album called The Great Gatsby: The Jazz Recordings, currently downloadable via iTunes here and soon to be released in hard-copy form. One of my favourite moments in the film arrives during the party sequence in which we hear snatches of “Back to Black” from Beyonce and Ferry: a perfect fit as the mood darkens in the mansion on Long Island Sound.

* The illustration is from the dust jacket of the 1934 Modern Library edition, the first time Gatsby had been republished in the US since the original Scribner’s edition of 1925, which sold a mere 20,000 copies and was accounted a failure. It contains a rueful introduction by the author, then living in Baltimore, Maryland, close to Zelda’s sanitarium, his career at its lowest ebb. I bought it 40 years ago for not very much money at the beloved and now defunct Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street in New York City: in the heart, appropriately enough, of the old Diamond District.

Yellow cocktail music

Paul WhitemanWith a handful of phrases in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lets us know that he missed his vocation: he would have made a first-class jazz critic. Consider, for example, his description of the music played by the band during the first of Jay Gatsby’s parties at the mansion on Long Island Sound attended by Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator: “The moon had risen a little higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.” Wow. How many opponents of trad jazz must have wished they’d come up with the lethal precision of that “stiff, tinny drip”?

Even better is this, a couple of pages earlier: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music…” Yellow cocktail music! Who could not read those words and imagine exactly the sound the author had in mind, or at least its effect?

In Carraway’s words, the orchestra hired to entertain Gatsby’s guests is “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and high and low drums.” Not the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, then, but a more lavish ensemble very much along the lines of the outfit led in the early 1920s by Paul Whiteman, the pioneer of “symphonic jazz”.

The resemblance becomes even more marked when the orchestra leader announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, at the request of Mr Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr Vladmir Tostoff’s latest work, which attracted so much admiration at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.” The piece, he continued, was known as “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”.

If we are searching for a real-life inspiration for the fictitious Mr Tostoff, we might alight upon the figure Ferdy Grofé, a pianist and composer who met Whiteman in California in 1919 and worked closely with him until 1933. It was he who orchestrated George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, commissioned by Whiteman, for its concert debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Gershwin himself at the piano. I still have my mother’s two-sided 12-inch 78 of their studio recording for the Victor label, released in the UK on His Master’s Voice; you can hear and see a later (and rather differently staged) performance here in an extract from the 1930 film King of Jazz.

Fitzgerald began work on Gatsby in 1922 — the year of Gershwin’s one-act opera Blue Monday, which inspired Whiteman to invite him to write a longer work — and made his final revisions in 1925, by which time “symphonic jazz” had become a part of the American music scene. Meanwhile there had been the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s much discussed La Création du Monde, another work which attempted to blend jazz and European classical music. (Milhaud, a French composer who had heard jazz during a visit to Harlem in 1922, later taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his pupils included Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach.) Grofé’s Mississippi Suite would come along in 1927, part of a phenomenon that withered in the face of critical disdain but provided a pre-echo of the Third Stream movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Great Gatsby always reminds me of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: no amount of mishandling can tarnish the essence of a work of 20th century art that comes as close to perfection as makes no difference. So I’m looking forward to Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, released in the UK later this month, with Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as Carraway, and with music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Bryan Ferry and others. After all, Shakespeare survived Luhrmann’s marvellously inventive 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet, with its gun-toting gangbangers and a soundtrack that included Garbage, the Butthole Surfers and Radiohead.

Paul Whiteman, incidentally, earned the undying disrespect of purists who correctly believed he had no right to the absurd “King of Jazz” title (bestowed by a journalist in 1919 but eagerly seized upon as a marketing slogan), at least as long as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and other African American innovators were around. But an unbiased listen to some of his 1920s recordings reveals a man who hired good soloists — including the cornetists Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke and the saxophonists Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Trumbauer — and definitely had some sort of a feeling for jazz.

As for “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”, wouldn’t it be fun if some modern composer with an understanding of the period took it upon himself to imagine the piece into actual life? I’d love to hear it, tinny banjoes and all.

* The photograph of Paul Whiteman’s Ambassador Hotel Orchestra was taken in Atlantic City in 1920; the leader is on the extreme left, a violin under his arm. It is included in the booklet to the CD Paul Whiteman ‘King of Jazz’ 1920-1927, released on the Timeless Historical label.