Jazz music has been fed to the unconscious as a hedonistic and elitist genre for decades through advertisements, sexy and beautiful singers at a bar in a luxury hotel, cigar smoke in the air and scenes showing alluring crowds sitting in chic gardens during summer festivals. In the meanwhile, the fact that this genre has been a major catalyst for social change throughout its history is meticulously ignored.
However, you will see that its roots and initial meaning in its history are quite different when you keep in mind that the song I am about to tell you about coincides with the early years of jazz history.
Louis Armstrong’s 3 minute-long, sad piece “What did I do to be so black and blue”, which can be listened to in a jiffy today, has the power to change the perception that jazz is hedonistic and elitist.
There have been events in history that should never be forgotten despite the forgetful nature of humankind when it comes to traumatic events. For example, WWI. It is written in history as one of the most shameful periods of mankind even though it feels long ago now. The romantic period of European Classical Music came to an end with WWI and composers like Elgar, whose works with their heroic stories gave courage to the young soldiers before the war, emerged again post-war with pieces that portrayed the shame Europe was experiencing at the time as illustrated by horrible photographs of people violently tearing each other apart with the effect of the dense mustard gas in the battlefront.
This was the ghastliest tragedy experienced in world history until then, yet it wasn’t different than the violence experienced in other geographies. The tragedy experienced by African people, mostly from West Africa, who were dragged to the continents of Europe and America against their will in even worse conditions than the war because they were not even considered human in the mid-1700s was nothing less than the tragedy this war had caused. While Europe witnessed the romantic era in Classical music before WWI, the world saw the biggest anthropologic and cultural migrations of the history through the dense political, social and communal transformations that spanned from French Indochina to South Africa.
These days, kneaded with chaotic and painful social disorder, coincided with the first period of jazz history. Some of the political-social problems still unresolved today go back to the years between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, the seeds of the cultural-social development process that shaped the rest of the 20th century were planted in these years. This past isn’t mentioned often by those who write about jazz but it is necessary to write about it. Luckily, an exception to this tradition recently came about. Italian jazz historian Francesco Martinelli drew parallels with the recent pandemic of Covid-19 and jazz history in his article “Jazz: Life Among Disasters from Its very beginning” written for the portal titled Jazzahead, drawing our attention to a little-known perspective.
Jazz history starts in New Orleans, correct? Martinelli claims that the social disaster and the Jim Crow laws, a dark mark in American history, constitute important developments during the first period of jazz history and he is right. The reason why Afro-American citizens, who weren’t able to find peace and quiet in any sphere of life in the past, rebel against even the minutest of events today is that the injustice against them never ended.
I can finally come to the topic of Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the song titled “What did I do to be so black and blue”. It is possible to feel fear creeping into the spaces between the lines of even the happiest of bluesy love songs written in the first quarter of the 1900s. The first composition I will mention is “Dallas Blues” whose history is not quite known. The singer in this example emphasizes that he is an outsider no matter where he goes as he sings about his longing for Dallas, wanting to at least go back to where he came from. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, sang often by Armstrong and contemporary singers, talks about how love is the only thing the singer has plenty of as the title suggests. Even his clothes don’t belong to him. These sentences feel as if they have been thrown in the mix to the listener, but they hide the real meaning of the issue the singer is trying to talk about.
“What did I do to be so black and blue” has a different kind of sadness which sets it apart from the rest. The song was written by Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks and was written during the first part of the 20th century. It is believed that it was performed for the first time before 1920, but we listen to the version recorded by Armstrong in 1928. The words “Black and Blue” can be misunderstood as a direct translation. Blue does not imply the color or the sadness of the blues. The song, written by composer Fats Waller, is said to be commissioned by Dutch Shultz, a gangster from the prohibition era; the song is supposed to be about a black waitress who talks about the hardships of being black. The version Louis Armstrong sings about is the one that made its way to us today and its lyrics are slightly different.
Cold empty bed… springs hard as lead Feel like old Ned… wished I was dead What did I do… to be so black and blue
Every single word in the lyrics sounds like torture but this is somebody’s daily life. ‘Old Ned’ was a nickname for the Devil back in that period, meaning the singer is living in hell. The most powerful words are “Black and Blue”, pointing out that the person singing was beaten up because of his skin color and has bruises all over. The question which asks what he did to deserve being so black and blue means this.
I’m white… inside… but, that don’t help my case ’cause I… can’t hide… what is in my face.
These two lines are the singer reflecting upon his own feelings.
Francesco Martinelli was correct when he wrote “Jazz was inextricably bound to disasters from its very beginning”. These disasters varied from pandemics, natural disasters to inequality, discrimination, very clear injustice and social class differences caused by social changes.
Jazz needed to be domesticated in accordance with the rhythmic and beautiful European aesthetic after it started getting acceptance as the music of the new century and the contemporary era, because it was not a European branch of arts. The invention of phonograph along with live music and the birth of the big entertainment industry caused the infrastructure to expand to billions of dollars today and music found its place in the commercial category. It was named ‘American traditional pop’ and found its social and industrial place. Swing period is the most important phase of this domestication. Cinema, Hollywood, radio, TV, concerts which were becoming commonplace, halls, clubs, festivals, advertisements and even FBI and the American Ministry of External Affairs supported this hybridization in becoming industrialized. The reason reactions came from Afro-American jazz musicians during this process through initially Bebop in 1940s and Free Jazz in the 60s relate directly to the nature of the goods. Similar to how the detectives trace the origins of money, it seems that it was inevitable for the economic and ideologic positioning during this process that lasted longer than a century managed not only jazz music but the whole sector freely. We continue to evaluate the music we like and listen to according to these codes even today.