Making Black Music

Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker

by Ross Russell
Charterhouse, 404 pp., $8.95

Black Music: Four Lives 1966)

by A.B. Spellman
Schocken (originally, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, Pantheon,, 241 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Black Music

by LeRoi Jones
Morrow, 221 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music

by Frank Kofsky
Pathfinder, 280 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Reflections on Afro-American Music

by Dominique-René de Lerma
Kent State University Press, 271 pp., $10.00

Black Talk

by Ben Sidran
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 201 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Urban black music (more often called “jazz”) was formerly written about, say back in the 1930s, as if it were an objectively describable modern phenomenon like French impressionism, with a clear history of derivations, influences, and individual achievements.

Any armful of such studies would have to include, among the very best, those in French by Hugues Panassié, Robert Goffin, and André Hodeir, in American by Winthrop Sargeant, Wilder Hobson, Rudi Blesh, Gunther Schuller. And there are more, excellent compendia, fully respectful of the miraculous. For jazz and blues were recognized early, especially by Europeans, as a domain of musical creation quite different from any “classical” or “light music” then existing. And the practice of communal improvisation, the essential jazz miracle, was indeed the most remarkable explosion of musical energies since Lutheran times, when whole populations took to the road in song.

Jazz music had been quite skillfully imitated in the early 1920s by a white group called “Dixieland.” To describe it and to catalogue it was a further step toward encompassing it. Another had been the incorporation of certain rhythmic, melodic, and verbal devices into the reigning “light” style of show songs and social dance, a surface transformation that gave to America—in the work of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and their colleagues—a commercial product that rivaled for worldwide favor the Viennese. This music too was sometimes called jazz, at least by whites; and its distribution involved the better night clubs, the recording industry, show business, radio, and after 1929 musical films.

Black urban music, the real thing, led a separate existence, continuing to evolve, for the most part, in the gangster-controlled slums of Chicago and Kansas City, where its lovers kept one another in touch and recordings got put out on modest labels. It never got into the movies or noticeably on chain radio. Its complete intolerance of anything not itself, its innate strength for rejecting impurities, made it virtually useless to big commerce. The rapidity of its evolution, moreover, especially after 1940, and the internal dissensions among blacks themselves regarding this have kept everyone busy. There has been no time of late for neat packaging or for massive distribution, even were such deemed desirable. And anyway, ever since the middle 1950s rock-for-ages-nine-to-fourteen has so thoroughly occupied the seekers after mindlessness and the trend-followers that radical changes in both the style and the expressive content of jazz have taken place with very little interference from outside.

The essentially black content of real jazz was signaled as early as 1948 in Jazz: A People’s Music by Sidney Finkelstein (Citadel Press). Fifteen years later, 1963, LeRoi Jones, in Blues People: Negro Music in White America (William Morrow), essayed a sociological view of the art, replacing the earlier musicological approach with one based on direct knowledge of black life. This kind of study, a parallel to the discovery of black English, has revealed black life as a subculture strongly concentrated on music. Religion, ethics, sexual mores, and family life are also highly…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.