Friday, November 12, 2010

Jazz Hands

"Half of jazz is railway music, and the motion and noise of the train itself has the rhythm of jazz. This is not surprising: the Jazz Age was also the Railway Age."

A gentleman and a scholar, Paul Theroux made this very exciting point in his 1977 railroad travelogue, The Old Patagonia Express.* Because of this simple observation, I knew I needed to devote an entire article to the connection between two of my great loves- jazz and trains. Washington D.C. has proven to be a great place to celebrate jazz and its role in American history, as it has had a vital scene and nurtured so many of the greats over the last century.

Travel Recommendation Sidebar:

While discussing the arts in D.C., I would be remiss not to mention a few pillars of the community, particularly around U Street, a historic neighborhood famous for its musical, poetic, and artistic richness. For jazz, the historic Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz, HR-57, and U-topia are renowned locales. To patronize a long-standing, thriving African American owned business, eat at Ben's Chili Bowl. For all of your intellectual, social, artistic, and bodily nourishment needs, make haste to Busboys and Poets, an independent bookstore, cafe, bar, restaurant, and performance space that celebrates the local community and creates a beautiful space where anyone can learn, teach, entertain, be entertained, and eat amazing carrot cake, among other things.

But back to the topic at hand: JAZZ. Many see jazz as the first and finest original American style of music, made possible by the collision of African and European cultures in the American South. Musical traditions from both continents merged and developed synergistically into ragtime, blues, and finally jazz music. In the Jazz Age from the teens to the forties, people of African, European, and Native American ancestries were all represented artistically through this music and while it was controversial as it developed and grew in popularity, it revolutionized our music, shaped our developing nation, and is still awesome** to this day, not unlike the railroad.

Here are a few other thoughts on music, movement, and the District of Columbia:

As jazz provided an outlet for creative expression particularly for African Americans, the railroad provided one of their best sources of employment at the time. In the 1920s the Pullman Company was the single largest employer of African American people. Also, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black union in the U.S.

In the Hall of Transportation*** at the American History Museum, trains are credited with making urbanization possible in the U.S., allowing food, goods, and people to access growing industrial, commercial, and cultural centers. Surely, without urban environments jazz never could have become such a dynamic artistic force in society.

At a jazz and ragtime concert in the National Gallery of Art, the claim was made that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s could potentially trace its provenance back to Washington D.C., which is the hometown of Duke Ellington himself. The District historically drew diverse populations together and was a center of African American artistic development at the turn of the century, particularly in the U Street area.

When all of the famous jazz musicians of the era**** were drawn to New York City and the Harlem Renaissance, how do you think they got there? Of course, by train. The railroad was responsible for over 90 percent of intercity travel at the time.

So, in conclusion, jazz never would have been possible without trains, and neither would the country as a whole. I mean, what would we be if it had not been for the commerce and industry of the railroad, and the beautiful sounds of people like John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Walker, and Duke Ellington? We would be impoverished feudal subsistence farmers listening to three stringed lutes played by traveling minstrels with the bubonic plague, that is what.

New York, here I come.


*This train line does not exist, but in fact refers to his trip from Massachusetts to Tierra del Fuego almost entirely made by connecting train lines, most of which are now sadly defunct.
**And yet, strangely underrated.
***Which is named after General Motors and sadly spends altogether too much energy discussing cars and buses.
****Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and the Duke, to name a few.

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