Adorno VS Jazz!

I have been playing in a jazz/funk band for quite a few weeks now, grilling spontaneous tunes in our ‘guerilla jams’ in Session road and other public areas. So far, it is quite fun, bringing music out from the exclusive bars and lounges and into (literally) the streets. More fulfilling than the self-indulgent delight of playing is the face-to-face engagement with the music-loving people of Baguio. It is a joy to realize that many people still appreciate music apart from what they get from their Ipods.

So this whole scenario brought me back to reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industry in their Dialectics of Enlightenment. Adorno in particularly has been notoriously known as a harsh critique of jazz, publishing a lot about how jazz conforms to the logic of late capitalism. According to him:

However little doubt there can be regarding the African elements of jazz, it is no less certain that everything unruly in it was from the very beginning integrated into a strict scheme, that its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochistic type described by analytic psychology, the person who chafes against the father figure while secretly admiring him, who seeks to emulate him and in turn derives enjoyment from the subordination he overtly detests. (Adorno, from Prisms, 122, Cambridge: MIT, 1983, P. 14)

Adorno likens jazz to the sado-masochist who both despises the father and takes delight in being despised. That is, jazz’s penchant for blatant improvisation or rehashing of famous tunes, syncopation, surplus notes and other jazz ‘standard’ aesthetic techniques are nothing but a façade of freshness, while still conforming to the established conventions. For him, this gesture of rebelliousness is jazz’s greatest flaw, as it dispels any accusation of conformity and banality while being unoriginal and limited all the while. Needless to say, jazz for Adorno is another reified product of the culture industry.

This conclusion is quite strange, as one may easily perceive, since today jazz is regarded is one of the more bourgeois-elitist and ‘serious’ musical genres, especially if we put it side-by-side with the more popular pop-rock or neo-RnB like Justin Bi—(oops, I know you are tired of hearing this same crap). However, this will not be too strange if we contextualize Adorno in the 50’s when bebop is insanely popular and swing has been bastardized by radio staples such as Frank Sinatra. As you may expect, Adorno despiseS modern music and praises classicists such as Mozart and Debussy to the heavens. According to M.J. Thompson:

Composers such as Debussy anticipated harmonic jazz elements in his compositions and also utilized its staggered rhythmic syncopation— that of the ‘cakewalk’— in some of his piano preludes. Even Beethoven, in the third movement of his Piano Sonata op. 111 utilizes a form of syncopation anticipating jazz-like rhythms. But for Debussy and Beethoven, this is merely another dimension of musical language to be explored and used. But the aficionado of jazz must remained trapped in the presence of that musical form.  Jazz is static in the sense that it does not have the same expanse of musical material to work with; it’s language of syncopation, harmonic structure, and so on do not allow it to move beyond a relatively tight circumscribed musical vocabulary. Although it is by no means a simple product of the culture industry, it is unable to break out of the limitations of its own formal language. (Michael Thompson, “Th. W. Adorno Defended against His Critics, and Admirers: A Defense of the Critique of Jazz, from here)

So I will personally ask Mr Adorno, what is the purpose of genres? Does it mean that any music that conforms to its genre (punk, gospel, reggae, whatsoever) is ‘trapped’, limited, unrevolutionary, reified? Protest songs by Bob Dylan often go around simple I-IV-V progressions or if in minor, iv-IV-V, but they are by no means unrevolutionary, even if their forms are rudimentary and artistically limited. Indeed, Carolyn Miller is right that “a rhetorical sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse, but on the action it is used to accomplish”   (“Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 70, 1984,p. 151-67). Jazz, or any other form of music for that matter, are performances embedded in their historical conditions, a reaction to distortion of blues into a mere commodity for pop consumption (“Elvis stole rock and roll from its roots”, so they say). As trotksyanddiego18 said, it seems as if Adorno has a lasting interest (or distaste) for the “reified dimensions” of jazz rather than its “utopian dimensions (see here).”

Another contention I will suggest is that Adorno missed the post-bop evolution of jazz (Coltrane, Davis, etc), especially in the emergence of free jazz and other more rebellious forms that transgressed the conventions of even the most basic jazz ‘rules’ (syncopation, major 7th/ 9th chord extensions, etc). Punk jazz (John Zorn, Zymosis) retained punk’s 4/4 signature while ethnic jazz (Jimmy K) incorporated pentatonic ‘tribal’ harmonies and hypnotic percussion. John Coltrane invented the ‘Giants Steps progression, a progression so original that not even Adorno’s idols such as Mozart or Bach anticipated it. T. Monk experimented with dissonant harmonies that even the classicists will deem as unacceptable.

And so are the other genres. Punk went against the excesses of beatnik psychedelia characteristic of Magical Mystery Tourera Beatles. British post-punk rejected punk’s crass radicalism and worn-out musical vandalism. Thrash rock/metal revived punk as a more violent and harsh critique of the establishment, trashing post-punk’s sentimentalism. Hipster/DIY/ indie rock of the 90s reacted against the misguided and hypocritical tendencies of 80s metal. And so on. Music evolves, historically wombed in the  contradictions of society. Indeed, even Adorno claimed:

Music will be better, the more deeply it is able to express— in the antimonies of its own formal language— the exigency of the social condition and to call for change through the coded language of suffering. It is not for music to state in helpless horror at society: it fulfills its social function more precisely when it presents social problems through its own material and according to its own formal laws— problems which music contains within itself in the innermost cells of its technique. The task of music as art thus enters into a parallel relationship to the task of social theory.

Adorno’s utopian call for the liberation of music must be read not as a plea to regress into meaningless formalism, but as a renewed necessity for realism, to reflect society as it is and bring up its innate follies. Peoples’ tastes change, but the task of the artist is to constantly engage with them. And all that jazz.

One of the worst teams in the NBA

In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine. (Mao Tse-tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 86)


6 thoughts on “Adorno VS Jazz!”

  1. hello, john,

    nami-miss ko ang music scene dyan sa Baguio. iyan ang isang maganda ryan, maraming artists – sari-sari, kung saan saan galing at buhay ang bars kapag gabi. bukod pa sa di sing-init dito sa MM, ahaha. ^^

    at may band ka pala. ayon naman… btw, may mga nabasa rin akong Lits about 1920s, jazz, R & B, etc. magaganda but wala ata akong natatandaan sa titles, hihi… regards! 🙂

  2. adorno was just probably racist. jazz and its fundamental form is “black music”. “jazz” the very term is vague and hard to pin down, its origins are murky if you study it closely. And to add I never believed in the term “free jazz” jazz i its very essence, im guessing, is free, it freed itself from the classical music (bougeouise music). i will often use avante garde jazz or straight ahead jazz itself. Ornette coleman popularized the term..

    1. Yes, it is either he is racist, or he is a freaking geek. Or worse, both. He is a large fan of classical music, going so far to say jazz is the neglect of genius and creativity. . Intellectual hipsterism, I suppose.
      Btw, thanks for your thoughts.

  3. One wonders, what would Adorno think of Merzbow [which is inspired by Cecil Taylor Unit free jazz]? Recommended listening: Anicca, Hodosan, Japanese Birds Vol II.

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