On jazz and potatoes

The surest way to make something popular is to tell people they can’t have it. Or that it’s terrible for them. The Adam and Eve story with the apple has to be considered Exhibit A. Slightly less well known is the story of how Frederick the Great made the potato into a thing: he ordered his soldiers to guard the potato fields by day but to leave at night, making it just hard enough to get your hands on what was quickly to become a hot commodity.


It seems like a bit of a leap to attach this theory to music, but the application doesn’t discriminate. There was a time when the word jazz was not to be used in polite company. Mention of the j-word conjured up all sorts of murky images that were best left as private thoughts. The effects were downright sinister in the minds of some. The New York American, a respected publication in the early part of the twentieth century, predicted, “Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras.”


It seems no one noticed. Or maybe they did. Jazz became a global phenomenon and the defining soundtrack of the Roaring 20’s. Its sophistication was incubated in the alluring underground of the New York speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, and the music inevitably spilled out in all directions. Even the comparatively conservative “classical” music world was seduced.

Among the first was France’s leading composer of the day, Maurice Ravel. Just before penning Bolero, which is undoubtedly his most recognized piece, Ravel made a trip to New York, where he met the jazziest of them all, George Gershwin. Ravel was enchanted by Gershwin’s music. Gershwin played for him his iconic Rhapsody in Blue and several of his songs, including The Man I Love. The two men spent several evenings together listening to jazz at the Savoy Ballroom and at the famed Cotton Club.


From here the musical lines become blurred. There is no doubt that the slightly tipsy-sounding syncopations and the unmistakable “blue” notes of Bolero show us that Ravel was in a jazzy sort of mind when he wrote it. The effects go both ways. Gershwin recognized that there was no one who could match Ravel’s mastery of the technique of writing for an orchestra, and Gershwin’s own orchestral masterpiece An American in Paris certainly shows signs of this influence. This cross-cultural musical friendship in a time when the world was still piecing itself back together after the unprecedented disaster of World War I has left us undeniably richer. It’s an example to be noted.


Last I checked, no great moral disasters actually came about because of jazz. It’s possible that after enough false alarms, the forbidden fruit effect may one day lose its hold on us. Until then, keep your hands off my potatoes.