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Henry Pleasants on the Parallels Between Classical and Jazz Music

by Roger E. Bissell


Have you every wondered what were the basic musical and sociological factors behind the inability of modern Classical or serious music to win popular acceptance? Would you like to be able to view the characteristic Afro-American styles (ragtime, jazz, sing, bop, rhythm-and-blues, country-and-western, rock, and pop) in perspective within the evolution of Western music?


Two books by noted music critic, Henry Pleasants—The Agony of Modern Music (Simon & Schuster, 1955) and Serious Music and All That Jazz (Simon & Schuster, 1969)—explore these questions in illuminating detail. However, though the books are well worth the time and money spent for the light they shed in this area alone, they are far more than mere American music history.


Pleasants tackles a number of myths about serious music in The Agony of Modern Music. Among them are: (1) the warning that to be derogatory toward modern serious music will make one an ass in the minds of future generations who will have discovered how to appreciate it; (2) the myth that “the history of music is a record of continuous progress and sturdy, enlightened development, accomplished by farsighted, courageous, and dedicated men in the face of horrendous obstacles put in their way by benighted, small-minded, and malicious professional and lay Philistines;” and (3) the bromide that “musical masterpieces are never appreciated in their own time.” This last, Pleasants speculates, is the reason why modern music is tolerated by as many people as it is.


When, in the decade between the two books’ publishing dates, much of what Pleasants had to say in the first book lost much of its controversy, he tackled more sacred cows, showing the essential similarity in attitude between avant-garde jazz musicians and serious composers, generating more static as he did so. In Serious Music and All That Jazz, Pleasants richly supplemented his historical accounts with perceptive psychological observations, some of them harshly critical (e.g., the bop musicians’ attitudes toward their audiences). Serious Music also abounds with little nuggets of aesthetic theory, dealing with such topics as the art-entertainment dichotomies in regard to serious and popular music, the type of build-up and climax of tension characteristic of both, the nature of melody, the different characteristic role of rhythm in various styles, and style as the aesthetic frame of reference for the composer and performer.


One of Pleasants’ most striking claims is that there is a parallel within popular music to the art-entertainment split which more broadly separates the attitudes about popular and serious music. Avant-garde jazz musicians have fallen out of the mainstream of popular music by becoming too far out and inaccessible to listeners not understanding the highly esoteric musical language they use. Scorned or ignored by many jazzmen and serious composers alike, writers like Henry Mancini, Lalo Schiffrin, and Michel Legrand, via movie sound track scores, are in the vanguard of characteristically American, creative, commercial, entertaining music. Pleasants closes his chapter on the “Lyric Theater” with a quote from composer Quincy Jones: “…I believe that the best music being written in this country today is coming out of the films.” Pleasants has provided ample documentation of the fact that this is true, and explanation of why this is true.


The basic message Pleasants wishes to convey can perhaps best be summed up in the following quote: “Much of what passes as Art in contemporary Serious music cannot forever escape exposure as a desperate and patently outrageous sham; and it is not, therefore, utopian to anticipate the eventual dispelling of such stifling superstitions as the incompatibility of art and commerce, the indecency of the artist as entertainer, and the immunity of art from the discipline of supply and demand. Needless to say, such outrageous assertions are blasted by the musical Establishment from their tax-funded posts at the state universities.


These are two of the richest, most enjoyable, informative, and relevant books on music history and criticism I have ever read. They are easily accessible to the layman and provide a great frame of reference for the lover, student, and professional of music alike. I highly recommend them.