Frye and Jazz


In response to Michael Sinding’s Comment:

I think Frye never wrote anything extensively on jazz. He gets a good bit of mileage out of the observation that Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes pulses with a kind of jazz syncopation, repeating that observation three or four times. And there are scattered references to jazz here and there. Here are some:

From Diaries: “It snowed frantically all day, and I sat around wishing the chair in my office was more comfortable, wishing I didn’t have to read that goddamned Edgar book again, wishing I didn’t have to go to the Senior Dinner, wishing I could get started at my book and the hell with all this bloody niggling, wishing the college weren’t getting into such a rah-rah Joe College state, and so on. Regarding this last, Ken Maclean [MacLean] made the very interesting suggestion that Canada was having a post-war Jazz age of its own. It missed, very largely, the 1920 one, but now that we’re getting the post-war children, a lot of prosperity, and a tendency to make the Americans do the responsible jobs, along with a certain backlog of “progressive” education, we seem to be starting where the Americans have left off. (27 March 1952)

In his “Letters in Canada” reviews for 1957 there’s a reference to a poem by a jazz saxophonist. In the same column for 1959 we get this: “John Heath’s Aphrodite is a posthumous collection of poems by a writer who was killed in Korea at the age of thirty four. There is a foreword by Henry Kreisel, who is apparently the editor of the collection. The effect of these poems is like that of a good jazz pianist, who treats his piano purely as an instrument of percussion, whose rhythm has little variety but whose harmonies are striking and ingenious. There is a group of poems in quatrains, split in two by the syntax, where most of the protective grease of articles and conjunctions is removed and subject, predicate, object, grind on each other and throw out metaphorical sparks.”

In “The Road of Excess” Frye writes, “Certain forms of art are also designed to give us the strongest possible emphasis on the continuous process of creation. The sketch, for example, is often more prized than the finished painting because of the greater sense of process in it. Tachisme and action painting, spontaneous improvisation in swing, jazz, or more recently electronic music, and the kind of action poetry, often read to jazz, which evokes the ghosts of those primeval jam sessions postulated by early critics of the ballad, are more complete examples. All forms of art which lay great stress on continuous spontaneity seem to have a good deal of resistance to criticism, even to the education which is the natural context of criticism. We are told in Professor Lord’s Singer of Tales that the most continuous form of poetry ever devised, the formulaic epic, demands illiteracy for success on the part of the poet, and there seems to be an inevitable affinity between the continuous and the unreflecting.”

“It is a curious law, or seems to be one, that a neglected or oppressed culture will sooner or later fulfil itself. No culture could have been more submerged than that of black America in the nineteenth century, yet it was that culture whose jazz transformed the music first of America and then of the world.” (“The Cultural Development of Canada”)

In a diary entry where Frye jots down some ideas for an article on music, he says, “What I mean by vocal music is that musical comedies can’t last. Songs are painful to photograph, singers even more so, & the camera is too relentless in its pursuit: musical comedy plots are pretty fragile. Moncton & O Katherina. Need more Gershwins? Might explain about “syncopation” of jazz. If chromatic harmony is played out the movie is the place for new experiments, not the concert hall.” (16 September 1942)

“In simpler societies this power of memory is the basis of a poetic power of an extraordinarily spontaneous and plastic kind. We find it in ballads and folk tales, where motifs and refrains are constantly interchanging and developing new variants. We find it in the formulaic oral epic, with its basis of stock themes and metrical units, described in Professor Lord’s fascinating book, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960). We can find it in other arts, as in some schools of Oriental painting, which develop out of what are essentially memorized subjects. Many of the strongest cultural movements of our time seem to be headed in a somewhat similar direction: in action painting, in the genuine forms of jazz music, in certain poetic developments often and not too accurately associated with the term ‘beat.’” (“The Developing Imagination”)

“The student can hear the difference in movement between anapests and spondees without having to learn these words, and he can sense the fact that poetry exists independently of words in a book, and is movement and sound in its own right, from blank verse drama to beats reading against jazz.” (Appendix to “Report on the ‘Adventure’ Series”)

“The Destruction of Sennacherib is a good reciter’s piece (though not without its difficulties, as Tom Sawyer discovered), and anticipates some of the later experiments in verbal jazz by Poe and Swinburne.” (“Lord Byron”).

Helen Kemp reports that she played “a little bit” of jazz: “Saturday night Jack Cumberland and Dorothy [Darling] and George Clarke were here, and at the last moment Hans Lincke came with his cello. We played some trios, and a little bit of the jazz Jack brought with him. Hans later said that he knew Dot was only being polite when she said she enjoyed it—I can not tell. Next day Hans came back and we spent a day as human beings should—we played the C minor Beethoven trio in the morning and then walked by the Don in the afternoon sunshine, and Hans and I sat on a log bent across the road while Roy feasted his photographer’s soul on the surrounding scenery.” [Letter to NF, 26 July 1932]

On his birthday in 1933, Frye writes to Helen Kemp from Chicago , “Went to a show the night before. ‘The Gold Diggers of 1933.’ Not bad–another 42nd Street. Their last number called ‘forgotten men’ was rather fine. For once, jazz singing was put to its right use. It was about soldiers returned from the war, standing in breadlines, widows, and so on. The solo singing was a long wail, and when the chorus came in it swelled to almost an animal howl. I don’t know whether they altogether intended the effect or not, it seemed to come out in spite of them.” And then Frye adds, “Took a chance and bought half of Haydn’s sonatas Peters edition. Played for a while in the landlady’s parlor. Several people (different ones) usually drift in to listen. I don’t mind they’re not critical. The most frequent remark is, ‘My, it’s a relief to get that instead of the radio!’ Then why in hell Oh, well. Eleanor [Craig] can’t see why I don’t find jazz (any jazz) a refreshing relaxation from the ‘other stuff.’”

On 5 January 1939, Frye writes to Helen from Paris: “I had another party with Mike a few nights before, and we collected an American who was doing a thesis on Stravinsky’s latest work and his wife, who was ugly but pleasant. She got maudlin and kept trying to hold my hand while on my left a Negro kept expounding Negro music to me. He was a very earnest man. All I know, or thought I knew, about Negro music is that the Spirituals are English folk tunes, and after he’d trampled over that offering like a mad elephant he started on the musical possibilities of jazz: Negro jazz. Finally I swallowed another brandy and got going on German composers of the later 17th century.”

In his interview with Art Cuthbert: “But it is true that you get cycles in culture where things come into the foreground and are exploited by so many writers or painters or whatever that the conventions become exhausted. They go out of fashion and then something grows up from more primitive and popular roots. I think the whole development of culture from about 1920 to 1950 was about as great an age of poetry as literature has ever had, but it did become exhausted at that time. Something much more primitive has grown up instead. There is a very great development of musical composition up to the period of, say, Stravinsky, and now you get great developments in jazz and popular music— that kind of thing.”

From “Music in Poetry”: “Dunbar is a more restless experimenter than Skelton: not all of his experiments come off, however, and even so brilliant an effort as Ane Ballat of Our Lady, with its involved repetition of sounds like the clashing of bells, is, considered as literary jazz, somewhere between The Bells and Alexander’s Feast.” . . . “Browning is the only real musician of importance until the obvious poetic possibilities of jazz began to interest Vachel Lindsay, the author of Sweeney Agonistes, and Mr. Auden, whose Oxford Book of Light Verse is almost an anthology of musical poetry.”

From “Introduction: Lexis and Melos”: “The Scottish Chaucerians, as far as their rhythm is concerned, are Scottish Lydgatians. Dunbar is an intensely musical poet whose experiments often take the form of a kind of syncopated jazz or ragtime, for which English, with its heavy pounding accentuation, is so well adapted that even normally unmusical poets may be attracted to it. The ragtime tradition survives through Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast and Poe’s Raven and Bells to Vachel Lindsay and Sweeney Agonistes. Syncopation is an unmistakable mark of musical poetry: Hopkins’s sprung rhythm is a musical idea, whereas speeded-up metrical rhythms, such as Swinburne’s roller-coaster anapests, are unmusical.”

From “World Enough without Time”: “The ‘beat’ writers are trying to identify the genuine proletariat, the body of those who are excluded from the benefits of society and have sense enough to realize it. For such a proletariat the road to freedom is not through organizing a revolution to seize power from the squares and become squares in their turn, but through breaking the current of social energy by drifting, bumming, playing jazz, taking dope, or what not, and entering the world of the pure present through the break. The beat philosophy may be wrong—that is, it may be crazy itself instead of merely making use of craziness—but its symbolism is a contemporary cultural force to be reckoned with.”

From “On Poetry”: “. . . Here the movement is so fast that it drags the meaning along after it: there is a meaning, and the words will eventually make some sense, but the meaning can wait. Here we are in the world of the nursery rhyme, where the bouncing rhythm is what carries the poem. We may notice two things in particular. First, a very emphatic rhyme scheme cuts across the arrangement of the lines, which gives a syncopated rhythm suggesting the jazz rhythms popular in the 1920s, which the poem is in part imitating. Second, while there is a rolling dactylic metre, there are also four main beats or accents to the line.”

From “Literature as Therapy”: “We’re still, of course, within the orbit of the magus, who works in terms of the mysterious virtues of herbs and so on. But my reason for referring to this passage is that what the doctor is most anxious about is getting the music started. He has a kind of private orchestra as a part of his practice. He starts the music going, which is obviously the initiating power in bringing Thaisa back to life. One occasionally sees, even in contemporary newspapers, the suggestion that in thinking of the turmoils of Eastern Europe today one should not overlook the direct influence of American jazz and rock. In any case, there’s always a certain amount of mystery about music. We never know quite what’s going on in it. Perhaps it’s partly to that that it owes its therapeutic reputation.”

From “Rencontre: General Editor’s Introduction”: “The jazz experiments of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes and Edith Sitwell’s Facades are a logical development from this: in fact there are poems in Swinburne himself (and still more, to go outside the orbit of the British Isles, in Poe) that could be called jazz.”

From The Modern Century: “It is true that many aspects of modern culture, especially popular culture, are of American origin, like jazz, but America is a province conquered by the international modern much more than it is a source of it. . . . As I have tried to show elsewhere, the forms of art are autonomous: poems and pictures are born out of earlier poems and pictures, not out of new localities, and novelty of content or experience in such localities cannot produce originality of form. We notice that the more popular an aspect of culture is, such as jazz music, films, or the kind of poetry associated with beatnik and similar groups, the more quickly it becomes international in its idiom. To try to found a serious culture in Canada on a middle class intellectual resistance to popular culture of this kind would be the last word in futility.”

From “Music and the Savage Breast”: “In proportion as society becomes more co-operative, musical drama, the central group art form, will become more popular. We have seen that if the growth of social co-operation leads only to the brutal and degrading tyranny of the totalitarian state, popular musical drama will lead only to the incessant flogging of the higher feelings by the lower, induced by military bands and erotic jazz orchestras.”

From “Music in the Movies”: “The camera gets restless during a song and acquires a nervous habit of peering into the singer’s molar cavities which is painful and embarrassing to watch. The talents of Romberg, Gershwin, Kern, and Berlin are very considerable ones, but they are stage and not screen talents. In fact, the whole of dance based contemporary music, whether jazz, swing, or popular song, is ill suited to the movie and has had little influence on it.”

From “Baccalaureate Sermon”: “A woman of sixty who tries to look like a girl of eighteen not only fails to look like a girl of eighteen, but robs herself of the dignity that ought to belong to her sixty years; and jazz masses and experimental colleges, as soon as they have got established, may begin to look more out of date than the Academy of Plato or the prophecies of Isaiah.”

From “Primitivism” in Student Essays: “It is believed by many that jazz originated in Africa, that Negro spirituals are Negroid folk music, and I understand it to be a current impression in Europe that the songs of Stephen Collins Foster are Negro folk tunes.”

From “Romanticism” in Student Essays: “Similarly, at the close of negative romanticism, we should expect some vicious outburst of Philistinism of a precisely similar nature, and when Gounod takes a Bach Prelude, forces it into an accompaniment and writes a tune over it, calling the result Ave Maria, we bow our heads in the presence of destiny. With jazz the harmonized tune has completely conquered, and the relentless syncopation of the upper register and the equally relentless thumping out of a lifeless beat in the lower grinds all the rhythmic vitality of music to atoms in its jaws.”

From “T.S. Eliot and Other Observations” in Student Essays: “When Eliot, lecturing at Harvard, surveyed his cultivated listeners and announced that he himself would prefer an audience which could neither read nor write, he was referring to a theme which he had already introduced into his poetry. Popular forms of literature and music in any age usually possess a strongly marked characteristic rhythm common to them all, and the twentieth century, of course, has found the word jazz to describe the one peculiar to it. Sweeney Agonistes is a remarkably successful experiment in jazz: to give any idea of its superb vitality it should be read as a whole, but the final chorus is all we have time for.”

From T.S. Eliot: “In Eliot this rhythm is heard most clearly in Sweeney Agonistes, where the variable number of syllables syncopates against a heavy beat, producing a verbal parallel to jazz. Such a stress pattern is useful only for parody. In the plays we have an accentual line, close to prose in effect, which Eliot describes as a line of three main beats with a caesura. Naturally he must know, but this is my book, and what I hear is four beats. . . . The word ‘farce’ reminds us of the high respect for farce that Eliot shows in his dramatic essays, where he speaks of it as the creation of a distorted but self consistent world, found in Rabelais, Dickens, and even Marlowe. Sweeney Agonistes, with its pounding jazz rhythms and its weird expressionistic staging, is farce in this sense.”

From The Well Tempered Critic: “This [Swinburne’s Dolores] is not exactly satiric doggerel, for the context is solemn, and it is not incompetent doggerel, for Swinburne is too competent a poet. Like Poe’s The Bells and The Raven, it is dreamlike and witty at once, a kind of verbal blues or pensive jazz.”

Note that upcoming entries in the Frye Diaries deal with movie music in which Frye comments on, among others, Duke Ellington.

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One thought on “Frye and Jazz

  1. Michael Sinding

    Many thanks for this information, Bob, fascinating as always.

    Re: the Circle of Fifths.
    I’m only going by the Wikipedia article, and I don’t know if I’m saying anything new here, but beyond the relations of harmony and discord in the Circle, it’s also worth noting the important of progression, resolution and mood in both the Circle and the Anatomy’s theory of myths.

    The article says:
    “To the ear, the sequence of fourths gives an impression of settling, or resolution. (see cadence)). … the tonic is considered the end of the line towards which a chord progression derived from the circle of fifths progresses.” Also, progression-resolution in the Circle seems to be often either upwards or downwards.

    In Anatomy, myths are defined by certain resolutions and moods. And resolution and mood imply a certain foregoing sequence of elements.
    “The obstacles to the hero’s desire, then, form the action of the comedy, and the overcoming of them the comic resolution” (164).
    “In drama, characterization depends on function; what a character is follows from what he has to do in the play. Dramatic function in its turn depends on the structure of the play; the character has certain things to do because the play has such and such a shape. The structure of the play in its turn depends on the category of the play; if it is a comedy, its structure will require a comic resolution and a prevailing comic mood” (171-72).


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