Ye Old Criticism of Jazz

Scott Krane By

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SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

André Breton (1924, The Surrealist Manifesto)


Recently, when asked about Freud, European modernism and early American jazz music, my friend the jazz historian wrote me in a casual email that:

"My first book [(circa the '80s)] The Imperfect Art, deals with the relationship of jazz to concepts of modernism. But, at a minimum, you should check out the chapter 'Jazz and the Primitivist Myth' (also published in the Musical Quarterly). This chapter shows how the same European art critics who praised jazz were also interested in the influence of African art on modernism. Some of the connections here are little known and surprising."

I figured he was referring to the African mask trope in Parisian art during the turn of the 19th century ahead. (i.e. Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.") Aesthetes and historiographers have frequently made this observation. The African mask itself was in vogue during these years in that city. But what is African is not necessarily jazz.

My opinion was this: Not enough has been said about the origins of jazz music. Not as they pertain to the call-and-response of "sorrow songs" or "blue note" variations on the pentatonic scales. Nor, for that matter the numerous variations on a swing rhythm or ways to make that rhythm swing.

What I plan to explore in this essay is not the molding of gospel in prohibition era nightclubs and the African reception of Appalacian freedom; but: To what shelves of the library might the study of jazz improvisation (that is post-Baroque musical improvisation, that fits naturally with the above listed characteristics of jazz music) bring us? What happens when we look beyond the cultural implications of the African American tragedy and World War I? What about the psychological and aesthetic innovations of European modernism?

Jazz music of course became especially popular in the years directly following the First World War. But while the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was in vogue in New York City, launching the careers of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, playing those strange sounds; and while Duke Ellington and Cootie Williams were painting that town blue, what was happening in Europe, namely in the world of poetry and art, was directly influential on the development of the jazz aesthetic.

It is not just a coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim absolutely adored jazz musicians, patronized them even. This artistic epoch: the heyday of jazz in America (right before the "jazz age") and Surrealism in Europe, are both based on and affected by the study of the subconscious by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

The jazz age was about the unleashing of sexuality and this could be witnessed in the dancing, music, the sculpture, the cinema and the painting—so, how pleasantly appropriate is it that we list Freud, the first Western clinical physician of sex, as a propeller of the jazz movement.

But the Freud/jazz connection goes way beyond sexuality.

Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and he coined the artistic term, "Surrealism," which is based on dreams and the subconscious. André Breton was another French writer who expounded on Apollinaire's ideas in his famous 1924 essay, "The Surrealist Manifesto." Breton writes, eventually crediting Dr. Freud:

"Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices."

This undoubtedly applies to sexual behavior, dancing and Abstract Expressionism in visual art, but may be dually applied to jazz improvisation.

(In 1973, Don Cherry enacted an Andre Breton poem, aurally, on trumpet in various locations in Paris.)

"It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer—and, in my opinion by far the most important part—has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud..."


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