Saturday, May 28, 2011
progressive jazz banjo
The Smothers Brothers might be best known for causing a ruckus over at CBS, but the way that story often gets told, it might seem as if Tom Smothers was just another promoter of a counterculture that was already becoming a permanent part of mainstream U.S. culture. In digging deeper, it becomes apparent that he was actually thinking much more carefully about the contradictions all around him.
This last semester I wrote a term paper about “The Incredible Jazz Banjoist,” a recording from the brothers’ fourth album, Curb Your Tongue, Knave! (1963). In it you can hear, both in Tommy’s music and in his preamble, a lot of familiar tropes about white men as square, up-tight and too preoccupied with musical notation and virtuosity. These tropes seem to have arisen in part because historical claims of white racial superiority were premised upon the idea that white men were somehow more rational and predisposed to self discipline, making them better qualified to rule over themselves and others. Warwick Anderson talks about this in a short but thoughtful article in a recent edited volume, and it comes up in a great book by Matthew Frye Jacobson, but if you really want an eye opener about how white people thought about themselves in the 19th century, one of the best books I read this year was George Fredrickson's inquiry into what white people thought about black people.
It would be possible to think of this recording simply as playing on familiar ideas about the supposed incompetence of white people in musical practices more commonly associated with black people. But in fact, many of the expectations Tommy sets for himself aren’t so much associated with black musical practices as they are with a particular kind of whiteness. When he claims to play “progressive jazz banjo,” he brings to mind the music of someone like Stan Kenton, known for his overcrowded scores and lack of emphasis on improvisation. The banjo might have been understood as a white musical instrument at this time, but its inappropriateness here has less to do with its whiteness in a black style of music than with its “half-barbaric twang” in a refined, sophisticated progressive jazz. Tommy fails to live up to the demands of a high-class whiteness.
And perhaps this is also where he most succeeds. He and his banjo may be more than just a little out of control, but when he arrives at that final triumphant chord, his audience bursts into genuine and delighted applause. Tommy may not have measured up to the standards he set for himself, but perhaps the fault lay not with him, but with the standards. In the end, it's just a joy to hear him goofing around.