Memoranda Of A Decade

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I suppose the kids growing up in the belief that Glenn Miller is what it really takes to blow the roof off would wonder, in the midst of this rather dated smallband clamor, what they were listening to and why. Well, it’s just jazz, kids, and as far as the groups in general go, not the best of its period. But Bix, the fellow riding above and ahead and all around with that clear-bell horn, Bix had swing before the phonies knew the word. He had it at its best and purest, for he had not only the compelling lift of syncopation, the ease within an intense and relentless rhythm; he had music in a way of invention that is only found when you find a good song, inevitable, sweet and perfect. He could take off out of any chord sequence, any good or silly tune, and wheel and lift with his gay new melodic figures as free of strain in the air as pigeons. He had a sense of harmonic structure that none can learn and few are born with; he had absolute pitch and absolute control of his instrument—in fact, no trumpet player I’ve ever heard could be so reckless and yet so right, so assured in all the range from tender to brash, from sorrow to a shout; his tone was as perfect without artifice as water in the brooks, and his lip and tongue and valve-work so exact in all registers that he could jump into a line of notes and make it sound like he’d slapped every one of them square in the face. With this technical assurance, he never had to cramp and plan and fuss himself: he could start at any point, and land on a dime.

There was a new morality, and lips that touched liquor began touching—well, almost anyone’s. Fitzgerald recalls it in Echoes of the Jazz Age, 1931: As far back as 1915 the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities had discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to young Bill at sixteen to make him “self-reliant.” At first petting was a desperate adventure even under such favorable conditions, but presently confidences were exchanged and the old commandment broke down. As early as 1917 there were references to such sweet and casual dalliance in any number of the Yale Record or the Princeton Tiger .

But petting in its more audacious manifestations was confined to the wealthier classes—among other young people the old standard prevailed until after the War, and a kiss meant that a proposal was expected, as young officers in strange cities sometimes discovered to their dismay. Only in 1920 did the veil finally fall—the Jazz Age was in flower.

Scarcely had the staider citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight. This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. … In 1920 Heywood Broun announced that all this hubbub was nonsense, that young men didn’t kiss but told anyhow. But very shortly people over twenty-five came in for an intensive education. Let me trace some of the revelations vouchsafed them by reference to a dozen works written for various types of mentality during the decade. We begin with the suggestion that Don Juan leads an interesting life ( Jurgen , 1919); then we learn that there’s a lot of sex around if we only knew it ( Winesburg, Ohio , 1920), that adolescents lead very amorous lives ( This Side of Paradise , 1920), that there are a lot of neglected Anglo-Saxon words ( Ulysses , 1921), that older people don’t always resist sudden temptations ( Cytherea , 1922), that girls are sometimes seduced without being ruined ( Flaming Youth , 1922), that even rape often turns out well ( The Sheik , 1922), that glamorous English ladies are often promiscuous ( The Green Hat , 1924), that in fact they devote most of their time to it ( The Vortex , 1926), that it’s a damn good thing too ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover , 1928), and finally that there are abnormal variations ( The Well of Loneliness , 1928, and Sodom and Gomorrah , 1929).

In my opinion the erotic element in these works, even The Sheik written [as if] for children in the key of Peter Rabbit , did not one particle of harm. …