ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Mike Hobart

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 writes in his article Jazz: a People’s Music? that jazz has been in a steady decline since the 1970s, and as a result is no longer at the cutting edge of innovation. Neither does it have a resonance with the struggle for black emancipation that it once had. He concludes that its position has been taken by other forms of black American music, or by the development of ‘world music’. Charlie claims that since the 1960s there have been neither innovations of substance, nor the emergence of a figure of the stature of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. This development, he thinks, should not be mourned, for it shows that the world proletariat has now entered the cultural stage.

The Marxist tradition has always argued that the aesthetic evaluation of art is based on objective criteria, on the grounds that it is necessary to understand the science of an art--its internal structures and forms--as well as the particular historical and political context of its creation and consumption. Charlie’s assertion that there have been no fundamental innovations in jazz music since the early 1970s is simply wrong.

At every level of the music, innovation has been such that a musician armed only with the theories and techniques of the 1960s would find it nearly impossible to cope with the demands of contemporary jazz. The great diversity of approaches in contemporary jazz music has been brought about by integrating two seemingly incompatible elements, the ‘commercialism’ of funk/fusion and the ‘academicism’ which increasingly characterised free jazz. Thus musicians with such diverse backgrounds as Mike Brecker, David Murray, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett and the M Base Collective have all developed and theorised what in the 1960s was only just being discovered. [1]

Jazz music in the 1970s and 1980s combined the existing elements of jazz to create new musical relationships. These developments in jazz were in line with the overall patterns of evolution in jazz up till then. More complex musical theories allowed improvising musicians more choices of sound combinations. This has taken place across the board in rhythm, harmony, acceptable melody and in the very structures of improvising itself. It is difficult to argue that these innovations have not been fundamental, although almost certainly they have not been so rapid or intense as in other periods. It is also probably true to say that a musician of the stature of say, John Coltrane, has yet to emerge. This is certainly the opinion of Wynton Marsalis. However, to use the early 1960s as a benchmark is essentially misleading. The coincidence of a healthy jazz economy with a very high level of struggle was itself the main factor in allowing John Coltrane to fully realise his artistic potential, and for the incredibly rapid advances in jazz music. However, when the tide ebbs, it does not mean that innovation ceases. Indeed the last 20 years of jazz have not been anything like as catastrophic as the period between 1929 and 1935, which virtually eliminated existing jazz forms, or the period of 1947 to 1953, during which the jazz economy could not support a single black touring modern jazz band of stature.

Charlie goes on to argue that jazz has lost an influence which it once had. Again I find this surprising given the use of jazz on samples, the presence of jazz musicians of stature on non-jazz releases and the omnipresent figure of Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller. Already the harmonic ambiguity of M Base is feeding its way into modern funk and hip hop. Perhaps Charlie feels that jazz is no longer the spokesperson for militant black America. But militant black America is still emerging from a prolonged period of depression following its defeats in the 1970s.

The emergence of successive generations of musicians such as Antonio Hart, Steve Coleman and the Marsalis brothers shows that young musicians have returned to acoustic jazz throughout the 1980s in ever increasing numbers. It is a signal for cautious optimism, since without doubt they will be unable to fully realise their music without a significant increase in the intensity of the struggle. [2]

Charlie not only gives us a wrong idea of the present, he gives a distorted and oversimplified view of the past. I will look briefly at three issues, the question of jazz influence on militant black America, the development of a world proletariat and the influence of classical music.

At the height of the ghetto uprisings the emotional power of free jazz seemed its most potent musical expression. However, it is precisely at this time that the jazz clubs which supported the music went into chronic decline. In fact many commentators blame the declining popularity of jazz in general on free jazz in particular. Looking back at the specialist jazz magazines of the time, a rather different picture emerges, which has little to do with changes of taste in the black ghettos.

The big record companies bought up the independent record companies which recorded jazz music. This was not because of jazz’s popularity, but because the same labels tended to record rhythm and blues and the increasingly popular ‘rock’ acts. Led Zeppelin, for example, were signed by Atlantic. Basically, the record majors had no interest in jazz, with its tiny sales which just reached break even point, and wound down the jazz catalogue. This is clear from Blue Note, which was bought by Liberty, who then rushed out albums of lesser worth to fulfil contractual obligations with their artists. The other pillar of the jazz economy at the time was the jazz clubs. Musicians point out that many were closed by the police at the height of the uprisings. In addition many white patrons stayed away from the majority of jazz clubs which were located in the black areas.

As Charlie rightly pointed out, jazz funk has been almost completely dismissed as an innovative music. This needs to be emphasised since this development of jazz has been of crucial importance in the formation of new ideas in jazz during the last decade. As soul music grew in popularity, so too did albums playing jazz versions of soul hits. It is this strand, that of tenor organ groups and funky jazz, which remained economically healthy and, as Charlie says, is inseparable from the developments in black pop music and art music. Young black musicians never stopped playing jazz, they just played a jazz which jazz critics did not like. Jazz has always used the pop music of the time. When it was based on show tunes, standards, it was art. When it was based on songs written by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield it was debased commercialism. Thus, when jazz was supposed to be dying on its feet, jazz singles began entering the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts in some numbers.

Another problem with Charlie’s analysis is his overestimation of jazz’s popularity in earlier periods. David Rosenthal analysed certified sales of jazz albums on record labels associated with hard bop and early crossover musicians like the organist Jimmy Smith. The average sales worldwide of a single issue on Blue Note records, the most influential of the specialist jazz labels, before deletion, were a mere 5,000. It took ten years for Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue to sell 100,000 copies. Bear in mind that by 1921 Bessie Smith saved CBS from bankruptcy with a million selling 78. However, Rosenthal goes on to point out that at least half the record sales were in shops in the black ghettos. [3] Even in London, Blue Note records were sold in the shops which imported blue beat from Jamaica.

Jazz influence has always been indirect, far greater than record sales would suggest. But at no stage has innovative jazz been anything remotely close to a mass music, even in the ghettos which are its spiritual wellspring. The musicians, however, articulate in both their music and their sentiments the spectrum of nationalist and socialist politics. Politically conscious blacks therefore often form a deep love of the music and form close relationships with individual musicians.

Charlie ends his article on a triumphant upbeat. Jazz is dying, long live the music of the world proletariat. The development of the world market and its effect on the world proletariat have been a constant element in our political analysis. However, it is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the internationalisation of the proletariat and the internationalisation of working class culture begin at the very beginnings of world capitalism. Peter Linebaugh’s excellent The London Hanged gives tantalising glimpses of this process in 18th century London.

Jazz itself has played a central role in the development of an international music culture. It both absorbs influences from musical cultures it comes into contact with, and in turn influences them. By 1922 jazz bands based on King Oliver were noted in Shanghai, Lagos and Bombay. Trotsky was even reported to have been welcomed on board the Battleship Potemkin by a jazz band. So America is not the only place from which great music comes. Salif Keita, for example, records in Paris with musicians who are thoroughly conversant with the jazz tradition. This music is not a different species, but a different breed of the same animal. The real question is whether or not black America remains the main centre of innovation in the world of music. So far no national capital has produced a music of the harmonic and rhythmic complexity, or continuing rapid evolution, of the jazz musicians of America.

Another of Charlie’s misunderstandings is his idea that classical music was brought into jazz by middle class blacks. Classical music so dominated musical education that whether or not a musician was formally trained, they would see music in terms of harmonic structures invented by the classical composers. Gospel and military music both have the same overall approach, while the music lessons that working class blacks could afford would be given by teachers conversant with classical music. All the popular songs published up to the 1940s quite openly stole harmonic structures and melodies from composers who were safely dead and out of copyright. Classical music, the musical representative of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, dominated music education throughout European and American societies. In music as in other areas of social life, the culture of the bourgeoisie predominates. Underemphasising this detracts from the outstanding achievement of jazz music in effectively becoming the art music of the 20th century, not in isolation from the classical tradition, but out of it. As the music has progressed, it has grown further away from its classical roots.

Although Charlie has provided a concise account of jazz development, both the way he sets out the problem and his conclusions reproduce the same mistakes that previous critics have made. Instead of looking at the way the jazz tradition actually develops as a musical expression of deep social processes in various musical forms, he identifies jazz with its development up to a particular point in history. Thus every new development in jazz has been greeted by a chorus of critical voices proclaiming the death of the music. Currently critics brought up on the avant garde decry Wynton Marsalis for his ‘traditionalism’ and contemporary fusion for its ‘commercialism’ and the whole of jazz for its ‘cold professionalism and technical proficiency’. Charlie’s article resonates with a deep pessimism for the present, a depiction of a previous golden age and a retreat into Third Worldism.

Charlie’s main problem is that he sees race as the only motor in the history of jazz’s development. But jazz was not the product of the ghettos in general but of professional musicians in particular, contemptuously dismissed first as dance band musicians and more recently as session men. Secondly, slavery, segregation and the racism they produced are an integral feature of capitalist development and therefore cannot be separated from it. This analysis does not stop the moment a person picks up a musical instrument. Indeed, the history of jazz illustrates these relations clearly, and in the process shows the enormous achievement of jazz musicians in general and black musicians in particular.

Charlie, following Hobsbawm, shows how segregation ironically allowed black musicians a space to develop the jazz tradition without the levels of interference suffered by other working classes. However, this was not without the interference of capital itself, which does not have a skin colour. The dilution of the music for audience acceptance was not essentially racial, but the continuing attempts of capital in various forms to produce a cultural product which suits its purpose. Berry Gordy of Motown was not the first black capitalist to try to dilute the music. His relative failure reflected the high levels of struggle in the ghettos and the confidence this gave musicians in the studios. Benny Goodman was not somebody outside jazz who stole the music like some thief in the night, but was a respected musician inside the music who got caught up in the struggles round the integration of entertainment, fought out through copyright law and royalty payments.

Charlie completely ignores the role of jazz in the struggle for integration. This varies from the daily integration of after hours clubs and bars to the use of jazz as a conscious focus for integration. This is true for the ‘diluter’ Benny Goodman, who helped organise the first integrated band at Carnegie Hall in 1936 and later for Norman Granz, a real diluter, who used Jazz at the Philharmonic tours to desegregate audiences in the deep south. At a higher level, musicians from classical and jazz backgrounds organised against a segregated union. In California, for example, Charles Mingus was a key figure in a three-year campaign which started with a fundraising concert by an integrated symphony orchestra. The major symphony orchestras themselves did not desegregate until the early 1960s. Stravinsky insisted on using the black musician Richard Davis, a well respected modern jazz player, to play on a recording session of his music. Ron Carter, a key figure in 1960s jazz, joined him on the session, thus breaking the colour bar in American classical music.

The real contradiction in jazz is, how can a music which so expresses the potentiality of our class, and with an influence way beyond music, be so isolated from its class of origin, even in the black ghettos? As Ruby Braff explained years ago, jazz is ‘a poor man’s music which only the rich can afford’. The explanation is no mystery once the most basic ideas of Marxism are applied.

The specialised division of labour creates deep divisions within the working class, which isolate groups of workers from each other and is the material basis for sectionalism. Marx noted in Theories of Surplus Value how cultural production was separated from consumption even in live performance. He pointed out that ‘an actor’s relation to the public is that of an artist, but to his employer he is a productive labourer.’ [4]

Through specialisation and the laws of private property and so on, capital has to create the conditions in which the vast majority of workers are dependent on the culture industries for their entertainment. This means that there will be continuous struggles both inside and outside the entertainment industries round the production and consumption of culture. As in other areas of social life, capital imposes capitalist relations of production on culture, but in so doing creates a specialised sector of the proletariat. The skills of cultural production are not removed from the working class, but concentrated in a specialised sector of it. People working in the entertainment industries will necessarily be isolated from the class as a whole, unless they develop an organic, and ultimately conscious, relationship with it. Thus capitalism creates a unique society, in which the majority of people are unable to make music, and many suffer from a non-existent medical complaint, tone deafness.

While musicians face the same struggles as other workers, may live in the same area as other workers etc., they will have sectional interests and attitudes, and develop all sorts of contradictory ideas, like other workers. This shows the material basis for the difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the cultural arena. As Trotsky says so eloquently, the bourgeois artists ‘… lived and still live, in a bourgeois milieu; breathing the air of bourgeois salons, they received hypodermic inspirations from their class. This nourishes the subconscious processes of their creativity.’ [5]

The proletariat, in marked contrast, does not have such a cultural milieu. In music not only is the mass of the proletariat musically ‘extremely backward’ for all the reasons Trotsky pointed out in regard to literature, but those of its members who specialise in making music are structurally isolated from the class as a whole.

Jazz, a product of the particular conditions of American capitalism, illustrates these processes to the extreme. Hence its importance in the debates around culture and its ability to enlighten our politics. Jazz is the product of the most advanced capitalist relations of the production of music, in the biggest capitalist economy in the history of world capitalism, operating still under the most intense conditions of exploitation and racial oppression. Its isolation shows the importance of artists seeking a genuine expression of proletarian experience seeing the need to build organic links with the working class. The failure to do so, as the history of jazz so clearly shows, is not only that the majority of people miss out on good music, or that the liberating message of jazz is mediated by capital, or even that so many musicians have lived unnecessarily short lives. Much worse, the innovations and ideas which express the spirituality of our class, expanding our imaginations’ horizons and stimulating the intellect, are turned into the opposite. The ruling class take the structures of the music and use them for their own purposes. Even in such a seemingly esoteric world as jazz music, the basic concerns of our politics remain: the enormous creativity and intellectual capacity of our class in its self activity, and the limitations of that activity, without the conscious knowledge that it is the basis for a socialist society.


1. These include multi-time playing, the use of alternate scales as a harmonic base, the use of out melodies and their acceptance to the human ear as well as new structures. As with all major changes in jazz, these affect rhythm section players the most, since they directly affect how the musicians relate to each other and the way in which ‘swing’ is articulated.

2. A detailed examination of the interrelationship between jazz development and black militancy is beyond the scope of this reply. The development of a small jazz academia, a concession to the 1960s uprising, and the expansion of the festival circuit, made jazz less dependent on the specialist clubs and record labels. This may have removed the music further from the ghettos, but it also isolated it from the extreme pessimism of the militant black movement. If you take the view that fusion/funk was a jazz form, then the music never left the ghetto in the first place.

3. D. Rosenthal, Jazz in the Ghetto: 1950–1970, in Popular Music (1987), vol. 7.

4. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 1, p. 411.

5. L. Trotsky, Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 77.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14.3.2012