Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2005

Jazz and the left

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:00 am

Fundamentally, major social changes in the United States have determined the evolution of jazz, just as they have in any other art form.

The 1930s were a period of the rise of jazz and the organized left. Concretely, this meant big bands and the Communist Party. Notwithstanding some early dogmatic opposition to jazz from cultural commissar Mike Gold, the party soon threw itself into proselytizing for jazz and fighting segregation in the music business.

Major contributions to jazz writing were made by veterans of this era. Writing as Frankie Newton (in homage to the trumpet player who had joined the party), E.J. Hobsbawm wrote numerous articles that were collected as “The Jazz Scene.” To Hobsbawm’s credit, the radical nature of jazz is not something is conveyed by the lyrics of a song but by the music’s willingness to speak for the pain and aspiration of the most oppressed sector of society:

Paradoxically, it is the simplest and least ‘political’ jazz which has best resisted the temptations of compromise, respectability, and official recognition. Bessie Smith, who never sang in white theatres and would not have changed her style if she had, is— like the blues—the least corrupted and corruptible part of jazz, and therefore the purest carrier of the jazz protest. (It may be significant that of all the biographies and auto-biographies of jazz artists, those of the women singers express the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog most persistently. Paradoxically, it is the simplest and least ‘political’ jazz which has best resisted the temptations of compromise, respectability, and official recognition. Bessie Smith, who never sang in white theatres and would not have changed her style if she had, is— like the blues—the least corrupted and corruptible part of jazz, and therefore the purest carrier of the jazz protest. (It may be significant that of all the biographies and auto-biographies of jazz artists, those of the women singers express the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog most persistently.

Like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday also expressed the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog, especially when she mounted the stage to perform “Strange Fruit.” This bitter denunciation of lynching in the Deep South perfectly expresses the affinity between jazz musician and leftist in the 1930s and 40s. Written by Abel Meerpol, a Communist high school teacher and CP member, the song cut straight through to the heart of racial oppression in the USA. Meerpol, writing under the name Lewis Allen, also composed “The House I Live In,” a plea for racial tolerance that was popularized by Frank Sinatra, who was close to the party when he first performed it. Besides winning recognition for his songs, Abel Meerpol was well-known as the adoptive parent of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s children.

Holiday premiered “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, a Greenwich Village nightclub that was launched in 1938 by Barney Josephson, who wanted to create an alternative to the snobbery and racism that pervaded uptown clubs. His brother Leon, who worked there, was a party member and a participant in a plot to assassinate Hitler! Helen Lawrenson, the club’s publicist, maintains that Earl Browder came up with the idea of the club as a way to raise money for the CP.

When Josephson was running low on start-up funds, bandleader Benny Goodman and Columbia record company executive John Hammond each put up $5000 to help make Café Society a reality. Although John Hammond was never a member of the Communist Party, he is probably the best known leftwing figure in the jazz community of the 1930s and 40s. As a record producer, Nation Magazine contributor and board member of the NAACP, he fought against segregation both within the jazz world and in American society as a whole. In addition, he was instrumental in developing the careers of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and a host of other jazz musicians, many of whom–including these two–became friends of the left. For a introduction to John Hammond’s legacy that emphasizes his Important accomplishments, we can turn to the chapter in Lewis A. Erenberg’s “Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture” titled “Swing Left: The Politics of Race and Culture in the Swing Era.” Erenberg writes:

Goodman’s phenomenal success validated Hammond as a talent spotter, and music industry executives had to pay attention. As a jazz devotee and a cultural radical, however, Hammond was primarily interested in promoting Negro performers who “could not get a break because of their race.” He was Teddy Wilson’s major backer during the 1930s, but he also went out of his way to push the Basie band. After hearing Basie on his powerful car radio, Hammond drove to Kansas City to hear the band in person, and then publicized it endlessly in his Down Beat columns and among his many musical connections. It was the Basie band’s “un-buttoned, never-too-disciplined” style that attracted Hammond. He interpreted it as an “authentic” black band, unlike Duke Ellington’s “show band,” which, he believed, had lost touch with its blues roots.

To get the full dimensions of the Hammond-Ellington rift, we need to consult David W. Stowe’s “Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America.” In chapter two, titled “Between Conjure and Capital,” there is a detailed account of the polemics that took place between the highly regarded band leader and the leftist jazz producer and critic. Hammond had fired the first shot in 1935 with an article in Downbeat titled “The Tragedy of Duke Ellington, the ‘Black Prince of Jazz’: A Musician of Great Talent Forsakes Simplicity for Pretension.” He saw Ellington as the musical equivalent of a Black bourgeoisie that had distanced itself from its people: “It would probably take a Granville Hicks or a Langston Hughes to describe the way that he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped on his people and his original class.”

In a very real sense, the tensions between the incipient Black Nationalist Ellington and the integrationist Hammond prefigure those that would take place years later between LeRoi Jones and Roy Wilkins. There was far more “Afrocentrism” in Ellington’s music than in any other swing band of the 1930s. Ellington wrote an homage to Ethiopia titled “Menelik, King of Judah” that was not unlike those found in reggae. He also wrote an all black musical titled “Jump for Joy” (subtitled ‘A Sun-Tanned Revu-sical’) that, according to Ellington, was intended “to take Uncle Tom out of the theatre, eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway, and say things that would make the audience think.”

Indeed, one can easily see the influence of Ellington on Charles Mingus, perhaps modern jazz’s most well-known Black radical. His autobiography “Beneath the Underdog” contains bitter denunciations of white racism and the struggle to achieve dignity and success in the white controlled jazz business. It ranks with “Autobiography of Malcom X” and other classics. Like Ellington, Mingus sought to elevate the status of Black people in his music but with even more of a political edge. Although Mingus started out understandably as a desegregationist in the 1950s, his music and his ideology moved in a more nationalist direction in later years in harmony with broader trends in the Black community.

Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus” in 1959 to protest Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus’s decision to send out the National Guard two years earlier to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers. The song was first recorded on the 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um” but Columbia Records believed them to be too controversial for release. It was not until 1960 that Mingus was able to release the lyrics on the album “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” released by the more independent Candid label:

Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh Lord, no more swastikas!

Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your evil plan)

Of course, one might wonder why Columbia Records might have refused to allow these words to be heard, given the fact that John Hammond virtually ran the jazz division. This opens the door to more recent criticisms of Hammond that have questioned both his commitment to Black rights and, just as importantly, his dealings with Black musicians as a corporation chief. Frank Kofsky, author of “John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s,” a book that makes the occasionally overstated case that Coltrane’s music expressed Black Nationalist sentiments, deals with the question in “Black Music, White Business.” Kofsky writes that the “tangled relationship of John Hammond and Columbia Records and Bessie Smith” illustrates the political economy of white domination of black music. He also writes:

The first and most important point to emphasize is that, as author Chris Albertson reveals in his biography of Bessie Smith, Hammond signed the singer to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave her a small fixed fee for each performance she recorded and no royalties. Such contracts were apparently standard practice with the executive, for Billie Holiday unequivocally stated in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Later on John Hammond paired me up with Teddy Wilson and his band for another record session. This time I got thirty bucks for making half a dozen sides.” What is more, when she protested about this arrangement, it was, according to her, a Columbia executive named Bernie Hanighen — and not John Hammond — “who really went to bat for me” and “almost lost his job at Columbia fighting for me.”

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a full assessment of Hammond’s role in jazz, suffice it to say that he never broke completely with his class. Consider how he advised a family friend to shun Billie Holiday in his memoir “On Record”:

I couldn’t wait to bring Billie Holiday to Cafe Society. It was the perfect place for her to sing to a new audience with the kind of jazz players who brought out her best. Unfortunately, her appearances were not the success they could have been, and they proved to be the end of my association with Billie’s career. She was heavily involved with narcotics, and she had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.

It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the manager’s family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again.

After the decline of the big band era, bebop surfaced as a trend that at first blush seemed to be a retreat from the engaged politics of the 1930s. The small groups that played such adventurous works as “Bloomdido” or “Groovin’ High” never seemed to take up the big issues of peace and racism that the previous generation had, nor did they seem particularly interested in whether you could jitterbug to them. While this is true on one level, on another level the bebop musicians were pioneering a new kind of identity that refused to cede an inch to the “entertainment” expectations of largely white audiences. Except for Dizzy Gillespie, these musicians had broken completely with the almost minstrel-like aspects of bandleaders such as Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong. Their music was based on expressions of Black independence and pride.

In “What is This Thing Called Jazz,” Eric Porter writes:

The politics of bebop’s style reflected this broader ethos, as intellectual practice and sartorial display coincided for musicians and their audiences. Although Eric Lott’s assessment of bebop essentially describes 3 cohesive and rather narrowly defined cultural and aesthetic politics, his description of bebop’s “style” calls attention to the way musicians and fans alike engaged in serious mental endeavors that responded to the world around them, “Bebop,” he writes “was about making disciplined imagination alive and answerable to the social change of its time,” and the style “was where social responsiveness became individual expression, where the pleasures of shared identity met an intolerance for racist jive.” Beboppers and their fans even adopted the personae of intellectuals; goatees, berets, and horned-rimmed glasses became the uniform of the subculture. The adoption of this regalia of the intelligentsia not only distanced musicians from the mainstream but also challenged racist ideologies that were based in part on a belief in African American mental inferiority. We may also understand bebop style as a signifier of musicians’ collective search for a better understanding of music theory and the world around them.

In no short time at all, bebop was superseded by ‘hard bop.’ This style retained the rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness of bebop but married it to an explicit Black identity that more often than not saw itself as an adjunct of the struggle for equality. Artists such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan sought to give expression to the Souls of Black Folks, as W.E.B. Dubois would put it.

Later on, the best of hard bop was integrated into the “New Thing,” or avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. This hard-edged and often dissonant style was the artistic counterpart of the urban rebellions and the resistance to the Vietnam War. Music and politics were merged seamlessly in the recordings of Archie Shepp, an outspoken Black Nationalist who recorded one explicitly political album after another from 1965 on and who is still going strong.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Jazz & the Left […]

    Pingback by Jazz and the Left – Musings on Music and More — January 26, 2018 @ 9:27 am


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