In Defense of Context in Jazz History: A Response to Mark Gridley

October 1, 2008

In his article "Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement" (Vol. 47 [Fall 2007]: 139-55), Mark Gridley denies any substantive connection between the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s and the style of black music known as "free jazz" that developed alongside it. For Gridley, apparently, the simultaneous appearance of these two African American cultural movements was nothing more than a historical coincidence, signifying no meaningful relationship (with a few individual exceptions). Nor was this case unique. Looking beyond civil rights and free jazz, Gridley advises teachers of jazz history against making any broad connections between music and culture:

It may be prudent to just introduce the jazz styles themselves without venturing into concurrent socio-cultural history. . . . Otherwise, students may conclude that most instrumental music is inspired by extra-musical factors, when, in reality, politics did not motivate the new styles themselves. (pp. 152-53)

As the author of Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, the most widely used jazz history textbook in the country, Gridley occupies a prominent place in jazz education. His critique of cultural approaches targets "scholars" and "journalists" alike, but seems particularly aimed at the context-oriented jazz history textbooks that have appeared in recent years, together with the culturally-based pedagogies they are designed to support. Because my textbook, Jazz: An American Journey, is the only one he faults by name, it seems appropriate that I should be the one to respond to his article. A response is needed, because, while I don't doubt Gridley's sincerity, I believe he is wrong on this issue. Not only does connecting music and culture make perfectly good historical sense, but also, exposing students to these connections, in my experience, seems to do them a lot of good.

Gridley's main argument is that "the civil rights movement . . . did not originate free jazz" in a linear, one-to-one, cause-and-effect relationship (p. 141). But this proposal is a straw man; no one (that I know of) is making this bald claim. Most writers concerned with making links between jazz and culture assume a very complex relationship in which the two often evolve simultaneously, making it difficult to show direct influence. This way of thinking about history originated in the German notion of zeitgeist—the "spirit of the time" that seems responsible for the uncanny unity among politics, science, philosophy, and the arts during any given period. In music history, the sweet consonances of the Renaissance satisfied the Humanist love of beauty. The periodic phrasing of the classic period mirrored the Enlightenment emphasis on balance and proportion. No committee regulated these parallels. And we do not need to claim that one phenomenon "influenced" another in order to acknowledge that both reflected the same constellation of ideas in the evolution of knowledge. Particularly when the exact direction of influence is unknown, "reflected" would seem to be the more appropriately cautious word. To take another example, few historians, I think, would dispute that the rise of romanticism in the early nineteenth century reflected, in part, a yearning for human fulfillment that attended the American and French revolutions and their aftermath. It doesn't matter that Schubert was not an activist; his music was a mirror of his time, eloquently bearing witness to concerns on the minds of every Western European of his day. In a similar way, I wrote in my book, "free jazz reflected the tumult" in the 1960s, sounding "a metaphorical cry of impatience and frustration" with the resistance to justice. Notice that I did not say that individual musicians created free jazz consciously and deliberately to protest racial injustice, as Gridley repeatedly implies. Yet Gridley objects to my language because some free jazz musicians did not think of their work in political terms. This simplistic view assumes that progressive artists can choose to work independently of the biggest ideas saturating their culture, a strange assumption given the examples of history.

Gridley states that "the free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces," as if the two were mutually exclusive, as if indeed one could be proven and not the other (p. 152). Dismissing as "sloppy" any attempt to make broad cultural connections, he seems to think that only musical influences can be reliably demonstrated. In fact, both musical and cultural influences are difficult to "prove." In both cases what it comes down to, finally, is our willingness to accept circumstantial evidence in the matter. When black jazz players embrace musical values of freedom and self-expression more vehemently than at any other time in history, common sense suggests that the simultaneous reinforcement of these values in black politics (i.e., through integration and the vote) might represent a bridge between the two realms. But for Gridley, the fact that white players had already explored free techniques invalidates this connection. To show that such devices as atonality and free rhythm were being used at least ten years before the civil rights movement shifted into high gear, Gridley gives a timeline dating back to 1949 listing the free experiments of mostly white players. Never mind that these musicians had no direct influence on Ornette Coleman, who, Gridley points out, started experimenting with free elements as early as 1948. But even if they did, Gridley's timeline would still suggest the opposite of what he intends. Far from marking the non-civil rights beginnings of the free jazz movement, the timeline indicates that there was no free jazz "movement" (only isolated experiments) until the intensifying civil rights struggle highlighted avant-garde activity, now lodged firmly in the community of black players. One could argue that Ornette Coleman became a sensation in 1959 precisely because all at once his music seemed to speak for his time. Closing his New York debut just days before the Greensboro sit-ins began, Coleman's own indifference to politics was irrelevant.

Gridley is not interested in the perceptions of outsiders. For him, the gold standard of evidence is first-person testimony from the artist himself. If a musician admits to political motivations Gridley accepts it, but if not then no such motivations are likely to exist, even subconsciously. This odd prejudice is reversed in the case of critics, for while musicians are usually right, commentators are usually wrong ("taking commentators seriously is [a] persistent problem," he says [p. 148]). Noting that the critics LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky had ideologies to feed, he never considers that musicians are hardly unbiased about their own work, do not always tell the truth about their intentions, and often don't care where their ideas come from. (In this respect it is ironic that Gridley quotes Stravinsky on the evils of applying historical context to music, since Stravinsky notoriously lied about his musical past to shape his reputation to his liking.) This is not to say that the statements of musicians cannot be trusted, only that they should be taken with the same skepticism—pending verification—that one would apply to every other piece of evidence. It also means that a musician's account does not necessarily tell the whole story. Saxophonist Marion Brown may insist that "I don't play about religion, or the universe, or love, or hate, or soul" (p. 145), but he did not invent his language behind a hermetic seal; it was assembled bit by bit from the vocabularies of other players, and those vocabularies grew out of the urgent concerns—both musical and non-musical—of his generation. A musician, even a great one, has far less control over the general course of his art than we might think. The broad outlines of a style, it seems clear, are shaped by ideas in society. Thus, a player like Brown cannot escape tapping into the social currents of his time, and if enough listeners hear those currents in his playing they are just as "right" about his music as he is.

Gridley frets that discussions of complex cultural connections will confuse students. All of his principled objections aside, he writes that "it would seem to be counterproductive to teach musical innovations in the context of American history, [because] under any circumstances, teachers risk the possibility that students will infer cause-and-effect relations where there are none"(p. 152). One might respond that helping students make these fine distinctions is what college is for. Can a student understand that, while Ornette Coleman was not himself a political animal, his music around 1960 gave voice to political concerns in the black community? Can a student understand that these concerns might express different sentiments in music depending on the player: anger (Archie Shepp), peace (Sun Ra), intellectualism (Cecil Taylor), transcendence (John Coltrane)? Can a student recognize that civil rights issues might have animated free jazz—and different types of free jazz differently—while at the same time touching non-free jazz styles as well as popular black genres like R&B, soul, gospel, and funk? I think so. And in any case, I think showing students that jazz did not evolve in a vacuum is worth the risk.

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