20th Century Blues
Issue #49, April 2000
I felt the sharp nostalgia of train whistles, piano music down a city street, burning leaves.
-- William S. Burroughs
I have been accused before. It was in high school, perhaps my junior year. It was a PE teacher, of all people, who accused me. She was a small, slight, shorthaired woman with a cowboy lilt in her voice. I was engaged in a conversation on some topic of interest before class when I happened to use the phrase "powers that be." This caught her ear, and she turned to me with a look of condescending humor and disbelief, as though I had just loudly vouched for the existence of pigs with wings. "Are there 'powers that be' Jason?"
"Yeah," I said, "of course there are."
And with that she laid the indictment against me: "You were born in the wrong era!"
A serious charge: not to have been simply wrong or mistaken, but passed by time. Living too late. The implications of this charge have haunted me since, and haunt me still.
A year or two after this incident, I got out of a taxi on 116th and Broadway in front of Columbia University's main gate. When I had hauled my duffel bag across the quad and into my dorm room, I sat staring at the windows, wondering which one Ginsberg had been expelled for writing on. Across the street in the West End I ran my hand across the thick varnish, amber slopped over the red wood tables, carved with decades of initials. I thought about who must have sat there; what they must have discussed. Later, when I moved to San Francisco, I hunted through North Beach for the site of the Jazz Workshop. I talked to someone who had seen the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus there. "Let's go see that crazy guy," they used to say.
"Simple nostalgia," a new prosecuting attorney will drone. "All old times are good because they are old. Next docket, please. And this time, try to find me something with a little challenge to it!"
Genuine nostalgia, though, must really be one's own: the shaded memories from childhood on up. Christmas lights in the living room, the throated rumble of a V-8. When I reached back in time what I wanted contact with was in no way mine. It was not my past, but a past tradition. 'Tradition' is a difficult term for most who would consider themselves to be part of a broad political Left. Why, for example, would we call ourselves "progressives" if not to chalk a line on the sidewalk between ourselves and those on the Right who can always imagine some way in which the clocks should be turned back? Forward ever, backward never! No more tradition's chains shall bind us! I have chanted and sung those words, and meant them.
One of the defining features of the Left (though, to be sure, not the only one -- for fascism once also saw itself as revolutionary) has always been its opposition to a particular kind of tradition. This is the sort of tradition that enshrines itself as an unbreakable, immovable past; one whose imprint is binding on all future transactions. The kind of tradition that Weberian social scientists get wide-eyed and mystical about when they discuss "traditional authority." Expend a conservative's stock of reasoned arguments against any given idea and you will meet with tradition in the final rock of irrational belief: "That sort of thing just isn't done!" Religion, of course, has always been the king daddy of this game but ascribed cultural identities play it too, and with an even bigger helping of hypocrisy. In America's racialized communities, step across a thin line of approved styles, behaviors, or cultural outlets and you'll be accused of "acting white." But imagine for a moment the public reaction if the plan to teach Ebonics in the Oakland public school system had been announced by a white school board member rather than a black one. Identity defended quickly and easily becomes identity reified: a stale, unbreakable past, painfully untrue to its object.
Some thirty years ago now, the New Left made its name by declaring that Marxism had become exactly this: a stale, petrified, and worse yet, a failed tradition to be added to the long list of failed answers to humankind's problems. By the 1980s, whether in the pages of an academic journal or the debates of a local anti-intervention committee, instant credibility could be won by declaiming on the bankruptcy of Marxism. Marx didn't write about abortion or credit card debt, nor did he provide ready-to-wear positions on sexuality or environmental protection. And in any case, some people were reputed to have given Marxism a try and the word was it hadn't worked out very well. But the anti-traditionalist move initiated by the New Left couldn't possibly have stopped there. If new problems demand new answers, unburdened by the baggage of history, why cling to the political lines of the French Revolution? Why not ditch the entire failed enterprise and start fresh? The way to be truly progressive, truly radical, wasn't to be a new kind of Left, but to be neither Left nor Right, a total break with the failed politics of the past.
The Greens play at this position, as do most American progressives today. Yet their battle cry, "We're beyond the divisions of the past!" sounds just a little too much like a cry from the cultural arena to be purely coincidental. Ask a representative sample of pop musicians what sort of music they play and nine out of ten will inevitably swear, "We're totally original, man!" But you would get a different answer from a similar sample of jazz musicians.
For a music whose central motive force is improvisation, jazz is shockingly adherent to tradition. Pedagogy and composition anchor themselves in the same, relatively limited number of scales and chord progressions. Performers play the standards night after night, year in and year out. Why? Conduct another experiment in your own homes and neighborhoods and you'll find the answer: Ask any guitar-drums-bass combo to jam and despite their best efforts at being totally original, they will revert without fail to blues forms. The necessary precondition of improvisation, it turns out, is structure. Which is to say that there is another kind of tradition lurking here.
If the traditions of the Catholic Church say, "We have always done things this way," the traditions of jazz say, "This is a way of doing things." Tradition, in the jazz sense, is more like a language than a set of rigid definitions and prescriptions: it is comprised of the component parts of meaningful expression. And like language, shared traditions make possible shared actions. Four musicians who all know "Satin Doll" can not only play the tune, they can improvise on it; they can bend, they can alter. They can take the tune places it hasn't been before.
This is jazz. It is also historical materialism, which far predated postmodernism in understanding that human affairs were matters of cutting, pasting, and recombining. History is made with materials provided by the past. Unlike the postmoderns, though, historical materialists focused their attention not just on the results (Ooh! A Wizard of Oz reference in a Tarantino movie!) but on the process and its preconditions. Socialism, for Marxists, was not a wish-list detailing every conceivable repair to be made to human society. It was a conjecture about what else might be possible in terms of social organization, given what capitalism had already brought forth. What Marxists and postmodernists ultimately disagree about is just how different a reorganization of the existing building blocks would be.
And perhaps they're right. Perhaps whichever way we turn society, it will always come out the same. Perhaps our projects will always be poisoned by instrumental rationality and trapped in the insurmountable walls of discourse. Perhaps. But I suspect that the more ridiculous dream is the dream of absolute freedom; the dream of schizophrenia; the dream of foundationless flight. We will, of course, reinvent traditions as foundations and platforms. But traditions, being like languages, grow rich with age and use. The older will always be more articulate and more abundant in possibilities than the younger. Mingus understood this. As a composer, he rooted his work in the oldest and simplest blues forms. Still, during rehearsals and even in the middle of a performance, he would bellow at the musicians around him, "I don't want to hear that! You played that yesterday!!"
JC Myers lectures in political theory at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.