Alfred Appel’s Modernism
Jazz, I read recently, accounts for a whopping 3 percent of all U.S. record sales, and that’s counting stuff by people like Michael Buble. You would never know that, of course, from the frequency with which writers and critics toss around terms such as “jazzy” and “jazz-like” to describe all manner of things musical and non (particularly non) — barely knowing themselves, one suspects, what they mean.
And so it is with apprehension — and yet a sense of appropriateness — that I apply the term “jazz-like” to the wonderful, wonderful work of the writer Alfred Appel Jr. (pronounced Ap-PELL), who died last year at age seventy-five.
“Inventiveness based on knowledge” — my words — may be a good phrase to describe what the best jazz musicians do: knowing what underlies a tune’s melody, they can use those building blocks to invent parallel melodies (like, say, Lester Young or Charlie Parker) or play riffs on the harmonies (Coleman Hawkins or John Coltrane). Their inventions may occasionally go to strange places, or they may obey a logic strictly of their own devising, but make no mistake, there is a logic, if you can dig it.
The same can be said for Appel’s works. A professor of literature, an aficionado of jazz and modern art, Appel conveyed his deep love for all three, not infrequently in one sentence. In Jazz Modernism (2002), which I just read, he sets out to make the case for jazz’s place in the canon of modernism; in The Art of Celebration (1992), which I’m reading, he sets out to argue that modern art is celebratory, not “unfathomably abstract and obscure, dispiriting and depressing.” I say “sets out” because, at least in the case of Jazz Modernism, he takes so many detours that it’s arguable that he never arrives. But, as they say, the point is the journey, and to follow Appel down those many side streets is to find treasure. (Among other great features, the books are chock-full of art reproductions and photos.)
Is it possible to have a role model you’ve never heard of? When I wrote “Notes on Notes, or, Plugged in at the Party of Art,” one of the four pieces under “Essays” on this blog (the pieces were originally published elsewhere), I was striving to evoke the love of art’s interconnectivity that is expressed beautifully in Appel’s work, which I had not yet read. When I wrote another, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, still without having heard of Appel, I was trying to do something he did well — draw parallels between jazz and ordinary life. Man, would I love to write a full-length work that approaches the heights Appel reached. In the meantime, professor, rest in peace.
* * *
It is June. Time to pull out the record that evokes this magical month for me: Jaki Byard’s Blues for Smoke. June! Soft clear nights, the promise of summer’s freedom, long walks as the wind gently stirs tree limbs heavy with green leaves — take it away, Jaki . . .