Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Sin of Omission in the Omission of Sin

As I gradually work my way to the final chapters of Men, Women and Pianos, Arthur Loesser's effort to cast a social history of life in both Europe and the United States around the role that the piano played in that social life, it occurred to me that there is a significant gap in his account of that role at the very least in the United States and probably also in much of Europe. Loesser did some prodigious research in his efforts to document the growth of piano sales, particularly in the United States, which, particularly in the nineteenth century could boast a prodigious diversity of manufacturers appealing to different standards of both quality and price. However, while much of his social history is directed at the growth of the number of living rooms that were not complete without a piano among the furniture, he never tries to compare this with the number of brothels for which the presence of a piano was equally de rigueur. From the tone of his language, one may assume that Loesser enjoyed the reputation of a moralist, if not the notoriety of a downright prig. Perhaps I am reacting out of my own predilections for taking jazz into account in any musical dimension of social history, but I feel that Loesser has committed a great sin of omission.

Beyond the scope of both the United States and jazz, there is Johannes Brahms and what his Wikipedia entry calls the "long-told tale" of his playing in brothels in his early teens. There are also those who believe that Brahms himself was the originator of this tale; and, as the footnotes to that Wikipedia entry affirm, both sides of the authenticity story have arguments to promote. For what it is worth, the current Grove Music Online entry for Brahms by George S. Bozarth and Walter Frisch has him earning a living "playing in dance halls and taverns;" but, whether or not the tale is true, it strongly suggests that one would be as likely to find a piano in a German whorehouse as in an American one. Presumably, this would be true of other European countries as well; and, if that setting did not engender a revolutionary new approach to how music could be made in Europe, as it did in the United States, then, as that great connoisseur of Parisian brothels, Gustave Flaubert, might have put it, tant pis! The setting certainly did not seem to have any negative effect on the musical development of Joe "King" Oliver and probably was equally conducive to Oliver's protégé Louis Armstrong. We should be thankful that our perspective on social history has become far more accommodating (resisting the urge to call it "broad-minded") than it was when Loesser wrote his book in 1954!

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