Listener as operator

The political power of jazz

Only when one considers the history of Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws, can one really honour the supreme effort of jazz musicians to maintain their propellant positivity. Howard Slater reflects on free jazz as a disalienating force that shaped a new collective culture.

We are still black
And we have come back

Nous sommes revenus

We have come back
Brought back
to our land Africa
the music of Africa

Jazz is A black power
Jazz is A black power
Jazz is An African power
Jazz is An African music
Jazz is An African music

We Have Come Back

Tellingly inarticulate

Rough and beautiful in the nobility of coarseness
– Frank London Brown

The above dedication is a verbatim transcript of words spoken as the Archie Shepp set kicks into action at the 1969 Pan African Festival in Algiers. The music that follows contains a mélange of Shepp’s jazz outfit accompanied by Tuareg percussionists and Algerian musicians and singers. At first the speaker of the above dedication continues on with his words listing figures from jazz history, but this verbal honouring of the general intellect of jazz is soon drowned out by a practical rendition of a culture’s social wealth. Not an ostentatious display, not a string of solos, but a confluence of intensities backed by an incantatory drumming and the sharp sound of reed flutes. As the rock and pop scenes go global, there is here, at the Pan-African festival, an almost subterranean internationalism. The excitement of “being back” whilst being welcomed by Algerian musicians is palpable; a meeting point for something more or less inarticulate from the perspective of the prevailing rock scenes of the time. For instance the 12 tone system is rendered inexistent; non-standard pitching thrives and the outlines of the instrumentation, the perspective of background and foreground (especially in the massed percussion), are blurred to the point of amorphous joy.

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo: Tom Beetz. Source:Wikimedia

Collective culture, then, sounds a little like this. It dispenses with the sad articulation of the negative in favour of its being harnessed as a “drive”. It doesn’t seek the con of the quest for perfection. It seeks its motivating succour in a group-process that cannot but re-articulate the negative as the pleasure of disalienation. From Bennie Moten to Duke Ellington to Sun Ra to Shepp’s ensemble in 1969, an unquestioned togetherness informs the sound as it merges together singularities in a tone-palate that, as Cedric Robinson has said in reference to the radical black tradition, “preserves the collective being”.1 Preserves? Yes, because that tradition has had, in the main, to maintain itself “outside” those very organizations (such as the Labour Movement) that one would have thought were pre-disposed to it; and, being “outlandish”, its wavering non-admittance could be misrepresented as an impulse towards transcendence rather than a material effect of racism. So, Shepp and Co. sound inarticulate because such a collective culture (here celebrated as a jam session of black consciousnesses across continents) cannot delineate itself as a single bounded institutional entity. They form an assemblage of enunciation that could be said to resist reification by being “out”, by not having to speak articulately. They ignore the discipline enforced by the tenets of “music”, by musically claiming, as Aimé Césaire said in his resignation from the French Communist Party (PCF), the “right to initiative, the right to personality”.2

The right to free jazz. The right to singularity. Claiming these rights and claiming them via the wordless illicity of colliding continents and the partial egocide of a heavy hearing of the other, is to claim that the alienating line between the individual and the collective, is here and in countless other ensemble jazz moments, not so much surpassed but corroborated as non-existent in the first place and preserved in the music of jazz from a moment prior to bourgeois enlightenment. This “prior moment” (disqualified from “history”) that goes back further than a memory of the land, has been celebrated in the form of musical praxis by such as Duke Ellington who called-out the collective black tradition in such tracks as “Rhythm Pum Te Dum”, and albums like Liberian Suite and Black, Brown and Beige. Such a musical praxis, from the crafting of the very instruments (the “banza” or “strum strum” which eventually becomes the banjo) through “derisive singing” and the prohibition of slave dances to Ellington’s symphonic history-writing, makes jazz an ongoing moment of politicised disalienation. It is an implied politics, a praxis that, making its own form as it moves, is often unintelligible. It is tellingly inarticulate because, caught up as many of us are in the unavoidable pathology of individuality (its inferiority-fears and interior walls), we cannot hear the liberation-from-self as a politicizing practice that singularises itself by means of an assemblage (be that, in this case, the jazz ensemble or the black radical tradition), because this would be to similarly face the trauma of psychical placelessness across time; a kind of dispersal to points of inarticulacy where the boundary between self and other dissolves but, and aptly, the “new” begins.

Music and agony

I am sick of these weeping half-days
– Henry Dumas

In Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon offered “before it can adopt a positive voice, freedom requires an effort at disalienation”.3 It is an agony to kind of know that “freedom”, like “love” can take on mythic proportions. These very proportions garner an idealistic hue that further trap us within the painful limits of a bourgeois self. A heavily signposted way-out gets blocked. So, the interpellation of aims and ambitions take the form of ego-ideals and the concomitant activation of a de-communalizing narcissism not only build internal walls against a recognition of our interior world as a social-psyche, they ward-off the dangerous outbreak of singularities. Is Fanon’s advice to make an effort at disalienation partly connected to arriving at an awareness of our social psyche? To become, as strange as it may sound, disalienated from an individualism that, deep rooted, disbars the notion of a self as already a collective? Free Jazz, without having to articulate a “politics”, seems to effortlessly concur with such propositions.

Such a disalienation is agony enough. One is placeless, no longer the centre of anything. One is interchangeable. One can only labour abstractly. But isn’t there in the sound of jazz some supreme overcoming of the temptation to an alienating negativity? Listening to many jazz players it is possible to be enlivened by the very lack of shame of the singularities that are set free by means of the music. Singularities are maybe embraced in the assemblage of jazz not simply as a harnessing of a mythic Dionysian creativity, but as a result of the urge-inducing agony of genocide that Black Codes and then Jim Crow Laws set going in the American South:

“Anyway, when we got there in the woods, everyone started crying and turning their heads away in horror. I looked up at the man. I knew him, yet he was so messed up I could not tell who he was. He was naked and they’d put tar on him and burnt him”.4

As hard as it is to write that out it’s maybe necessary to have this as backing to our appreciation not just of the spleenage-at-the-reed of players like Ayler and Sanders, but also to honour the supreme effort of jazz musicians to maintain their propellant positivity. More than that, is it not the experience of Jim Crow barbarism that binds these jazz musicians to a collective notion of their self as black from which basis singularizing becomes an easier next step to take? A step unfraught by the guilt of standing out and standing up and one that is no longer afraid to express. A hundred years after the “Emancipation Proclamation” trumpeter and ensemblist Philip Cohran could say: “We’re all denied the privilege of expressing what is in us”.

The knotted agony of not being able to speak up or protest (an inculcated “terror of the self” as Calvin Hernton refers to it) comes undone and the dam is burst by the mid-1960s. The “liquid lyric moans”, as poet and communist activist Claude McKay describes ’20s jazz, are transformed into the guided rage of having so much to say that words are bypassed by the dense emotional simultaneity of free jazz propulsion. That Calvin Hernton, writing of his childhood in the American South, speaks of taking a beating from his grandmother for regularly chatting with a white girl (a danger he could not perceive at the time), and that he talks also of a social life that has to be closely self-monitored down to a control of glances, is just one element of racism’s psychic damage that surely must inform free jazz as a disalienating force. Calvin Hernton: “I am not absolutely certain at what age I became conscious of my colour as a limitation on where I could go, sit, or with whom I could associate.”5 Such constant vigilance may train the mind in an acuity of perception and contextual sensitivity that, as agonizing as it is, could well inform the later ease of a non-fanfared collective awareness and free space for singularities that marks those early 1960s assemblages such as Charlie Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Philip Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Enemble.

Jazz and organization (1)

Where no one is more alone than any other
– Joseph Jarman

There can be no agonizing terror of the self (a block to singularizing) when the shared trauma of racist genocide comes to bind you tightly to a collective notion. The same could well be said of exploited classes in general upon whom is meted out an ongoing psychic damage that ends up in self-loathing, affective insecurity and the internalization of inferiority (its “epidermalization” in the words of Frantz Fanon). These latter can amount to a terror of the self, a terror of subterranean force that can be a serious hindrance to the consistency in any coming together. Whether this supra-personal fragility be dealt with as an isolating retreat or as an appeasement of the terror of the self by recourse to the ideological mediations of a joining up of ego-ideals, the terror can be both repressed through the ongoing act of an “abstract” belonging as well as projected (as repressed) into forming the wayward unconscious forces of the group. The organizational form that results can come, after Didier Anzieu, to be one that could be described as bearing a “group illusion”: “There was a desire in the group for a superficial unity to plaster over the contradiction between declared principles and actual behaviour”.6

The problem for groups may well lie, then, in these “declared principles” that become a disconnective abstraction, that determine the meaning of group membership and that give rise, not to singular expressions, but to a guilty vigilance that comes from conformity. Throughout the history of jazz, save for the sizeable Pan-African and Black Nationalist political hue of the 1960s, there has been scant recognition of its ensemble practice as providing methods and means of organization for political movements. Larry Neal, viewed as a co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, still had cause, in the 1980s, to bemoan this and urged his readers to “consider […] a system of politics and art that is fluent, as functional, and as expansive as black music”. 7 Perhaps a factor in this lack of fluency is the blockage created by the subterranean persistence of, as Fanon said, self-evaluatory comparison and the quest to fulfil the ego-ideal. In other words the persistence within organizations of forms of bourgeois individualism (personal merit and self-fulfilment) mediated by organizational forms that militate against what Aimé Césaire called for as he resigned from the PCF: “the deepening and co-existence of all particulars”.

From swing to the be-bop era, the space to solo, to singularise within the assemblage, was given to all musicians in the combo. Extemporization around a theme (or in other parlance, playing with particles of the general intellect of the “standard”) enables these particulars to be co-extensive with other particulars. In the world of free jazz one could say that the mélange of particulars (simultaneous soloing) forms the universal itself! So, what to many ears, say in the Archie Shepp track mentioned above, is a mess, is not only an un-recouperable mess (deliberately inarticulate), it is the sound of the overcoming of a terror of the self by means of creating together the incomparable through which the question of merit does not arise. Neither does it seem that the contradiction between declared principles and actual behaviour arises: the principles aren’t “declared” but outline a problem of action. So, in the 1969 track we are not listening to a “group illusion” that stems from the fear of “wrongness” and ambivalence, but to an almost definite disalienation that, being a group-effort, does not have to “watch itself”. Here improvisation adds to rather than detracts from the ad-hoc organizational form as the “indefiniteness of not knowing how the music is going to sound” is a non-declaration of principles, but yet is a declaration of co-existent singularities attempting disalienation by means of the jazz ensemble and its historical perserverance.8

By the late 1960s it could be perhaps remarked upon that the era of combo, the steady line-up group (i.e. Coltrane’s classic quartet, Coleman’s too) were being replaced by looser, ad-hoc, almost nomadic, groupings of musicians and a temporary assembling when studio time was being paid for. The form of organization of the swing era, the big band with its large personnel and long-term performance engagements, was maybe, after the 1944 Cabaret Tax, becoming less viable. The be-bop combo could be said, as Will Menter mentions, to replace the band leader/arranger with a lead soloist and an “equal opportunity” to solo (rather than maintain the backing riff so elegantly scored as tone-parallels by Duke Ellington). This form of the combo was adopted by the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, but they began to break up this form of organization by adding to their combos and as with their large ensemble pieces (“Free Jazz” and “Ascension” respectively) there was a step, as with Mingus, Max Roach and Sun Ra, into re-articulating the backing-riff of the big band, but this time atonally: an “inarticulate” and confident move that, at the threshold of the civil rights movement, tells of an organizing rise in black political consciousness. So, it is not like there is some supercession of organizational forms as we are want to believe by a system that would rather have us forget, but an infusement of a collective tradition in which the general intellect figures as, after Cedric Robinson, an “ontological totality”.

However, if we focus on the late 1960s and this sense of the ad-hoc session we are maybe in the realm of the meeting of singularities that bring with them an instilled and moveable collective awareness: an “ontological totality” of belonging to a history that is shareable and shared-in. At his first “audition” for the AACM in Chicago, Wadada Leo Smith reports that he was playing together in an ensemble with other musicians and then one by one his fellow players stepped down and began talking in a huddle, leaving Wadada to play alone. One could say that in this moment Wadada was left with the terror of the self as well as being made aware that, as far as the AACM was concerned, there was no “group illusion” in the AACM; that “declared principles” and “actual behaviour” would be resolved by a singular praxis within a collective assemblage (that “Together Alone” is the title of an LP by AACM members Joseph Jarman and Anthony Braxton is perhaps testament that they had a similar experience to Wadada Leo Smith). Such an experience seems to suggest that as an individual player you are nothing special, but as an individual player you have to have the confidence in your instrument and its place in the tradition: you have to be able to singularise without becoming an individualist (be prepared to improvise-amidst) and to be a member of the AACM without losing your particularity (play to enhance another’s score). Such an incomplete musing may be an example of the functional fluency that Larry Neal was calling to be more widely applied as a politics.

Jazz and organization (2)

How do individuals enter into composition with one another?
– Gilles Deleuze

The ongoing debates about spontaneity and organization, about structure and structurelessness can maybe be tempered by the example of such organizations as the AACM. The AACM has been noted for the special place it allots to both composition and improvisation. One seems not to be valued over the other and it’s maybe that there is a synthesis in AACM practice that leads us in the direction that Larry Neal urged. That said any synthesis is not visible as a “declared principle”, but as a singular praxis that differs from Roscoe Mitchell to Muhal Richard Abrams to Anthony Braxton to Wadada Leo Smith; each of whom, Will Menter informs us, have all developed their own notation systems and ways of using notation within improvisation (composing themselves). This goes against the grain of hearing in free jazz a pure visceral spontaneity as some level of organized sound is sought-after by those who learned through the AACM. However, it seems to be that the improvisatory element is that which brings through the “emotional counterpoint”, that in a sense, brings in the “non-accordant sounds” of the tellingly inarticulate that is at the roots of the black jazz tradition. When Wadada Leo Smith spoke recently of his work with an orchestra on his Ten Freedom Summers, he reported that in order to bring flexibility to the orchestral players he wrote music that was impossible to play: “My instruction to them was while you’re playing this and you cannot completely play it correctly, keep going forward. At some point it’s going to breakdown completely – at that point you’re improvising”.9

In terms of organization it is the emotional counterpoint, an attention given to the terror of the self, that gets lost amidst the declared principles of the group; the struggle to express articulately enough that, without recourse to the “tellingly inarticulate” (the breakdown of the playing) makes us give up trying to speak (or more aptly, give up trying to “play”) beyond ourselves. In his discussion of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Little Suite”, Will Menter offers that what marks out this piece (and it applies to other pieces by AACM members) is that “it sounds spontaneous overall, even though one is aware that it must have been substantially pre-structured.”10 He goes on to suggest that this is achieved through “ensuring musicians oriented their playing towards the growing music as opposed to individual expression” (my emphasis). Perhaps one cannot discount that both are in operation as “individual expression” is not placed in the service of a bravura performance (the sections of this piece are too small and collage-like), but in service of the partially structured score that is in-formation as the piece progresses through time. However, the organizational advantage that can be gleaned, and which Menter mentions in relation to Mitchell, is that “a method of distancing has been developed which meant that no longer must every sound that was made be taken at face value as a serious personal or collective expression”. These latter two, the “face value” of individualism and its competition for recognition and the pathology of its illusory “supercession” through group membership alone, are the bane of organizations as they can still be experienced.

We dare to sing

What we could not say openly we expressed in music
– Duke Ellington

This modulation of improvisation and composition, of what was formally instinctual and impulsive being acted upon and informing a grounding structure, does not so much mean that either one is replaced by the other, but that when both are taken together there is an expansion of the “ontological totality”. There is, as Cedric Robinson puts it, a “breaking of the evolutionist chain”.11 Instead of succession and development that pampers to the bourgeois logic of hierarchies and linearity, instead of a carpetbagging there is a contributing-to, in this case, the black radical tradition that is jazz. Muhal Richard Abrams urged his collaborants in the AACM to “add copiously to an already vast reservoir of artistic richness handed down through the ages.”12 Such “adding to” resonates with the distancing necessary to elude bourgeois individualism whilst at the same time liberating expressive and “impersonal” singularities. A fine example of this can be heard on Arthur Doyle’s solo sax and vocal rendition of the ’40s tune “Nature Boy”.13 Whilst much of what’s being said here is far better expressed by Arthur Doyle is it not by such means, a “preserving the collective being”, that the guilt of self-expression is appeased? Is it the “ontological totality”, the belonging to something multi-personal and meta-categorical, that can dare us to sing?

Richard Wright wrote of jazz as the “rhythmic flaunting of guilt feelings” and Calvin Hernton wrote that “each in our idiom hold the nightmare of our singularity”.14 Both Wright and Hernton (as members of a radical intelligentsia) seem to me to be expressing something that a replenishing jazz tradition helped them to overcome. For Wright in the 1940s and 1950s it may well be that the voiceless and inferiorized have no “right” to express themselves and those that “dare to sing” do so, but yet feel guilty to transgress both the taboo on their expression from a racist society and from being misconstrued as trying to escape from their own communities (c.f. Charlie Parker and heroin). For Calvin Hernton, on the other hand, the 1960s seem to throw up the sense that the terror of the self (its traumatic disalienation) is what both inspires and holds back self-expression as a process of singularization. There is a massive risk, Hernton seems to be saying, in expressing yourself within a bourgeois context that tempts one to lose oneself through what Aimé Césaire refers to as “walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.”15

But this singularity is no nightmare when it takes as its ground the multiplicities that have formed it and with which it communicates. That the jazz ensemble figures as a collective assemblage of enunciation from which some dare guiltlessly to sing is a testament to the preservation of a collective being that contains within it the attempt to disalienate. This attempt is made almost unavoidable because of the abreactive proviso to much jazz playing. Nat Hentoff says of Charlie Mingus that “he expected his men to learn their parts through what their own feelings tell them about the music”. This isn’t a technique of playing the right notes but, as an abreaction of feeling, it’s maybe more a matter of playing between notes and, as a player, bringing to the “part’ the unwritten states of feeling that cannot yet be named. This shared abreactive premise to the music, audible as plaintive anger and rough sonority on Mingus’ “Faubus Fables”, may make it possible to say that “individual expression” as such is annulled in favour of processes of singularization that can be expressed as simply as in these words of AACM member Fred Anderson: “All music is basically the same, but what makes it different is different cats have different ways of speaking and communicating.”16 These different ways could be the source of guilt, the “nightmare of our singularity”, in that without the abreaction of feeling they can become aids to separation, but they are also the challenge of performing and enacting a complex communication (a modulation of feeling) whereby neither is dominated nor subsumed by the other, but complemented and encouraged to make a composition of the assemblage, to be disappearing in the elasticity of a form. If we dare to sing we may find that the structure no longer expresses us, but that we, instead, come to form an assemblage, a re-iterative structure that is expressive of us: the anonymous singularizing solo of the general intellect.

Appendix 1: Tellingly inarticulate

In his sleeve notes to Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now!”, Nat Hentoff records that there was an impromptu squawk from Coleman Hawkins’ tenor sax on the track “Driva Man”. Hawkins is reported as saying: “No don’t splice it… when it’s all perfect, especially in a piece like this, there’s something very wrong”. This track sung by Abbey Lincoln with lyrics from Oscar Brown Jr. is still seen as one of the more forthright political jazz records of any day:

Git to work and root that stump,
driva man will make you jump.
Better make your hammer ring
Driva man’ll start to swing
Ain’t but two things on my mind
Driva man and quittin’ time.

When his cat-o-nine tails flies
You’ll be happy just to die

This record was out around the time of the Greensboro student sit-in in 1960 and was released on Candid, an independent record label. Another strong statement was made by Charles Mingus on his “Faubus Fables” track. This latter features an ongoing call and response between Mingus and drummer Danny Richmond:

CM: Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
DR: Faubus, Rockefeller, Motherfucking Eisenhower.
CM: Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

DR: Two, four, six, eight: they brainwash and teach you

Yet again Hentoff writes up in his sleeve notes for this album a comment made by Eric Dolphy: “I play the notes that would not ordinarily be said to be in a given key, but I hear them as proper”. The squawk, the non-key, the emotional counterpoint, proper.

Appendix 2: We dare to sing

A great song arose, the liveliest thing born this side of the seas. It was a new song. It did not come from Africa, though the dark throb and beat of that Ancient of Days was in it and through it. It did not come from white America – never from so pale and hard and thin a thing, however deep those vulgar and surrounding tones had driven. Not the Indies nor the hot South, the cold East or the heavy West made that music. It was a new song and its deep and plaintive beauty, its great cadences and wild appeal wailed, throbbed and thundered on the world’s ears with a message seldom voiced by man. It swelled and blossomed like incense, improvised and born anew out of an age old past, and weaving into its texture the old and new melodies in word and in thought.
– W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, Free Press 1998

Appendix 3: Jazz and organization

each man-string
doing his own thing
vibrating at the
each-to-each volume
sounding at the
each-to-each pitch
all being heard
at the same time
no one pushing
no one behind
each knowing each’s
rhythm and sign
– Henry Dumas (from Greatness)

Appendix 4: Music and agony

Hair – braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – faggots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame
– Jean Toomer (Portrait in Georgia)

Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, 2000, 171

Aimé Césaire, "Letter to Maurice Thorez" in Salah M. Hassan, dOCUMENTA(13), 2012, 36

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Paladin 1973, 165

Calvin C. Hernton, Sex and Racism, Paladin 1969, 99

Hernton, Sex and Racism, 55.

Didier Anzieu, The Group and the Unconscious, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1984, 149

FranklinFranklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, University of Texas, 2009, 240

Ornette Coleman in Rosemont and Kelley, Black, Brown and Beige, 28

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, "Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith: 'The black experience is American experience'", The Guardian, 23 September 2012,

Will Menter, "The Making of Jazz and Improvised Music: Four Musicians' Collectives in England and the USA", Phd Thesis, University of Bristol, 1981, 138

Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism, 276

Will Menter, "The Making of Jazz", 100

Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism, 302; and Calvin Hernton, Medicine Man, Reed Canon and Johnston, 1976, 51

Aimé Césaire, "Letter to Maurice Thorez", 38

Will Menter, "The Making of Jazz", 21

Published 3 July 2013
Original in English
First published by Mute 20 (2013)

Contributed by Mute © Howard Slater / Mute / Eurozine


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