Got That Schwing: Jazz Kitsch
by Jason Gubbels | July 14, 2014
Noted Village Voice critic Gary Giddins once remarked upon the "relative dearth of kitsch" in jazz music. Oh, it's easy enough to find inept and/or fatuous performances from any decade, but Giddins saw very few instances of that special kind of campy horridness once described by Walter Benjamin thusly: "For all its gigantic stature, it nevertheless feels like a knickknack." Aside from a few melodramatic jazz vocalists (Chick Bullock, Putney Dandrige) and some proto-Third Stream offerings (Paul Whiteman's 1923 adaptation of Léon Jessel's "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers"), Giddins argued that only the massed orchestrations and shrieking woodwinds of Stan Kenton truly deserved the quasi-honorific title of jazz kitsch. He singled out the (mercifully deleted) Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter! album as Kenton's kitsch masterpiece.
Of course, one man's kitsch is another man's triumph, and pop music fans aren't really supposed to have guilty pleasures, anyway. And if Clement Greenberg once claimed art was engaged in an epic struggle between modernism and kitschy consumer culture, those distinctions no longer seem so clear cut (Greenberg's avant-garde/kitsch equation leaves most of what we love about early 20th-century music out in the cold). So by tinkering a little bit with our definition of kitsch, it's possible to assemble a very wide-ranging and supremely goofy tour through the annals of Bad Taste in Jazz, from Dandridge mugging his way through "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to the great Slim Gaillard chewing the scenery on his faux-Hungarian version of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon."
The supremely corny exotica of hi-fi favorite Les Baxter also makes an appearance (hard to think of a song in worse taste than the sentimental strains of "Slave Ship"), as do the mock Bach stylings of Jacques Loussier and trumpeter Herb Alpert's hammy "adaptation" of Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. And of course you'll hear some of the cheesiest experiments of the fusion era, from Oliver Nelson covering the Lemon Pipers (with lounge pianist Steve Allen on electric harpsichord) and high-note showboat Maynard Ferguson plowing through a disco/jazz Theme from Rocky (dig those punching bag sound effects). Plus, three Stan Kenton cuts, from the bongo nonsense of "Congo Clambake" to the, um, bongo nonsense of "Zarathustrevisited." So get ready to check your good taste at the door, and long live jazz kitsch.