Measured Longings and Layered Stories: On Jonathan Leal’s “Dreams in Double Time”
By Sam V. H. ReeseAugust 9, 2023
Dreams in Double Time: On Race, Freedom, and Bebop by Jonathan Leal
Short of overthrowing the term, musicians and theorists have slowly but surely reoriented the significance of bebop. While it might have originated in scat singing as a kind of vocal instrumentation (not in itself a bad thing), the word bebop became quickly associated with nonsense speak. The music that it names—frenetic, virtuosic, and liberating—emerged in the club scene of Harlem in the 1940s. Musicians jamming after hours in nightclubs like the storied Minton’s Playhouse turned away from swing towards a faster, more fluid style of music that challenged both musicians and audiences. Calling this new music bebop was a way for listeners to emphasize what they heard as its flaws. Bebop was meaningless abstraction, and inarticulacy—noise, signifying nothing.
By naming something its own practitioners had refused to label, hostile listeners also tried to cordon off the music to limit its domain. In attempting to restrict the bebop movement’s influence, they tacitly acknowledged something that more recent critics have demonstrated in great detail: bebop was a revolutionary style of music. Its technical virtuosity offered Black musicians a way to reclaim jazz from white bandleaders. As Arthur Knight puts it in his 1995 essay “Jammin’ the Blues, or the Sight of Jazz, 1944,” “[T]he shift from swing to bop marked a change in jazz from a mainstream popular music to an explicit art music, which was (at least initially) assertively black.” Its practitioners may have been forced into what Eric Porter calls—in his 2002 book What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists—a “contradictory social position,” but the artistic and sonic integrity of bebop blossomed as a counterdiscourse that pushed the edges of musical language.
Stepping into this reclamation of bebop as an expressly Black and socially discursive musical mode, scholar-musician Jonathan Leal opens Dreams in Double Time: On Race, Freedom, and Bebop (2023) by drawing his reader’s eyes to a saxophone belonging to his grandfather. This grandfather, Leal explains, was “a borderlands proto-Chicano learning modern jazz through recordings and rehearsals and jam sessions,” and his experiences raise important questions that guide Leal’s new book. How did musicians from other ethnic backgrounds engage with bebop, given its racial politics? What were they drawn to in these performances of Black masculinity, and what did they make of the music’s countercultural potential?
Deftly drawing together the major trends in recent jazz scholarship, Leal makes an important intervention, moving “bebop discourse away from a strictly Black-white binary narrative, and project[ing] outward into an understanding of the relationship among race, musical dreaming, and shared fate.” His focus is on three figures: the second-generation Japanese American multi-instrumentalist James Araki, the Afro-Chinese drummer Harold Wing, and Raúl R. Salinas, a jazz poet and pioneer of a Xicanindio literary idiom. With Leal describing their lives and stories, all three cut impressive figures. But none of their names are likely to conjure immediate recognition. They all existed on the margins of bebop, and their engagement with the form is complicated by questions of race, geography, and personal ambition. Leal makes a virtue of their minor status, and this is perhaps his most immediately obvious contribution to jazz scholarship. The jazz solo has tended to draw focus towards heroic individuals; by placing even greater emphasis on improvisation, bebop exacerbated this tendency. By explicitly focusing on minor figures, putting them in relationship to one another, Leal draws attention to the other side of bebop musicking: its emphasis on collaboration and conversation. For Leal, this is not simply due to his subject matter; the logic of the minor and the complementary guides the sources he draws from as well. As he explains, “I read across multiple archives for ‘minor’ materials previously excluded from historical narratives, effectively rendered mute, forgettable, and unnecessary, and then I read those materials in relation to each other.”
This counterpointed reading affects the whole structure of Leal’s book. From the acknowledgments onwards, he describes his book as “a braid”; later, he calls it “a natural weave: a recovering and recombining of stories and materials often omitted within disciplinary academic space for the sake of local clarities.” His description captures the feeling of reading Dreams in Double Time, which smoothly interweaves a range of voices and approaches, bringing them into conversation where they easily could clash. But perhaps a better analogy for the feel of Leal’s book is with the music that is his subject, and he sets out deliberately to “capture something of the interconnected, multiscalar temporalities of the musical structures and lived experiences of the midcentury conjuncture.” Leal underscores his book’s “loops and syncopations, its measured longings and layered stories,” both to account for his own methodology and to set out a kind of challenge to the conventions of jazz writing as a genre.
His invocation of musical language is not just gestural, summoning a mood or feel. Throughout, Leal sustains beautiful, compelling, and always illuminating engagements with the sound of bebop, treating the musicking as something alive. “Listen,” Leal urges us, turning to one of his grandfather’s records: listen to the way that, “after the first portion of Charlie Parker’s blues-shaped solo, […] he clicks seamlessly into double time against Billy Hadnott’s walking bass line”; listen to “the nested microrhythms blooming against the established pulse, every downbeat cracked and shimmering like broken glass in lamplight; note how Parker’s infectious rhythmic sensibility nudges the accompanying musicians ahead slightly, energizing them into a forward lean.” As Michael Titlestad notes, in his 2000 essay “Jazz Bodies: In Process, on Trial and Instrumental,” much writing about music ends up relying on vague language, hinting at “an apocalyptic lifting of veils through which one approaches, but never reaches, the thing itself.” But Leal has the keen ear and precise language to make us hear and feel, say, Lester Young’s “buttery tone, his contrasts with Parker’s style, and yet his resonance with it.” Leal’s close listening, moreover, never draws us away from the music to some indistinct beyond, but brings us closer, pulling details into sharper focus.
That said, the wide territory that Leal traces—following “the fire sparked by bebop” as it travels “well beyond Harlem in long arcs from Austin to Los Angeles, Newark to Tokyo”—and the shifting scales of analysis (biographical, musicological, political) run the risk of leaving the reader completely disoriented. Leal takes the task of developing truly relational interdisciplinary analysis more seriously than any of his recent peers in jazz studies, and his book shows why most “interdisciplinary” scholars limit themselves to the shallow end of the pool. It takes a deft hand, and a deep knowledge of several fields, to read music and literature—let alone “archives and memories”—through a “contrapuntal relation, attending to what productive trouble they make for one another.” While it is true that Leal is taking his cue from his subjects as he traces their improvisatory relationship with both bebop and the world, this is only true so long as improvisation is understood not as random and haphazard but as guided by an innate and disciplined understanding of structure and development. Leal’s approach allows him to build a compelling and lucid narrative that roots Araki, Salinas, and Wing in specific times and places, that shows how they came to bebop, and that offers an enlightening view into what they did with what they found.
Given his own explicit invocation of musical structures and sensibilities, Leal’s discussion of Salinas has particularly deep ramifications for the way we understand the relationship between writing at its most stubbornly linguistic (poetry) and music at its most stubbornly instrumental (jazz). Where Wing was a virtuosic drummer, highly regarded by his peers and students, and Araki a dazzling multi-instrumentalist with phenomenal powers of adaptation and transcription, Salinas was only latterly, and minorly, a musician; his entanglements with jazz were mainly through the written word, as a critic and poet. His case offers Leal space to confront a crucial question: “What did it mean to try and write like musicians sounded”? In the process of answering this, Leal offers an excellent analysis of the shortcomings of the Beat poets, whose approximation of jazz amounted to an unreflexive emphasis on the present. Salinas, he argues,
didn’t attempt to capture the “moment” of one of Parker’s solos, as writers like Kerouac had before him; instead, he worked to translate his knowledge of musical structure and jazz aesthetics into a poem that, of its own accord, might itself produce effects analogous to those of the music he admired.
Leal does not leave this as a loose judgment but gives it body through attentive close reading that makes us hear Salinas’s verse as clearly as we hear Araki’s version of “Day Dream.” He suggests that to “write like musicians sound is to trace the curvatures of one’s ears,” and if one of his ambitions is to encourage his readers to extend their listening, to “understand music itself […] as a medium for dreaming, speculating, theorizing, connecting, and relating,” then a second, and in no way secondary, effect of his writing is to model a more nuanced and technically vibrant way of writing about jazz.
To be sure, there are some places where the narratives that Leal traces, or the voices he interpolates, do not always harmonize. His project sets out to bring them into a productive friction—“not to resolve their inevitable tensions in a tidy appeal to a universal but instead to sit with them, listening for their chords”—and this naturally leads to some moments of dissonance. While he notes the extent to which bebop emphasized Black masculinity—and teases out the implications of this for othered or racialized men in compelling and innovative ways—the book remains, aside from references to the work of Mary Lou Williams, an overwhelmingly male affair. And the truth is, sometimes Leal’s subjects appear foreshortened—any one of them feels worthy of an entire book.
But this runs contrary to Leal’s aim here, which is not to recover lost genius but to do the opposite—to expand our understanding of bebop beyond the figure of the heroic soloist, introverted and isolated, to think through such a figure’s relationality, its communality, and its outwards trajectory. Dreams in Double Time meets the challenge Leal has set himself, “to convey how a mode of Black dreaming created a framework for young, nonwhite listeners to pursue their own improvisations, to contextualize their energies and struggles under American racial democracy,” and does so in a way that makes bebop’s countercultural power fresh and immediate. For the revolutionary force of bebop has faded over time, just as jazz itself has become—as Teju Cole put it, in an imagined entry for a “Dictionary of Received Ideas”—“America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.”
Leal’s reading is grounded in his own trajectories and his family’s past, yes, but also in the present moment. He pulls us back into the moment of writing, his “now,” his “tonight,” in order to help us hear bebop as not a historical relic but a form of “musicking” that offers a “densely signifying cultural practice just as capable of generative insights about the personal, social, and historical as more traditionally representational visual and textual media forms and practices.” In the words of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” a story to which Leal returns several times, Dreams in Double Time keeps both bebop and jazz writing “new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.”
Sam V. H. Reese is a jazz and literary critic and short story writer. The author of The Short Story in Midcentury America (2017, winner of the Arthur Miller Center First Book Award), and Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness (2019), along with two collections of short fiction, he has most recently edited the notebooks of Sonny Rollins, with a critical introduction, for NYRB (2024).
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