Letter to the Editor from Harker, Brian

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2011.51.sr.768
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26513056

As I read Mark Gridley's lengthy response to my response ("In Defense of Context in Jazz History: A Response to Mark Gridley," CMS 48) to his article "Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement" (CMS 47), it occurred to me that for all the multiplication of words we appear to be talking past each other. Like Republicans and Democrats debating health care, Gridley and I seem to be proceeding from fundamentally different premises. For this reason I do not think it would necessarily be helpful to respond to his latest missive point by point. Instead, I will address two broad issues in the hope of clarifying the problem in a more meaningful way.

If I understand him correctly, Gridley locates musical meaning exclusively in the intentions of the performer. Thus, if Archie Shepp admits to political influence, then his music pertains to civil rights. If Ornette Coleman does not, then his music has no significant cultural relevance. The standard of intention is indeed critical in determining whether a piece is "absolute" or "programmatic," but I assume that is not the issue at hand. Rather, Gridley and I have been debating how to assess the cultural meaning of music in the broader sense of its place and function in history. And in this broader sense, I would argue, the performer's intentions provide just one piece of evidence among many. Should the testimony of the individual artist constitute the only authority, eclipsing the views of fellow musicians, producers, agents, critics, fans, and historians? If not, let us consider the obvious question: in the 1960s was free jazz broadly understood to signify the aggrieved stance of those struggling for civil rights? I defer to Ingrid Monson of Harvard University, a scholar who knows far more than either Gridley or I do about this topic. In her recent book Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, Monson writes:

Aesthetic issues [. . .] became highly politicized in this period. In the two and a half months prior to the Greensboro sit-ins, the jazz world buzzed over the New York debut of Ornette Coleman, whose gala opening at the Five Spot extended from the middle of November 1959 until the end of January 1960 (just days before the sit-ins began). In the United States, the debate over the value and meaning of avant-garde expression in jazz consequently began as the political drama of lunch-counter sit-ins unfolded on TV screens and radios and in newspapers. . . . Over the next few years many avant-gardists claimed a direct relationship between a musical modernism free of chord changes, compulsory tonality, timbral orthodoxy, and the obligation to swing and a radical, assertive, political consciousness. An "outside" musical approach consequently came to signify for many a political critique of racial injustice.1

Being the careful scholar that she is, Monson cautions that one ought to "resist the temptation to rigidly map aesthetic positions and politics. Those who preferred their jazz more 'inside' were not necessarily more politically conservative, although they could be. Conversely, those who championed the 'New Thing' were not necessarily more activist in their orientation, although they could be."2 But this is a caveat against her larger point: that jazz and civil rights politics were intimately entwined, and that free jazz in particular was widely considered to embody the struggle for political freedom most directly. For Gridley, though, the caveat here is the larger point. He takes his cultural connections strictly on a case-by-case basis—this musician was political, that one was not—and will not consider any broader meaning or implications for the jazz community.

Perhaps the reason Gridley refuses to recognize cultural influences (unless acknowledged by the artist) is because they cannot be quantified and proven. His solution, though, is to pretend that they do not exist, which to my mind strays much further from the truth than to assert a cultural connection without defining it. Gridley's protestations notwithstanding, history has shown itself to be remarkably coherent in the broad sweep, despite an omnipresent multitude of contradictions and counterexamples at the granular level. This is a very mysterious thing, not easily explained. Was it pure coincidence that Corelli published the first definitively tonal works in the 1680s, the same decade that Newton published his theory of gravitation, the physical conception routinely invoked by musicologists as a metaphor for tonality? How about at the other end of the line two hundred years later: was it coincidence that Schoenberg began exploring atonality in 1908, just three years after Einstein published his special theory of relativity, challenging the Newtonian model of physics? These analogous developments in music and physics would seem to be entirely independent of one another, and yet they appear on the scene almost simultaneously. What are the connections? It is not at all clear, but should we simply deny any?

Turning to other well-known fin-de-siècle developments, was it coincidence that painters began abandoning representation around the same time that composers began leaving tonality and writers began exploring alternatives to linear narrative and semantic meaning? Was it coincidence that simultaneous with these artistic trends the accumulating discoveries of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein called into question the most basic traditional assumptions about human nature, assumptions that might be viewed as analogous to the hitherto unquestioned artistic principles of tonality, representation, and narrative? On the policial horizon, was it just coincidence that at the height of this first efflorescence of modernism Europe plunged headlong into World War I, a conflict that completely transformed the world politically and psychically, cutting it off from its nineteenth century past? What is the connection among all these disparate but intimately related phenomena? Gridley, I suppose, would say there is no connection unless the participants admit one. Common sense suggests that connections exist regardless, even if we cannot pin them down.

The same might be said of modern jazz, including free jazz, and civil rights. Was it only coincidence that bebop developed at exactly the same time—the early 1940s—that attitudes in the black community began shifting toward greater assertiveness with respect to equality? Or that hard bop, an even more self-consciously "black" music, was first recorded definitively in 1954, the year the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education? Or that the Greensboro sit-ins began just days after Ornette Coleman's Five Spot debut? Or that the fraught and expressionistic playing of Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders emerged in tandem with the black power movement of the late 1960s? I think not.

I realize, in making this claim, that I am going well beyond Monson's argument that I cited above. In addition to the meaning that can be found in the reconstructed attitudes and convictions of past generations, we can discover another meaning in the unifying forces of history. As unfathomable as these forces appear, they need not amount to anything more than the sum total of the ideas and worldviews permeating society at any given moment. Ideas affect everything they touch—music, art, literature, science, philosophy, economics, and politics. Even the mainstream jazz artist who refuses to embrace free jazz is responding (negatively) to the same idea that inspired Ornette Coleman. But the churning flow of ideas across communities and disciplines makes it difficult if not impossible to assign priority to an influence. The eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin defines the problem exactly in his discussion of the relationship between Enlightenment philosophy and the classical style of music (which he calls the "comic style") in the eighteenth century:

But were Diderot's and Rousseau's reasons for welcoming the comic style the same as the average composer's? The average keyboard player's? The average concertgoer's or music buyer's? To what degree did the spread of the "comic style" in music coincide with, or even abet, the spread of Enlightened philosophy? Did the philosophy carry the music in tow? Or did the music carry the philosophy? These are questions that can hardly be answered with any precision. But the reality of the connection between the music and the philosophy, avidly acknowledged and as avidly resisted at the time, can hardly be denied.3

To this Gridley might argue that the philosophy could not have influenced the music because Haydn, the father of the symphony, did not chafe under the aristocratic patronage system that sustained him; he did not write pamphlets; he did not prattle on about the rights of man. But this would make no more sense than to deny a connection between the fearless music of Ornette Coleman and the heady spirit of civil rights in the late 1950s. Although such connections may be maddeningly elusive, the responsible historian will struggle to account for them nevertheless.

1Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 160. Italics added.

2Ibid, p.160.

3Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2: Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 443-444. Italics added.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 06/03/2019

Brian Harker

Brian Harker is the author of Jazz: An American Journey (2005) and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2011). He is a professor of music at Brigham Young University.

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