Jazz and Sociology

I have no musical pedigree, or ability. I have experienced this ‘lack’ the more so since moving to the village of Mickleham, which seems to have more than its fair share of talent. Stand-out musicians include Clare Kennington, a superb soloist on the violin, and sister Georgie, whose jazz singing I have enthusiastically blogged about already. Annette has joined an impressive choir presided over by Juliet Hornby, with Lynda Chang (and sometimes Tracy Kennington) accompanying on the piano, so I am aware of what ‘amateurs’ can do. (I should add here that David Kennington too shares the family’s gifts and more than holds his own in the choir.)

Eschewing my parents offer of music lessons in early adolescence and settling thereafter for intermittently enjoying ‘the noise it makes’, I only came alive when a trip to New Orleans was on the cards and I bought a handful of jazz cassettes (yes, it was 30+ years ago). I discovered not only pre-eminent players like Louis Armstrong and his ‘Hot Fives’, but also the Creole-like mix of blues and jazz in all its pre-modern guises. As for the visit itself, I fell in love with this African-cum-European outpost in southern USA. I was totally unprepared for a city that oozed its own musicality. There were plenty of jazz venues, including the legendary Preservation Hall and the dives of Bourbon Street. But there were ubiquitous jamming sessions: tram drivers would carry their instruments at their sides, primed and ready for opportunities to play. I collected more cassettes, Jelly Roll Morton in the brothels of North-of-French-Quarter ‘Storyville’, following Armstrong’s shift to King Oliver’s band in Chicago, and encompassing the distinctive styles, post-traditional as well as pre-modern, to be found in other US cities. I liked much of what I was hearing. Over time sax players drifted to the top of my list of favourites, but then there was Bix and Miles and, uniquely, Billy Holiday, whose voice came hard and straight out of her disjointed lifeworld.

I like what I like, which is quite a lot of jazz (although I draw my lines, often at ‘white’ West Coast efforts). But – an occupational hazard this – I began to ask sociological-type questions. I was aware of Howard Becker’s shrewd, semi-autobiographical and seminal essays, but my interests were different. I rapidly came to see (blues-based) jazz as ‘black music’. I felt almost affronted listening to ‘white’ performances or recordings. But what did this mean? How can music be black or white? And, a query beyond, how can music communicate? And within what parameters? A side-issue: how come musicians like my all-time hero Charlie Parker could improvise sublimely while out of his socks on heroin?

In this blog I suggest an answer or two to these questions, and I do so – with cool if risky abandon – without consulting the views of others, musicians or fellow-academics. In other words, I am on a learning curve and inviting feedback and dissent.

Here are a number of hypotheses up for grabs and ‘testing’:

AGENCY IS STRUCTURED, AND JAZZ PERFORMANCE TRACKS THE INDIVIDUAL ‘SOUL’ AS IT EMERGES, EVEN OCCASIONALLY ESCAPES, FROM ITS SOCIAL HINTERLAND

This may need a comment or two of elucidation. The notion that agency is structured merely recognizes that we are all in part products of our social circumstances (as well as of our genes, psychological makeup and so on). Class, gender, ethnicity and the like demonstrably matter for who we are, who we become and the decisions we take day-to-day; which is not to say that we are lacking in free will, merely that we use it more sparingly than we think. For the jazz player, this translates as structural and cultural conditioning, contingency or happenstance (what cops up), plus a potential to differ, to improvise. We are what we do and not what we say we are; and, as Sartre spelled out, we must and do ‘take decisions’, in the process turning our back on all the alternative decisions we might have taken. Maybe this is the social source, the tap root, of the blackness of jazz. For the best part of a century, and most conspicuously in the American south, black musicians translated their lived-experience into ‘their sounds’. In doing so they drew upon an oral tradition. Classical music’s roots lie in written scores (open to interpretation of course); not those of blues and jazz. The voice of jazz, to me at least, remains obstinately and importantly black in this sense.

JAZZ IS A POLITICAL STATEMENT AGAINST RACISM

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbaum, faking an identity, tracked jazz to its black and radical basics: it has always been associated with leftwing politics and rebellion as well as beards and sandals. The southern states of the USA remained resolutely racist until, and in many ways through, the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Billy Holiday and her black consociates had grown used to entering and exiting venues by their own ‘back door’. In the postwar era of bebop, black musicians fought back in ways they may or may not have been able to articulate if challenged. Not only were blues and jazz their music; but they consciously performed solos no white counterpart could cope with. Nor did they need a political manifesto to do so. Listen to Parker’s ‘Ornithology’, high on drugs or not; and then Coltrane; and ultimately, I guess, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. And who could miss out Miles Davis (as competent at reinventing himself as David Bowie in quite another genre, even onto the electronic scene)? Musicians, to my mind, made (and continue to make) statements, sometimes reflexively, sometimes not;and no black citizen of the USA, Britain or other Occidental countries past and present has not experienced racism as a personal or family affront and grown angry in consequence.

MUSIC COMMUNICATES, BUT MOSTLY VIA CONVENTION AND IN CONTEXT

Holst’s planet suite sets parameters. Mars seems invites thoughts of war. It is readily reminiscent of bagpipes soliciting red-bloodied aggression prior to battle. There is surely something we might call, in shorthand, ‘biological’ here? Certain music stirs the blood, which is why it has been put to military use. If it falls short of commanding combat, it facilitates an appropriate mindset. But how much of this is in us? And how much is a product of convention and context? No music, or for that matter statement, is or could be interpreted in a social vacuum. I tend to think that when black jazz players strutted their stuff – style-by-style – in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, even as visitors to overseas, they not only transmitted certain messages deliberately, but even despite themselves. You can hear the angry rebuff of racist rejection or patronage, but only, or at least more acutely, if you have learned to do so.

DRUGS DISINHIBIT

Drugs from soft to hard disinhibit. They release performers. I suspect improvisers are more readily released than interpreters of inscribed scores. Listen to Grappelli ‘versus’ Menuhin (and the former was ‘clean’ as far as I know). So maybe drugs clear the way for the statements jazz players may or may not be aware they are depositing in the public sphere.

THE CAPACITY OF JAZZ TO MOTIVATE ‘COLLECTIVE ACTION’ IS DEPENDANT ON STRUCTURE, STRUCTURED CULTURE AND AGENCY AND THE MOMENT

Catch the moment! Music can favour fascism as well as visions and commitments to a ‘better society’, ask Wagner. But when structure in its manifold guises, the coming together of convention, context and an opportunistic ‘taking advantage of the moment’ coincide, well …

Any interventions to help me out here would be greatly appreciated.


Graham Scambler is a professor of Sociology at University College London. This article was originally posted on Graham’s blog.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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7 replies »

  1. Hi Graham, I am a professional jazz musician and as such feel qualified to respond to your post in an engaging way based on my own experiences and knowledge of jazz.

    The first thing I would say is that this idea of jazz as “black” or “white” music or even of jazz being divided into those respective camps is an idea that exists outside the jazz community a lot more than it does within it. Only a very small number of practising jazz musicians hold any views of this kind and in my experience are usually ostracized for these views. I think this has historically been the case too. Throughout history jazz musicians have always been pioneers in breaking racial barriers and there are countless examples of mixed race groups playing together despite the social environment of the time. People often cite bebop musicians as sort of “black warriors” who made their music too complicated so that the white people couldn’t play it. I am perhaps missing your point but you did say:

    “Not only were blues and jazz their music; but they consciously performed solos no white counterpart could cope with.”

    I think that these musicians did not have any kind of racial ideology behind their solos and the notion that no white counterpart could cope with them is in my opinion completely absurd. Throughout the history of jazz people like Parker are sometimes viewed as being against white people in their musical statements and any new developments in jazz are often mis-labelled as movements of black separation. But all of the black musicians cited in this way frequently collaborated with white musicians in these very endeavours and I have not really heard many statements from them about race being a factor. For a few examples:

    – Buddy rich (white) was one of Charlie Parker’s favourite drummers.
    – The Ornette Coleman album “this is our music” (often wrongly cited as a statement about race) features white bassist Charlie Haden.
    – free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler (another movement which is frequently falsely cited as being black-separatist) frequently performed and recorded with white bassist Gary Peacock
    – Billie Holiday collaborated and toured with Artie Shaw

    There are countless other examples of this. While I am not denying that jazz developed in an atmosphere of racial oppression or that jazz is capable of statements about race, to say that jazz is about race is I think incorrect and also takes away from the higher meaning of jazz which is often love and personal expression. I am also not saying at all that black musicians haven’t been persecuted and that there has never been any racial tension around jazz. But this idea that musicians are in anyway racially divided is simply not true in my experience and I think you will find that actual jazz musicians have always been very open to all different racial and cultural backgrounds on the whole.

    It’s easy to forget as a listener that when you listen to Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or anyone who is playing jazz standards that a lot of the tunes they choose to play were written by white composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Rodgers and Hart. These composers are probably responsible for writing around 60-70% of what are now considered among musicians to be “jazz standards”. I think this shows pretty clearly that black jazz musicians haven’t generally been particularly interested in any kind of separation from white musicians and that the music they make isn’t a statement about that. I believe that it is instead about expressing themselves as individuals and also simply about playing something that communicates emotionally with the listener and makes them feel as though they relate, rather than any kind of political idea. Again in my experience with other musicians this is what we talk about much more than any kind of political message in the music. The political ideas are often attached to the music more by outsiders like critics and historians.

    I would also challenge your statement about not enjoying white performances as much as black ones. I can 100% guarantee you that I could give you a “blindfold test”, where I play you recordings without telling you who the artist is, and that you would be unable to sort the white from the black performances.

    I hope that didn’t sound too aggressive but I really wanted to make it clear that this idea is not one that is prevalent within the jazz community itself!

    R.E “Music Communicates” – I completely agree that music communicates! (well, good music anyway…) I think the beauty of music is that it communicates in an abstract way. Music cannot definitely be about something (lyrics are a different matter, but if we are just discussing music as sound – jazz is often instrumental music anyway). The intention of the artist can be to be about something and the idea behind a piece can definitely be a concrete thing, but music heard on its own without any context of why the composer has written it or what their message is can be interpreted differently by every listener. We all have particular pieces of music that are associated with a person or a place or a particular time in our lives, and that meaning is completely personal and has nothing to do with the artist’s original intention. There is a wonderful quote from John Coltrane relating to this:

    “I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.”

    The idea that drugs disinhibit is an interesting one, but one that I think is misunderstood from the outside. Unless you really understand the mental process of improvisation it is quite confusing I think to see how it can happen. I personally never use drugs so I am also probably unqualified to talk about it completely clearly, but my thoughts are that when you learn to improvise to a high level, even just the act of improvising becomes something that doesn’t require as much concentration. To clarify, this is different to saying that the musician just uses muscle memory of patterns of hand movements to achieve something that sounds fairly improvised, but that they are still actually improvising.

    For example if you are highly intoxicated in some way, you often still retain some basic faculties like speech, even if it is impaired slightly, you are still often able to speak and to maintain some sort of thought process of reacting to what people are saying around you, as well as muscular control of the voice to speak. I think that musicians like Parker would have reached a similar relationship with music and their instrument through hours and hours of practice, where it gets to the point where improvising fluently is as easy as something like speaking and that there isn’t really much mental calculation that needs to happen consciously in order for him to play, in the same way that the complex movements of the voice box during speech don’t have to be consciously calculated as you talk. Maybe that is a bit far-fetched, but it is a thought that I had about the topic.

    Anyway I hope that is of interest to you and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it 🙂

  2. Cool blog! ( I think that’s the jazz vernacular)
    When I was studying surgery as performance I also liked Bourdieu’s practice in the moment idea ( used by Stephen Turner also) which applied well to Jazz. And of course Sennett riffs on similar theme in his book on craft.
    Anyhow thanks for another provoking blog post and the injection of some more theoretical thinking into my day.

  3. 1. The sociology of jazz is enhanced by making links between the social context and the major periods of innovation and musical development in jazz. We could look at four periods (a) the emergence of jazz and the dominance of Louis Armstrong (b) consolidation in big band era (c) radical innovation in post ww2 USA (d) early 1960s modality and free-form.

    2. These are times when social events (like the end of Civil War and thus widespread availability of instruments) conjoined with collective and individual artistry – for virtuosity and expressiveness are political statements challenging dominant white views of black people – as in the case of the boxer Jack Johnson (see Ken Burns DVD Unforgivable Blackness). Armstrong wanted to remain ‘in front of the people’ and this compromised some of his output, but his outstanding solos were never really challenged by any other musician of his period (Bechet might not agree!) and were undeniable creative giant strides. See Andrei Hodier Jazz its evolution and its essence for an analysis of West End Blues.

    3. The middle period of the economic depression is characterised by the contrast between the regimented white big bands (see Adorno’s hopelessly limited analysis of jazz) and the expressive freedom of the Basie Band and Lester Young – no set written down arrangements. Lester’s wonderful solo on Lady Be Good summarises this in his first recording session! I recently heard this solo played note for note by a professional jazz musician in a UK pub. Parker recognised the power of this solo and played it in double time as a warm up routine!

    4. The post-war up heavals reflected the social contradiction of separate black regiments fighting for human rights and freedom in Europe and Asia-Pacific and underlined the new self confidence of Bebop (although routinised in Films such as ‘The Best years of their Lives’). The harmonic revolution created something of a distance between artist and audience – jazz became a thing in itself – music for musicians to some extent – like most high culture is became somewhat exclusive – Armstrong got mixed up with the opposition. Jazz had moved and developed at an outstanding rate of change compared with classical music.

    5. The emergence of movements linked to civil rights ( and their more radical alternatives – e.g. back to Africa) coincided in a further extension of artistic sensibility in the music of Miles Davies with at the same time the development of greater freedom from chord sequences (shift to modes) and abandonment of chord structures entirely (as in the career of Coltrane from 1963 onwards).

    There are then lots of subtleties to be brought out in a deeper analysis of such links between the social and the musical development of jazz. Politics is involved in a much more sophisticated way than comparing the outputs of black and white musicians, or in the crude analysis of writers like Kofsky.

  4. JAZZ IS A DISTINCTIVE ELEMENT OF AMERICAN CULTURE AT LEAST AT A SUPERFICIAL LEVEL. DURING COLD WAR JAZZ HAD VERY LIMITED ENTRY THROUGH THE IRON CURTAIN BECAUSE THE DOGMATIC COMMUNISTS FELT THAT IT WAS A SELF INDULGENT LIGHTWEIGHT DISTRACTION OF MARKETED CULTURE. TOO UNFORTUNATE FOR A MUSIC WHICH HAD STRONG PROLETARIAN ROOTS.
    I AM SAYAN BISWAS AN INDIAN FAR AWAY FROM THE EPICENTRE OF THIS MUSIC.BUT THIS MUSIC TOTALLY UNCONNECTED WITH MY CULTURAL AMBIENCE HAS THRILLED ME WITH ITS MYSTERIOUS QUALITIES. TO ME JAZZ IS THE PROFOUND MUSIC DEALING WITH EVERYDAY RHYTHMS OF LIFE.IT HAS SIMILARITIES WITH THE SLAPSTICK TRADITION OF HOLLYWOOD AND AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE.I AM NEITHER A SOCIOLOGIST NOR A JAZZ MUSICIAN .PLEASE RECTIFY THESE PERCEIVED IDEAS FROM A NAIVE HOBBYIST.

    • sounds right to me, but i will say that jazz’s similarities to slapstick are pretty superficial. Slapstick Comedy and Jazz share very little in common besides that they may have been seen alongside each other in our culture for a time.

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