Death by Bebop

A guest post by our Evil Alter Blogger, H. Smiggy McStudge. He says that if I let him rant, he will give me back my blood-pressure medication, maybe even before I have another stroke. Do not trust this man. He would steal Tiny Tim’s crutch. —T. S.

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.

Will Self

Listen: I write pretentious, artsy-aspiring, insufferable literary fiction and even I don’t think there was ever a time when literary fiction was “alive” enough to be called “dead” now.

Libbie Hawker

Literary fiction is dead, my dear Will and Libbie; and I am proud to say that we McStudges killed it. If you want to make out the certificate, I can tell you that it died at precisely the time when it first began to be called literary; you can work out the date from that. A McStudge never sleeps; he may put his audience to sleep, but he himself is always on duty. In the past hundred years, we have killed opera, we have killed poetry, we have killed painting and sculpture, the ballet and the symphony; we have sent ‘serious’ live theatre and ‘serious’ literature to that great arts council in the sky. Latterly, we have started in on merely popular art forms. Even the king of pop culture, the Film Industry (you can tell it is pop because we call it an Industry), has the name of McStudge written across its face in lovely necrotic blotches. We have got written science fiction starting to pine for the fjords, and now we are rubbing our hands with glee, and wondering which genre of popular fiction to kill next.

You may wonder, my poppets, why we McStudges take such delight in killing off art forms; and for the time being, you can take it out in wondering. I may deign to tell you later. For now, I will tell you how this delightful and invaluable work is done. Then you will be in the  position of the pathetic Winston Smith, when he wrote in his diary, ‘I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.’ He got his understanding in the torture-cells of the Ministry of Love, and you, my dears, will be there soon enough. You may rest assured of that.

A hundred years ago, when our work was just beginning, we thought it would suffice to kill off the high arts. We did not at first realize that talent and invention, and still worse, the tastes of thinking people, would emigrate into the merely popular arts and find nourishment there for their wretched souls. At that time precisely, Europe was ablaze with indignation at the murder of a silly Austrian Archduke, and not yet ablaze with war. America, typically, was concerned with matters less weighty but more fundamental. It is the horrible genius of the American people that they can plunge into some trivial fad like rock and roll or television, and after a few years’ fermentation, come out at the other end with Art. In 1914, while the educated classes were still dressing like penguins for the opera, the masses were hard at play, fermenting a thing called jazz.

At the time, jazz was nothing more than ephemeral dance music. While the Great War raged, Americans performed weird tribal gyrations to tunes like the ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’, and ‘Ja Da, Ja Da, Jing, Jing, Jing’. There was no pretence of sophistication. When these compositions had lyrics at all, they were pure fluff; sometimes (as with ‘Ja-Da’) outright nonsense. If there was any ‘serious’ or political element in early jazz, it was that white Americans were listening to music actually made by black Americans, not a sentimental and sanitized imitation. They had gone from Stephen Foster to Scott Joplin, and would go further. This would have evil effects in the future; for a while, there was a real danger that harmony and friendship might break out between the races. Despite our best efforts, we have not yet managed to wholly undo that damage; but that is another story.

In any other country, this sort of thing would have been harmless enough. Nobody remembers the music-hall songs that Englishmen were singing in 1914, or the airs that French accordionists played in the cafés, unless they happened to blunder into history by being connected with the war. The entertainment of the masses is, in Orwell’s term, prolefeed; it has no artistic merit, and the real arts are neither influenced nor threatened by it – except now and then, when a seditious cad like Haydn or Chopin sneaks folk-music into his serious compositions. But in America the matter is not so neatly arranged. Americans are difficult; they are a nation of proles who think they are bourgeois, and bourgeois who play-act at being proles. And sometimes, amid all this humbug, popular entertainment crosses the barriers of class and turns into something dangerous.

The trouble was twofold. First, there was much genuine talent among the underclass who invented jazz – talent that could not be co-opted and absorbed into the high arts, because of the colour bar. That could have been contained; the educated classes in America had been carefully trained to ignore anything produced by a man with a dark face. What was much worse, jazz had a Protean adaptability that could easily absorb influences from the whole world of music. Here is an early example: Dvorak’s Humoresque No. 7 (1894)—

—was shamelessly stolen and ‘jazzed’ by M. J. O’Connell, under the title ‘When Ragtime Rufus Rags the Humoresque’ (1917).

Jazz meant improvisation; jazz meant homage, parody, and irreverent quotation; which meant that jazz was fun, not only for the audience, but for the performer. Within a few years, the best musical talent in America was frolicking in this new field. We put the highbrow public to sleep with Stravinsky, but they sleepwalked away, and Al Jolson woke them up again. Even the serious composers of America, the Gershwins and Copland and so forth, let the fresh breeze of jazz blow through the conservatory instead of recirculating the stale air of Modernist atonality. But it was the parodists and arrangers who had the real fun, reaching their apogee with Spike Jones and Carl Stalling. These cultural criminals, by playing fast and loose with the canon of great Western music, not only made it accessible to the unwashed masses, they made it beloved; and at the same time, they lifted jazz into a high art form in its own right.

Obviously, this had to be stopped.

We McStudges killed painting by an elegant bit of thimblerigging. In the nineteenth century, pure representational art had become so technically perfect that no further development was possible along that line. Photography enabled the artist to study Nature with an accuracy and diligence never before possible; but colour photography made him, as an artist, superfluous to that study. Painters began to abandon realism for abstraction. Now, there is good work to be done with the abstract in art. But this is where we came in. We rigged the thimbles; we moved the pea.

When the modern artist escaped from the shackles of photographic realism, he fled straight into a prison that we built for him. You see, the average painter – and most painters are terribly average – is full of technical skill and manual dexterity, but has (it is their deadly secret) not much imagination. Give him a subject, a landscape or a human form or even a bowl of fruit, and he will work his magic. Give him nothing, and he will invent a subject out of the inadequate leavings of his own past influences. Unable to think of an original image, he will fake originality by taking the banal and making it bizarre.

The easy way to do this – sometimes the only way – is to play footling games with technique. We encouraged painters to become more and more interested in the weave of the canvas, the weight of the brush-strokes, the plasticity of the paint; less and less interested in what the painting was about. The ideal picture was not a window on reality, but a sculpture a quarter of an inch thick; and for the most part, I am happy to report, the new art was as shallow as its medium. Painters stopped talking to their audience through imagery; now they only talked to one another about texture and impasto. We killed that art in a generation, and despite valiant efforts to revive it, it has remained safely in the grave. You can tell this is so, because whenever a painter dares to produce a vivid representation of a real or imagined scene, all the critics hiss and sneer and call him an illustrator: the worst insult in their vocabulary. The fear of ostracism (and of losing grants and gallery space) keeps the artists in their place; and their place is as far away from the viewing public as we can put them.

Beginning about 1940, we played the same trick on the jazz musicians, with great success; it took us just twenty years to kill jazz, as a creative medium accessible to the people, stone dead. The game was the same: make the artist so interested in technique that he forgets all about his audience. But the improvisatory nature of jazz made the process even more amusing (for us) than usual.

The basic form of a jazz piece is a theme, or ‘head’, followed by improvised variations, or ‘riffs’. (The awful demotic nature of the form shows in its terminology. Real musical terms should always be Italian words; unless your audience understands Italian, in which case they should be Sanskrit or Swahili.) First you play the theme, so the audience knows what the game is about, and what the rules are, so to speak. Then the soloists take their turns playing the variations, just as they come to mind. The fun of the game is in seeing how far the rules can be bent without breaking – that is, how far-fetched the improvisations can be, whilst staying in some kind of contact with the original melody. Ideally, you close with a reprise of the theme, incorporating the best bits of the riffs, so that everyone can hear and appreciate how far you have travelled and what you discovered along the way.

This fun is shared by the performers and the audience, and it produces the empathy that is the heart of all successful art. That is precisely what we had to stop; so we hired an agent provocateur to break up the game. His name was Dizzy Gillespie.

Gillespie was a musician of great skill and talent, but he wanted something more: he longed to be a member of an Inner Ring. An Inner Ring is a special kind of claque, defined solely by its ability to keep people out, and to make them feel the sting of being excluded. We have done great work in every area of life, from politics to philately, by setting up Inner Rings and then making people outrage their better natures in a desperate effort to be accepted in them. With Dizzy Gillespie and his generation of jazzmen, we made the band the Inner Ring, and the audience the excluded victims. This is difficult to do in orchestral music, with its set scores and repertoires; but in jazz the trick was childishly easy.

We taught them to leave off the head, and call it bebop.

If you don’t play the melody in the first place, but launch straight into the variations, most of your audience will never be able to figure out what song you are actually playing. Gillespie delighted in this form of sadism. He prided himself on leaving the ‘squares’ behind; in a perfect performance, nobody but the band members would ever know what was actually going on. At the same time, he made his variations more and more intricate, less and less related to the tune he was ostensibly playing.

Now, Gillespie was a genius in his own right, and his variations were often as interesting to hear as the original songs, or even more so. The real value of this innovation became apparent when less gifted players tried to imitate him. Like the dull average painter who can only paint the subject in front of him, the dull average jazz musician cannot compose interesting music on the fly – especially if he is trying to be as clever and sophisticated as Gillespie. The hands choose the notes, without any significant involvement from the higher brain centres. An average bebop solo is a string of finger exercises and quotations jumbled together to show off the manual dexterity of the instrumentalist. Of course one seldom hears average solos on bebop records, because a jazz record is usually the end product of many takes and rehearsals, and there is often precious little improvisation left in the finished piece. But you can hear them on any night in the clubs and the jam sessions, supposing (which is highly unlikely) that you actually want to. The musicians play for each other, not for the audience; and I am pleased to report that they usually make a damned dull spectacle when they are doing it.

But even with the cheating tricks of the recording studio, most bebop solos are much less interesting or accessible than the (unstated) themes. Even when the theme is actually played, usually because it is a new composition, the audience’s eyes tend to glaze over somewhere between the third and fifth solos. It has been well and justly said that a bebop band consists of six soloists who have lost their way in the middle of the song. You can see this disease taking its course even in an otherwise brilliant piece like the famous ‘Take Five’, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet:

The head is a masterpiece of modern music, a real technical breakthrough: so far as I know, the first truly memorable melody in 5/4 time in the whole of the Western tradition. But after the first minute, when the theme has been laid down, the record degenerates into a series of rather pedestrian solos, distinguished only by the difficulty of making the riffs fit the rhythm. Only the reprise of the theme saves the record from ending in a mournful anticlimax.

Paul Desmond, the composer, could have approached the whole exercise in the spirit of the Big Bands of the 1930s, or of Gershwin or Joplin – in other words, he could have scored the entire piece. Instead of leaving the band to hang themselves after the first minute, he would have followed up with two or three more themes organically related to the first, and the whole piece would have had an intelligible and memorable structure, over and above that of the head. Fortunately, we McStudges were on hand to prevent that. We sent a little devil to whisper in Desmond’s ear, ‘But that would be square.

Now suppose that a band were to play ‘Take Five’ with the first and last minutes cut off. Remove the head, and all you have left is an unintelligible noodling with a weird beat. At this point you cross over from bebop into avant-garde jazz, which the likes of Ornette Coleman were beginning to inflict on the world in the very year that ‘Take Five’ was released. The result, I am happy to say, was a historic meltdown. Jazz disappeared into the event horizon of its own collective navel, and most of its audience migrated to other kinds of music. The process, by the way, has been analysed with painful acuity by Roger Bissell in his essay, ‘What’s Wrong with Bebop?’ But be warned: Bissell is not a McStudge. He is a reactionary fool who thinks that an art form has some kind of business actually reaching an audience, and you must sift his words accordingly.

However, it was not the musical branch of the McStudges that first perfected this technique. It was a McStudge of the previous generation who wormed his way into the confidence of James Joyce, and made him first into the Dizzy Gillespie, then the Ornette Coleman, of the literary novel, in each case a generation before his musical analogue became known to the world.

If the art of bebop is to play the solos without the head, then Joyce was the founder of bebop. He wrote a thousand-page sequence of riffs on the Odyssey, without actually writing the Odyssey. He had the obsession with technique that we have used with such grand effect in other arts. Nearly every chapter of Ulysses is a sustained effort in some ‘experimental’ style or other, ranging from humble pastiche to arrogant dada; and most of the experiments are such failures that nobody copies them unless they are deliberately trying to be weird and offend the ‘squares’. There was no device that Joyce would not employ in his effort to tell his story, except for the trite and obvious device of actually telling it.

Consequently, Ulysses reads like a giant cryptic crossword: even if you are familiar with all the sources and know all the allusions, you have to puzzle out the meaning of each clue, the peculiar code by which the antitype is derived from the archetype. If you don’t know the sources and allusions, you will never figure it out. It is an old and obvious rule that a piece of writing should convey its own meaning; that, after all, is the usual purpose of language. We taught Joyce to throw that rule out of the window, and to think himself a superior artist for doing so. He deliberately wrote a book that conveys no meaning unless you happen to have another book which contains the key to the code.

In his ‘Ornette Coleman’ phase, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, which went Ulysses one better, because there is no key to the code. It is a sequence of riffs without even an implied head. But by that time we McStudges had got our money’s worth out of him; we never bothered to influence him at that point, any more than we bothered with the avant-garde jazzmen, because their art forms were already dead. The audience was gone; all that remained was a coterie of artists talking to one another in more and more elliptical and self-referential jargon, plus a few hangers-on and hipsters who fed their own egos and annoyed their friends by pretending to understand. This is the condition of maximum entropy, the ‘heat death’ of an art form; this is the state to which, ideally, the McStudge Method will eventually lead every art to which it is applied. We delight to see it.

Now that you have been apprised of our methods, I am sure you will appreciate the skill with which our murders are performed. (By ‘appreciate’, of course, I don’t mean ‘appreciate’; I mean ‘surrender yourself in despair to the terrible and ineluctable truth’.) And I hope that part of your appreciation will consist in hating us for our work, and wondering what earthly or Hellish good we get out of it. Why do we do it? That, my dears, I am not going to tell you – yet. I want you to twist in the wind awhile, understanding How but not Why, until we meet again in the cells of the Ministry of Love.

   H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. This is reminding of Wilhelm Reich (or at least Reich as I understand him from RAWilson)–Reich said that one of the major ways of controlling people is to get them to limit their sex lives because you said so. (In this era, I think more of the game is played out about eating.)

    Generalize it to art, and it’s still getting people to spoil their own fun because you said so.

    I’ve heard a back story about jazz– there was a WWII tax on dance halls, and jazz changed from dance music to sit and listen music, and never made it back.

    Incidentally, while I’ve never managed to read Joyce, RAWilson wrote some very entertaining essays about Finnegans Wake. There’s presumably some good stuff in there if you like the puzzles.

    • I don’t know Wilhelm Reich, so cannot comment on that bit; sounds like I may need to do some reading. (Alas! How ever shall I manage?)

      Generalize it to art, and it’s still getting people to spoil their own fun because you said so.

      This, Ma’am, is the petrified truth. If Smiggy makes good on his threat, we are likely to hear more on that point soon.

      I hadn’t heard about the tax on dance halls; that would have been helpful but not sufficient. I mean that it would provide the bop artists of the world with what they call a target-rich environment, but no guarantee that they would hit the targets. Sometimes, turning a musical form from ‘dance music’ to ‘sit and listen music’ actually improves it, as with classical music in the 18th c., and rock & roll in the 20th.

    • I suspect it was more likely for art than for sex. After all, breaking down the family is a classic way of controlling people by removing resources.

      With — interesting results.

  2. Fun reading.

    I’m an amateur musician myself (Scandinavian fiddle), and I’ve long appreciated the discipline of playing dance music with a group of musicians (it’s not improv, but it is variation-friendly), namely, if they can’t dance to what you’re doing, you should probably do something else.

    • Whereas in most varieties of ‘modern’ (post-bop) jazz, the discipline is at the wrong end: if the audience can’t dig what the musicians are doing, it’s the audience’s fault and they should listen to something else. Which they have been doing, now, for fifty years.

    • Barbara Graettinger says


      • Barbara Graettinger says

        I mean, if you can’t dance to it, go elsewhere. Hence the rise of rock and roll. Had jazz stopped doing fast stuff that was hard to listen to unless you were a geek, then it would still be doing well. It gave up popularity for pedantry. It lost its audience.

  3. *Slow clap* Bravo, monsieur. A magnificent rant indeed — entertaining and eye-opening at the same time. I so hate snobs who pretend art is only supposed to be in a very particular way, but didn’t really know how their mind worked. I found the segment on painting especially familiar, from the lamentations of a good friend who happens to be in the business. And I can say with confidence that an overemphasis on technique as opposed to having something to say is making itself felt in more modern arts such as film and videogames. Except there the effect is opposite: the resulting creations are more and more low-brow. Or am I conflating technique and technology? Perhaps I should be looking at all those highly experimental games that no longer have anything game-like in them…

  4. Brian and I were highly entertained by this essay. I’m not sure that was McStudge’s intention, but he will just have to live with that unfortunate consequence of having something to say.

    “Disappearing into the event horizon of their own collective navel” is going to become a proverb in our home.

  5. Glad to see I’m not the only one who found McStudge a little too sensical.

  6. Andrew Parrish says

    This is absolutely brilliant analysis. Thanks for sharing – these alt-pieces are delightful to read.

  7. Stephen J. says

    We encouraged painters to become more and more interested in the weave of the canvas, the weight of the brush-strokes, the plasticity of the paint; less and less interested in what the painting was about.”

    This reminds me, I am quite sure uncoincidentally, of one of my favourite passages in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:

    “…You’re forgetting,” said the Spirit (of a painter, now in Heaven). “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.”

    “Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the Ghost (of a fellow painter, visiting from Hell). “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”

    “One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower — become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”

  8. Pellegri says

    This is fantastic. Thank you so much for linking it and the follow-up piece.

    (I wish I had more to say, but no: Completely blown out of the water.)

  9. Can’t recall the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed an essay with which I so fundamentally disagree!

  10. I finally understood why Take Five, with its brilliant beginning, bores the heck out of me. Thanks.


  1. […] a fascinating post which basically says everything that I’ve wanted to say about the deadness of modern art. […]

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