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International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Matt Kelly

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’s piece on jazz was certainly valuable, and this reply is intended to be in the same spirit of debate. I am particularly concerned to comment on how the Marxist method may be used to address cultural matters – musical ones specifically – and certain aspects of historical interpretation in the history of music.

Despite his claims, Charlie’s article does not discuss jazz in ‘America’, but rather in the US. This becomes an increasingly relevant point for Marxists attempting to define the way in which culture arises in specific historical circumstances. There was, after all, in both Southern America and the Caribbean islands, a very considerable (and in its own way particular) interaction between cultural forms exported from Europe, the influence of indigenous forms and the influence of various cultural forms from Africa brought by slaves. And indeed, there has been subsequent interaction throughout the 20th century across Europe, the Caribbean, South America and Africa – not a thing to ignore when we look at a form of music which arose in, among other places, New Orleans.

But further, there is the whole knotty problem (on the whole sidestepped by Charlie, but probably worth at least a mention) of what constitutes ‘black’ culture. Should it be defined purely in terms of US black culture; how is that differentiated class from class, urban from rural, north from south, east from west and period from period? Is there any reason to assume that cultural forms exist in anything other than contradictory, mixed forms, rather than pure ones?

The debate around what is specific about ‘black music’ has centred on musical features of blues and jazz, and the presence or absence of these features in music from different places on the globe. The most commonly discussed are: the use of blue notes; the use of call and response structures; the use of polyrhythm and the use of improvisation. Now the extent to which any of these is exclusive to music in which some element of ‘African’ origin can be traced is by no means clear. [1] It may well be the case that the particular kind of improvisation, call and response and so on found in jazz and/or blues is different from those found in European (or, say, Middle Eastern) music. This is certainly a matter requiring further thought and research. What is most pertinent here is the question of whether these aspects of music are particular to jazz.

To clarify this, we really need to search back to the origins of ‘jazz’. We need to consider the history of the various musical styles which arose in the various parts of the US in the years between the civil war and the First World War. We know something about the kinds of music that flourished in the US in this period, though the further back we go, the less clear the picture becomes. Paul Oliver’s researches have given some picture of some of the music which had arisen. He charts the rise of minstrel songs, ragtime, jazz, ballads, blues and gospel occurring between 1893–1914. ‘The concentrated period of innovation was a mere decade: 1897–1907.’ [2] His account of this, while tentative (and attempting to avoid the dangers of a mechanical explanation), suggests that it cannot be mere coincidence that these new styles arose at a time when the end of slavery was closely followed by post-war segregation, which was coming to be enacted and imposed in all its despicable oppressiveness.

So, while this remains an area crying out for continuing research, what is already clear is that, although at certain times jazz musicians claimed ‘the blues’ as an important antecedent to jazz, the various kinds of music that later became known as jazz and blues arose in broadly the same period in different places in the US. There is no clear evidence to identify jazz as ‘based’ on the blues – indeed, if anything, the blues was the last to develop of these new musical styles. Later the early jazz and blues recordings, both primarily for black audiences, were made during the same period, and whatever had given rise to the various styles of music played by black musicians, those styles interacted very strongly during this period of recording.

This starts out as a matter of historical detail, perhaps. But the consequences of this argument are that the claims made exclusively for jazz need to be clarified. It was the case, in fact, that a range of different musical styles arose in a specific historical period. Charlie seems to have set out to place jazz in the context of its historical development as one among a range of musical styles in the US but then moves on to make explicitly distinct claims for jazz alone. He acknowledges that the distinctions between the styles are by no means clear cut. But then he makes special claims for jazz as the black music of the urban working class. But if it is the case that minstrel songs, ballads, ragtime, various forms of what became known as blues, and various forms of what became known as jazz arose at the same time with their own particular mixtures of European, US, Caribbean, indigenous and African origins, would we not expect to find aspects of these other musical features in all these kinds of music? There is certainly a story to be told here about the rise of new musical styles, primarily played by black musicians for black, mostly working class, audiences.

This brings me to my third point, which is about the slight historical confusions underlying some of Charlie’s account. Charlie argues, ‘From the 1930s onwards the developments of radio, jukeboxes, televisions and cheap audio equipment ... broke that separation [between black audiences and white audiences] down.’ Elsewhere in the article there are further figures that are used to address the same matter, but they still cloud the issue. Let me try to clarify. It is true that in 1926 there were ‘only’ some 15 million homes with radios. It is also true that the home consumption of recorded music became relatively unimportant in the years after the 1929 crash. But 1925 was the end of the first phase of recording history, and the start of the second: electronic recording. The value of US recorded music sales peaked in 1921 at $106 million, and tailed off gradually until 1929 when they nose-dived (only $6 million in 1933). [3]

Ultimately, this partly depends on what you choose to emphasise, but my suggestion is as follows. It is best to characterise the rise of jazz, blues and the other musical styles as having taken place precisely at the same time as the development of the technology which led to recorded music, cinema and radio. It took the economic impetus provided by the First World War to ensure the US saw full development of radio, electronic recording, sound films and so on. So ultimately I’m carrying out a more thoroughgoing critique of Hobsbawm’s idea than Charlie allows himself: although live performance remains of importance for most forms of music, jazz (and indeed blues) is primarily music of the technological age. [4]

Indeed, Hobsbawm’s account has an element of the ‘golden age’ about it – a golden age when culture was not ‘corrupted’ by technology. Now, where do such arguments have their political root, and what is their consequence?

Writing about popular music is a particularly hard task at the best of times. There are few examples to follow. Many of those which do exist fall into the tradition more usefully identified as Stalinism than as Marxism. This is indeed a problem lying behind Charlie’s title. He uses (a number of times) the phrase ‘the people’s music’ to refer to jazz or, elsewhere, to rock’n’roll or soul. But nowhere in the article does he identify the origin of this phrase or discuss its meaning. I am assuming it is drawn from Sidney Finkelstein’s book title, Jazz – a People’s Music. What did it mean originally? How does Charlie rework it?

Unfortunately, there are problems with the word ‘people’ in this context. It was a fudge (not clarified by Charlie) which stems from the ideas about class, nationality and the popular front pushed by Stalin and his pals in the 1940s. We find, for example in Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural axeman, such spurious internationalism as, ‘it is impossible to be an internationalist in music or in anything else unless one loves and respects one’s own people. All the experience of the USSR testifies to that. [5] (This sentence is also quoted approvingly by Finkelstein in his 1952 book, How Music Expresses Ideas, p. 105). That is the kind of context in which we find the word ‘people’, and it lurks behind the title of Finkelstein’s book. It blurs questions of class. Charlie rightly identifies some traces of a similar brand of ideas in Hobsbawm’s writing.

We need to start from a Marxist position (not a Stalinist one) on class and nation before we can move into the question of national identity and struggles against national oppression. In a useful quotation from Trotsky, Charlie raises the idea that ‘Marxism alone can explain how and why a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history’. It seems to me that, by and large, Trotsky was not suggesting that this had already been done, but rather that it was a task that as yet awaited attention. I have yet to read an effective account from a bourgeois or Marxist theorist of the process of musical style change: it’s hard. So there are (and I’m trying to be helpful here) a number of theoretical areas which usefully could be addressed.

  1. Trotsky’s point about explaining how and why styles arise etc. – can Marxism actually do this? Let’s find out!
  2. Over much of today’s writing on popular music falls the shadow of 1940s–50s Stalinist writing. We haven’t, by and large, any body of writing (journalistic, scholarly, practical, theoretical or otherwise) which can combat or replace this as things stand. Perhaps our comrades feel (as I do from time to time) that other things should come first; but continued chipping away by writers from our tradition would do no harm at all. Why not aim at hegemony on the left in such areas?
  3. There are areas in which we should intervene as cultural critics. Charlie rightly identifies that this should take off from the bits of decent Marxist writers who comment on culture, in however fragmented a way: Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Gramsci (but not Gramscians), Benjamin, Lukacs ... The current hegemonic forces of cultural studies and popular music studies come out of Althusser via Stuart Hall via Gramscianism, and hence little is said about what could loosely be termed ‘what is to be done’. But I’m hopeful that the theoretical understanding and the depth of cultural knowledge exists in and around our tradition to put this right.
  4. To do this, we need to clarify another issue: how do we learn from cultural history? Not an easy question, and one which Charlie has clearly felt a need to try and answer. I hope his attempt provides the starting point for a new stream of valuable contributions.


1. These four areas are explored (and our ‘commonsense’ assumptions about them are called into question) in P. Tagg (1989), Open Letter: Black Music, Afro-American Music and European Music, Popular Music, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 285–298.

2. P. Oliver, The First Revolution in Black Popular Music, paper given at Paris Conference of International Association for the Study of Popular Music (1989).

3. D. Harker, One for the Money (London 1980), p. 223.

4. I suspect Charlie’s emphasis gives more apparent support for the idea that bebop was the key period of jazz development. But this seems to be pushing unnecessarily for a mechanical correspondence between ‘culture’ and ‘society’.

5. A.A. Zhdanov (1948), On Music, speech at a conference of Soviet Music Workers, reprinted in On Literature, Music and Philosophy (Moscow 1950), p. 63.

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