Roger Pryor Dodge
1898 – 1974

Man in the White Costume, 1934
Costume & choreography by Roger Pryor Dodge
Music: East St. Louis Toodle-oo by Duke Ellington
Photo: DeCamp Studio, New York

 

Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance
Roger Pryor Dodge
Oxford University Press, 368 pp., 1995

 

 

The collected writings, from 1929-1964, were selected and edited by Pryor Dodge, son of the author.  Introduction by Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. Preface by Pryor Dodge.

Long before Martin Williams, Gene Lees, or Gunther Schuller, Roger Pryor Dodge was writing seriously about jazz. A ballet, vaudeville, and jazz dancer, Dodge turned his critical attention to the music in the 1920's, helping to build the respect jazz has long since achieved. Now, for the first time, the essays and reviews of one of America's first great jazz critics have been collected in one volume. Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance gathers over thirty years of Dodge's writing, from 1929 to 1964, offering a remarkable chronicle of the changing music and one writer's ever-growing appreciation of it.

The classically trained Dodge came to jazz in the early 1920's; he quickly developed a love for the authentic, non-commerical sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and scores of lesser-known musicians. His work was often provocative, placing him at odds with prevailing attitudes. In these essays, we share highly personal yet professional encounters with the music – including a moving profile of "Bubber" Miley ("the greatest trumpeter in jazz history – in fact, the greatest musician of them all"), who died of tuberculosis at age thirty. Dodge ranges across the musical spectrum, from the Cuban sexteto to the blues of Leadbelly.

 

Roger Pryor Dodge with "Bubber" Miley, 1931, performing to "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" by Duke Ellington

 

 

"East St. Louis Toodle-Oo"

(Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley) film of Roger Pryor Dodge and Mura Dehn
dancing a Dodge choreography, New York, 1937

 

This collection also contains many of his articles on everything from mambo to Nijinsky (the author owned one of the largest and most important collections of photographs of the great dancer's work, and donated it to the New York Public Library) to a short essay on the young Elvis Presley ("without his having all the necessary elements that combine to make a great dancing talent, he does have the stance of a very great performer"). In addition, this volume offers Dodge's significant writing on classical music, including a piece on Baroque playing styles. Almost forgotten today, Roger Pryor Dodge was an essential force in making America's music critics take hot jazz and jazz dance seriously. A must for any jazz fan or student of modern culture, this collection deftly captures Dodge's excitement and critical insight.

 

Please view  Table of Contents

 

Preface by Pryor Dodge

My father, the late Roger Pryor Dodge, a dancer, choreographer and writer, was fervent about the performing arts and fortunate to discover jazz at a time when its folk element was still hot. Although the importance of his work was not entirely apparent during his lifetime, he now holds a prominent place in jazz history as one of the first serious writers to recognize jazz as a great music. This collection of his writings forms a seminal contribution to the understanding of the relationship of jazz to classical music and to dance, three art forms of passionate interest to my father and the subject of his life long creative and critical work.

His writing career perhaps took even him by surprise. A classcially trained and practiced dancer, he was nonetheless capable of analytic and impassioned criticism. It all began in 1924 when he attended the second New York performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" which had opened to rave reviews. Upon hearing this reputedly new jazz, he bristled from the experience and felt compelled to enlighten the public that the music was not in fact real jazz. He was unable to publish his first article, "Jazz Contra Whiteman", written in 1925, until 1929 when re-titled "Negro Jazz" it appeared in The Dancing Times, an English review devoted to ballet. The article argued that "the word 'jazz' is being used too loosely and too indiscriminately by persons who have little perception of the true nature of the embryonic form now developing amongst us." This article was the prelude to my father's lifetime exploration of elements common to the development of both classical music and jazz.

The son of the academic muralist, William de Leftwich Dodge, Roger Pryor Dodge was born in Paris in 1898 while his father was on one of his extended visits to paint and exhibit his work at the Salon. When the Dodges returned to New York, my father was raised in the artistic milieu of Greenwich Village and in the vicinity of Stony Brook, Long Island, where his father designed a neo-Greek villa with caryatids.

After quitting high school, he became interested in social dancing, a pursuit which brought him to the Ritz Carlton Ballroom in New York, where a dancing partner introduced him to Les Ballets Russes starring the great Vaslav Nijinsky in 1916. This proved to be a momentous experience for my father, and in 1920, at the age of 22, he began studying classical ballet and soon left for Paris to continue his training with Nikolai Legat, one of Nijinsky's teachers, Lubov Egorova, who had partnered with Nijinsky, and Léo Staats, the maître de ballet at the Paris Opera.

Nijinsky had stopped dancing in 1917. My father realized that photography was the only available means to experience his greatness, and he had the foresight to preserve a photographic record of one of the greatest dancers of our time. He proceeded to order prints from the photographers who had taken studio portraits of Nijinsky in the various roles he created. His efforts resulted in the most comprehensive collection of photographic images of Vaslav Nijinsky, donated years later to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library and eventually published in a widely acclaimed book, Nijinsky Dancing.

Upon returning to New York in 1921, my father entered the Metropolitan Opera corps de ballet, an engagement he held for six seasons while continuing his ballet training with Michel Fokine. Desiring a greater freedom of expression, he began exploring more modern techniques, including the Dalcroze School, Duncan technique, and classes with Michio Itow, who introduced him to vaudeville in his Pin Wheel Revue. His excursions in vaudeville continued, including a tour with the Marx Brothers and performances at the Shubert Theater among others, all the while dancing at the Met, and eventually with the Adolph Bolm Company, with whom he went on tour to Argentina.

Although he was featured in John Alden Carpenter's "Skyscrapers", the first "jazz ballet", in 1926, my father's taste in jazz had been formed two years earlier when he first heard several jazz recordings including one by Bessie Smith. His continued fascination with jazz in the twenties led him to eventually choreograph dances to East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Yellow Dog Blues and St. Louis Blues, that were performed in various theaters including the Roxy. These dances were accompanied by "Bubber" Miley in Billy Rose's revue "Sweet and Low" on an extended engagement. He also performed to The Mooche, Call of the Freaks and King of the Zulus, with a number of these dances eventually recorded on film. He took one of his pieces to Paris for performances at the Paramount. But due to back problems, his dance career ended in 1942.

My father's urge to revive his favorite blues solos from the 20's even extended to my own personal involvement at a young age. In 1960, when I was ten, he had me transcribe the trumpet, clarinet and trombone solos he needed to have notated for the musicians with whom he was working. This project lasted a few years and was an integral part of the musical education he had begun with me four years earlier at the age of six when he sat me down daily for a recorder lesson.

It was with these lessons that I was first introduced to Bach chorales and movements from dance suites. Later, after I had progressed to the flute, he brought out his handwritten, hand bound selection of "Hot Solos" and opened it to Armstrong's solo in Potato Head Blues. What for my father was one of the great solos of all time became my introduction to jazz. I played it almost every day until I had it memorized in different keys, an exercise my father had me do with most pieces.

The transcriptions were also "ear training" exercises, and at the rate of a nickel a measure, there was an added incentive for me to participate. Determined to be as accurate as possible, I often had to slow passages down to 45 or even 33 rpm in order to capture the intricate rhythms. Some of these rhythms were syncopated with dotted sixteenth & thirty-second notes or runs with sixty-fourths. Pitch could be tricky, as musicians often bent notes and recording speeds were not always in synch with playback.

With my musical transcriptions in hand, my father would meet and rehearse with his musicians. Later he would venture forth with his Wollensak to record them, usually returning dissatisfied, as the musicians improvised in a modern rather than period style. This important distinction was indicative of certain fundamental principles that guided my father in his pursuits. I remember the story he repeatedly told regarding the harpsichord revivalist Wanda Landowska when she claimed to play Bach "his way". According to my father, this style, based on dance, was in contrast to the accepted romantic approach to baroque music. He was so moved by Landowska's playing that he had his first wife, a classical pianist, attend her classes.

I never knew my father the dancer, for his professional career ended about seven years before I was born. However, at the age of 75, when I was 23 and living and studying flute in Paris, my father choreographed five baroque dances for himself that he intended to film. He designed an 18th century costume for himself based on a print of Faune in Le Triomphe de Bacchus , to be worn with a papier mâché mask of his own making. Three of the pieces were dances selected from Gluck's Orpheus, Bach's Wedding Cantata and a Handel Organ Sonata. The other two were a sarabande by Rameau and a dance by C. P. E. Bach. Although he didn't live to see the project completed, my mother did witness a very moving private performance.

 

Roger Pryor Dodge with Mura Dehn, New York 1938

 

My father also performed these last dances for Mura Dehn, who had been his principal dancing partner in the 1930's. In addition, he performed a new version of an early jazz dance composition. Later, Mura Dehn wrote that these pieces were a summation of his knowledge of and reflections on dance. She stated that my father wanted to "emphasize a style as known and felt by the average people of each epoch, performed by a dancer of middle age with artistry and taste – not a virtuoso. Watching him I thought George Washington could have danced that way. But to his jazz piece he gave more brilliance, more wildness and abandon than ever."

Fortunately, through the films my father made of his jazz dance compositions in the '30's, I too can remember him as a dancer. Besides enabling me to appreciate his creativity and his unique angular style, seeing my father perform in these films has helped me to understand why dance was fundamental to his concept of musical history and development. He experienced his own most vital expression in dance and in the music dance brought to life, an experience that informed the ideas he shared in his writings. 

June, 1995

 

Published articles on theatre:

The Image and the Actor, English Miscellany: A Symposium of Literature, History and the Arts, Edited by Mario Praz, Vol. 17. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura (for the British Council), 1966, pp.175-209

Shakespeare in Proper Dress, English Miscellany: A Symposium of Literature, History and the Arts, Edited by Mario Praz, Vol. 23. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura (for the British Council), 1973, pp.75-112

 

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