|© Berndt Ostendorf., Amerika Institut, Munich
Cuts and Breaks
Jazz: A Modernist Quest for Liberation
The jazz idiom is best described as an individualistic quest for musical literacy and freedom under conditions of a perpetual contest with peers. In communication with all other musicians the jazz musician must assert his/her individuality by enlarging the collective grammar of jazz expression. Learning from tradition by copying masters, the jazz artist's goal is to overcome peers (and former masters) in the so-called cutting contests. The progress from imitative copying to ironic quotation to critical travesty to creative reconstruction is one of increasing self-discipline and literacy both as player and as composer. Characteristic of jazz are improvisation, open-ended innovation, and versatility, a constant negotiation between travesty, quotation, and masking and a perpetual making it new as a principle of composition. Jazz is dialogic, polyphonic, combative, antiphonal, and it echoes Eliot's modernist paradigm developed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. Here is Ellison running jazz through Eliot's changes:
For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. 17)
The true jazz moment could be defined as heightened creativity in transience. The contemorary avantgarde composer George Antheil called it « a tightening up of the musical force, an intensive concentration and compactness, and thinning- out of line, and brilliant and sudden rhythmical decisions more daring than those of any other people or race. » 18)
Its prime locus is the jam session, an ephemeral happening in which creation and reception, composition and performance converge in a radical and intensive present moment. Charlie Parker puts it in a nutshell: “Now’s the time.” This experience of unity-in-performance in the context of a struggle against inertia explains why jazz was so attractive to the Modernist avant-gardes in literature and the arts; for in the jam session the “crises of modernity” articulated by a range of authors from Nietzsche to Bergson and their secessionist followers were aufgehoben in the here and now. 19)
The drive for innovation, the discipline of making it new and the spontaneity of performance identify it as a true child of modernism. Yet not all of jazz is exclusively Western. The ritual nature of the jazz performance and its holistic simultaneity as a jam session owes a lot to an older, Afro-American, perhaps even African tradition. Privileging the improvising moment in collectivity over score and text implied a valorization of "non-Western" performance and time. Whereas in Western music there is a hierarchical division of labor and a chain of command between composer and musician, the jazz musician is all of these at once in that rhythmic moment of the changing same. Hence jazz satisfies the modernist quest for a primitive holism reformated in a Western cast. 20)
Such performance requires a new creative spontaneity.
Charles Mingus describes it in the liner notes to Let My Children Hear Music. (Columbia: KC 31039, n.d.):
Each musician when he takes a horn in his hand—trumpet, bass, saxophone, drums—whatever instrument he plays—each soloist, that is, when he begins to ad lib on a given composition with a title and improvise a new creative melody, this man is taking the place of a composer. He is saying, “Listen, I am going to give you a new melodic conception on a tune you are familiar with. I am a composer.” That's what he is saying. I, myself, came to enjoy the players who didn't only swing, but who invented new rhythmic patterns, along with new melodic concepts. And those people are: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Parker, who is the greatest genius of all to me because he changed the whole era around. But there is no need to compare composers. If you like Beethoven, Bach or Brahms, that's okay. They were all pencil composers. I always wanted to be a spontaneous composer.
The primitive or spontaneous composer radicalizes the act of composition, and it is imperative that s/he must innovate in a seemingly spontaneous fashion. The worst put-down for a jazz musicians is that he repeats himself or plays by rote.
In the liner notes for the Miles Davis quintet Kind of Blue (Columbia: CL 1355, 1959), pianist Bill Evans explains the challenge of remaining cool under the pressure of spontaneous creativity:
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, which of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere. The resulting picture lacks the complex composition and texture of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation. This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique discipline of the jazz or improvising musician. Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. 21)
This modernist challenge to inertia and this drive for innovation have left their traces in song titles:
Things to Come, Now's The Time, Tempus Fugit, Thing's Ain't What They Used to Be, Ascension, Giant Steps. In short, the essence of jazz is a constant overcoming, an artistic transcendence of the limitations of the status quo.
Jazz lives in a perpetual opposition to existing systems of musical establishment. Jazz expresses for Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray the central drive and function of modernist art, empowering creative free exercise against static establishment.
Protest, Ellison argues, should not be the content but the essence of such art “as technical assault against the styles which have gone before.” Stanley Crouch brings the argument home to America when he claims a consanguinity between the spirit of the First Amendment and that of jazz innovation: it is a free exercise of cultural expression. 22)
The language of jazz is expressive of this deep, propulsive desire. 23)
Those unwilling to swing through the changes were know as squares, lames or mouldy figs, all words expressing stasis and paralysis, whereas jazz musicians have referred to themselves as hepcats, hipsters, swingers, and so on.
These terms and those given to the music itself, jazz, boogie-woogie, rock’n’roll, jive imply dance movement, accentuate the centrality of rhythm and also connote sexual activity. Dance and sex provide the libidinal energy and the semantic charges of these names which were often assigned with the intent to denigrate. But some of the fears of its detractors are well founded when we accept their understanding of dance as a potential prelude to sex. There is an ongoing debate over the folk etymologies of the word jazz, and some linguists have identified jazz as a Creole word meaning to speed up, implying orgasm (Merriam). Radical critics have worried about this sexual mortgage of jazz.
There has been many a Mr. Clean in black cultural nationalism who wanted to excise the libidinal aura of jazz, and many musicians such as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong have been uncomfortable with the term for its denigrating associations. 24)
But there is no easy way out of a folk etymology or out of a history of ascription marked by a double consciousness on both sides of the color line. Jazz arose as an antirepressive freedom zone in a basically prohibitive society, a society that for a long stretch of its history was hostile to dance, song or sex. In that sense the term did attract and collect a set of desires that the ruling culture deemed - for whatever questionable reasons - subversive.
Jazz did articulate those experiences that do not conform easily to ideology or to attempts at colonization. It is essentially anarchistic, though never undisciplined. This liberating groundbass is one reason why jazz has not fared well in totalitarian systems. In fact, jazz has become a sort of litmus test for exposing authoritarianism and fundamentalism.
Therefore it comes as no surprise that not only Stalin and the communist nomenclatura, or Reichsführer der SS Heinrich Himmler and his Nazi thugs, but also American religious fundamentalists and the FBI were united in their resolve to combat this evil, each of them identifying African American music a sly and subversive invention of the enemy.
Christian Crusade Publications of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a fundamentalist publishing house, argued toward the end of the Cold War that jazz, Rock'n'Roll, and even Folk were all part of a "Communist music master plan", using the fiendish instrument of dance to brainwash American youth.
The call of black rhythms elicited the Pavlovian response of moral and political corruption. Conversely Stalinists called American pop music a Trojan horse of capitalism smuggled into the clean and safe world of communism to indoctrinate its youth with African rhythms and thus fill their hearts with the desires of monopoly capitalism. And Nazis diagnosed in jazz a superdestillation of Jewish liberalism. 25)
The fundamentalist international clearly recognised the liberating potential of jazz. It took its subtly subversive power and seductive charm, particularly for the young, seriously. And it found the antidogmatic and anti-establishmentarian trajectory of jazz threatening to the system.
Thelonius Monk would have agreed. He writes in the liner notes to The Complete Vogue Recordings (Mosaic MR 4-112): “The best thing about jazz is that it makes a person appreciate freedom. Jazz and freedom go hand in hand.”
These contours of a jazz aesthetic may help to explain the success story of jazz music in war-ravaged Europe. The success began after WW I as a dancing revolution, and it came into its own after WWII as a radical change in the musical structures of feeling and performance. Let me choose three crucial moments in post-war history in which the process of antagonistic adoption of African American music may be best explained.
17). “The Charlie Christian Story,” Shadow and Act. New York: New American Library 1966, 229. More about the jazz aesthetic in Albert Murray and John Callahan, eds. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. (New York: Modern Library 2000). Reviewed by Darryl Pinckney “Riffs,” New York Review of Books, (January 11, 2001) p. 19-23.
18). «The Negro on the Spiral or A Method of Negro Music» in Nancy Cunard, ed. Negro--An Anthology. (1933) New York : Frederick Ungar 1970.
19). The ideal of spontaneous composition was formulated by the Futurist spokesman Marinetti as a central goal for the renewal of the arts as early as 1912 in his Teoria e invenzione futurista. It sounds surprisingly similar to the Bill Evans quote (footnote 18), even in the choice of the brain-hand analogy: "The creative spirit liberates itself suddenly from the weight of all obstacles and becomes, somehow, prey of a strange spontaneity in conception and execution. The hand that writes seems to detach itself from the body, extend itself freely and stays far away from the brain. Then, the head also begins to detach itself from the body and becomes light, looking from above onto the unexpected sentences that flow from the pen." Quoted in Guenter Berghaus, "Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism: Some Cross-Fertilisations Among the Historical Avantgardes." in Berghaus ed. International Futurism in Arts and Literature. Berlin, New York, Walter de Gruyter 2000, 297. Gerald L. Bruns defines improvisation aptly: "It is deliberate but undeliberated." Inventions: Writing, Textuality and Understanding in Literary History. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1982, 145.
20). Literary modernism emphasised rhythm as the central structuring force in poetry. Ezra Pound and the Vorticists considered dance rhythms the most genuine creative energy. Cf. Hubertus Gaessner. « Der Vortex – Intensität als Entschleunigung. « Karin Orchard, ed. Vortizismus – Die erste Avantgarde in England 1914-18. Berlin and Hannover. Ars Nicolai 1996.
21). This remarkable session is described by Ashley Kahn. A Kind of Blue : the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. London : Granta 2001.
22). Stanley Crouch. "Blues to be Constitutional..." in: O'Meally, ed. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, 154-165.
23). Benny Golson and Jim Merod. « Forward Motion. » in : O'Meally, ed. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, 32-61.
24). The locus classicus of such discomfort caught in the logic of a binary killer opposition is Frantz Fanon's Black Skins, White Masks. (London: Weidenfeld 1968) where on page 124 he summarizes the primitive ascription of the imperial gaze: "Eyah! The tom-tom chatters out the cosmic message. Only the Negro has the capacity to convey it, to decipher its meaning, its import...Black Magic primitive mentality, animism, animal eroticism, it all floods over me...Yes, we are – we Negroes – backward, simple, free in our behavior."
25). Berndt Ostendorf. "Rhythm, Riots and Revolution: Political Paranoia, Cultural Fundamentalism and African American Music." In Ragnhild Fiebig-von Hase and Ursual Lehmkuhl, eds. Enemy Images in American History. (New York, Berghan Books 1998), 159-182.
Jazz entered Europe in two waves after the First and Second World Wars. Both times the mood was divided between profound hostility and intense appreciation. This paper will argue that the introduction of jazz involved a radical break concerning the rules of performance and habits of reception in Western musical culture. It was not just another case of selective borrowing; it had more to do with a paradigm change in music as described in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a confrontation of antithetical musical cultures that would continue to have far-reaching repercussions. Although a child of the gutter jazz satisfied more of the high cultural prophecies of Futurism and more of the avantgarde and transgressive desires of modernism than any single one of the traditional arts. The new music spoke to the agendas of surrealism, primitivism, radical democracy, multiculturalism, post-colonialism and urban cosmopolitanism. It promised to modernize, to liberate, to innovate and ushered in a new way of being in the world-- all at once. But it gave to these high cultural, modernist desires a decidedly vernacular spin, a cultural camouflage which allowed it to subvert European cultural habits "from below."