Black Americans Invented Jazz

Jazz–a people’s music?



Jazz music has become one of the 20th century’s most important and enduring art forms. Yet it survives today in a paradoxical state. On the one hand, the audience for jazz is now larger and more diverse, both socially and geographically, than ever before. Millions of people who don’t see themselves as jazz fans regularly listen to live jazz, and most people who regularly buy records or CDs own some jazz. Pubs and bars which feature live music will often have jazz one night, rock the next, and folk the night after; and much the same audience will turn up to hear all three.

On the other hand, jazz as a constantly innovative and evolving artform is in decline, and has been for the last 20 years. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, there were no fundamental developments in the music on the scale of bebop or 1960s ‘new jazz’. During that period not one new musician emerged who even remotely approached the stature of figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane.1 This is in no way intended to denigrate the many fine artists playing today; it is rather to state the simple fact that jazz has lost its position at the leading edge of musical development to other musical forms.

The point of this article is to attempt an explanation of this decline by looking at the ways in which jazz and other forms of black music grew out of the black American experience,2 and how these musical forms have changed as a result of changes in black lives and experiences.

Trotsky argued, in Literature and Revolution, that:

… art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why… New artistic needs or demands for new literary and artistic points of view are stimulated by economics, through the development of a new class… Artistic creation is always a complicated turning inside out of old forms, under the influence of stimuli which originate outside of art.3

I want to argue that this method can be extended to the formation of black American culture, in the very specific circumstances of slavery and post-emancipation institutionalised racism. In and of America, yet shut out from American society proper, blacks created a culture (in the widest sense of a way of life) which drew both from African cultures and the European ways of life forced on them.

As Leroi Jones put it, in his seminal Blues People,

… the ugly fact that the Africans were forced into an alien world where none of the references or cultural shapes of any familiar human attitudes were available is the determinant of the kind of existence they had to eke out here: not only slavery itself, but the particular circumstance in which it existed. The African cultures, the retention of some parts of these cultures in America, and the weight of the stepculture produced the American Negro… the development of African music to American Negro music (a new music) represents to me this whole process in microcosm.4

Just as black religions took the forms of Christianity, and evolved into something neither European nor African, but rather a black American synthesis of the two, so black music developed as a synthesis of the many musical forms and traditions available. This gave black musical traditions, from their earliest days, both a dynamism and an ability to absorb new influences, which helps to explain why Black American music has been among the most creative and the most influential musical forms of this century.

From this it follows that jazz cannot be understood in isolation from other forms of American black music. The lines drawn between jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues and other forms are largely ones imposed by white critics.5

The only real distinction recognised by musicians, and their audiences, for much of this century, was that between sacred and secular music. Even here the number of artists who have moved between one, and the other, suggests that this was a highly permeable boundary.6

New Orleans and beyond

The rise of jazz, as a distinct branch of black music, reflected profound changes in black life at the turn of the century. It was an urban music, centred on New Orleans, New York and Kansas City, not the Mississippi Delta or the Alabama cottonfields. It was played by musicians who aimed to make a living from it (unlike the vast majority of blues or gospel singers). And it was a music made for the poor, derided as not respectable by the vast majority of the black middle classes. It arose, in other words, out of a new black working class with money to spend on entertainment who wanted (or were ready to listen to) something different to the music of the countryside they had left behind.

It’s in that sense that the term ‘a people’s music‘ fitted jazz in its earliest years. It changed, and developed, as black workers’ lives changed, because it was a music rooted in the black working class ghettos, drawing its inspirations from everyday black life.

This is not to argue that it was somehow a ‘working class culture’, existing outside of, and in opposition to capitalist society. The business–sheet music, recording and all but the smallest venues–was entirely run by whites. And the small numbers of middle class blacks contributed disproportionately to the music’s development from its earliest days. Nevertheless, as Eric Hobsbawm argued in The Jazz Scene:

… the crucial factor in the development of jazz, as of all American popular music, the factor which more than any other accounts for the unique American phenomenon of a vigorous, and resistant folk-music, in a rapidly expanding capitalist society, is that it was never swamped by the cultural standards of the upper classes.7

As we will see later, this is a historically specific description which, beyond a certain period, cannot be sustained. But as an analysis of the music in its formative years, it is of great importance. To give just one example: when you listen to the astonishingly explicit (if you understand the slang) sexual, and drugs references used by women blues singers in the 1920s and 1930s, it is clear that this was a music never intended for white (or respectable black) ears.8

The white capitalists who dominated the industry from its earliest years saw it solely as a way of making money. Apart from occasionally toning down the most explicit sexual references, they never made the slightest attempt to control its content. It was simply assumed that the musicians knew what would sell, and could produce it on demand (not until the 1950s did any record company even pay musicians for rehearsal time).

Many influences went into the making of jazz, including many elements of European classical and folk music, the former brought by middle class blacks denied entry into the world of concert music. 

(I reject this sentiment, and claim. Many black musicians couldn’t even read music. Plus, initially, Jazz was not even accepted in America. It took these black musicians moving to Europe in order to play freely, and expand their audiences. Further, once Europeans embraced the music, whites in America began to accept the form, copy the form, and call it American music  Now they are trying to claim it as theirs, claim that they had an influence, and erase all references to the rejection of Jazz. Typical. Posters comments)

But it was rooted above all in the blues. Blues was a loose and flexible folk form that became codified into the ‘traditional’ 12 bar blues in the early years of this century. More than other black musical forms, it kept crucial elements from African music, in particular the ‘blue notes’–pitches which lie between the notes of the classical European scale. While other influences have come and gone, blues has been the seminal influence on jazz since its inception.

Contrary to various claims, no one ‘invented’ jazz. ( I reject this too.) It emerged at around the same time in a number of different places. But from the early years of this century New Orleans was its crucial seed bed, as the largest and fastest growing city in the south with innumerable opportunities for working musicians–bars, brothels and marching bands among others.

The music quickly spread far and wide as the conditions that had produced jazz came into being in other, northern, cities. Hobsbawm estimated that on the eve of the Depression there were some 60,000 jazz bands and almost 200,000 professional musicians.9 Its spread followed the first great black migration from the south, which began around 1916 (as jobs opened up due to the war) and continued without interruption until the Depression.

The newborn recording industry greatly facilitated jazz’s expansion. Record sales leapt from 27 million in 1914 to 100 million in 1921,10 and continued to rise throughout the 1920s. Although most of the music which fuelled the ‘Jazz Age’ was made by whites watering down the music to the point where a white audience would find it palatable, by the mid-1920s the record companies had discovered a substantial black audience. ‘Race’ labels were founded, advertised only in black papers and sold only in black areas, which sold massive numbers both of blues and jazz records.

And as the music spread, it developed and changed greatly. Listening to Louis Armstrong playing with King Oliver in 1923, and his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in Chicago in 1927, is almost to listen to two different people. The later music is crisper, faster, more complex and inventive, and clearly represents a challenging of boundaries, a search for different things to do both with the instrument and with other musicians. The distinctive ‘New Orleans’ style died away quite quickly, although it underwent innumerable revivals, usually by whites reacting against newer developments in jazz.

One of the crucial defining characteristics of jazz is its search for the new. As a music of individual, and collective self expression, which stresses each player working out a personal voice and style, it has always striven to deepen its language and move beyond previous boundaries. That development has always been collective, musicians learning with and from each other. A constant tension has thus run through the history of jazz between its function as dance music and its drive to innovate, which has led different schools to go both away from and back to mass audiences.

That drive for self expression and exploration makes jazz pre-eminently a music that voices both emotions and ideas. There’s no space here to address the question of how music does this (and I’m far from qualified to attempt a definitive answer), but one point is important. Although early jazz grew up as entertainment, as a music to relax to and escape from the frustrations of everyday life, it necessarily reflected in its tone, language and emotions what it was that its audience wanted to escape from. It became both an expression of alienation and of attempts to overcome it.

Jazz history is conventionally written about as a series of schools–New Orleans, big band, swing, bebop and so on. As a rough template, this does capture the sense of progression in jazz, but it should be noted that this is a very imperfect way of describing jazz’s diverse history. All the ‘schools’ were named by white critics, not the musicians themselves, and they never simply followed a linear progression–as one came into being, the previous one died. Rather, different schools survived side by side. And many of the most important musicians–Art Tatum, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, for example–cannot easily be fitted into that framework.

Kansas City to bebop

The Depression of the late 1920s dealt jazz a mortal blow, as unemployment and poverty hit black workers even harder than whites. Dance halls closed down, records stopped selling and promotors stopped booking tours. Black music didn’t disappear (sales of Bessie Smith’s records kept the giant Columbia Records solvent through the late 1920s)11 but there wasn’t enough work for even a small fraction of the musicians who had been playing in jazz’s heyday. There were exceptions, and the major one was Kansas City, which was to produce an enormous number of the most influential musicians of the 1930s and 1940s, among them Lester Young, Ben Webster, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

The reasons for this were very largely economic. Kansas City had long been the dominant business and entertainment centre for a massive area of the south west. As such it had been a major jazz centre, second only to New Orleans, since the First World War. It also had the dubious distinction of being run by one of the most corrupt political machines ever, that of Boss Prendergast, who ran Kansas City as though Prohibition simply didn’t exist. One of the side effects of Prohibition was that in many cities the mob effectively ran the town hall; in Kansas City the town hall was the mob. This produced a massive entertainment district full of opportunities for musicians, and one which, as the depression deepened, pulled in musicians from all the surrounding states.12

The Kansas City musicians developed a particular big band style (swing) which emphasised both strongly rhythmical ensemble playing, and a fast and fluent solo expertise. Their crucial technical innovation was that the drummers laid down the underlying beat on the hi-hat, rather than the bass drum as previously, thus making for a looser, suppler and more ‘swinging’ (that indefinable but essential quality) form of music. ‘Cutting sessions’ in which musicians tried to outplay and outlast one another, while others looked on and learnt, were regular events in the clubs late at night, and immensely important training sessions. In effect, they worked as a hothouse of musical development and innovation.13

Swing was popularised through eastern tours, in particular by the Count Basie band, from the mid-1930s onwards, and it became the popular music of the day with astonishing rapidity. By 1939 fully 85 percent of all records sold were of swing bands.14 The music’s explosive popularity was due above all to the American economy’s recovery from the Depression, creating once again a mass audience with the money to pay for popular entertainment, but it was fuelled by two developments which enormously increased the potential audience: radio and the jukebox.

Although radio networks had been expanding since the mid-1920s, it was only after the depression that radios became cheap enough for most workers to buy (in 1926 a mere 5 million homes had radios).15 The jukebox similarly caught on in the same period–by 1937 there were some 150,000 jukeboxes across the USA.16

Although swing had been entirely a black development, it quickly attracted a host of white imitators. Some–Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey for example–were genuinely excited by what they saw as a new, vibrant music, and their playing demonstrated a real ability to learn from black innovations (though Goodman was the only white band leader who actually employed black musicians). The majority were simply jumping on a bandwagon. Good or bad, it was the white bands who made the real money out of the swing boom. It wasn’t the first time that a black music had been popularised by whites (ragtime), or the first time that white imitators had taken over and sanitised jazz. But it was the first time that big money had been involved.

Revulsion against this white takeover was one of the key factors behind the rise of bebop, the most political form of jazz up to this point. The young musicians who pioneered bebop–Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian–had ended up in New York after going through various of the big bands. They wanted, as one of them put it, to ‘play something that they can’t steal.17

Bebop was marked by two crucial technical innovations. One was rhythmic–taking the underlying beat from the hi-hat to the cymbals, allowing them to play in a faster and more rhythmically diverse style than the previous generation. The other was Charlie Parker’s discovery of a completely new set of harmonies to play on conventional chord changes. The combination of the two made bebop the most profound revolution in jazz since Armstrong in the 1920s, and arguably a more important one. It also marked a definitive break with all previous jazz schools–practically no one from any of the older schools ever learned to play bebop.

Bebop’s ranks were filled by refugees from the big bands, as America’s entry into the Second World War tore many of them apart. Many bands lost key players to the armed forces, while blackouts, petrol rationing and the draft similarly closed many of the biggest dance halls. The smaller bebop bands were cheaper to book and to record (particularly as they played original material, whose copyright could be bought cheaply in the studio). The big bands’ decline helped to create a niche for bebop to flourish in.

The politics of bebop

Bebop both prefigured and was shaped by radical changes in black lives during the war. The exodus from the south began again, in even bigger numbers, as jobs opened up in the defence industries of the north, the midwest and California, and almost a million blacks were drafted into the armed forces. For the American ruling class, the Second World War was an all-out war, and they had to fully utilise spare black and female labour, both in defence industries and the armed forces. Leroi Jones noted, for instance, that ‘while the number of Negroes [in the armed forces] more than doubled, the number of commissioned officers increased almost eight times.18

The contradiction between the rhetoric of a ‘war for democracy’ and blacks’ centrality to the war effort, and the racism they found in the defence plants and the armed forces produced both a burning resentment against racism, and a confidence and determination that it could be fought. The war years saw the massive March on Washington movement, mass black and white union demonstrations against racism in industry, and innumerable confrontations between black soldiers and racists. This pressure from below forced Roosevelt in 1941 to formally ban segregation throughout the armed forces and industry. Though never fully implemented, it was a symbolic victory of immense importance.19

Most importantly of all, as the Chicago and New York race riots of 1943-44 dramatically showed, blacks were willing to fight back. Bebop was powered by, and spoke to, that new spirit of defiance. When Charlie Parker titled one of his most famous recordings Now’s The Time, it was taken to mean just that: now’s the time to end racism, ‘…so I have been assured by every black musician with whom I have ever discussed the question’, Frank Kofsky asserted (though Parker himself never said as much).20

Both as a music and in the stances taken by the individual musicians, it reflected that new confidence and self assertiveness: more than any previous form, it stressed the individual soloist, his ideas and his feelings. And in going back to the blues as the roots of jazz, it stressed that this was a black music. As Ross Russell put it:

For urban black people of his generation, Charlie [Parker] was a genuine culture hero. The revolutionary nature of his music was explicit. He had rephrased Negro music without altering its essential truth and purity. Implicit in his lifestyle was defiance of the white establishment… every episode in the cumulative legend of the Bird, however ineffectual and childish, was seen as a blow struck against the forces of oppression. In the mid-1940s there was no Martin Luther King Jr., no Malcolm X… In a sense Charlie was a fore-runner of those militant figures of the political arena. He was completely non-political, in fact never in his lifetime so much as cast a ballot… Charlie Parker was the first angry black man in music.21

Leaving aside the hyperbole, and the equation of ‘political’ with voting, this is a useful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of bebop as revolt. For while it’s true that bebop articulated both the anger and the confidence of many urban blacks, for the musicians their opposition was expressed in purely personal ways: not acting by the rules, putting on the squares. (When Charlie Parker met Jean-Paul Sartre in a Paris nightclub in 1949, his opening line was, ‘I’m very glad to have met you, Mr. Sartre. I like your playing very much.’ Sartre’s reply is not recorded.)22

That stance limited bebop’s audience. Bebop was very much a musicians’ music, one which made no concessions to the audience: those who were hip would dig, the squares would not. And their definition of ‘squares’ extended beyond most of the white world to include those blacks (including most older jazz musicians) who found bebop too challenging or too difficult. Louis Armstrong, for instance, famously dismissed it as ‘Chinese music’.

Material reasons also limited bebop’s audience. The American Federation of Musicians imposed a recording ban in 1942, to get musicians paid proper royalties for radio and jukebox plays. The ‘strike’ (in reality imposed entirely from above) ended in partial victory in 1944, when the last big record labels signed new contracts. Yet despite the ban, the value of record sales leapt from $50 million in 1941 to $109 million in 1945,23 as the companies reissued their backlist to stay afloat. As a result, two key years in bebop’s evolution went unheard by the vast majority of blacks.

Yet the recording ban wasn’t the primary reason why bebop remained a minority black taste, probably having as large a white audience as black. Far more important were two new strands of black music that arose during the war, aimed specifically at the new black working class: Chicago rhythm and blues, and the ‘jump’ music of bandleaders such as Cab Calloway, Wyonie Harris and Louis Jordan. (The ‘jump’ bands had been around since the late 1930s, but achieved their greatest popularity during the 1940s.) Although they were among the most popular jazz based bands ever, they are rarely given the importance they deserve in jazz histories.24

Both forms stressed showmanship and entertainment, and were played explicitly as dance music, which bebop was not. And both were assiduously promoted by the independent black record labels and radio stations which mushroomed in the immediate post-war years. Both were also seminal to the later rise of rock’n’roll, but that’s another story.

Neither rhythm and blues nor jump music were ever explicitly political, in the sense of expressing opposition in their lyrics, but their brash and confident styles gave expression to the new moods, attitudes and expectations which had grown among blacks during the war years, and did so in a far more accessible manner than bebop. There was no necessary opposition between the two: many people happily listened both to Charlie Parker and to Muddy Waters, but the point matters because we can’t understand developments in jazz without understanding what else was happening in black music at the time. Jazz was a form of black musical expression, but not always the most important or the most popular one.

It has often been argued that jazz never had a mass black audience, blues and rhythm and blues being always far more popular. There is no way of proving or disproving this for the 1920s and 1930s, when live performances and later radio were the main ways in which music was heard, but in any case it misses the point that for much of this period there was no great distinction between the two. The argument also confuses ‘mass’ and ‘majority’–the jazz audience was probably never a majority of urban blacks, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a substantial audience. From the later 1940s onwards, however, there was a real divergence among musicians: practically none of the Chicago bluesmen had any jazz background, and very few jazz musicians ever played with them. Although that same divergence began to appear among audiences, it remained the case that jazz retained a large black audience, even if smaller than that for rhythm and blues, until the mid-1960s.

Inside jazz, bebop and the various reactions to it had an enormous influence on the two dominant schools of the 1950s–cool and hard bop. Although the ‘cool school’ is conventionally dated from Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool recordings of 1949 and 1950 (which were only released under that name in 1957), it was overwhelmingly a movement of white musicians, based mainly on the American West Coast, where there was only a very weak black jazz tradition.

As the cool school developed, it became increasingly marked by a rejection of the blues as jazz’s major source, looking more and more to European sources and classical influences, in an attempt to gain a respectability for jazz by presenting it as another form of concert music. Politically, it signified an attempt to divorce jazz from its roots in black culture, to produce a music that ‘they’ could play. This is not to say that it was all bad–at its best, for instance in the work of Stan Getz, it produced some fine music. But as a school it was sterile, leaving no lasting influences on jazz’s subsequent development, and by the early 1960s it had effectively died out.25

Hard bop, on the other hand, was to be one of the most influential schools of jazz ever. It began as a reaction primarily against the cool school, but was also powered by a recognition of the dead end that bebop had reached.

Political jazz–from hard hop to the ‘new jazz’

Like bebop, hard bop had an explicitly political edge to it. Frank Kofsky argued that:

Viewed strictly as a movement among musicians (which it wasn’t), hard bop amounted to a black rebellion against the bleaching tendencies of the cool/West Coast whites. As such, it tended deliberately to lay particular stress on the contemporary forms of urban black music, in the form of blues and gospel.26

Art Blakey, one of the founders of and seminal figures in hard bop, made the same point rather differently,

The black musician… his thing is to swing. Well, the only way the Caucasian musician can swing is at the end of a rope. Swinging is our field and we should stay in it.27

By the early 1950s bebop found itself in a dead end. With its technical innovations unmatched by any developments in musical forms, it had become increasingly repetitive and derivative of the first generation, many of whom were by then dead or past their prime. Hard bop set out to revitalise bebop by taking its technical develoments and marrying them to more popular forms of black music. Hard bop itself was marked by few technical innovations. What made it different was that it drew from all forms of black American music, in particular gospel and rhythm and blues, and laid a great emphasis on original compositions. It was a music not just explicitly black but proud to be black. And it was to have a profound, if largely unacknowledged, influence on the later rise of soul music.

And it was no accident that it arose in the mid-1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning in the south, and in the north black pride and aspirations were growing, symbolised by the rise of the Black Muslims. By 1960 there were some 100,000 members of the Muslims in the northern cities, the largest black political movement since the heyday of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during World War II. Though few musicians joined them many adopted the Muslim faith as a sign of their alienation from American society.

The rising black movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s increasingly politicised musicians of all generations. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Art Blakey among many others all declared their support for the southern struggle. But it was the ‘new jazz’ musicians of the early 1960s who became the most politically conscious and outspoken, as civil rights gave way to black power. They regularly played benefits for the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality and other civil rights organisations, and gave their compositions increasingly political titles. The first major public showcase for the new music, held in 1964, was billed as ‘The October Revolution’. And by 1965 Archie Shepp was arguing that jazz:

… is anti-war; it is opposed to Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people. That is the nature of jazz. That’s not far fetched. Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people.28

Yet within this there was a curious paradox. While the musicians became more explicitly political, their music became increasingly estranged from black audiences. The audience for the new jazz was overwhelmingly white. Think, for instance, of the great live John Coltrane recordings–Live in Paris, Live in Stockholm, Live at the Village Vanguard–not the Harlem Apollo. Even the ‘October Revolution’ concert was held at a club in New York’s West 90s, a predominantly white student/bohemian neighbourhood.

Two processes were at work. The first was inside the new music. The ‘new jazz’ is harder to define than any other jazz school: what united the musicians who made it was primarily a rejection of what had come before. In striving for more self expression, they moved towards greater complexity, replacing the idea of one single rhythm with poly-rhythms, a pulsing beat which shifted in and out of conventional time, and moving away from the European harmonic structures of keys and chords in favour of a modal system of harmonies. This was in large part inspired by a political rejection of European traditions in favour of African and other traditional music.

Many of the new musicians rejected the very term jazz as a white invention, insisting that what they were playing was simply black music. Some even described the blues as ‘slave music’ which they had to move beyond. This rejection of the old ways was inspired by a profound revulsion against the devaluation and trivialisation of black culture, as well as being a revolt against the disgusting conditions in which even the highest-paid jazz musicians were forced to work.

At its best–for example in the work of Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler–the new jazz produced some of the most moving and profound jazz ever. It is a rich, harsh and exciting music, but one which requires serious concentration. Though the musicians developed in a variety of different directions, one common factor united them–theirs was a serious music to be listened to with respect, it was not dance music. While this attitude propelled them towards greater heights of creativity and inspiration, it also necessarily led them further and further away from a mass audience. The drummer Jerome Cooper summed up their approach:

Take B B King. I’ve worked with him; he’s an entertainer, he’s supposed to do that. When you go and see him, he has a show. He’s an artist, too, but he’s a craftsman. He’s an artist and entertainer. I don’t consider myself an entertainer. I consider myself an artist and I do not entertain.29

The second factor was the rise of soul music, not just a dance music but one which, even in its least political forms (Tamla Motown), expressed a new black confidence and determination, and, as the 1960s wore on, increasingly explicit pride and demands: Aretha Franklin’s Respect, The Impressions’ Move On Up and People Get Ready and of course James Brown’s Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.

Soul and ‘popular’ music

The struggles waged by blacks in the 1950s and 1960s meant that black music had progressed to a point where all the ideas, frustrations and rages that jazz had expressed instrumentally could now be said out loud. Jazz as protest music was a coded music of attitudes: by the middle 1960s it was possible to go beyond that. And although soul and Tamla quickly found a mass white audience, it always had a proportionally larger black audience. Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, estimated that of a million-selling single 30 percent would be sold to blacks.30

The brash confidence and exuberance that the music radiated had an effect irrespective of what the performers–many of whom were very conservative, and concerned simply to build their careers–intended. Martha Reeves, for instance, always denied that Dancing in the Street had anything to do with rioting. But the way she denied it showed all too clearly how soul reflected different attitudes and aspirations.

Because you are black and it’s 1967, a cute teen song gets viewed as some statement. People make you out to be what they think you ought to be. Like I said, I never called anyone to riot. I was calling my ten brothers and sisters to the table. All I wanted was a little gravy. For all of us.31

Few of the people who took to the streets in Watts, Harlem or Newark would have disagreed with those last two sentences. It’s important to stress that soul and Tamla were equally authentic expressions of black attitudes, because there was a crucial weakness in the dominant left tradition, which led it to completely misunderstand the importance of youth culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The weakness was the rigid distinction made between ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ music (a definition that slipped all too easily into crass nationalism) and ‘commercial’ music, by definition a bad thing. Here, for instance, is Eric Hobsbawm on rock ‘n’ roll:

It is an awe-inspiring experience to see substantially the same selection of shockers on the automatic gramophones of little Italian towns as in Manchester, and no doubt Wichita, and to reflect that complete freedom of cultural competition would almost certainly put them on those of Moscow and Shanghai…. the habitual rock-and-roll fan, unless mentally rather retarded, tends to be between ten and 15 years of age. Probably the universal appeal of the fashion is due to this infantilism. How long the rhythm and blues vogue will last, is another question.32

Roll over, Mick Jagger, and tell Professor Hobsbawm the news.

Even Val Wilmer, one of the most astute jazz writers, bemoaned the fact that in Ghana in 1970 the vast majority of young people wanted to listen to James Brown rather than jazz or ‘authentic’ Ghanaian music.33

Neither rock’n’ roll nor soul music fitted Hobsbawm’s definition of ‘vigorous and resistant folk-music… never swamped by the cultural standards of the upper classes’. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s they became the crucial vehicles for expressing mass alienation from and rebellion against the system, despite being produced by some of the biggest capitalist corporations. They, and not jazz, had become ‘a people’s music’.

The weakness in Hobsbawm’s definition was that it was drawn from a period when essentially all music was produced and heard live, usually by small and geographically limited audiences and when, in the case of jazz, there was a near absolute separation between black and white worlds. The development of urban folk cultures, in America as elsewhere, was a product of relatively short, transitional periods, when a new working class was coming into being. From the 1930s onwards the developments of radio, jukeboxes, television and cheap audio equipment–the mass commoditisation of culture–broke that separation down. (In particular, from the early 1950s onwards, radio and the spread of cheap records opened up a massive white audience for black American music.) As Duncan Hallas argued in a rather different context:

… the question of whether socialist consciousness arises ‘spontaneously’ amongst workers or is imposed by intellectuals from the ‘outside’ has absolutely no relevance to modern conditions. It is strictly a non-question because it assumes the existence of a more or less autonomous working-class world outlook into which something is injected. Whether the relatively homogenous working class outlook… was ever so autonomous as has often been supposed may be questioned. In any case it is dead, killed by changing social conditions and above all by the mass media… It is rather ridiculous to argue about whether one should bring ideas from ‘outside’ to workers who own television sets.34

This development is one that has greatly benefitted the working class, by extending cultural horizons and making generally available a far wider range of cultural experiences than before. It follows from this that the idea of a rigid separation between ‘the authentic’ and ‘the commercial’ is one that socialists should treat with great suspicion. At worst, it leads to irrelevance in defending as ‘real’ popular music that almost no one listens to (as the British Communist Party did with the folksong revival in the 1950s, in an attempt to defend ‘British’ culture against ‘creeping Americanisation’). At best it leads to the elitist attitudes which dominate the media studies industries, that all commercially produced mass culture is mindless pap, and that workers, sponge-like, absorb all its reactionary messages when they consume it.35

The reality is that really popular mass culture, precisely because it is selling to a mass audience, has to speak to the lives of that audience. As people’s lives and experiences change, so popular culture has to change to reflect that. At high points of struggle (as in the 1960s), it reflects that struggle. And while it’s true that many aspects of popular culture are laden with ideology, workers interpret those messages in the light of their own experiences, rather than swallowing them wholesale.

Jazz since the 1960s

From the ‘new jazz’ onwards, jazz went into a decline as other, more dynamic, forms of black music attracted new generations of black musicians. The ‘new jazz’ itself, influential as Coltrane continued to be, produced very little in the way of a second generation. This was partly because of its isolation from newer forms of black music, and to a lesser extent because many of its founders moved on to academia. Black studies courses, one of the few tangible gains of the 1960s, provided for many of the musicians the most stable jobs they had ever had, and their growth took away from regular playing many musicians.36

By the late 1960s there was a return among many jazz musicians to a more approachable dance music, taking in influences from soul and rock music. Miles Davis was once again crucial to this shift, with Bitches Brew and Live-Evil being credited as beginning the jazz-rock or jazzfunk style which was to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s with bands such as the Crusaders, and those of Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker. But it was clear that these were black groups drawing on jazz as one influence among many, rather than jazz groups who were taking the music forwards.

The rise of jazz-funk was seen by some simplistic commentators as the musical parallel to the decline of the black movement in the 1970s and 1980s, an apolitical and commercialised music for apolitical times. In fact, at its best it represented a much more interesting process: the convergence of a number of previously separated threads of black American music. Musicians who had begun their working lives in soul bands were looking for forms that allowed them greater freedom, while jazz musicians were looking for ways back to the mainstream black audience; and both were heavily influenced by musicians like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix who had begun to weld together blues, soul and rock music in distinctive new ways.

While individual ‘new jazz’ musicians continued to develop their art, such as Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, much of the vitality of jazz over the last 20 years came from the older musicians–Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey in particular. Yet the fact remains that they were evolving and honing their past styles, rather than making any new breakthroughs. Recent developments in rap and hip-hop have shown that jazz remains an important influence for black musicians to draw on, but also that it is no longer at the leading edge of black music. It remains a vital part of black music, even if today mostly a subsidiary one, but one which develops primarily by going back to its past.

It was no accident that the most interesting development in jazz over the last few years, the growth of black British jazz, drew its inspiration overwhelmingly from hard bop–both a political and a musical inspiration. Hard bop represented for the musicians both a music of black pride and dance music for a mass audience–the last major jazz school to do both.

Jazz flourished, waxed and waned, and has been declining for a number of years as the music on the edge of progress. It is important not to mourn this, or pretend that it’s not happened, but to understand why. For understanding the ways in which jazz was rooted in the growth of the black American working class also helps us to understand the most important development in black music in the 1980s–the explosion of urban African music onto the world stage. From Algerian rai to South African township mbaganga, the new musics coming out of Africa are products of the creation of African working classes, some of them stretching back 20 or 30 years, others of much more recent vintage.

Like jazz, those musics have developed as syntheses of ‘traditional’ music with Western influences, both from the many strands of black American music and Western pop music generally. And like jazz too, those musics have shown themselves capable of absorbing many other diverse influences–as in the work of Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour–and making out of them a music with all the drive and creative power of the best jazz. Similar developments in Latin America, China37 and elsewhere are likewise signs of the growth and stirrings of new working classes. ‘World music’ is the reflection and product of the rise of a world working class.

This article grew out of a talk given at Marxism 92. Particular thanks are due to Teresa O’Donnell and Martin Smith for their help in clarifying my ideas, to Mike Hobart for his thought provoking comments on my arguments, and to everyone who participated in the discussion at the meeting.

A similar argument is advanced in Nelson George’s controversial The Death of Rhythm and Blues (London, 1989) although his book focuses almost entirely on soul and rythm and blues. His basic argument (crudely, that black artists sold their souls to adapt to the tastes of a more lucrative white audience) is questionable, but the book is one of the most interesting critical evaluations of black music in recent years.

I’m only going to discuss jazz in America, both for reasons of space, and also because I’d argue that almost all other ‘national’ jazz traditions are essentially derived from American jazz (the important exception being South Africa, which requires a separate article to do it justice).

L Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (London, 1991) pp207-8.

L Jones, Blues People (New York, 1963) pp7-8 (emphases in original). This is the book to read on the social roots of black music, particularly important for his insistence on the diversity of African cultures, a valuable antidote to the essentialist arguments of more recent ‘Africanist’ writers. For more detailed descriptions of how this black American culture was created, see E Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York, 1976) and L Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York, 1977).

Think of the music of Cab Calloway, for instance. Is it blues, or jazz, or rhythm and blues? Putting the question like that shows the artificiality of the boundaries.

Although there’s no space here to develop the argument, it is important to stress that gospel music has had a far greater influence on the development of black American music generally acknowledged in most of the histories.

F Newton, The Jazz Scene (London, 1963) p43. The book has since been reissued under Hobsbawm’s own name (London, 1990). Francis Newton was the pseudonym Hobsbawm used for his writings on jazz. He justified this by arguing that he wanted to keep a separation between his historical work and his jazz writing, but it’s probable that the Communist Party’s view of jazz as ‘decadent’ was an equally important reason.

My thanks to Jeff Hurford for this point.

E Hobsbawm, op cit, p64.

J L Collier, The Making of Jazz: a Comprehensive History (London, 1981), p78.

J Berendt, The Jazz Book (London, 1984) p68.

For a fuller history of the development of Kansas City music, see R Russells’s Bird Lives! (London,1976) and Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (California, 1971).

The scene in Clint Eastwood’s film Bird, in which Charlie Parker is driven from the bandstand by a cymbal thrown at him, was, according to Parker, the turning point in his musical development. See Bird Lives!, pp84-93.

J L Collier, Benny Goodman and the Swing Era (London, 1989), p257.

Ibid, p87.

Ibid, p304.

E Hobsbawm, op cit, p85.

L Jones, op cit, p177.

For contemporary accounts of both the racist attacks and the resistance, see C L R James et al, Fighting Racism in World War II (New York, 1980). Roosevelt’s order is quoted on p116.

F Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York, 1970), p56.

R Russell, Bird Lives!, op cit, pp257-258.

Ibid, p271.

N George, op cit, p23.

Wyonie Hams, whose frenetic and powerful style was a direct outgrowth of Kansas City swing, is not even mentioned in Collier’s 500 page The Making of Jazz: a Comprehensive History.

This point has aroused a great many controversies in discussions, and it’s therefore worth saying something about the role of whites in jazz. I am emphatically not arguing the (patronising if not racist) position that ‘only blacks can play jazz’–one of the first records that converted me to jazz was a live concert of Joe Turner and Buck Clayton backed by the Zagreb Jazz Quartet! Since the 1940s, when it became possible for multi-racial bands to play together in America, every major figure from Parker to Coltrane included at least one white player in a band at one time or another, so clearly they didn’t believe it either. What I will argue is that, as jazz is a product of black experiences in America, whites can only properly play it if they have some appreciation of and respect for those experiences and traditions. And the simple truth is that most white incursions into jazz (Paul Whiteman, swing, cool and the endless Dixieland revivals) have been attempts to appropriate the music away from black culture. Only a minority of white musicians (in America, that is–the situation has always been very different elsewhere) have ever attempted to play within the black tradition (learning from, rather than stealing from) which probably explains why the number of great white jazz musicians can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

F Kofsky, op cit, p25 (emphasis in original).

Quoted in A Taylor, Notes and Tones (London, 1983), p249. Blakey, of course, regularly employed white musicians–see note 25 above.

Quoted in F Kofsky, op cit, p64.

Quoted in V Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life (London, 1987), p26.

G Hirshey, Nowhere to Run (London,1985) p184. Berry Gordy, the incarnation of black capitalism, actually put it the other way around, boasting that 70 percent of sales were to whites.

Quoted in ibid, p192.

E Hobsbawm, op cit, p73. The last line was sensibly altered in the more recent edition.

V Wilmer, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This (London, 1989), pp199-200.

D Hallas, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’ in Cliff, Harman, Hallas and Trotsky, Parry and Class (London, no date), p20.

P T Barnum was wrong: you can go broke underestimating an audience’s intelligence, as the producers and cast of Eldorado recently discovered.

See V Wilmer, As Serious…, op cit, pp241-245.

For an interesting account of Chinese syntheses of rock’n’roll, pop music and traditional Chinese music, see ‘Rock and roll on the new Long March’ by T Brace and P Friedlander, in R Garofalo (ed), Rockin’ the Boat (Boston, 1992).

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