Sounding Out American Democracy
Indeed, how could one speak of black and white cultural interaction in the United States without addressing the long history of unequal relations of power between the two groups, inflected through race? One way was to focus on the class cleavages art discourse engendered and downplay the racial dynamics. In the mid-1950s the jazz critic Marshall Stearns argued against the growing perception of jazz as an art music because it militated against jazz’s ability to sound out American democracy. “In our time,” wrote Stearns, “jazz is debunking the myths of ‘fine art’ and the social pretensions of the concert hall. To allow that jazz should be granted a role in the world of art, for example, leads to disconcerting questions about who is really cultured in our society.” Yet while Stearns discussed jazz’s development in black American culture, he argued that jazz’s growth was an example—a praxis, in a way—of the triumph of “All-American” democratic ideals. Implying that jazz’s conquest of the rest of the world mirrored the benefits of U.S. global hegemony, Stearns quoted a European jazz fan, Olaf Hudtwalker, who declared, “A jam session is a miniature democracy. Every instrument is on its own and equal. The binding element is toleration and consideration for the other players.”
Stearns developed his argument more clearly along nationalist lines when he compared jazz’s “free-swinging stride” to “the Prussian ‘goose-step’”: “A dramatic illustration of the healthy, realistic qualities of jazz is furnished by a comparison of the Prussian ‘goose-step’ and the free-swinging stride of the New Orleans march. Both are responses to military music but the difference is immense. Contrary to the robot-like motions of the goose-step, the New Orleans marcher enjoys a freedom of movement that mirrors the spirit of the music. The New Orleans marchers may appear relatively unorganized, but their motions permit greater individual expression and symbolize a truer community of interests.”
Stearns’s comparisons between the mechanical and the human, the Prussian and the American, linked political ideologies to musical styles, emphasized by his marking of jazz as an American expression of individualism. Moreover, when Stearns offered his argument for jazz as the sounding out of an American democratic ideal, he quickly moved past his guarded nods toward race (particularly if we acknowledge the “New Orleans marchers” as black Americans): “On a more abstract level, jazz offers a common ground upon which the conflicting claims of the individual and the group may be resolved—a problem that has vexed our times. For the jazzman, the dancer, and even the sympathetic listener can express himself individually and, at the same time, participate freely in a creative whole. In other words, he can ‘belong’ by participating in collective improvisation, and simultaneously let off his own brand of steam, solo.”
Jazz’s resolution for the “conflicting claims of the individual and the Where Have I group” can be found in its performative and aesthetic dimensions—dimensions Stearns noticeably removed from specific group experiences. Stearns goes further, citing the “religious fervor… typical of the response that jazz evokes in many people” because of jazz’s ability to invoke “direct and immediate contact between human beings,” for though “jazz expresses the enforced and compassionate attitudes of a minority group… in a fundamental sense, none of us is wholly free.” Linking the black American experience to the wider public, Stearns, however unwittingly, erased the particular histories of black American lives.
In 1961 the critic Martin Williams opened his Where’s the Melody? A Listener’s Introduction to Jazz with an introductory chapter entitled “An American Art.” Williams began, “If we know anything about jazz at all, we have probably heard that it is supposed to be an art—our only art according to some; ‘America’s contribution to the arts,’ according to certain European commentators. It has also the kind of prestige that goes with praise from the ‘classical’ side of the fence.” By the early 1960s, jazz had become a deracinated art form by many mainstream jazz critics—even if acknowledging its roots in African American culture—that was exported to the rest of the world in order to show the openness and inclusiveness of U.S. democracy. As Williams also noted, “[The U.S.] State Department is willing to export jazz to answer for our cultural prestige abroad.” In fact, Stearns and Williams both argued that jazz was superior to European art music for its improvisational freedom, expressive élan, and universal appeal.
By the 1960s, black writers such as Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, and A. B. Spellman were far less positive about the erasure of the blackness of jazz culture than Stearns and Williams, hearing in jazz the sounds of black resistance to cultural dilution and appropriation by nonblack musicians and critics. In a polemical essay, “Jazz and the White Critic,” Baraka answered writers such as Stearns by noting, “Usually the critic’s commitment was first to his appreciation of the music rather than to his understanding of the attitude which produced it… The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent.” Many jazz musicians even questioned using the term jazz to describe their music because of its association with sexual licentiousness, vice, and criminality rather than a phrase such as “America’s classical music,” which implies another, sanctioned set of associations.
Baraka argued pointedly in Blues People that white bebop musicians and fans were drawn to the music because they recognized the outsider status of black Americans and hoped to acquire, through their involvement with jazz, distance from bourgeois culture: “The white beboppers of the forties were as removed from the society as Negroes, but as a matter of choice. The important idea here is that the white musicians and other young whites who associated themselves with this Negro music identified the Negro with this separation, this nonconformity, though, of course, the Negro himself had no choice.” The dialectical relationship between primitive blackness, on one hand, and modernity, on the other, produced a “black modernity,” represented by the figure of the black bebop musician and out of which displays of white transgression were performed and articulated. As Ingrid Monson points out, “Whether conceived as an absence of morality or of bourgeois pretensions, this view of blackness, paradoxically, buys into the historical legacy of primitivism and its concomitant exoticism of the ‘Other.’”
A key difference between white and black bebop musicians and audiences, as Baraka adroitly pointed out, was an individual’s agentive power as determined by race. White musicians and listeners can opt in and out of their outsider status, but blacks, with their visible epidermal uniform, possessed fewer options for transcending their otherness. But Baraka also lambasted middle-class blacks whose rejection of jazz and the blues signaled their “desire to become vague, featureless, Americans.” Baraka was disheartened by “Negroes, jazz musicians and otherwise, who have moved successfully into the featureless syndrome of [mainstream American] culture, who can no longer realize the basic social and emotional philosophy that has traditionally informed Afro-American music.” He warned them that though they entered the broader social world equipped with college degrees and other “fundamental prerequisites of worth in society [they will soon realize it] becomes meaningless once those prerequisites are understood and desired, then possessed, and still the term of separation exists.” As might be indicated by these statements, Baraka was fiercely polemical throughout Blues People, reacting strongly against the idea that bebop and the blues represented a broadly American, rather than a specifically black American, cultural perspective.
Although some jazz musicians spoke to social issues directly in their creative work—famously with Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” (1939) and Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now!” suite (1960)—many mainstream jazz critics remained concerned with artistic issues such as modes of self-expression and formal musical issues. Ironically, as Eric Porter argues, the “debates about bebop… played a crucial role ‘in preparing the way for the emergence and acceptance of an avant-garde jazz’ by making it ‘possible’ and ‘very natural’ to refer to jazz as ‘an art music.’” Jazz musicians’ rise in cultural capital mitigated much of the progressive political edge some of them honed even while helping “to generate a subsequent understanding of black avant-garde music as an articulation of political assertiveness and cultural resistance.” A paradox arose in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the mainstreaming of jazz was accomplished through an increased use in Hollywood soundtracks, use of jazz musicians and arrangers in adult-oriented “easy listening” orchestras who referenced jazz in their performances and recordings, and the hard bop and cool jazz chart successes that obscured, for all but the most adventurous listeners, the more explicitly politicized music of composers such as Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk or the challenging music of free jazz artists such as Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. While jazz aficionados searched out Mingus or Kirk, many listeners heard jazz through the compositions of Henry Mancini or Stan Kenton, echoing the dominance of the “sweet” dance bands during the 1930s.
There were white critics of the 1960s such as Ralph J. Gleason and Nat Hentoff, who were less willing to limit their comments to the aesthetic qualities of jazz musicians’ creative work. Explicitly leftist writers such as Sidney Finkelstein and Frank Kofsky, while little noted today, raised important questions regarding the position of black working musicians in larger contexts than mainstream jazz criticism or the purportedly objective stance of professional historians normally allowed at the time. While Kofsky’s overzealous political stance may have caused him to overstate certain ideas, he captured cogently the political awareness of black jazz musicians in the 1960s when he proposed that although the “appeal of black nationalism… has fluctuated greatly [throughout jazz’s history, black] jazz musicians have ample cause for being particularly susceptible to the seductive strains of black nationalism.” Indeed, Kofsky and other left-leaning critics supported Baraka’s clear-eyed assertion that “Negro music is always radical in the context of formal American culture.”
Aesthetic arguments continued to dominate critical debate. In 1960, when the free jazz alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, he initiated vehement arguments within the jazz world regarding the role of Western tonality and swing rhythms in jazz music. As Charles Mingus stated in a Down Beat interview in May 1960, “Now, aside from the fact that I doubt [Ornette Coleman] can even play a C scale in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh… I’m not saying everybody’s going to have to play like Coleman. But they’re going to have to stop playing [like] Bird [Charlie Parker].”