the imaginative conservative logo

conservative jazz

Do conservatives like jazz? Moreover, should conservatives like jazz (after all, there’s that, ugh, innovation stuff)?

Conservative great, the late Ralph de Toledano, is far better known worldwide as an influential and early jazz critic. He used to tell me how he and Thomas Merton haunted New York jazz joints in the late 1930s when both were students of Jacques Barzun at Columbia. ‘Ralphie’ went on to cover the Alger Hiss trial for Newsweek and became best friends with Whittaker Chambers, while ‘Tommy’ joined the Trappists and I gather that the college kids who lurked up to Harlem found his ultimate vocation as admirable as perplexing.

Elsewhere, the attitudes toward jazz among great American Conservatives may require some guesswork (unless our readers know better, for I wouldn’t be completely surprised to learn that ‘Night Train John’ Willson backed up Coltrane on wailing blues-harp at a 1950s St. Louis University concert). Lionel Hampton, the eminent jazz vibraphonist and big-band leader, told me he was a lifelong conservative Republican when I met him at Mr. Reagan’s first inaugural ball, but he was a man of notes not letters.

I don’t recall Dr. Kirk ever mentioning jazz, focusing more on Burkes named Edmund than Raymond (clarinetist, 1904-1986, played with Preservation Hall and Kid Valentine). The iconic M. Stanton Evans is still a Paleo-Rock-‘n-Roller with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from who was Little Richard’s drummer to where Elvis bought his blue suede shoes, but jazz? I can’t see William F. Buckley snapping his fingers and calling any hep-cat ‘daddy-o.’ Or a young Wilhelm Roepke frequenting the Weimar cabarets and sharing his last untipped Gauloise with Stéphane Grappelli. How anyone with the ultra-cool name of Hans Urs von Balthasar isn’t a German electric bass-player remains a mystery (you know: skinny shades indoors, black turtle-neck, about eight silver rings, heading an ultra-progressive jazz ensemble named Balthasar-Berliner Technikwerk).

Worse yet for bebop, methinks. In my own youthful days as a singer-songwriter, I wrote the only ragtime song on the Reformation (printed elsewhere on this website), which may count vaguely as jazz but not bebop. And I once referenced bebop in a down-market Capitol Hill bar where many a young Reaganaut and his dishy ‘New Right Baby’ (another song title) used to get merrily snockered.

Monday nights, the dive filled with lugubrious survivors of what they call The Great Folk-Music Scare: old hippies who shelved books in the Library of Congress and wheezed out the usual 1960s standards. I borrowed a guitar while they were on break and began strumming under the traditional, spoken, left-wing, folk-sermon introduction: ‘Waaal, maybe if people start a-thinkin’ again, we’ll start a-singin’ again. An’ if’n we start a-singin’ again, waal, maybe we’ll start carin’ again. An’ then, goldurn it, (voice rising) if’n we start carin’ again, WAAL, MAYBE WE’LL START MARCHIN’ AGAIN!’ They began rocking and twitching and grinning. They commenced hyperventilating and salivating, and possibly hallucinating. I had ‘em right where I wanted ‘em when I began to sing. It was a Dylan parody, the first four lines written by a friend of friends, Terry Southern (of The Magic Christian, etc), with the rest by me.

‘How many knees could a Negro grow

If a Negro could grow knees?

And how many Heebs could a Hebrew brew

If a Hebrew could brew Heebs?

And how many bees could a bebop bop

If a bebop could bop bees?

The answer, my friend,

Is blow it out yer…’

So it continued beyond ‘How much wood could a woodchuck chuck,’ onto a rhyme quite unsuitable for family websites. I think I might have had a few cocktails beforehand.

If you want a reasonable approximation of my reception, walk into a VFW hall just before the bar closes and desecrate Old Glory. There were gray-haired, pony-tailed hippies all weeping into their scraggy beards; bra-less old chicks in granny-dresses flapping; beatniks trying to beat me; pacifists trying to kill me; antiwar activists fumbling with dimes at the payphone calling in the 82nd Airborne, and so forth. It was an amusing evening, all told, and after a fashion it was conservative (or at least right-wing) but not precisely bebop or even jazz.

For bebop we may turn to Dave Frishberg (born in 1933, St. Paul, Minnesota), a talented jazz pianist, composer, singer and song-writer. His philosophy and politics are a mystery to me and at a guess I’d place this song sometime in the late 1970s. You don’t even have to be a conservative to like it, but it has something to do with a loss of community. (For youngsters, the line ‘walk on, walk on’ refers to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ a sentimental/inspirational/gooey song from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel).


“We must have lunch real soon. Your luggage is checked through. We’ve got inflation licked. I’ll get right back to you.
It’s just a standard form. Tomorrow without fail.
Pleased to meet you. Thanks a lot. Your check is in the mail.

“Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies. Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.
Your toes and knees aren’t all you’ll freeze
When you’re in it up to your thighs.
It looks like snow, but you never know
When you’re marooned in a blizzard of lies.

”You may have won a prize. Won’t wrinkle, shrink or peel.
Your secret’s safe with me. This is a real good deal.
It’s finger lickin’ good. Strictly by the book.
What’s fair is fair. I’ll be right there. I am not a crook.

“Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.
Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.
Better watch your step when your old dog Shep
Can’t look you in the eyes.
You’re cold and lost and you’re double crossed
When you’re marooned in a blizzard of lies.

“We’ll send someone right out. Now this won’t hurt a bit.
He’s in a meeting now. The coat’s a perfect fit.
It’s strictly fresh today. Service with a smile.
I’ll love you darling ’till I die. We’ll keep your name on file.
Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.
Marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.

“Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart.

And you’re in for a big surprise.

When you’re marooned, marooned, marooned

marooned, marooned, marooned,

marooned, marooned, marooned in a blizzard of lies.

A blizzard of lies.”

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
7 replies to this post
  1. If he's looking for conflicting impressions of Jazz by the titans of conservatism, Mr. Masty might want read Richard M. Weave's excoriation of Jazz in Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver remarked that Jazz was "a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness. Jazz often sounds as if in a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement." Weaver believed jazz had great appeal to "civilization's fifth column, to the barbarians within the gates". He perceived that Jazz's titillating driving influence; syncopation, was a sign of spiritual restlessness that obliterated the distinctions of restraint and provided the performer the "fullest opportunity to express himself as an egoist." "It is a music of dreams–certainly not of our metaphysical dream–but of drunkenness ," Weaver proclaimed. He felt that showed "how the soul of modern man craves orgiastic disorder."
    Weaver never lived long enough to hear Elvis or experience the birth of rock-n-roll. He might have been right about everything he wrote in his chapter regarding egoism in art which examines the latest art forms and their fragmenting push to the periphery, but his warnings might be dismissed by hard-rocking conservatives like myself and Jazz enthusiasts like Masty as simply being a stick in the mud.

  2. Mencken, on jazz clarinet, asked 'what mighty aches from little oak-horns grow?'

    While I've posted elsewhere here on anonymity, I presume that the pleasant discussant is a state employee afraid of retribution. I'm not much of a jazz fan, at least post-1935, apart from the odd piece such as the one I quoted. I do think that it is hard to find wickedness in, say, the merriment of Beiderbecke. I also wonder if sometimes the contrarianism and grumpiness of many conservatives, such apparently as Weaver being quoted, find false principle in mere prejudice or in opposition to what one's enemies enjoy. Along this line I have heard self-described conservatives denounce beer as working class and gin as arriviste, while the 'real people' drink claret and port. Chesterton, I think, drank anything gratefully and in volume. Just a thought.

    As would Mr. Anonymous, I do like Prof. Duncan Williams' (Trousered Apes) critique of romanticism/modernism as ideological art driven by innovation and personalisation and leading to a crack-up, as I've synopsised elsewhere here. But as Mr. Frishberg demonstrates, there is room for morality in modernity. And if fun matters too, that might leave room for Bix.

  3. Toledano of course picked up on jazz when he was a young marxist. Once one lets music into his soul it is much harder to get it out than it is to quit smoking or drinking. But is any kind of music more likely to be "conservative?" Much of Blue Grass surely is, much of rock 'n roll surely isn't, etc. I remember driving with my children somewhere along a 1980s road, and hearing "Against the Wind" on the car radio, and saying, well, at least this guy can sing, and he's intelligent, and my oldest daughter saying, "Dad, that's Bob Seger, and you hate rock music." Well, I didn't after that, and even came to understand why Stan Evans still calls Elvis "The King." My friend Timothy Muffitt (conductor of Lansing MI and Baton Rouge symphony orchestras, plays fiddle with cajun bands and hits licks with jazz guys on his trumpet. He's sort of liberal, but just goes to show that music calls up all kinds of beasts in us.

  4. Very interesting. Esp. the trivia on Lionel Hampton. I learned to like jazz (specifically 50s-early 60s bebop) just a few years ago. It started with enjoying the Vince Guaraldi soundtracks to the old Peanuts animations that my kids (and I!) watch, then it branched out into Red Garland, Billy Taylor, Sonny Clark, Milt Jackson, etc.

  5. Yes, many conservatives can and do like jazz. It is of very little wonder that so many socialist countries around the world view jazz as an imperialist form, because it is based on freedom, and freedom is a threat to their total control over the people and their way of life and thinking. Jazz made many great strides in the 20th century U.S. as long as it was free from government intrusion. Now that jazz has become just another constituency of leftism by which the socialist liberals in the entertainment industry can keep people dependent on government with their grants, stipends, and subsidies, jazz is no longer the force for freedom around the world as it once was, and no longer has the respect it did 50 years ago.

  6. Sir – You stated that you couldn’t see WFB, Jr. digging jazz. In fact, he was a fan of jazz pianist Dick Wellstood, and hired him to play at Nat’l Review functions. WFB was an accomplished pianist in his own right.

Leave a Reply