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International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Dave Harker

Reply to Jazz: a people’s music?


From International Socialism 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Charlie Hore’s article deserves both to be welcomed, as a serious attempt at taking his kind of fun seriously, but also criticised, for not applying classical Marxist methods of analysis to his subject. True, Charlie has come to add a question mark to the title of his Marxism 93 lecture, Jazz: a People’s Music; and yet, strangely, he gives us no definition of ‘jazz’, of ‘a people’ or even of ‘music’! Does the fact that music is played by black musicians make what they play ‘black music’; and if so, precisely how? Then again, what, if anything, do the ‘people’ have to do with ‘the nation’, let alone the working class; and if we push this idea as far as Charlie does, aren’t we in danger of making unnecessary concessions to black nationalism and separatism, as the US Communist Party did in the 1930s, [1] and as Finkelstein (from whose book Charlie took his own title) did in 1948: ‘The Negro people are in a sense a group within America, a nation within a nation’. [2]

Are blacks a class, and are all the ‘oppressed’ to be found within the urban working class, or even in the working class as a whole? And why, in any case, is ‘jazz’ fundamentally ‘American’ [3] – by which, I take it, Charlie means the US? Was there really something there which could properly be termed ‘the black American experience’ [4], somehow monolithic and non-contradictory; and what sense does it make to write of a ‘black culture’ as a whole way of life when, as Trotsky reminded us, no oppressed class or group can hope to control many of the key cultural resources and institutions it needs? [5] (That said, we are still in need of a concept which accurately grasps the specificity of the cultural practices and products made and used by working class people.)

Then there are other questions we can fairly ask of this article, to do with historical factors and theoretical issues. If, as Charlie rightly insists at one point, ‘jazz’ was ‘neither European nor African’, [6] exactly how did such music appear in Chicago or New York, and from what precise musical and related cultural resources was it made? Did ‘it’ travel up from the Mississippi Delta, maintaining its alleged purity intact; or was it mainly a spontaneous creation of the recently migrating Northern urban poor? The article seems to postulate – though, of course, it doesn’t name – the idea of some ‘golden age’ of ‘jazz’, containing some undefined essence, which then got ‘watered down’ [7], co-opted, commoditised or (in Frank Kofsky’s revealing phrases) bleached out and whitened in later years? [8] Was there ever really an ‘authentic’ historical period or ‘moment’, which produced music that was an ‘expression’ of some unmediated, transhistorical and universal ‘alienation’ – a music, which, in turn, can be held to be one of the means to ‘overcome’ oppression? Can music ever do that, or is it really a question of how music, music fans and musicians relate to the wider struggle?

I hope by this point that the reader will accept that these questions and criticisms are not just nit picking, or churlishness, but relate to the problems we find when we try to analyse cultural products and practices from a classical Marxist perspective. One key problem for Charlie’s article is the nature of the secondary literature in the field, which is both pretty dated and, amongst writers on the political left, of a certain kind. So the article leans rather heavily on The Jazz Scene, written under the pseudonym of Francis Newton and published in 1959 by Eric Hobsbawm, a writer we tend to find particularly unhelpful as a historian of this century, and also on Sidney Finkelstein’s Jazz: A People’s Music, first published in 1948, and dedicated to ‘the people of the new nation’ of Israel, with nary a mention of the Palestinians that ‘new nation’ displaced.

Of course, Hobsbawm was to some extent defying the prevailing Moscow line on ‘jazz’ by producing his book at all, and he gives us revealing asides on the romanticism of the likes of A.L. Lloyd and ‘Ewan MacColl’ (Jimmy Miller) [9]; but his book generally toes the Stalinist cultural line, as does Finkelstein’s, for all its covert reliance on the cultural pessimism of Theodor Adorno [10], and its uncritical praise for the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams [11], someone ‘proud to be described as a bourgeois’! [12] Charlie’s other chief authority, Frank Kofsky, while not a thoroughgoing Stalinist – he dedicated Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music to both Malcolm X and John Coltrane – shared Hobsbawm and Finkelstein’s habitual masculinism, could be oblivious to the sexism of black musicians, [13] and clearly had serious illusions in the Cuban regime. [14] These are not very promising sources for a classical Marxist analysis; and, moreover, as Charlie notes in passing, [15] people like Hobsbawm took a position on other popular musical styles which was, well, unembarrassedly elitist.

Now, this is not at all to convict the article by association – but it is to suggest that what we take from such dubious sources needs to be evaluated very carefully indeed, and this is particularly true of what passes for theory in the works of the likes of Hobsbawm, Finkelstein and Kofsky.

Take just one example. Whenever these writers have a problem in explaining the complex connections between economic, political and cultural factors, they reach for their mirrors. [16] Actions, events, music even, ‘reflect’ something else; and when, as in Kofsky, the vulgar reflectionism seems too crude even for him, we simply get moved upmarket to prisms, which are said to ‘refract’ [17] whatever it is that can’t be connected to this vulgar materialist perspective. Marx believed the matter was rather more complicated than that: he thought the term ‘correspond’ [18] encapsulated the complex and contradictory relations between what he called ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’; yet Charlie carries over the bad habits of his sources, seeing mirrors everywhere, ‘reflecting’ reality in what seems to be an unmediated and mechanical fashion. Mirrors reverse images, and all you tend to see in them is yourself. Surely there are enough problems with using Marx’s suggestive metaphor without inviting ridicule on this point? [19]

That said, it is also true that Charlie’s article recognises some of the pitfalls of adapting to the Stalinist critique of ‘jazz’, including the refusal to accept Hobsbawm’s smug elitism about rock and roll. For example, the article recognises that some ‘Africanist’ writers tend to be pulled towards a static, ahistorical essentialism about the music [20], as they adapt to the general politics of black nationalism or black separatism; but there is little evidence of a serious engagement with the important article by Philip Tagg [21], which raises problems with analyses which regard ‘Black music, Afro-American music and European music’ as monolithic, static and self-enclosed entities. For example, Charlie repeats the old idea that ‘blue notes’ came only from Africa [22], whereas Tagg is able to show that such sounds can be found in Scandinavia and Britain, as well as West Sudan, and in the white made music of the Appalachians in the US itself. [23] Tagg also criticises the idea that ‘call-and-response’, ‘rhythm’ and ‘improvisation’ have been or are unproblematically ‘black’ or ‘white’, and ponders long and hard about the implicit ‘reverse racism’ which seems to underpin many statements to the contrary. [24] In addition, the Hore article hints, quite correctly, that every single so-called stylistic or generic name for bodies of popular music has come under scrutiny in the past ten years, on suspicion of being conceptually soggy. [25] So, just as ‘folksong’ has been shown to have been a thoroughly bourgeois concept (taken over in the UK by Stalinists, and given a left populist inflexion, while retaining the nationalistic, reactionary and largely ahistorical content of the term), [26] so there are currently serious debates about what, precisely, is ‘American’ about ‘the blues’, where the ‘punk-ness’ is in punk music, and what is necessarily Liverpudlian about the ‘Mersey Sound’. Much of this work has been prompted by the awareness of the general problem of mediation of ‘popular’ and working class cultural practices and products; and while Charlie’s article mentions this difficulty, and the analogous problems of the commoditisation of ‘jazz’ by the capitalist music business, he doesn’t really develop his analysis even so far as to explain what he terms the ‘decline’ of jazz’ after 1945.

It is true that most of what we know about the cultural activities of working class people has come to us through the heads and hands of people who were (and are) usually white, male, heterosexual and overwhelmingly petit bourgeois or even bourgeois. The same is true of ‘jazz’. Louis Armstrong, for example, is spoken for by Hobsbawm as ‘not just a trumpeter: he is the voice of his people speaking on a horn’. [27] It is as though Hobsbawm, Finkelstein, Kofsky and, now, Hore offer to go back, so to speak, and grasp this golden age’s essence, behind the back of bourgeois ideology and mediation! But how did that ‘it’, that ‘jazz’, remain uncontaminated on its travels, in what seems to be represented as a kind of social Darwinian progression across the United States of America; and how did those urban ghettos (so important to Charlie’s thesis) remain hermetically sealed from the baneful influence of ‘white’ made music, even before bands came to be desegregated? How, after all, can you segregate a radio audience? And how do we know that ‘jazz’ was a majority taste, even in that ghetto – after all, Louis Armstrong was not known for his uncritical praise of ‘bebop’, as Charlie notes! [28] Besides, could not the ability of black artists to make it in the white owned music industry – ‘Thank God for Elvis Presley’, Little Richard proclaimed [29] – be a key factor in the ‘decline of jazz’ from the mid-1950s? And why not make records for a black owned record business like Motown, if that label was best placed to exploit the commoditisation of black made music for a predominantly white audience? Isn’t there something odd about the lament for the ‘decline of jazz’, through a phase which Hobsbawm openly admits was one in which ‘a people’s music’ was made by professionals for a tiny percentage of the record buying public – and a largely white, male, college educated minority at that? [30] And is Charlie’s article in danger of suggesting that we should be nostalgic for the cultural products coming out of older forms of oppression? Though the comparison is cruel, Hobsbawm saw fit to compare the sentimental idealisers of ‘traditional jazz’ of the 1950s with those people who ‘regret that we cannot hear our Handel exactly as Handel meant us to because, unfortunately, we no longer castrate boy singers’. [31] The dangers are obvious; but at least Hobsbawm understood, as Charlie and Kofsky do not, that ‘jazz by itself is not politically conscious or revolutionary’. Music – any music – cannot set us free.

So where does this take us? It seems obvious to me that, if we want our tradition to be taken seriously by people close to our politics and practice, then we have to accept there is a lot of work to be done in developing a distinctive and coherent position. It does us no credit to pretend that we should treat black artists as ‘honorary workers’, since many of them were decidedly lumpen proletarian in origin, and those who found a regular paying audience rapidly made the transition to bohemian, petit bourgeois or even bourgeois status. (This is in no way to devalue the music, naturally.) Similarly, whereas someone like Finkelstein may well have wanted ‘jazz’ to become ‘A People’s Music’, [32] it was not, is not, and may never be working class music in any meaningful sense. To say anything else is to make concessions to left populism, popular frontism, and even outright Zhdanovism, against which Trotsky railed:

A revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of ‘leading’ and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. Such a pretension could only enter the head of a bureaucracy – ignorant and impudent, intoxicated with its totalitarian power – which has become the antithesis of the proletarian revolution. Art, like science, not only does not seek orders but by its very essence cannot tolerate them. [33]

Neither, outside the rhetoric of windy Stalinists, does the idea of ‘a people’ have any connection with the theory and practice of class struggle, or of a revolutionary party rooted in the working class.

That said, I want to acknowledge Charlie’s initiative in risking showing us his enthusiasms and in trying to understand them, and I hope his article gets the feedback it deserves.


1. M. Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (New York 1985), throughout.

2. S. Finkelstein, Jazz: A People’s Music (London, Jazz Book Club 1964), p. 20. This book was originally published in New York in 1948.

3. C. Hore, Jazz: a people’s music?, International Socialism 61 (Winter 1993), p. 92.

4. Ibid., p. 91.

5. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (London, Redwords 1990), pp. 213–242.

6. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 94.

7. Ibid., p. 94. One of Hore’s chief sources, ‘Francis Newton’ (aka Eric Hobsbawm), tended to use similar metaphors – see, for example, The Jazz Scene (London, Jazz Book Club 1960), p. 13.

8. F. Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York, Pathfinder 1988), p. 32. This book was originally published in 1970.

9. Hobsbawm, op. cit., pp. 42, 43n.

10. For example, Finkelstein, op. cit., pp. 13, 28, 150, 159, 245, 249.

11. Ibid., pp. 264, 266.

12. R. Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays (London, Oxford University Press 1963), p. 63. For Vaughan Williams’ attitude to the ‘Teutonic idiom and Negroid emetics’, see pp. 47–8.

13. F. Kofsky, op. cit., p. 25n.

14. Ibid., p. 141.

15. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 103. For Hobsbawm on the ‘infantilism’ of rock and roll, see The Jazz Scene, op. cit., p. 32.

16. For example, E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., pp. 18, 54 (twice), 76, 82, 90,148, 166, 186, 243, 250, 259, 265, 269, 276.

17. F. Kofsky, op. cit., p. 163n.

18. MECW, vol 29, p. 263. See also F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (London, Pluto Press 1990), throughout.

19. For a critique of various abuses of Marx’s metaphor, see T. Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London 1977), p. 49. It is true that some long standing Socialist Workers Party contributors to International Socialism do recognise the problem with this habit, as John Molyneux does in International Socialism 61, p. 63, but within nine lines he takes out his ‘mirror’ once more!

20. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 107, n4.

21. P. Tagg, Black Music, Afro-American Music and European Music, Popular Music (Cambridge University Press, October 1989), vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 285–298.

22. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 94.

23. P. Tagg, op. cit., p. 288.

24. Ibid., pp. 289–90.

25. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 92.

26. D. Harker, Fakesong: the Manufacture of British ‘Folksong’, 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes, Open University Press 1985), throughout. In another work in that series, P. Oliver’s Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music (Open University Press 1990), pp. 5ff., 174, this highly respected authority on ‘blues’ also questions the conceptual and historical status of ‘black music’.

27. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 121.

28. C. Hore, op. cit., p. 98.

29. The Rolling Stone Interviews (New York 1971), vol. 1, p. 371.

30. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., pp. 146, 163, 239, 240, 242.

31. Ibid., p. 137.

32. Compare Hore at Marxism 93, on ‘jazz’ as the ‘beginnings of a global culture’. This is not unlike the enthusiastic vegetarian several of us had to argue with some years ago, when she told us unreconstructed carnivores that ‘after the revolution, we’ll all give up meat’!

33. L. Trotsky, Culture and Socialism Manifesto (London 1975), p. 29. For the wit and wisdom of A.A. Zhdanov, see his On Literature, Music and Philosophy (London, Lawrence and Wishart 1950), especially pp. 15, 38, 42, 54.

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