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

March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us