FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Politics and Jazz

When bebop was born, it was the voice of black America. Black Americans were calling for freedom, and jazz expressed it better than mere words. Charlie “Bird” Parker played Now’s the Time, insisting the moment was right for social change. Charles Mingus composed Fable of Faubus (1959) in response to Orval Faubus’s racism as governor of Arkansas. John Coltrane recorded Alabama after four black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing. When Martin Luther King started his campaign for civil rights, the American jazz community, white and black, stood right behind him. Not only was jazz aiming for freedom; the music itself was a real-time exercise in human liberation, as performers reinvented themselves night after night. It was hardly surprising that they became symbols of the black civil rights campaign. Coltrane, whose music was deeply rooted in African culture, became a hero of the civil rights movement in America and around the world.

It didn’t take long for America’s white elite to realise that jazz endangered their hegemony, and that jazz and America represented opposing ideologies. While the American ethos is traditionally presented as a celebration of civil freedom, jazz, as it appeared in the late 1950s, laid bare crucial flaws in the American dream. Not only did it expose the fundamental injustice within the capitalistic system; it also valued beauty far higher than money. This was foreign to the American way of thinking.

After the second world war, jazz became hugely popular in western Europe, and jazz giants such as Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon were treated as major cultural figures. At home, those very legends had to enter jazz clubs via back entrances, because the front ones were for the white clients.

So jazz became the cultural ambassador of the American civil rights movement–a fact that was highly embarrassing for the establishment, already presenting itself as the leader of the “free” and “democratic” world. Since America’s main motivation at the time was to convince the world that Coca-Cola was the only way forward, jazz was clearly in the way. It was anti-American. It revealed the relentless and abusive face of hard capitalism.

For the white bourgeoisie, jazz became a problem that had to be addressed. Its political and philosophical message was about to be crushed. The best way to beat a resentful rival is to integrate it into your system–so Voice of America, the government’s broadcaster, adopted jazz as its own and transmitted it to the world. Black Americans became simply Americans, and jazz ceased to be subversive. It wasn’t long before black Americans were found qualified enough to die en masse in Vietnam.

Soon after their alleged “liberation”, black Americans lost interest in their own revolutionary music. Jazz was no longer the black American call for freedom, but a white middle-class adventure. It was transformed from a vivid, authentic and socially motivated artform into an academic exercise. In the 1970s, more and more colleges launched jazz courses as if jazz were a form of knowledge, rather than spirit.

The new challenge in jazz was to play as fast as you could. By the late 1970s this challenge was achieved: jazz became a form of meaningless white noise. The melodic sensation had dried out. Swing was turned into endless polyrhythmic exercises. American jazz was about to be declared dead. Not many were kind or patient enough to listen to an endless algorithmic musical exercise.

Jazz became a vanishing marginal music, but then a miracle happened. Decision-makers in the ever-growing record industry defined a fresh challenge for jazz. Rather than play as fast as you could, they suggested, you should sell as much as you could.

We are now at the apex of this commercial phase. Occasionally, we hear that a new-born artist has signed a multi-million-dollar record deal. As long as jazz is in the hands of big business it will never produce acute social criticism. The music industry, like any other industry, is aimed at accumulating money and the best way to achieve this is to maintain the existing world order.

Sadly, jazz isn’t a subversive art form any more. It isn’t even gymnastically challenging–merely a marginal genre associated with easy listening background music a la Kenny G and Norah Jones. A few first- and second-generation veterans are still with us, playing as well as ever, and promising young talents are queueing to enter the shrinking scene. But neither group is socially engaged.

Jazz is still established enough to occupy the back quarter of the second floor of every multi-storey record shop. It fits nicely into the American-led globalised market philosophy. It provides us with an image of diversity, of an expanding music market rich with sounds and colours. In the shop they will tell you: “You name it, we have it.” And they are right–you can now buy Coltrane’s revolutionary album A Love Supreme for just £6.99 in almost every music shop. What a bargain, what a great Christmas present! I would argue that our devoted Big Brother has almost won. Jazz’s spiritual and political message is almost defeated.

This is where I try to interfere. As a bop player, I refuse to view jazz as a technical adventure. It isn’t about the speed with which I move my fingers or the complexity of my rhythmic figures. I insist that jazz is a form not of knowledge but of spirit. Jazz is a world view, an innovative form of resistance. For me, to play jazz is to fight the BBS (Bush, Blair and Sharon) world order, to aim towards liberation while knowing you may never get there, to fight the new American colonialism. To say what I believe in, to campaign for the liberation of my Palestinian and Iraqi brothers. To play jazz is to suggest an alternative reality, to reinvent myself, to be ready to do it till the bitter end.

GILAD ATZMON was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of the new novel A Guide to the Perplexed . Atzmon is also one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. His new CD, Exile, was just named the year’s best jazz CD by the BBC. He now lives in London and can be reached at: atz@onetel.net.uk

 

 

More articles by:

Gilad Atzmon’s latest book is: The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail