The Limits of Politics in Avant-Garde Jazz
Issue #56, Summer 2001
Fans and critics generally seem to agree that there is a political element to jazz. Ken Burns didn't get much right in Jazz, his much talked-about PBS documentary, but even he didn't try to deny this fact.
The assumptions of political consciousness are even greater when talking about the forms of jazz described with such titles as avant-garde, free improvisation, free jazz, and new music. As the variety of names might suggest, the music grouped under those terms varies a great deal and ranges from unorthodox takes on traditional folk music, to deconstructions of popular songs and the traditional jazz form, and to the unbridled passion and energy exemplified by the likes of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. John Litweiler's The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958 is a good book to start with to get a detailed history of avant jazz as well as for suggestions as to what recordings beginners might want to start with.
Attempts to categorize the politics of avant jazz fall into two categories. Both end up saying that the music is inherently connected to leftist politics. The first sees avant jazz as political by its very design. That is, it gives musicians more latitude in terms of both personal expression and the ability to communicate with other musicians (and people) than do more popular styles. Noted critic Ben Watson wrote in the spring 2001 issue of Signal to Noise:
Free Improvisation is almost by definition outsider music, opposed to capitalist business as usual; Free Improvisation doesn't guarantee any particular sound or mood, it produces a question mark rather than a commodity. This unpredictability may deter big-shot promoters and corporate sponsors, but it allows Free Improvisation to create pockets of resistance to commercialism: crucial opportunities for people to meet, interact, conspire. Improv isn't just another style of music, it's a social activity, a node for networking.
Although there is some overlap, a second wing sees free jazz as the artistic equivalent to black nationalism. In this view, musicians like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are the counterparts to Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) and Malcolm X. Not surprisingly this argument was most popular in the 1960s and early 1970s when black radicalism was relatively widespread. Books such as Amiri Baraka's Black Music and Frank Kofsky's Black Nationalism and the Revolution (now available as John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution) made this second point in a direct — some would say over-didactic — fashion. Nobody summed up this position better than the great saxophonist Archie Shepp who said in 1966 that jazz "is anti-war; it is opposed to [U.S. military intervention in] Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people." I don't disagree with either of these outlooks, although the second one does seem increasingly dated in the world of the rap and reggae. As a politically minded fan of avant jazz, I don't have a problem with the music being classified largely as political. What does stand out, however, is that both of these approaches paint a far too rosy picture of avant jazz and ignore one important quality — the involvement of the audience in the music — that makes this music less radical than more popular styles.
A lot of the avant jazz available to record buyers comes from concert recordings and the percentage of live recordings has only been increasing in recent years. Part of this is the result of musicians and record labels trying to avoid the expenses of studio time, and the declining cost of portable recording equipment has solidified this trend. At least as important, however, is the fact that live recordings of avant jazz seldom lose anything in terms of sound quality because the crowds for these concerts, which rarely consist of more than 300 people and usually quite fewer, are fairly quiet. Which isn't to say that the crowds are inactive. A look at the crowd in the middle of an avant jazz concert is likely to reveal audience members swaying to the music and moving rhythmically in a fashion that makes them look as if they just might be hypnotized.
The best description I have ever heard of the experience came from a friend who compared seeing two sets from Chicago legend Fred Anderson to eating the entirety of a wonderful chocolate cake. It is all very good but towards the end the power of music becomes taxing to the senses as too much cake would become to the stomach. It is an experience for which adjectives might be inadequate, and yet it produces a feeling that comparable to eating too much or getting high where the negatives are outweighed by the sheer rush of joy that one feels in the head. Notably audience members are interacting with the music as individuals and not on the social plane.
Now compare that to a pop concert of whatever variety you prefer. Part of the joy is hearing the rest of the crowd sing along with the songs word for word and watching the performers prompt the crowd to cheer or shout certain things. Such moments are in fact highlight banner live documents like the Clash's From Here to Eternity and Bruce Springsteen's Live in New York City. The dancing done to certain pieces of hip-hop and R&B has on occasion — think of disco — become at least as important as the music itself in terms of evaluating the experience of hearing a song. There are, to be sure, a few rare occasions where the audience and performers involved at an avant jazz concert do combine to create a sound greater than either could produce on their own. The best example of this is call and response singing of "yeah" on the second track of Test's Live/Test, but as that example shows the points when this happens are not only rare but also fleeting. By doing all of these things, pop music becomes a collective experience in many ways and, on at least some level, creates a community.
This is especially important in society like the U.S. where a clear dichotomy exists between performers and those in the audience and artists and consumers of art. Pop music hardly smashes that barrier — in some ways it reinforces it — but it does challenge it in ways that avant jazz generally does not. In a different era, it might seem appropriate to say that the ability of popular (and, given the constraints of economy and society, capital-controlled) music is an example of capitalism digging its own grave by uniting people against what it represents. Perhaps it is even true in our period. Nonetheless, it is a significant mistake to label avant jazz as simply being elitist. The music does offer the possibility of a high level of musical self-expression and hopefully in the future the social climate will have changed so as to encourage a greater percentage of the population to create musical art. When this happens, one hopes many amateur musicians will flock to the style because of the multitude of sounds and emotions that they can produce with it.
Micah Holmquist is a freelance journalist living in Chicago. His homepage is found here. He wrote this essay while listening to Brian Chase and David Remmick's Games are the Enemies of Truth, Beauty, and Sleep, Susie Ibarra's Flower after Flower, Hazz and Company's Unlawful Noise, Test's Live/Test, and Michael Vlatkovich's No Zee Two Es.
Also by Micah Holmquist
"Spectator Sports: What the Left Can Learn from Them" — Bad Subjects #51