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International Socialism, Spring 1995


Charlie Hore

Jazz: a reply to critics


From International Socialism 2:66, Spring 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the early 1930s Kansas City jazz musicians began a tradition known as the ‘cutting contest’, where they tried to outdo each other in stamina and inventiveness, the losers being humiliated off the stage. Mike Hobart and Dave Harker seem to have adopted that tradition in their replies to my Jazz – a People’s Music? [1] Cutting contests seemingly made for great music; whether they are a useful form for cultural discussion seems to me doubtful.

My article began by quoting Trotsky: ‘Marxism alone can explain how and why a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history.’ Matt Kelly, in his reply, quite correctly noted that ‘...Trotsky was not suggesting that this had already been done, but rather that it was a task that as yet awaited attention.’ My original article aimed to do that for jazz in a brief and polemical sketch of jazz history and its relationship to other black American musical forms, a format that necessarily makes for a great deal of simplification and omissions. To find myself accused of ‘… a deep pessimism for the present, a depiction of a previous golden age and a retreat into Third Worldism’ (Hobart, p. 145) and ‘… in danger of making unnecessary concessions to black nationalism and separatism ...’ (Harker, p. 148) is less than heartening.

Taking up every point in three very different replies is impossible in the short space available to me. What I intend to do here is take up two themes that run through the three articles: (i) the arguments about jazz history and its direcion today; (ii) the more important political arguments about black American history and culture.

All my critics focused on two supposed major errors in ‘Jazz – a people’s music?’: ‘the idea of some “golden age” of ‘jazz’ containing some undefined essence which then got ‘watered down’, co-opted, commoditised ...’ (Harker, p. 149) [2]; and the idea that I somehow privileged jazz as the popular music of American black ghettos.

The second point can be dealt with summarily. I focused on jazz and its popularity because that was the subject of my article, and thus I necessarily paid less attention to other black musical forms. But I explicitly argued that ‘Jazz was a form of black musical expression, but not always the most important or the most popular one’ and that ‘… jazz cannot be understood in isolation from other forms of American black music.’

As to the ‘golden age’ argument, it’s true that I think jazz today is less innovative and less important in terms of popular music overall than it was 30 years ago. It is hard to find a jazz writer who disagrees with this truism. [3] But this is quite different from seeing jazz as having had some ‘golden age’ of authenticity which became contaminated by commercialism. I argued at some length in my original article against the artificial separation between ‘authentic’ and ‘commercial’ made by Eric Hobsbawm in The Jazz Scene, which I see as a consequence of Hobsbawm’s Stalinist politics. [4] Instead I attempted to explain the history of jazz as a musical form with a built in drive to innovate and diversify, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different moments in its evolution, and to relate this to changes in black American life.

There is no simple formula to express this. Mike Hobart is quite wrong, for instance, to suggest that jazz has always been an expression of black militancy – there is no trace of this in the vast majority of the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, for instance. Nor is it the case that the ‘new jazz’ of the early 1960s was any less innovative than, say, swing or bebop. It is true, however, that the explicit political commitment of the ‘new jazz’ coincided with a marked decrease in its popularity among black listeners. [5] I attempted to explain this by pointing to the ways in which soul music reflected [6] the growing confidence and militancy among black Americans in the early 1960s, and in particular the fact that soul music allowed the voicing of explicit protest and anger. If my critics have a different explanation for this undoubted fact, they failed to spell it out.

This is a political judgement, not a musical one. I argued that ‘...the new jazz produced some of the most moving and profound jazz ever.’ But from the late 1960s onwards jazz went into a decline from which it has not yet recovered, in part because of the rise of newer forms of black musical expression, and I concluded that ‘it is important not to mourn this, or pretend that it’s not happened, but to understand why.’

Mike Hobart’s challenge to this begins with a singularly distorted summary of my argument, and then questions the idea of jazz being in decline: ‘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 ...’ (Hobart, p. 142).

Now this is a quite astonishing comparison to make, if we are talking about musical development and innovation. The period 1929 to 1935 saw the development in Kansas City of the swing style which was to become the popular music in the USA of the late 1930s, [7] while the period 1947 to 1953 saw the explosive growth and development of bebop. The majority of Charlie Parker’s greatest records, for instance, were cut during that period. And ‘catastrophic’ was certainly not the word that Miles Davis would have used to describe the period:

To have experienced 52nd Street [the Manhattan street where most of New York’s jazz clubs were located] between 1945 and 1949 was like reading a textbook to the future of music ... You had Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, Red Allen, Dizzy [Gillespie], Bird [Charlie Parker], Bud Powell, [Thelonious] Monk all down there on that one street sometimes on the same night. [8]

Mike is here confusing artistic innovation and development with the health of the jazz economy. It’s true that the working opportunities for jazz musicians today are greater than they were in the two periods he refers to, but that says nothing about the vitality of the music itself. I began my article by suggesting that there was a contradiction between the popularity of jazz and its creative decline – Mike’s arguments about the health of the economy merely serve to underline that.

Of course there has been innovation in jazz over the past 20 years – my argument concerns the scale and influence of the innovations. Mike concedes that no musician of the status of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane has appeared in this period, but fails to see that this is linked to the wider decline of the music. Great musicians do not spring fully formed from the womb – precisely because of the nature of jazz as a collective music their development depends on a community of musicians from whom they learn. It is because there have been no fundamentally innovative schools of jazz in the last 20 years that there have been no great musicians springing from them.

His explanation for the decline of jazz in the early 1960s is equally unconvincing. ‘Free’ jazz was by the early 1960s abandoning (or being abandoned by) the jazz clubs for simple economic reasons, as a musician who played with the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor explained:

[Taylor’s music] is completely unsaleable in the nightclubs because of the fact that each composition lasts, or could last, an hour and a half. Bar owners aren’t interested in this, because if there’s one thing they hate to see it’s a bunch of people sitting around open-mouthed with their brains absolutely paralysed by the music. [9]

Incidentally, it wasn’t true by the early 1960s that most jazz clubs were located in black areas, still less that they were closed for years by black uprisings, the majority of which lasted less than a week.

The second strand of Mike’s argument about the record companies equally confuses cause and effect. The big record companies had no more intrinsic interest in Led Zeppelin than they did in jazz – they just saw more money in rock. Where they thought they could still make money out of jazz artists they continued to record and promote their music. For instance, three months before John Coltrane died, he signed a two year contract with Impulse! Records for a $40,000 a year advance. [10] And when in the mid-1980s the record companies detected a revival in interest in jazz, they began a massive programme of re-releasing old material, with no more knowledge of, or interest in, the music itself than they had had in the 1960s.

Finally, Mike’s arguments about the popularity of jazz (echoed in part by Dave Harker) essentially say that jazz was never more than a minority taste anyway, as it is today, so that nothing has really changed. In part there is a confusion about what ‘mass’ popularity really means. I’ll suggest the (admittedly imprecise) definition that ‘mass’ culture is that which enters into the everyday lives of most people. On that definition, jazz had a mass audience for most of its history. Here, for instance, is Malcolm X on Lansing, Michigan (a city of less than 100,000 people), and Boston in the 1930s:

[in black bars and restaurants] The jukeboxes were wailing Erskine Hawkins’ ‘Tuxedo Junction’, Slim and Slam’s ‘Flatfoot Floogie’, things like that. Sometimes, big bands from New York, out touring the one-night stands in the sticks, would play for big dances in Lansing. Everybody with legs would come out to see any performer who bore the magic name ‘New York’.

Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, dozens of others ... The biggest bands, like these, played at the Roseland State ballroom ... one night for Negroes, the next for whites. [11]

The pianist Clifford Jordan similarly remembers the South Side of Chicago in the late 1940s:

Yeah, all the jukeboxes, they had jazz, but nobody called it jazz’ then. It was just music. It was just our music, folk music ... it was just easy to come by the music. They had two or three key record stores in the neighbourhood. [12]

And in Hard Bop David Rosenthal argued that:

From 1945 to 1965, jazz attracted the ghetto’s most gifted young musicians. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, hard bop was the basic idiom in the neighbourhoods where such youngsters lived ... In 1959, virtually every apartment building in areas like Harlem or the South Side of Chicago housed at least a few knowledgable, serious jazz fans ... [13]

The above should be enough to disprove Dave Harker’s assertion that jazz was ‘made by professionals for a tiny percentage of the record buying public – and a largely white, male, college educated minority at that’ (Harker, p. 151) [14], as well as Mike Hobart’s claim that ‘... at no stage has innovative jazz been anything remotely close to a mass music’ (Hobart, p. 143). Figures about record sales simply miss the point. In 1929 the only way to hear Bessie Smith was to buy a record or wait until she played live near to where you lived. From sometime in the mid-1930s onwards most jazz was probably listened to on jukeboxes or radios, rather than live or on individuals’ record players, though live performances remained important.

Two subsidiary points flow from this. The first is that, although jazz was indeed a creature of ‘the era of mass reproduction’, most jazz was still listened to collectively (dancehall audiences, customers in bars and juke joints, families or groups of friends around radios, etc.). The second is that the notion of a specialist ‘jazz audience’ who only listen for preference to one form of music is an inappropriate way to understand the position of jazz in black Americans’ everyday lives. Jazz was one musical form among many available on jukeboxes, the radio and in record shops. Whether most black Americans who were interested in music listened primarily to jazz, or rhythm ‘n blues, or country blues, or any other musical form is an unanswerable and irrelevant question. The real point is that from the late 1920s to sometime in the mid-1960s it was an integral part of black American musical culture.

This brings me to the argument about exactly what constitutes ‘black American culture’ and the related arguments about the importance of the experience of racism and resistance in the formation of jazz and other black American musical forms. [15] For Mike Hobart, ‘Charlie’s main problem is that he sees race as the only motor in the history of jazz’s development’ (Hobart, p. 145). Now of course I never said that: my article aimed to explain the development of jazz both in terms of the internal logic of the music which led to new forms and styles and in relation to changes in black American lives and expectations. In that context race (and struggles against racial oppression) were fundamentally important motors for cultural change.

Mike goes on to say that ‘… slavery, segregation, and the racism they produced are an integral feature of capitalist development and therefore cannot be separated from it’ (Hobart, p. 145). This is true enough, but precisely because oppression is used to divide the working class, it affects different groups of workers in different ways. Racial oppression is a product of capitalist exploitation, but that does not mean that it can be reduced to exploitation.

Yet that is essentially what Mike argues, insisting that the ‘interference of capital’ was essentially colour blind and that the isolation of jazz musicians from their audience was just caused by a specialised division of labour. The simple fact, however, is that the everyday experience of racism created a much greater bond between black American musicians and their audiences, in part because, however much the musicians may have wanted to distance themselves from their origins, there was (until the late 1960s) very little space for them to do it in.

Jazz musicians touring the southern USA, for instance, regularly slept in the homes of their audiences, simply because there was no black hotel in the town, while many New York jazz clubs refused to serve as patrons the jazz musicians who played there. Mary Wells vividly described coming up against the limitations forced on all black performers by racism:

It was in New Orleans, and I wasn’t thinking. You know, the Martin Luther King trip was well on the road and all ... I started drinking out of this water fountain, and all these people started lookin’ at me. And me, so much a fool, I say to myself, ‘Oh, they know who I am, I’m Mary Wells.’ Then I look up and see the sign. Yeah, you got it. WHITES ONLY. Me in my little Motown star bubble. All of a sudden everything kind of crushes. [16]

Yet the closeness between performers and audiences cannot only be explained by the performers’ inability to distance themselves from everyday racism. One defining feature of all black American musical forms is the emphasis on expressing shared feelings and emotions, on ‘telling it like it is’. And I’d argued that this emphasis is a function, at least in part, of the experience of racism. In a society which denies your humanity, to express openly feelings of love, hate, rage, pain, sexual longing and jealousy is to assert that humanity: ‘If you prick me, do I not bleed?’

And one of the key motors for change in black American music has been the shift from taking racism as given to openly challenging it. As Big Bill Broonzy pithily explained in the early 1960s, ‘Young people have forgotten how to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers’. [17]

All musical forms are contradictory, and can be used to carry a wide variety of messages. The blues asserts humanity as well as advocating resignation. Gospel music, often seen as the ultimate expression of powerlessness, became an essential mobiliser and organiser in the Civil Rights Movement, which built in turn on earlier black struggles. Steel workers in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance used gospel quartets in union organising drives in the 1930s and 1940s. [18]

Soul music, which grew out of a combination of gospel forms and secular lyrics, marked a fundamental change in black American music, which corresponded to a fundamental shift in expectations. The very tone of the music was upbeat, brash and confident, even when dealing with purely personal topics. Many purists in the 1960s dismissed soul music (at least in its Tamla Motown form) as ‘watered down for white consumption’, and Mike Hobart echoes their arguments. Yet this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what soul music represented. For the first time ever black artists gained mass white audiences by taking the basic harmonies of gospel and doo-wop music and adding a compelling, non-stop and above all very loud dance beat to it. Certainly to audiences at the time, it sounded anything but ‘diluted’. (John Lennon reportedly once asked one of the Four Tops, ‘When you cats go into the studio, what does the drummer beat on to get that backbeat? You use a bloody tree or something?’) [19]

Now of course Berry Gordy did not do this as a contribution to the struggle against racism. He was in it for the money, and could be as vicious as any white record company boss. And soul music could as equally be used to promote the ideas of ‘black capitalism’, of accommodation within the system, as it could express the hopes and aspirations of black workers. But this should simply serve as a reminder that no cultural form is inherently progressive or revolutionary – their uses, meanings and limitations are ultimately defined politically, and people interpret them in the light of their own experiences and expectations.

All of the above should, I hope, disprove Dave Harker’s assertion that I see the ‘“black American experience” [as] somehow monolithic and non-contradictory ...’ (Harker, p. 148). But I do want to deal in more detail with some of his arguments, which seem almost to give up on any attempt to locate culture in historical contexts.

Dave begins his reply by questioning the validity of concepts such as ‘the black American experience’ and ‘black music’, arguing that they properly belong to black nationalist rather than socialist theory. He is of course quite right to point out that all too often these ideas are used by black nationalists in ahistorical and essentialist ways which serve to distort the class differences that divide the ‘black community’. These arguments have been refuted in detail by previous articles in this journal, and I do not intend to rework them here. [20]

But just because these concepts are often misused does not prove them wrong; it rather means that we are engaged in a struggle over their meaning. I want to argue that, provided we understand them as historically specific terms, both concepts are essential to understanding jazz and other modern American musical forms.

What I mean by the shorthand term ‘the black American experience’ is that chattel slavery and post-slavery institutionalised racism produced a set of life experiences (and strategies for dealing with them) that were fundamentally similar for the vast majority of black people across the USA. Out of those experiences the slaves created a culture, a way of life, with distinctive forms of religion, customs, morals and musics which drew on both the dominant cultures of Southern whites, and the many diverse African cultures from which the slaves had been plundered.

After the abolition of slavery in 1865 the brief freedoms of Reconstruction were buried under the structures of Jim Crow which, in the Southern United States (where 75 percent of the black population lived until the Second World War), reinforced that culture through a near total segregation of everyday social life. (In Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, a 1930 by-law made it illegal for blacks and whites to play dominoes or draughts ‘together or in company with one another’). [21] Class divisions among blacks [22], as well as the differences between the Southern states and elsewhere, made for vast differences in the everyday experience and extent of racism. But the fact remains that for the vast majority of black Americans racism was (and is) a fundamental limiting factor in their lives, despite the increase in the size of the black middle class since the 1960s.

The shared culture that arose out of those experiences was a complex, contradictory and above all dynamic one that defies any simplistic analysis, and all I attempted in my original article was a brief sketch of it. Eugene Genovese’s summary of the evolution of black American religion acts as a useful warning against one dimensional interpretations of that culture, as well as a definition of it:

Even so brief a sketch warns of two major pitfalls in the evaluation of the religion ...the facile tendency to assume that the Southern slaves passively absorbed a religion handed down from above and completely relinquished their African heritage without replacing it with anything new; and the mechanistic error of assuming that religion either sparked the slaves to rebellion or rendered them docile... it did display the same creative impulse to blend ideas from diverse sources into the formulation of a world-view sufficently complex to link acceptance of what had to be endured with a determined resistance to the pressures for despair and dehumanisation. [23]

It seems to me that black musical forms expressed that same complexity of world view, evolving as the opportunities for resistance became ever greater. We can only begin to understand jazz, blues, gospel (and for that matter, rap, hip-hop and jungle today [24]) if we grasp their origins as musics played by black artists for black audiences who shared the same fundamental life experiences and expectations.

Music by its very nature is a highly permeable art form, and there was a constant two way trading of influences between black and white Americans. Blues and jazz musicians borrowed all the time from white musicians, just as white musicians borrowed from them. (The key difference was that while black musicians were prepared to acknowledge this, the same was rarely true for the whites.) Nevertheless, black musical forms retained direct African traits and influences until well into the 1940s. The musicologist Alan Lomax commented on a song that he recorded in Mississippi in 1941:

Years later Roswell Rudd discovered a virtual match for Tangle Eye’s holler in a recording from Senegal, an important source for African slaves. When we intercut these two pieces on a tape, it sounded as if Tangle Eye and the Senegalese were answering each other, phrase by phrase. [25]

In this context the argument of the musicologist Philip Tagg, quoted by both Dave Harker and Matt Kelly, about the presence in other musical traditions of such traits as ‘blue notes’ and call and response, is simply irrelevant. Undoubtedly such traits can be found in many musical traditions. But it seems to me undeniable that the specific traits that went to distinguish blues and jazz came largely from African origins, from a culture that slaves and their descendants developed.

Finally, the above should explain why I used the term ‘a people’s music’ to define jazz (and why it could usefully be extended to other black American forms). It is of the essence of jazz that it was created by poor black urban Americans, not handed down by the bourgeoisie, and that it carried within it a refusal to accept the limitations of racism. Today, of course, it is impossible to divide all American music into what is ‘black’ and what is ‘white’; many black artists make a living playing almost entirely to white audiences (Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Sonny Rollins, to name but three), while it is expected that white rock musicians acknowledge the influences that blues and soul have had on them. That blurring of differences reflects fundamental changes in black American lives brought about principally by their own struggles.

It also reflects what is arguably one of the most important cultural shifts of the 20th century: the fact that the majority of popular music across the Western world is ultimately derived from black American music. The evolution of those musical forms from being ‘people’s musics’ to mass produced commodities available to anyone who can afford a radio or a tape machine, is an enormous cultural gain, and one which I celebrated in my original article.

In the end, however, this is not simply an argument about history. If we want to understand the significance of rap, hip-hop, jungle and related musical forms today, we have to begin by understanding that they arose in the same way as jazz and blues; music created for working class black Americans by working class black Americans. As Alan Lomax noted:

[The blues] arose in a period much like our own. Our species has never been more powerful and wealthy, nor more ill at ease. Homeless and desperate people in America live in the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury ... Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike. [26]

Yet history is not simply repeating itself. Where the blues was a music of accommodation, the dominant tone of modern black music is refusal and rebellion. It can be co-opted, it can reinforce divisions inside the working class as well as break them down, and it does not automatically lead to revolutionary conclusions – no music does. But the fact that it has reached mass international audiences tells us that the rage and anger it articulates are felt by workers across the world.


1. International Socialism 61. The replies, by Mike Hobart, Dave Harker and Matt Kelly, appeared in International Socialism 64. All further references to my original article and the replies will be given in the text.

2. The quote ‘watered down’ is from my original article, where I referred specifically to the boom in white musicians recording ‘jazz’ in the 1920s. Anyone who doubts that this specific form wasn’t ‘watered down’ for white consumption should listen to the early recordings of Paul Whiteman or consider his stated aim at his first major concert in 1924: ‘[to show the] advance which had been made in popular music from the day of discordant early jazz to the melodious forms of the present.’ Quoted in B. Sidran, Black Talk (New York 1981), p. 69.

3. See, for instance, the introduction to D. Rosenthal, Hard Bop (New York 1993): ‘No one would cite the jazz of the last 15 years as an example of healthy evolution ...’ (p. xi).

4. Originally published under the pseudonym Francis Newton (London 1963) and reissued with minor changes under Hobsbawm’s own name (London 1990). (Hobsbawm, incidentally, is not consistently guilty of this: the last chapter largely consists of an attack on the ‘golden age’ theory.) Both Dave Harker and Matt Kelly attack me for using Hobsbawm and Sidney Finkelstein’s Jazz: A People’s Music (New York 1948) as a basis for my arguments, because they were Stalinists. As it happens, I never mentioned Finkelstein’s book in my original article, because it was unavailable at the time. While there are problems with both books, which do derive from the authors’ Stalinist politics, both are valuable as attempts to apply a materialist analysis to jazz and to insist on the importance of jazz in modern musical history. Dave Harker’s offhand dismissal of both brings the words ‘babies’ and ‘bathwater’ forcibly to mind.

5. For an analysis of the decline of blues music’s popularity, see M. Haralambos, Right On: from Blues to Soul in Black America (Ormskirk 1994).

6. Dave Harker laid great stress on demolishing this metaphor, arguing that ‘reflection’ implies a purely mechanical correspondence between social change and cultural change. Now of course any metaphor will fall apart if too much weight is put on it, but I used it simply to stress that cultural changes were ultimately determined by social changes, or, as Marx put it: ‘Being determines consciousness’. I fail to see that his preferred term ‘correspondence’ says anything very different.

7. As I noted in my original article, by 1939 85 percent of all records sold in the USA were swing recordings.

8. M. Davis and Q. Troupe, Miles – the Autobiography (London 1992), p. 88.

9. B. Neidlinger, quoted in F. Kovsky, Black nationalism and the revolution in music (New York 1970), p. 147.

10. J.C. Thomas, Chasin’ the Trane (New York 1985), p. 222.

11. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (London 1968), pp 108, 116.

12. Quoted in D. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 69.

13. Ibid., pp. 62-63.

14. Dave gives no less than five references to Eric Hobsbawm’s The Jazz Scene to back up this assertion. However, on two of the pages he refers to there is no discussion of the jazz audience, and on the other three Hobsbawm makes it clear that he is only talking about the white audience in America.

15. Matt Kelly is quite right to point out that similar processes of cultural interaction took place in Southern America and the Caribbean, and that these added to the musical influences available to black musicians in the USA (Kelly, p. 154). Lack of space in my original article prevented any consideration of these traditions.

16. Quoted in G. Hershey, Nowhere to Run (London 1985), p. 144.

17. Quoted in M. Haralambos, op. cit., p. 82.

18. G. Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight – Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Urbana, Illinois 1994), pp. 303–304.

19. Quoted in G. Hershey, op. cit., p. 186.

20. See A. Shawki, Black liberation and socialism in the United States, International Socialism 47, and A. Callinicos, Race and Class, International Socialism 55.

21. Quoted in M. Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion (Jackson, Mississippi 1984), p. 10.

22. For an account of class divisions among American blacks even during slavery, see A Shawki, op. cit.

23. E.D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York 1976), p. 183.

24. For an excellent account of the origins of rap and hip-hop music, see B. Cross, It’s Not About a Salary ... (London 1994).

25. A. Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (London 1994), p. 276.

26. Ibid., p. x.

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