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 developed there, and characteristic. There is a gift for cooking too, though as yet no cuisine. The visual arts are hardly visible at all; but literature, I fancy, may be approaching a take-off through the stage, where the eloquent, poetic, and vividly ironic black language might one day come to make white diction sound as vapid as most white music.
Certainly music is for now the chief Negro art, and black life is sewn through with it. At every instant it is the understood reference, the universal binder. European classical composition, Anglo-Saxon folklore, Hispanic dance meters, hymns, jungle drums, the German lied, ragtime, Italian opera, all are foods for the insatiable black hunger and grist to its grind. As if inside all US blacks there were, and just maybe there is, some ancient and African enzyme, voracious for digesting whatever it encounters in the way of sound.
The technical and stylistic developments in black urban music that have taken place since the late 1930s are recounted in a whole shelf of books; but even when musicology still comes to the fore in these, sociological and political backgrounds tend nowadays to dominate the picture. Charlie Parker, according to his biographer Ross Russell, was “the first of the angry black men.” Born in Kansas City, Kansas, 1920, brought up musically in a Missouri-side ghetto, dying world famous at thirty-five in, of all places, the Stanhope Hotel (upper Fifth Avenue), he was, again to quote, “the last of a breed of jazzmen apprenticed at an early age, styled in emulation of great master players, tempered in the rough-and-tumble school of the jam session, a master of his craft by the end of his teens, disciplined to the exacting requirements of the big swing bands, and, eventually, the maverick who turned his back on the big bands to create, almost singlehandedly, the musical revolution of the Forties.” This sentence tells mostly all, except that the tenor sax was his instrument, and that before his early death in 1955 he had planned to study formal composition with Stefan Wolpe and with Edgard Varèse.
Black Music: Four Lives, by A.B. Spellman, examines the achievements and hard times of pianist Cecil Taylor (classically educated in music), saxophonist (chiefly on soprano) Ornette Coleman, pianist Herbie Nichols, and Jackie McLean (alto sax player and college drop-out). This generation, still under fifty, frequently well educated, and in private life approaching the bourgeois, believes in jazz as the important serious music of our time. And if most of their professional dates, or “gigs,” still take place in white-owned, exploitative, small night clubs (dismal dumps backstage every one of them and grim saloons out front), this still unbroken bondage is the economic strait jacket of all jazz musicians’ lives and a constant burden of their complaints.
Education has developed their artistic thought, however, or at least their verbalizations of it. A great deal of discussion seems to go on among them now about inside matters like “form” and “meaning.” And if the form employed for improvising is still that of variations on a chosen melody, the bass beat under these has become so almost nonexistent, so free, and the harmony surrounding them so far out (read non-tonal) that the melodic transformations they undergo on trumpet and sax are rarely recognizable any more as related to the original theme.
Nevertheless, these far-out jazzmen work closer than most of our far-out intellectual composers do to classical principles of rhythm and harmony. They do not throw traditions overboard; they reinterpret them, aiming rather toward creating a music based decreasingly on the monotonies of dance accompaniment and more on the songfulness of blues, the commonground nobility of gospel hymn. There is even a tendency, derived probably from the example of Ornette Coleman, to do without piano, guitar, or whatever else might enforce tempered tunings, and to work both in and around true intervals and their expressive variants. But improvisation is still insisted on as a musical method (no arrangements, no big bands). And a special attitude toward knowledge and culture is recommended, namely, “learn everything but keep it in the subconscious.” While at work never analyze, merely improvise—that, after all, is the discipline of spontaneity.
Black Music, LeRoi Jones’s second book on the subject, is sociology, criticism, a preachment, and just possibly literature, so clearly is it thought, so straightforwardly expressed. It treats all the main artists in New Jazz, explains their work musically, the expression in it humanely, in terms of black life. And since black life takes to religious experience as naturally as to music, the sermonizing comes through quite void of pretense or self-consciousness.
His thesis is summed up in a quotation from tenor sax player Archie Shepp: “The Negro musician is a reflection of the Negro people as a social and cultural phenomenon. His purpose ought to be to liberate America aesthetically and socially from its inhumanity. The inhumanity of the white American to the black American as well as the inhumanity of the white American to the white American is not basic to America and can be exorcised, gotten out. I think the Negro people through the force of their struggles are the only hope of saving…the political or the cultural America.”
Fine by me; let them save us if they can. And their best chance is through music. Besides, should God himself turn out to be a Negro mammy (“She’s black,” they do say) nobody would feel more secure than this unreconstructed Confederate. But the trouble is that in spite of TV and radio, possibly because of them, most whites hate music; too few have any ear for it at all.
Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, by Frank Kofsky, takes off from an assumption that “hard bop reflected and gave musical expression to…the first stirrings of the contemporary black liberation movement.” Further parallels between music and life are noted in the ways the more advanced players strive to simulate the sounds of human speech, and not just speech in general but “the voice of the urban Negro ghetto,…to distill for your ears the quintessence of Negro vocal patterns [e.g., Archie Shepp’s “growly, raspy tenor saxophone locutions”] as they can be heard in the streets of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Harlem.” Also in the persisting practice of group improvisation, which symbolizes a “recognition among musicians that their art is not an affair of individual ‘geniuses,’ but the musical expression of an entire people,…the subordination of the individual to the group.”
Bebop is here defined as “harmonic improvisation[,] with the metrical unit an eighth-note [replacing] melodic improvisation with the metrical unit a quarter-note.” The latter was characteristic of pre-1940s jazz. In my judgment, adoption of the eighth-note unit, long prevalent in Caribbean dance music, was the radical change that set off all the others. By eliminating a thumped-out quarter-note bass, it invited metrical complexities in all the parts, including the bass and drums. And this new freedom virtually imposed harmonic elaboration, which in turn weakened the tyranny of the tune and led, at least with Ornette Coleman, to a fantastic development of the florid bel canto style. All three of these developments seem to have caused, both in Coleman and in coltrane, throwing out the customary piano, thus dispensing with “the framework of tempered pitch.”
The marketing of so sophisticated an art in “dingy rooms before half-drunk audiences” is the burden of a litany that appears and reappears in all these books.
The summing up of previous examinations plus testimony from virtually all hands comes in a remarkably readable book edited, prefaced, and concluded by Dominique-René de Lerma. This covers in essay form and in dialogues black music in college and in pre-college curricula, soul music, gospel music, field work in Africa, the black composer himself in relation to dance, journalism, white history, white society, Negro society, information sources, and every known kind of establishment. How to teach black kids music without turning them off, how to cure academic prejudice against playing by ear, against the fact that blues are “about sex,” against teaching anything at all not chronologically, against admitting black music to the history books, against an ingrown pedagogy that assumes “white is right.” All these things and more are in this richly charged volume. And black control of Black Studies is declared a sine qua non.
But the main text of my sermon today is Black Talk, by Ben Sidran, white American jazz performer with a PhD in American Studies from the University of Sussex in England. Its basic assumption is “that black music is not only conspicuous within, but crucial to, black culture.” This culture is, moreover, an oral culture and thus radically opposed to our literate culture, which was once an oral tradition, of course, but which is now congealed by its literacy into verbal, hence largely visual, methods of transmission. Orality, therefore, though “a common denominator for all cultures, is, after extended generations, the basis for an alternative breed of culture.” And the relation of black music to other oral traditions of Afro-American life is still a question which has been far more ignored than explored.
Now the literate world, dependent on print plus pictures, is a visual world, existing only in space, which is essentially static. Whereas the things that we hear exist in time, which runs on; they relate to an oral continuum. There has come about, it would seem, from these radically different ways of receiving communication an “utter misunderstanding” of each other by blacks and whites which, through the consequent rejection of oral-mindedness by the essentially literate, has by reaction “contributed to the cohesiveness and coherence of the black culture.” Moreover, since the orals are more given to moving around than to sitting still (reading), they tend to be restless. And here rises a “unique problem of leadership within the oral community, how to impose leadership, in the Western sense,” on a group that values nothing so much as spontaneous improvisation. Therefore, since music, which, “in terms of social sanctions, is one of the more legitimate outlets for black actionality—indeed, during various periods of black history, it has been the only outlet—it follows that black musicians have traditionally been in ‘the vanguard group’ of black culture.”
Now “orality” leads not only to music but to many other forms of group action, and all groups easily adopt rhythmic communication. Also, “tension released through rhythm is strongly associated with the sexual act.” And since in sexual as well as other rhythmic acts, time (measured clock-time) tends to get lost, “rhythm can be used to manipulate the greater environment, inasmuch as alterations in time concept can affect the general ‘structure of feeling.”‘ As for losing one’s sense of time, anybody knows that with our black friends punctuality is not to be counted on. What one may not have noticed, certainly not much read about, is that “the development of rhythmic freedom has generally preceded social freedom for black Americans.” Interesting if true; at any rate, cases are cited.
Now we all know educated and uneducated blacks—professionals, people of business, performing artists, even hired help—who work by the clock, though they may not live by it. They read too, are scholars, handle money, write books. Probably their great psychic skill is moving in and out of orality, to drop at will one way of living and take up another. The Japanese have this faculty, especially those who work in Western clothes, then at six go home to put on kimonos and toe-socks, sit on the floor, and feel normal. We understand an actor moving in and out of a role. Why not anyone out of a verbal situation into music?
How long can black oral culture survive in our verbal civilization? As long, I suppose, as there is black music. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the “riot commission” appointed by Lyndon Johnson in 1967) reported, to the president’s extreme embarrassment: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal.” Just why they are so separate and so unequal is the question raised in Black Talk. It seems certain that there is a fundamental opposition of oral vs. literate, auditory vs. visual between the two societies and that this has so far resisted all efforts—cultural, sexual, legal, criminal, and humane—to bridge the chasm.
To live within a nonverbal, if somewhat dizzy, continuum has certainly been the aim of many rock addicts. But the politically radical movements of the 1960s among white college students were not nourished on rock but on the very best black avant-garde jazz. Ben Sidran has information about that. And the black underground itself has been joined a-plenty by whites without losing any of its blackness.
Whether there is to be a black political revolution remains doubtful indeed, though if such a thing were to come about, black music and black musicians would likely control its “structure of feeling.” As to black music redeeming us all, including the tone-deaf, Ben Sidran surely knows better than that, though he does believe music (any music?) to be “a great force for unity and peace today.” I find him most convincing when in a final paragraph he esteems it “not altogether irrelevant to suggest that a subculture emotionally and culturally entrenched is not one that can be coerced by violence—or even blatant injustice—nor one that is willing to retreat very far.”
Musically there has been no retreat. Since jazz, its best music, and perhaps eventually ours, does seem to be going onward and upward.
October 17, 1974