07 September 2008

Picturing the Jazz Age

Jazz was once a popular music. It was a different era, that jazz era. Think Depression, WW2, the Communist Internationale, bohemians and free love, Premier Lang, Catholics and Protestants. The death throes came after WW2, with peoples’ relief after the hot war, and the return to the home, the Cold War, beatniks, and perhaps immigration. Thereafter rock became the sound track of times and personal freedom became a common theme, and not just one for the bohemian arty, commie types. It changed again in 1968, and it continues to change, but these are not jazz stories. More recently, Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and a few other conservatives have argued there’s no jazz after the early 60s. I have no truck with this argument, but jazz has clearly changed its role in society. It’s become an educated artform and it’s found in academia, but it continues to survive and grow and have relevance. And in these lyrebird-like post-modern times, everything has acceptance, even if welcomed with some irony.

I just heard a radio documentary which was not specifically about the Jazz Era, but set the scene wonderfully clearly. It was a radio history of Jean Devanny, and of course it was on ABC’s Radio National. Jean was an ardent communist, novelist and feminist in Australia at the height of the Communist Party’s influence. It’s a fascinating story of a heavy smoking, hard working, strongly speaking woman in the Party. This is the Party of camaraderie and factions; workers and intellectuals; art for art’s or politics’ sake; women as tea ladies and free lovers. This story is a microcosm and enabler of the changes we were to see later. Jazz and music weren’t mentioned during the program, but it was constantly present with snippets between spoken sections. The music was light, joyful, swinging, and well chosen. It was big band music. The horns played tonal melodies and simply arpeggiated solos. No dissonance here, but pure and clear and very artful: a clever and sometimes escapist response to the ructions of the mid-20th Century. I much enjoyed the doco for its picture of a fairly recent past, for its history of an interesting woman and an important political movement, and as a reminder of the centrality of jazz as popular music at the time.

The documentary on Jean Devanny was broadcast in Life and Times. Life and Times, with Richard Buckham, is a program of radio biographies. It’s broadcast on ABC Radio National 6am AEST Sundays. Both transcripts and podcasts are available at the website (although copyright might limit how long the program remains online):


There's also an article on Jean by her biographer, Carole Ferrier, which is available online:

“One of the Greatest of Our Women’ : Jean Devanny’s Revolutionary Marxism / Carole Ferrier. In Rethinking Marxism in Australia, Journal of Social Change and Critical Inquiry (JoSCCI), no. 2, Sept 2000. (http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/joscci/ferrier.html, viewed 7 Sept 2008).

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