Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Harry James vs. The Rolling Stones

From Peter J. Levinson's Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James (Oxford University Press, 1999):

"I Found a New Baby" was the first of an astounding total of seventy Billboard pop chart hits by Harry James and his Orchestra that extended [from 1938] through 1953. If one considers that the Rolling Stones have had forty-one Billboard pop chart hits but in a thirty-five year period, one must conclude that Harry James was actually a more dominating force in popular music during the years of his greatest prominence." (pg. 70)

Someday a more accurate history of music will be written for the 20th century--one wherein musical and cultural values trump ideology. Musically, it's fairly obvious to any astute listener that Harry James's mastery of the trumpet, the skill of his band's arrangements, and quality of their nightly performances were objectively superior to an act such as the Rolling Stones (or their many counterparts in Rock history). But the argument of Rock has never really been musical--instead, it's more serious critics' claim has always been of a cultural and poetic impact so great as to warrant consideration of Rock as art music.

Despite having been born in the 1970s, and having at one time taken such arguments quite seriously myself, I now personally think that Rock music and its history are little more than a chronicle of adolescent hyperbole. The 'depth' once thought of its 'masterpieces' turns out to be rather shallow in the end (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not profound, neither is The Wall much more than paranoid narcissism. Nearly every great masterpiece of rock history wilts when compared with other great works, whether poetic, musical, or dramatic). Yet more shocking is that the more one looks into the actual statistics of cultural impact, as Peter Levinson touches upon, the less extraordinary the hit groups of the Rock era seem. According to some accounts I've read, Bing Crosby's success rivals any Rock star's, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw's meteoric rises were culturally similar, if not nearly identical, to "Beatle Mania", and the era they worked in was every bit as crucial to the last century as the 1960s could even pretend (I wouldn't downplay the importance of many aspects of the '60s, but there, too, hyperbole has reigned for over a generation).

Ultimately, when the Rock Generation finally subsides; when the smoke machines are finally turned off and the dust is allowed to settle, musical values will really still be left. And once the frenzy is over, who would honestly prefer Mick Jagger's crude strutting and preening to Harry James' actual music making?

It's good to remember that other histories have been similarly adjusted over time. Telemann once towered in stature over J.S. Bach (whose works were obscured for nearly a century after his death) and Spohr was once considered by many to be greater than Beethoven. Those conclusions now seem silly, as I believe comparisons between Artie Shaw and the Beatles will one day seem equally silly--the greater musicians will emerge when future generations want to preserve more than their Odes to Peer Pressure.

Rock is perpetually adolescent, by marketing design. It's shallow, pre-packaged rebellion. As a musical form, there is little to learn from it (though certain musical aspects of rock have served as inspiration for further positive development of jazz, independent of the generally shallow poetic of rock). When society gets tired of perpetual adolescence, it will hopefully turn to more enduring values. And when that time comes, our culture might be reintroduced to a far more enriching musical history than society at large understands at the present time.