Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
There is an assumption that art and entertainment are somehow distinct. The two classifications regularly appear side-by-side, simultaneously suggesting a family resemblance and an unbridgeable divide. The all-too-empty content of some commercial entertainment reinforces the dichotomy, as does the abstraction of modernist and post-modernist styles. Especially in this day and age, when market demands push entertainers in the most generic directions and artists rebel into the remotest corners, the middle seems to be the ground least occupied. Still, this broad view ignores instances where art and entertainment converge in seamless harmony: a painting that moves the populace, an artsy film that smashes the box office, a popular song that makes us think.
Among the most profound (and vitriolic) advocates for artistic entertainment was Constant Lambert, an English composer and critic who penned the lively classic Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (1934) when he was just twenty-eight. A major theme of that book is the ever-widening gap between “popular” and “serious” (“highbrow” and “lowbrow”) music—a reality that has increased exponentially in the intervening decades. Lambert had a fondness for popular forms and integrated jazz idioms into his compositions, such as The Rio Grande (1927). As such, he occupied something of a center point, with vacant populism to the left and rarefied academicism to the right.
Lambert advocated for “enlightened entertainment”: the joining of sophistication and accessibility. He saw this ideal abundantly displayed in the music of Duke Ellington. “[Ellington] has crystallized the popular music of our time,” he wrote, “and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’” He placed Ellington’s “Hot and Bothered” alongside the most dexterous and dynamic works of Ravel and Stravinsky. Ellington was a “serious” composer who spoke in popular modalities; he had something to say, both musically and lyrically. He refused to cater to the lowest common denominator, or speak a musical language above the average listener’s head.
Over the years, Lambert’s captivating and opinionated tome has garnered both criticism and praise. Some of his warnings and prescriptions have panned out, whilst others have proven too dramatic. Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly condemn the formulaic emptiness of the basest popular music, as well as the unapproachable sounds emanating from the tallest ivory towers. The balance he admired remains a precious paragon. The challenge is bringing art and entertainment together.
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