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According to Adorno: A Portrait Of Jazz's Harshest Critic, Part 1

According to Adorno: A Portrait Of Jazz's Harshest Critic, Part 1
Marithe Van der Aa By

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Though the vast majority of his writings on music dealt primarily with the classical tradition, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) also devoted a considerable amount of attention to jazz. To say Adorno was skeptical of this dance music that had paddled its way across the Atlantic, would be a gross understatement at best. On top of being incredibly biased, his opinions on jazz music were so harsh, that one may wonder if they are to be taken seriously at all. Indeed, many jazz historians have dismissed them altogether, while others went so far as to consider them "the stupidest pages ever written about jazz." Nonetheless, Adorno's jazz essays are of great historical value.

Theodor Adorno, best known for his critical social theory, was a German thinker and one of the leading theorists of the Frankfurt School. Apart from being among the most renowned philosophers on aesthetics of the twentieth century, he also grew to be one of the harshest critics of jazz, for it embodied the very "mass culture" he so strongly opposed. Adorno's first writing on jazz appeared in 1933, at which point it was published in the Europäische Revue, a conservative and national socialist magazine. The essay, titled Abschied vom Jazz ("Farewell to Jazz"), was prompted by the radio ban on the so-called "niggerjazz," that had recently been imposed on German broadcasting stations. In this article, Adorno ironically claimed that the prohibition of jazz was unnecessary, since it had already reached the end of its short musical lifespan and had succumbed to all kinds of commercial pressure. A painful conclusion it must have been to realize that as years passed, jazz did anything but lose its popularity. In 1937, Adorno's second article "On Jazz" (Über Jazz) appeared in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the yearly journal issued by the Institute for Social Research of the Frankfurt School. By this time, Adorno had already left Germany due to his Jewish heritage, and was now residing in England, where he pursued a doctor's degree at the University of Oxford. The article was published under the pen name Hektor Rottweiler, supposedly to dissociate himself from the broad German public, that largely consisted of jazz enthusiasts.

Adorno initiates Über Jazz with a lengthy theoretical analysis of the technical aspects of jazz, as he interprets them. Its foremost innovation was to be found in the extensive use of the syncopation, a rhythmical phenomenon widely associated with jazz music. According to Adorno, syncopation could be recognized by two subcategories: anticipation ("Überbindung") and delay ("Aussparung"). Other rhythmical novelties of jazz were the "Scheintakt" or "pseudo-bar," that was created when a rhythmical pattern of three beats would extend over the 4/4 bar lines, and the typical instrumental solo break. The latter was accused of being no more than a hotchpotch of clichés, reflecting the canonical Marxian concept of false consciousness: one is given the illusion of freedom (improvisation), but forced to choose from a list of existing commodities (clichés). Adorno explained that, no matter how complex and rhythmically daring a jazz musician would play, he would always surrender to the "dictatorship" of the 4/4 metre and the 32-bar song form.

Jazz timbre was characterized by the vibrato, whereas all other forms of instrumental timbre, such as slaptonguing, growling and other vocalization techniques, were simply dismissed as decadent showmanship. Further analysis led him to believe that jazz harmony was merely an imitation of impressionism: Ninth chords, constant structures, stereotypical blue notes and other "vertical charms" that jazz offered were all "taken from Debussy." From this extensive analysis, Adorno concluded that jazz is defined by its dichotomy between the rigid and the excess: Despite its false idea of freedom, jazz is mechanical and "soulless," since it is continuously hamstrung by its stylistic limitations, while on the other hand, jazz depends greatly on its explosive, flamboyant virtuosity and almost circus-like showmanship.

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