Jazz and Politics

Douglas Groothuis By

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My title is ambiguous since relating jazz to politics with only a conjunction ("and") might indicate several things. It could mean the politics of jazz—how jazz forms a culture, negotiates power relations, grants status to performers, and more. Or, it could mean the jazz of politics—how politicians learn the standards of political theory, improvise, and develop chops. Fascinating as they two topics sound, I will not write directly on either.

However, mulling over the two conceivable connections between jazz and politics sparks a question: "Does jazz take sides on political philosophies and policies?" This question is not: "Can we cobble together a set of political principles from jazz adequate to support public policy? That would be expecting too much. To my mind, this is the query worth exploring: Does the spirit of jazz collide with any particular political standpoint?" If so, how might this affect one's belief system?

If this still seems odd, consider the virtue of thinking in a consistent way. Contradictions smell funny to us; the aroma indicates error. My students often tell me (the absent-minded professor) that their syllabus says that an assignment is due on two different days. If I replied, "Fine. What is the problem?" they might drop the class given the mentally polluted environment.

Instead, after an awkward pause, I apologize and tell them to pick the latter of the two dates. In the same way, those who are intellectually conscientious, seek to avoid contradictions among their deepest beliefs about truth, meaning, and the good life. The classic Coltrane Quartet was praised for being well-integrated.

But some groups fail to come together, as often seen when a superstar jazz player makes a one-off record with another luminary. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane recorded together, but the music made by these giants did not gel too well. Jazz connoisseurs seek consistency and praise it. A harmony is an arrangement of notes that love each other without selfishness and serve a greater whole.

Now, on to our question. Richard Weaver wrote a small but influential book in 1948 called Ideas Have Consequences. This became a defining book for American conservatism. The theologian Paul Tillich praised the work, saying that it was "brilliantly written, daring, and radical....It will shock, and philosophical shock is the beginning of wisdom."

Professor Weaver found much decadence in his day and did not fear to name it. For him, truth stands independent of our preferences and is the ultimate issue:

"The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one's view of the nature and destiny of man." Weaver abhorred relativism, the idea that truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, did not exist outside of each person's mind. He wrote, "The hero can never be a relativist."

As a conservative, Weaver lamented the expansion of civil government into areas better left to individual initiative and the great Western traditions found in religion and America's founding principles and ideals. Consider this indictment: "The modern state does not comprehend how anyone can be guided by something other than itself. In its eyes pluralism is treason."

This gives us a taste of Weaver's worldview. I am sympathetic to this position, as are many Americans. Most readers of "All About Jazz"—if not all of them—will find the comments that follow jarring.

"Jazz was born in the dives of New Orleans, where the word appears first to have signified an elementary animal function. It was initially a music of primitivism; and we have the word of one of its defenders that jazz has no need of intelligence; it needs only feeling."

"Jazz, by formally repudiating restraint by intellect, and by expressing contempt and hostility toward our traditional society and mores, has destroyed this equilibrium. That destruction is a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness. Jazz often sounds as if in a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement."

Weaver objects to jazz for philosophical reasons; for him, it is not a mere matter of taste. He deems jazz as part of the great decay of Western civilization into barbarism. The art form itself and its musicians are, to his mind, vulgar, even bestial. There is not a little racism in his remark. Everyone knows jazz is rooted in the black culture of New Orleans (but was not limited to it).

African Americans have often been deemed primitive, meaning unintellectual and driven by animal instincts. Ota Benga, (1884-1916) a four foot eleven inch pygmy from Congo, was put on display in The Monkey House at the Bronx zoo in 1906. Being primitive, he was deemed by some as being closer to the inhabitants of the zoo than to the denizens of civilization. This sensibility sadly infects Weaver's comments.

Is this true that jazz, as Weaver propounds, "expresses contempt and hostility toward our traditional society and mores"? Uncontested is the claim that jazz has deep roots in the Negro spirituals. These call-and-response slave songs are concretely traditional and American; they are, as well, steeped in the Scriptures of Christianity, as James Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues.

Weaver is confident that, on "the word of one of jazz's defenders" (whoever that is), that jazz has no need of intelligence, but only feeling, is true for the whole genre. This skips several steps of logic. The unnamed defender may certainly be wrong about jazz. And he is, because he commits the fallacy of the false dichotomy.

Jazz, like the rest of life, needs feeling and intelligence. When Weaver penned these words against jazz in 1948, Duke Ellington had been leading big bands, performing, and writing music for over twenty years. The statement that the oeuvre of Ellington lacked intelligence itself lacks intelligence, since Edward Kennedy Ellington was one of the greatest American composers of the Twentieth Century. And this is only one example. Louis Armstrong, while less debonair than Duke, was a musical genius. Further, his writing, though not academic, shows he was no emotionally-inebriated imbecile.

The birth of jazz in shady parts of New Orleans damns the music. Bad lives give birth to bad music, which must be condemned by a conservative thinker. But this is false. First, the geographic origins of jazz are irrelevant to its form and development. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy—the origin of something completely determines its character. A classic case harks back to the Gospels. Philip, a follower of Jesus, told Nathanael that "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." To which Nathanael replied "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Philip said, "Come and see." Nazareth's bad reputation prejudiced Nathanael's initial judgment.

If the vices of alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, and other crimes were just intrinsic to jazz as a reed is intrinsic to a saxophone, then Weaver would be vindicated. Jazz musicians have been junkies. Louis Armstrong performed in a brothel and his first wife was a prostitute. Lester Young drank himself to death. But some junkies, like John Coltrane, left drugs behind. Others, like Dave Brubeck, were model citizens their entire careers. Brubeck even wrote Christian hymns. Jazz does not encourage vice any more than any other kind of music. (One could argue that the very nature death metal and violent rap encourage vice, however.)

The frenetic and complex nature of some jazz, particularly bebop, requires skill and discipline. Weaver may not have been able to follow a bebop trumpet, piano, or saxophone solo, or appreciate the structure of bebop tunes, but that says nothing about bebop's nature, structure, and form. Jazz improvisation, at its best, is not sheer expression or exhibitionism. Coltrane could solo for extended periods of time, but no one in the know could accuse him of showing off. He showed up to reach up and to find out what was there to play. This was a drama, not a farce.

Jazz is not only innocent of Weaver's accusations; jazz harmonizes with Weaver's conservative philosophy in several ways. Like conservative philosophy, jazz reveres tradition and demands that its musicians learn the standards and venerates their elders. In The Jazz Standards, Ted Goia explores the meaning of the jazz repertory. Jazz critic, Stanley Crouch wrote that he could hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. Moreover, the attentive ear can hear stride piano in Duke Ellington's playing; and—if you listen long and carefully enough—you can hear Duke Ellington's style in Thelonious Monk's playing. No one but God starts from nothing.

Conservative philosophy opposes collectivism and promotes individualism within the framework of just laws and noble traditions. The individual should be entitled to own property, speak her mind, and plan her future—all without excessive state codes, rules, and requirements. The cream should be allowed to rise to the top, without breaking laws and without assistance by officialdom. Jazz is not jazz if it is compressed into a faceless and soulless conformity. Musicians consent to a meritocracy of talent. Success is not guaranteed. Safety nets are absent. The musician plays on a high wire before fickle fans. Individual musicians are free to innovate within a tradition, to find their own voice. Chops are what counts—not skin color, age, creed, or gender. There is no affirmative action and no quotas. Talent, savvy, and hard work are the only currencies with clout in jazz.

Jazz is essentially apolitical. The art form itself takes no sides on matters of political philosophy or social policy. Some jazz musicians have associated their music, either openly or subtly, to social causes, such as civil rights for blacks in the 1960s.

However, the sensibilities and virtues of jazz—such as individualism within respect for tradition and meritocracy—chime in well with the conservative philosophy espoused by Richard Weaver. Those who follow his insights have nothing to fear from jazz. The hip cats can swing into conservativism without contradiction and with perfect consistency. Fussy, misguided conservatives can loosen up and get into the groove with jazz as well. Let the party begin.

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