Armenian genocide: a crime that Turkish nationalists and Islamists still deny

April 24, 2015 at 11:31 am (genocide, history, islamism, posted by JD, truth, turkey)

A crowd looks on as Armenians are hanged in the street in Constantinople before their forced removal to the desert had begun after April 1915

A crowd looks on as Armenians are hanged in the street in Constantinople before their forced removal to the desert had begun after April 1915

By Dan Katz
The Ottoman Empire existed from 1299 until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists in 1923. At the height of its power, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Empire spread from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the Persian Gulf and from southeastern Europe down to the Red Sea.

A long period of decline followed, characterised by the loss of territories, fragmenting centralised authority and attempts at reform from above. In the 19th century the backward, stagnant Empire faced the rise of nationalisms inside its European boundaries as the constituent peoples rose to national consciousness. Britain, France, Russia and Austria detached territories.In response the Ottomans attempted to reform along Western lines. They modernised the army, abolished guilds, and somewhat reformed banking and the legal codes.

But a measure of the Empire’s continuing backwardness was that the trade in slaves continued until the early 20th century.

Groups began to emerge amongst the elite demanding more radical change. In 1876 a military coup forced the abdication of the Sultan, Abdulaziz, and the new Sultan was allowed to assume power on condition he declared a constitutional monarchy and convened a parliament.

The genocide of the Armenians, which started in April 1915, was orchestrated by nationalists, but had been prepared by Islamic-Turkish domination within the old Empire.

Modern Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir, campaigning for the refounding of the Caliphate (religious authority which existed within the Ottoman state), claim that Jews and Christians were simply obliged to pay a tax to the Ottomans in order to practice their religion freely. In fact non-Muslim religious groups were subjected not only to a special tax but to a range of discriminatory, deliberately humiliating laws:

“[Non-Muslim] men were forbidden from marrying Muslim women. Testimony [from non-Muslims] against Muslims was not accepted in court… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden from conducting their religious observance in a way that would disturb Muslims. The ringing of church bells or the construction of churches of synagogues were forbidden… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden to ride horses or carry arms and were obliged to step aside for approaching Muslims” (Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act). In some periods the non-Muslim groups were forced to wear clothes of particular colours (Armenians wore red shoes and headgear, Greeks wore black, Jews turquoise).

Armenians and others were expected to abide by this religious “agreement”, which had been imposed on them. When the Armenians and other nationalities began to demand equality in the 19th century, they were seen as violating Islamic custom.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Günter Grass on Israel: what Norm said at the time

April 13, 2015 at 8:09 pm (anti-semitism, blogosphere, censorship, From the archives, history, intellectuals, iraq, israel, literature, poetry, posted by JD)

The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.

What Must Be Said

by Günter Grass

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

wil not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

*****************************************************************************************

Wisdom from Norm on the  Günter Grass row:

Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:

There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.

Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:

To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.

I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.

Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:

OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.

This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.

A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.

On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.

Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.

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Billie Holiday, born April 7 1915, died July 17 1959

April 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm (civil rights, culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, protest, Racism, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues, truth)

The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).

She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:

“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.

“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.

“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.” 

The actor, Billy Crystal  (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.

Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’

But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):

Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.

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Marx on free speech

March 19, 2015 at 7:44 pm (Free Speech, history, Marxism, NUS, posted by JD, students, truth)

Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction [39]


Written: between January 15 and February 10, 1842;
First published: in Anekdota zur neuesten deutschen Philosophie und Publicistik, Bd. I, 1843;
Transcribed: in 1998 for marx.org by Sally Ryan; what appears below is an extract. The complete article is here. We publish this extract in the hope of educating some young radicals, especially in the student movement, who seem to think it is the role of the “left” to support censorship and that freedom of speech is a right-wing concept.


Karl Marx

“According to this law,” namely, Article II, “the censorship should not prevent serious and modest investigation of truth, nor impose undue constraint on writers, or hinder the book trade from operating freely.”

The investigation of truth which should not be prevented by the censorship is more particularly defined as one which is serious and modest. Both these definitions concern not the content of the investigation, but rather something which lies outside its content. From the outset they draw the investigation away from truth and make it pay attention to an unknown third thing. An investigation which continually has its eyes fixed on this third element, to which the law gives a legitimate capriciousness, will it not lose sight of the truth? Is it not the first duty of the seeker after truth to aim directly at the truth, without looking to the right or left? Will I not forget the essence of the matter, if I am obliged not to forget to state it in the prescribed form?

Truth is as little modest as light, and towards whom should it be so? Towards itself? Verum index sui et falsi. Therefore, towards falsehood?.

If modesty is the characteristic feature of the investigation, then it is a sign that truth is feared rather than falsehood. It is a means of discouragement at every step forward I take. It is the imposition on the investigation of a fear of reaching a result, a means of guarding against the truth.

Further, truth is general, it does not belong to me alone, it belongs to all, it owns me, I do not own it. My property is the form, which is my spiritual individuality. Le style c’est l’homme. Yes, indeed! The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds! What man of honour will not blush at this presumption and not prefer to hide his head under the toga? Under the toga at least one has an inkling of a Jupiter’s head. The prescribed folds mean nothing but bonne mine a mauvais jeu.

You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.

Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.

Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony. Read the rest of this entry »

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Eve Garrard: Antisemitism is on the rise, and “a very notable role in Western culture” …

March 10, 2015 at 3:10 am (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, fascism, history, Judaism, Middle East, posted by JD, terror, zionism)

This is a brilliant statement of principle that you all must read:

An edited speech given by Eve Garrard, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, to the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism’s event ‘Israel and Antisemitism in Britain: Now and in the Future’; first published in Fathom:

The murders in France of four innocent Jewish shoppers, connected arbitrarily but not accidentally with the killings of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, make the claim that antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe seem depressingly plausible. Here in the UK the Community Security Trust thinks there’s been an increase in antisemitism, and since they monitor such things carefully, I for one am inclined to believe them. The Guardian even devoted a whole page (on 5 January 2015) to this resurgence, so I think we can take that as strong evidence that the phenomenon is a real one.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, thought that the Second World War, and the huge and ravenous killing of the European Jews which was so distinctive a part of that tremendous blood-letting,  would have put an end to serious antisemitism in Europe; we thought that shame and horror would effectively preclude its resurrection from the grave of the death-camps.  Well, if we did think that, we were wrong, and more fool us. We shouldn’t have expected so long-standing and deep-rooted a hostility to melt away in the post-war spring sunshine, such as it was.

People sometimes say that if we’re to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism we have to look at its root causes, and the root cause of its current increase is, supposedly, the behaviour of Israel, particularly in the Gaza war it fought last summer. Well, we can all agree that we should look at the root causes of outbreaks of racism in order to understand them better. But if we’re to find out what’s really going on we may need to spread our cause-catching net a little wider than is usual, in order to identify the various forces which are at work. What counts as the root cause may itself be a matter of dispute, and very often the identification by an observer of a cause as being the ‘root’ of the problem in hand is actually the result of prior political commitments and pre-judgements which ensure that the blame for the problem lands exactly where the observer has already decided it belongs. (Think of those people who regard immigration as the root cause of all social unrest in the UK, or who think that women’s immodest dress and behaviour is the root cause of rape. Their prior hostility to what they identify as root causes is often remarkably clear.)

People who think of antisemitism as being the result of the behaviour of Israel, or more widely the behaviour of Zionists, are concentrating on what we might call a push factor: the way Israel has fought its most recent war, or perhaps the fact that she fought it (or any other war) at all, is seen as pushing people, however reluctantly, into the otherwise unwelcome embrace of antisemitism. But the push explanation is in many ways very unsatisfactory. It’s supposed to work like this: people are horrified by what Israel has done in Gaza, where about 2,500 people were killed last summer, and that horror leads them to feel hostility towards Jews here in the UK, since they’re inevitably associated with Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. On this story the arrow of causation, so to speak, runs from Israel’s horrifying crimes to a resulting antisemitism.  Perhaps those who are horrified may not feel actual hatred towards Jews, but the hostility aroused in them by Israel’s activities leads them to repeat some very familiar antisemitic tropes. These include the blood libel – that is, the charge that Jews, in this case Israeli Jews, callously and deliberately aim at the blood-letting of non-Jews, especially their children; and the trope that there exists a shadowy but powerful Zionist lobby (aka the Jewish lobby) which exerts a malign and well-nigh total control over international and especially economic affairs. Israel’s behaviour, so it is claimed, has pushed people into embracing these and other prejudicial and discriminatory responses. Or it has led them to say, as Ken Loach did, that they’re not antisemitic themselves, but they can understand why some people are – Israel’s behaviour feeds feelings of antisemitism. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morning Star’s ‘anti-fascist’ label for rebels in East Ukraine crass and niave

March 3, 2015 at 6:43 pm (anti-fascism, democracy, fascism, history, imperialism, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism)

Ever since the Maidan uprising against Putin’s stooge Yanukovych just over a year ago, the Morning Star (indirectly controlled by the British CP and funded by many UK trade unions) has persisted in referring to the Kiev government and its forces as “fascist” and the pro-Putin rebels as “anti-fascists.” The M Star‘s circulation is small, but it carries some weight within the trade union movement and sections of the left. This makes its grotesque misrepresentation of what’s going on in Ukraine, and its uncritical repetition of Putin’s propaganda, so politically poisonous. No article or letter published in the paper has challenged their version of events, until this letter, published today. Shiraz Socialist has no idea who the author is; we’re republishing here because we broadly (but not in every detail) agree with it and because letters published in the M Star‘s print edition do not appear on its website:

IMAGE CREDIT: PREDICTHISTUNPREDICTPAST.BLOGSPOT.COM

Naïve ‘anti-fascist’ label for rebel Russians breathtaking in its error

YOUR description of the eastern Ukrainian rebel soldiers as “anti-fascist fighters” is breathtaking in its crassness and naivety.

They’re no more fighting fascism than Mussolini was.

As ethnic Russians whose ancestors were moved in during the Soviet era (and possibly before), they have simply spotted an opportunity to have the area they live in returned to Moscow’s control.

In this we have seen the encouraging hand of Vladimir Putin, just as in Crimea and Georgia.

Please don’t insult our intelligence by describing Putin as some sort of defender of the left — he is a dictator who maintains his position by imprisonment and assassination of political opponents and by strict control of the media to ensure re-election.

At least in the (later) Soviet era there was some sort of brake by the Communist Party on excesses by the leadership.

Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet and their like were fascists.

You are simply losing all credibility by desperately trying to tar the Ukraine government with the label. Shame on you.

I am considering ceasing to buy the Morning Star, despite your support (with which I agree) for the Jack Jones Square campaign in Madrid.

PETER CARR, Sawbridgeworth

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“There’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories…”

March 2, 2015 at 8:39 pm (class, comedy, film, history, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, Socialist Party)

David Osland writes:

There’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories. Apart from 25 hours free child care, £8 minimum wage, abolishing the bedroom tax and the NHS Act, a freeze on energy bills, a million new homes, a job guarantee for NEETs, £3000 reduction in tuition fees, the introduction of a national care service, reduced GP appointment and cancer test waiting times, thousands of extra nurses and doctors, mansion tax, a ban on MPs taking second jobs, an end to the Free School programme, bankers’ bonus tax and 50p top rate for the rich. But other than that, there’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories.

JD adds: Socialist Party members and (the few) others involved in the rather pathetic ‘T.U.S.C”, should take note.

And as someone in the pub after last Saturday’s Unite The Union United Left meeting (at which the SP/T.U.S.C received a well-deserved hammering), noted, listening to the SP on the subject of the Labour Party, you can’t help thinking of this:

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Auschwitz: 70 years on, 70 stories

January 27, 2015 at 6:30 pm (anti-semitism, Europe, fascism, genocide, hell, history, posted by JD, Racism, USSR, war)

70 years on from the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where at least a million died, Steven Spielberg’s film, which includes testimonies from survivors is essential viewing; put aside 15 minutes to watch:

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Kid Ory: Maryland, My Maryland

December 26, 2014 at 6:24 pm (Christmas, history, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

A child was born in La Place, Louisiana on 25 December 1886: Edward “Kid” Ory, the Grand Daddy of all jazz trombonists.

Here he is in 1945 with his Creole Jazz Band, playing ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ (aka Christmas Tree, O Tannenbaum, The Red Flag, etc):
Mutt Carey (trumpet); Darnell Howard (clarinet); Buster Wilson (piano); Bud Scott (guitar); Ed Garland (bass); Minor Hall (drums).

H/t: Hal Smith

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Norman Field on the correct key for Armstrong’s Cornet Chop Suey

December 13, 2014 at 5:30 pm (good people, history, intellectuals, jazz, New Orleans, posted by JD)

I met up with my old friend Norman Field yesterday, and – as is invariably the case with this extraordinary autodidact – had a wonderful time. The conversation ranged from nineteenth century European history, to contemporary jazz-scene gossip and Birmingham local history. Along the way we touched upon Thatcher and the Falklands war, the arranging skills of Fud Livingston and the reason(s) why Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra left Victor records and joined Columbia 1928.

Norman is (was?) a fantastic clarinet and sax player but has now – for reasons best known to himself and which I would not presume to cross-examine him over – more or less given up playing in public. Suffice to say that people who know about hot jazz (Keith Nichols, Scott Robinson, Richard Pite, to name but three) regard him as a master and oracle. Scott Robinson, having heard Norman play at the Whitley Bay classic jazz festival a few years ago, described him as a “f****n’ genius.”

I should add that Norman made me a clear plastic 78 rpm record (of Jimmy McPartland with the Original Wolverines) in the course of our meeting!

Norman’s commitment to serious jazz research is demonstrated by this article, from his website. It’s reproduced here with his permission:

**********************************************************************************************************

Louis Armstrong’s ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ (1926): What key is it in?

Above: Armstrong’s Hot Five

By Norman Field

This article could not have been written without the generous help of Michael Kieffer, to whom many thanks. Other acknowledgements will be found at the foot of the text.

Over the years, I had occasionally heard that some doubt existed as to the correct key for Louis Armstrong’s tune of this name. The doubt specifically concerned the original version of it, which he had recorded with the Hot Five for OKeh early in 1926. This problem had apparently been around for some years. It had been discussed in the correspondence columns of Jazz magazines; possibly articles had been written about it, and it had certainly been talked about quite a bit. I understood that well known trumpet players had gone into the problem, and that, surprisingly, there was still no general agreement.

A few years ago, I became interested in selecting the correct pitch for early Jazz and dance band records, and found that by applying a few simple tests, it was – usually – possible to be fairly sure of the correct speed at which to play a 78 rpm record, so that it would come out at the correct pitch.

However, these tests were only valid for Jazz and dance records made in the U.S.A. and Britain in the 1920s through to about the mid-1930s; and even then, only when the band included a piano. It primarily rested with the piano, of course, and the assumption that this would be tuned to a standard pitch. I asked the late John R.T. Davies, the doyen of 78 rpm record restorers, whether this assumption was acceptable. He agreed strongly, pointing out that the major record companies (Victor, HMV, Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, Odeon, OKeh &c.) were large concerns, recording the most prominent international artistes, and the use of first-class pianos was to be expected, and therefore, for pitching purposes, that assumption was valid, tenable; indeed, unavoidable.

Of course, there are instances of ‘below-par’ pianos to be found on some Jazz and dance records of this period. However, these are probably pianos that are simply rather out of tune (with themselves), and sound ‘ploingy’ as a result. This is quite a different thing from the piano being tuned to the wrong pitch altogether. (See appendix 1.) 

So in general our assumption that the pianos are tuned to standard pitch is valid as a starting point. In any case, if for example, a piano had been allowed to become very flat in pitch, it would be difficult for wind instruments – the clarinet in particular – to ‘get down’ to the pitch of the piano without becoming out of tune with itself. And if a piano had somehow been tuned very sharp, a clarinet would simply not be able to get up to that pitch at all. Overall, the statement: ‘Pianos in recording locations, whether permanent or temporary, were, in general, tuned to standard pitch’ is a reasonable one, and likely to be true far more often than not.

And what actually is this standard pitch? As far as the U.S.A. goes, the note A (the one above middle C on the piano) should be 440 Hz, usually written as A=440. And the standard pitch used in Britain for orchestral and dance music at that time (circa 1900 – 1945) was A=439, a fairly trivial difference, so that the same tests can be used pretty safely for both countries. (See appendix 2.) 

As for other countries, and other styles of music, and indeed those artists and ensembles in the U.S.A. and Britain not using a piano, the application of ‘The General Rule Of The Piano’ must – in the first instance – be assumed to be inapplicable and, consequently, conclusions from it non-viable. I am not qualified to comment further on these musics; but certainly commend those who may be interested in them to pursue their own researches on these fascinating topics. Perhaps they will be able to derive some simple tests to help ensure correct pitching of old 78 recordings of e.g. a Javanese gamelin orchestra, or a Cantonese instrumental ensemble? After all, the correct pitching of any and every ‘78 rpm’ record is an essential part of properly preserving, for posterity, the information contained on it.

About three years ago, I heard of the existence of a CD set of early Louis Armstrong classics that included the 1926 Hot Five ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ twice. Once in the key of E flat; and also in the key of F. This was because, in the opinion of the compilers of the set, there was still no general consensus on which key it was in. To include it, therefore, in both keys was certainly very commendable. But I was puzzled that a record could be attributed to two keys so much as a tone apart. Not merely a semitone, but a whole tone: really a very large interval! In theory at least, it should have been fairly easy to decide which was the true one. The trumpet players who disagreed on the key of the piece may have (I don’t know…) played the tune over on their trumpets (or cornets) in both keys. And then used, as a basis for their conclusion, the fingering of their horns indicating one key rather than the other because one key ‘fell more naturally under the fingers’ than the other. At least, I assume that this is what they did. If my assumption is correct, then I have to say that that approach might at times be deceptive. As a clarinet player, time and time again, I have tried to find out exactly what Johnny Dodds or Don Murray played on their clarinets back in the 1920s, and the more I learn, the more I distrust what seems logical on the surface. Also, as the decades pass, it becomes ever more difficult to even attempt to analyse the ‘mindset’ of a 1920s virtuoso player. Certainly, Dodds and Murray were both virtusosi of the clarinet. They could play anything they mentally conceived… and usually did so. Perhaps intuitively, they ‘eliminated the instrument from the equation’: the music that appeared in their consciousness was the music that straightway sounded in the club or the ballroom in which they were playing. There was no intervention of any ‘problem of execution’ on their instrument. If – as I suspect – they (along with most other top musicians) did this, they were rather in advance of their time. They did not need to read treatises on the psychology of musicianship, the bulk of which have proliferated in the last 50 years. They just did it anyway.

If Dodds & Murray could do that, how much more could Louis Armstrong do it? Louis, from his first startling appearances on disc in 1923, was manifestly a very special case. On this basis, Louis’s cornet fingering patterns, I thought, might be rather unsusceptible to logical analysis. I’d found exactly the same in trying to play Dodds’s clarinet solo on ‘Potato Head Blues’ by the Hot Seven on a clarinet in C, in case he was playing one of those, instead of the normal B flat clarinet. Both fingerings, I found, were pretty equally plausible.  Read the rest of this entry »

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