Jazz and Politics

Historically, jazz has established itself as the American music. Even today, much of American music pays its dues to this musical tradition.

Much of jazz music is primarily instrumental, yet despite the lack of words, jazz in the past has been marked for its political dimension. According to Louis Proyekt in his interesting essay on jazz and politics, jazz boomed in the US right at the cusp of the anti-war movement in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of the organized Left. Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meerpol, a communist high-school teacher and member of the Communist Party, in New York during the 1930s as a denunciation of the lynchings of black slaves in South America.

Jazz transcended its status as ‘entertainment’ with the rise of bebop, the evolution of jazz which was defined for its fast improvisations and esoteric chord changes, as a way of asserting the blacks’ intellectual and artistic identities. It was meant to be difficult to play and even to listen to, but this self-imposed isolation was the black musicians’ way of breaking away from the mainstream of American entertainment which have long seen black people as mere entertainers, an offshoot of their long history of slavery. Bebop symbolized the passion and explosive energy of the black people who were immobilized not only be physical chains but also the racial stereotypes and the conditions of living which deprive poor and black people from having equal status to whites.

When bebop finally lost its momentum both as an artistic and as a political movement, free jazz emerged with the names of Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor and a multitude of others. Free jazz rose from a dissatisfaction from the rigid structures and harmonies of bebop, and it aimed to break away from it by discarding all the established norms of proper music through doing away with harmony and rhythm. Moreover, it emphasized the collective nature of music, which breaks away from the the individualist ‘aura’ of earlier solo-based jazz. Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was met with ridicule for its abandonment of musical norms, but upon closer inspection, Free Jazz is far from chaotic. It captures a brief moment where individuals, freed from the direction of the composer, collectively create a musical consensus, through listening, responding and carrying out these little musical ‘agreements’ for the collective’s interests.

Free jazz was a very diverse movement composed of different artistic sensibilities, but they were all framed within the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and the various anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements around the world. For instance, Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist philosophy has driven his life’s work, attempting to create an identity of almost mythic proportions through his songs promising a planet where all of the struggles in this world are all but tiny variations in a universal ‘song.’

Jazz’s political dimension stems from its improvisational musical aspect, since improvisation breaks away from the capitalist fetish for product. Improvisation highlights the process, the raw material of music where sound and music is seen as a single unit, where genres and structures are seen as mere symbols and planes from which ideas are launched, resisting the current of capitalist production by the assertion of the utterance as an utterance, not as a sound that can be multiplied and sold as reproductions of the same.


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