J31: Lament for Otis Ferguson

In his book, Changing the World: Clark University’s Pioneering People, 1887-2000, President Emeritus Richard P. Traina chose a remarkable list of important figures who had been affiliated with the school during that time. Among those to make the cut include such recognizable heroes as “Rocket Man” Robert Goddard and lesser knowns like the great writer of jazz and film criticism, Otis Ferguson.

In his biographical essay on Ferguson, Traina opens with an unattributed quote that reads: “Those who seriously appreciate film or jazz might sometimes wonder when those endeavors were first earnestly and critically treated as art forms.” Traina answers the supposition with: “Otis Cowan Ferguson was a pioneer with respect to those fields of popular culture, bringing to them uncommon and often ground-breaking insight and respect. Ferguson, during what was generally a transforming period of American history, put the world of criticism on a new level of artistic appreciation and intellectual engagement – and he did it, as he did most everything, on his own terms.”

His piece on Bix Beiderbecke alone warrants Ferguson such distinction. Though he didn’t have a chance to complete books in his lifetime, two have been published posthumously, In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader (December Press) and The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Temple University). The bulk of the writings were collected from essays originally published in The New Republic. Like Bix, Ferguson lived hard and died young. Unlike his hero however, Ferguson was a victim of World War II and not the bottle (although he was known to have a taste for Four Roses).

Ferguson, who was born in Worcester to Mary (Cowan) Ferguson and M. Howard Ferguson on August 14, 1907, was a graduate of Clark University, class of 1933. He arrived at the school at the age of 22, after already collecting a lifetime of experience. He spent his childhood bouncing around with the family in their unsuccessful attempts at farming in Ware and West Boylston. Returning to the city as a teenager, young Otis started making his own way. At 15 he worked a score of odd jobs including a position as a pin boy in a local bowling alley.

At 17, Ferguson left South High School before graduation to enlist in the Navy, rising to the rank of first class seaman. Of the experience, he once wrote: “I saw some rather comic-opera action in China, was paid off in Newport at the age of 21 with a thousand dollars in the bank, and went back to high school.” As Traina reports, Ferguson arrived at Clark’s Main South campus with “working-class identification and an autonomous spirit that would mark the rest of his brief, but productive, life.”

In describing his years as a Jonas G. Clark Scholar, Traina called them “omens” of what was to transpire in his career. “Majoring in history and English and graduating from the University in three years, Ferguson devoted himself to writing – displaying talent in fiction, criticism, commentary, poetry and even as it unhappily turned out, someone else’s master thesis in history. He achieved some notoriety by reviewing for a Clark student publication James Joyce’s Ulysses – at a time when the book was still banned in the United States.”

While at Clark student, Ferguson also won a college essay writing contest that was sponsored by The New Republic. The piece was called, “Gaush!” He would later find his first bylines in the magazine (through the approval of Editor Malcolm Cowley) and soon hired by the publication where he eventually became its assistant editor.

Before leaving school, Ferguson was elected senior-class poet and won the Prentiss Hoyt Poetry Award. Cowley reports that the young writer’s name first appeared in The New Republic in 1930. It was a review of a George Gershwin concert in New York. While still at Clark, Ferguson wrote articles, play reviews, poetry and fiction for the Clark Quarterly, for which he wrote articles, play reviews, poetry and fiction. In 1933, Ferguson was the editor of Pasticcio, the college yearbook, where he indicated that his future plans were: “None.”

“Following graduation, in the depths of the Great Depression, the young working-class writer from what was essentially a working-class university, set out for New York,” Traina stated. “As a failing Fuller Brush salesman and very freelance writer, he began to see some of his book reviews published. Then came a defining moment, a first piece of film criticism published in The New Republic in January 1934. Ferguson could not have been more fortunate, for the editor of that highly regarded, style-setting periodical was Malcolm Cowley. Cowley, who was probably an acquaintance of every significant figure on the American cultural scene, was attracted to this off-center talent. The editor described Ferguson at the time as “a hungry young man with a lot of wavy black hair, dark eyes that slanted down and a straight uncompromising mouth that might have been telling the world to go to hell.”

The Otis Ferguson Reader, first published in 1997 was edited by Robert Wilson and Ferguson’s widow, Dorothy Chamberlain. In the biographical notes in the back of book, the editors also note that Ferguson joined the editorial staff of The New Republic in the summer of 1935 and in addition to reviewing books, theater and movies, wrote about jazz and contributed to more than a dozen other periodicals.

They also talk about how he died: “When this country entered World War II, Ferguson became a member of the National Maritime Union and registered as an able-bodied seaman. In February, 1942, he was assigned to the Exford, a merchant ship destined for the perilous run to North Russia. The Exford did not reach Archangel until September, and it was February, 1943, before it docked in its home port and the crew was paid off.

“Ferguson next signed on the S.S. Bushrod Washington, which was bound for North Africa, Sicily and Italy. On September 14, 1943, while the ship was anchored in the Gulf of Solerno waiting to unload its cargo, it was hit by a radio-guided bomb released from a German plane, and Ferguson was killed in the explosion.”

Crowley says, “The other seamen escaped before the vessel burned to the waterline, but the bomb had exploded in the messroom, to which Otis, as was his custom, had gone down alone for a cup of coffee.”

In the forward Crowley writes: “I find with regret that the work and even the name of Otis Ferguson are generally unknown to readers under 60. Older persons are likely to remember the work with pleasure. Much of it dealt with swing bands or unpretentious, well-crafted films and, by extension, with the revival of popular culture during the 1930s, an aspect of the period that is often neglected. [He] approached those subjects freshly, accurately, with lyrical enthusiasm and with contempt for anything faked. Everything he wrote was attentively read in its time, besides leaving echoes in the work of later critics.”

The book includes all of Ferguson’s writing on jazz including some unprinted material and unpublished pieces that were excerpted from two unfinished book manuscripts: Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing, which Crowley says was to be a critical evaluation of his work and a description of the band and how it functioned. The other book is To the Saint James Infirmary, a look at instrumentalists, bands and blues singers. Cowley reports that one-third was to be a long essay on Bix as well.

In a previously unpublished piece simply called “Teddy Wilson,” Ferguson writes: “A pianist. Black. He has played with all remnants of the old-timers, usually without a credit line. He is known to the public for his music, not his name. I hear a lot of music, high hat and low brow, but I can’t say that any of it will stand up, for the initial delight and subsequent lasting power, with the improvisations of Teddy Wilson. He has developed, quietly and probably without any realization of how it would look in words, a style. This gives him an individuality that makes him identifiable anywhere; but within the narrow limits of jazz playing, it pushes him into repetition of himself. (Just, you might say if you still have a fresh approach to the subject, as Bach developed, with all his architectural grasp of the medium, a style and as Bach could be identified anywhere.)”

Traina says, Ferguson’s predilection for jazz inspired him to write critical reviews of jazz performances with the same consuming interest – always aiming at both the audience and the musicians. Dorothy Dodds Baker, author of Young Man with a Horn, a novel and moving picture based on Bix Beiderbecke, wrote that Ferguson ‘built himself a medium there and developed it in those short pieces, so that he had a thing that was all his own, right length, the right beat to the phrase, everything perfect.’

“Whitney Balliet, writing in The New Yorker 40 years after Ferguson’s death did not exactly agree, saying that Ferguson ‘disguised literary pretensions behind slang and pseudo toughness, sometimes silly, sometimes mystical, sometimes melodramatic gargle.’ Yet according to Cowley, jazz musicians themselves, ‘unlettered men who had never before opened a journal of opinion and would never open one again after Otis died,’ were reading Ferguson’s pieces ‘with admiration.’ And as Ferguson himself wrote, ‘the best people in the world to learn about music from are actual musicians, who would not be caught dead in the type of talk [so often] used to describe the work.’ Cowley himself later resorted to the lyrical when writing about his then deceased assistant editor: ‘Sometimes I think that his ideal was to write as Bix Beiderbecke played the jazz cornet, with “always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself.’”

Cowley wrote: “In 1936 he began writing about the big swing bands that flourished at the time as they would never flourish again. ‘Breakfast Dance, in Harlem,’ describing a night at the Savoy Ballroom, was his first excursion into the field. It was followed in the same year by the famous ‘Young Man with a Horn,’ a lament for Bix Beiderbecke, and by ‘The Spirit of Jazz,’ about Benny Goodman’s band. All these were memorable ventures, and the novelist Dorothy Baker was right to say of them, while echoing his style, that Otis ‘built himself a medium there and developed it in those short pieces, so that he had a thing that was all his own, right length, the right beat to the phrase, everything perfect.’ Baker had written a widely praised novel, Young Man with a Horn, after borrowing both her subject and her title from Otis, with his permission.

In his review of the book, Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, which was based on his writings on Bix, Ferguson writes: “Just behind the pages of this book there is the picture of that odd and endearing and forever cocky little figure, who followed the copy of all great artists working from the heart of their environment, in being as tall as heaven and as simple and good as pie. He is there for me, that is, and the music he represents behind him. So while I know this to be a good book for any man’s money, I cannot report on just how good it will be to those who, not having seen the beauty it talks of as it was passing, will merely read, digest, and file away some bit of its wide range of knowledge. I would sincerely like to have written such a book, if that’s anything.”

In the section of “Origins of Jazz: I,” Ferguson sets the table by riffing about some of the architects of jazz, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. He writes: “The boys didn’t have to ask what jazz was, any more than you’d have to ask about the wind in the trees – it’s just there. Being a natural folk art, as natural as singing, jazz made its own tradition without the need of conservatories, and though it suddenly swept the country in general during the war, just as jazz with real swing to it became a national craze as this-here-new-swing a couple of years back, it had been going on in certain places for quite a while, and before that had been partly present in other forms of music for generations.”

Ferguson opens “Origins of Jazz: II” with, “New Orleans had been crammed with musical talent all along, and now talent was getting even thicker. Among trumpet players alone,” he says, “you find such names as Oliver, Armstrong, [Freddie] Keppard, [Leon] Renee, [Wingy] Mannone, [Henry “Red”] Allen and [Buddy] Bolden. Then before you can say, clarinet marmalade, Ferguson takes up the matter of race, saying, “There may be a New Orleans supremacy in jazz playing. (You’ll find many to say so, but you’ll have a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do about the original and lasting influences of [Fletcher] Henderson and [Duke] Ellington if you try to argue the point.) And there may be a ‘definitely negroid’ pattern on everything that swings. (But when you try to prove it, not just say it, you run up against such top ratings in the field as a Jack Teagarden, Bix and Benny. And incidentally, Bix came from Davenport, not Chicago; Teagarden started in Texas, Louisiana.

In the piece titled, “The Man with the Blues in His Heart,” Ferguson states, “Jack Teagarden (otherwise, Jackson, Mister Jack, Mister T., Big Gate, etc.) is one of the really high men in the jazz collection. I’ll tell you more about it. At the outset it should be said that he has been playing around half of his lifetime in a business that sets the most grueling pace of any. On the stand, off the stand, on the train, and up on another stand night after night after night, rehearsals and recording dates, a different hotel and different babes but the same arrangements and iron routine. And the same bottle. Yet a man is supposed to bring it out clean and inspired every time his number is called, and it is a mortal truth that playing it that way in jazz means playing as though you had a fire under you. Teagarden has been on this griddle a long time. Though still a fine musician, he seems tired and cynical, his creation a bit shopworn – which knowing gentlemen have not hesitated to remark or less knowing gentlemen to echo, which in itself is enough to embitter a fellow and make him listless.”

Putting Ferguson’s legacy into perspective under the heading of “Music and Musicians,” in the Reader, Cowley aptly noted that the late Worcester author is legendary in the field of jazz. “He has been called ‘the best writer on jazz who ever lived’ and ‘the most brilliant of them all.’ One of the first critics to write seriously about this native American music, he brought an understanding and appreciation of jazz to an audience far wider than the original small group of aficionados. Professional jazz musicians (see Jess Stacy’s “Blues for Otis Ferguson“) have been among his most ardent admirers.”

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