Moments of Plunder: Panassié vs. Bebop

Epperson, Bruce D.: More Important Than the Music. A History of Jazz Discography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2013. P. 136.

Another interesting factoid about the development of jazz discographies and the historicity of music categories: Up until the 1950s, there was very serious opposition to include anything into the category of jazz that was, lo and behold, ‚bebop‘ or ‚cool music‘ – in other words, too ‚refined‘ and not „hot“ (by the way, what happened to that ‚hot‘ jazz category? Note to myself for a chapter on this). This opposition was, according to Epperson’sexcellent book More Important than the Music, most prominently held by French discographer and dixieland-enthusiast Hugues Panassié. To say the least, Panassié was a controversial figure. I mean, you wouldn’t expect someone who is most known for, and owes his Wikipedia-article mostly to, the fact that he did jazz discographies to have an entire chapter on that very article called Selected controversies (as of July 2019). Besides being that obnoxiously belligerent kind of journalist, Panassié was politically right-wing, far, far right. But he loved early jazz, which of course matches up to this weird kind of ‚positive racism‘, holding that ‚only blacks‘ can really create hot, swinging jazz – ‚real jazz‘, as Panassié puts it. It’s a kind of deranged and distorted concept of both love and, uhm, ‚primitiveness‘, something that Rousseau and his ‚natural state‘ might have subscribed to:

„Ironically, Panassié was a Bourbonist and an unabashed social elitist who was attracted to jazz primarily because he believed it represented a sharp break with the increasingly homologized, commercialized culture he thought Anglo-American democratic liberalism was imposing on French society.“

(Epperson 2013, 32f.)

The obnoxious line of argument is that only black musicians were really ‚primitive enough‘ to create that kind of ‚rhythmic hot jazz‘ Panassié happened to like. This went both ways: Panassié didn’t like to include white musicians in his ‚hot discographies‘, because white boys can’t jump – except for Milton „Mezz“ Mezzrow, that is, who happened to be an old personal friend of Panassié and about whom Epperson writes:

„The eccentric Mezzrow was Jewish, but he so deeply believed he shared the essence of the American black psyche that he considered himself black, identifying himself as „Negro“ on his passport and other documents.“

(Epperson 2013, 32)

And Panassié excluded any black musician from his discographies that dared to go beyond what Panassié deemed too schooled to fit his liking of ‚primitively‘ swinging dixieland. So some of the work by the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk didn’t make the cut of his 1950s „jazz“ discographies, because their music was either too ‚refined‘ (bop) and/or, god forbid, ‚cool‘ instead of hot. Panassié’s opinion was that these guys basically waste their (acknowledged) musical talent. Panassié’s idea that only black musicians really can play ‚jazz‘ is, if you look at the history, not exclusive to white right-wing fanatics, to put it diplomatically. Of course, nowadays the idea that bebop isn’t jazz seems absurd, but it’s sometimes informative to take a look at how and why some people try to establish categories and boundaries. Unsurprisingly, this ends up being about identity politics, but the identity Panassié had reserved for the producers of his beloved hot jazz was a pretty vile construct.