Review of two books by Frank Kofsky on the root of jazz and the Black struggle
By Sam Manuel, The Militant, Vol. 62, no. 4, 2 February 1998
John Kofsky, John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s, 480 pp.
"Jazz is one of the most meaningful social, esthetic contributions to America.... it is antiwar; it is opposed to [the U.S. war in] Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people.... Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people."This insightful comment by Shepp points to the wellspring of the revolution in jazz music some three decades ago. It is taken from John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution in the 1960s by Frank Kofsky, recently released by Pathfinder Press. A companion book, Black Music, White Business: Illuminating the History and Political Economy of Jazz, will soon follow.- Saxophonist Archie Shepp.
Coltrane is a revised and expanded edition of Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, first issued in 1970. Black Music presents a gripping exposition of the exploitation of jazz musicians and the music by the wealthy capitalist owners who control the recording studios, promotional firms, and booking agencies.
Jazz and struggle for Black freedom
Both books are indispensable contributions to understanding jazz and its relation to the struggle for Black freedom. They are timely contributions to the renewed interest in Coltrane and the political ferment in urban Black working-class communities across this country in the 1960s that made the music possible.
Just as many white liberals and radicals alike could not hear, or reacted sharply against, the revolutionary message and course of Malcolm X and the rise of nationalist consciousness among Black youth in the late 1960s-the mostly white "music critics" reacted in similar fashion to the explosive and rebellious innovations in jazz led by John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, and others.
Take this sample of commentary by Nat Hentoff, which appeared in the jazz magazine down beat.
"Coltrane's tone is often strident at the edges," wrote Hentoff, "and rarely appears to sustain a legato softness as [white "cool" saxophonist Stan] Getz can... Another horn - a gentler trumpeter, say - would have helped complement the not always attractive Coltrane sound."
Some even challenged jazz's standing as music. In the same magazine Ira Gitler wrote, "I don't know, by any stretch of the imagination, how the music I heard that night could be called musical... I think we're getting away from musical values that have been established for centuries."
Others conceded jazz's validity but attempted to disconnect it from its Black roots. Coltrane traces the origins of jazz from early Negro gospels, work songs from the southern plantations, the blues, and the increasingly secular music forged in the growing urban ghettos following the migration for work in northern factories under the impetus of the second world war.
Identification with Africa
The names given the compositions by the musicians speak of the Black experience in America - "Walkin'," "Doin' the Thing," "Head Shakin'," "In a Funky Groove," "Ribs and Chips." Compositions like "Dakar," "Tanganyika Strut," "African Lady," and "Dahomey Dance" reflected the growing identification of Blacks with the struggle against colonial rule in Africa and the impact of this identification upon the music. Many Black jazz musicians began to incorporate instruments and musical styles from Africa and the East.
Coltrane's "Alabama" is a tribute to the civil rights movement. A benefit appearance by him at the University of California in 1960 to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the main student civil rights group, was blocked by then university chancellor Clark Kerr.
The jazz revolution of the 1960s was preceded by the innovative bebop style of the 1940s. Among those musicians were trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. Bebop's demise was followed by "cool" or "West Coast" jazz, a style more to the liking of white music critics. "Cool" was dominated by white jazz musicians such as trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Stan Getz.
Kofsky's passionate defense of the origins and nature of jazz is unleashed in his comparison of solos by Gillespie, the father of bebop trumpet-playing, to one from the period of cool trumpeter Baker.
"Where Gillespie roams the entire instrument, plays at the top and bottom of its range, is not afraid to be triple fortissimo as the context demands, packs his solos full of flurries of rapidly cascading short notes, and is generally eloquent in a florid, full-blooded manner, Baker's approach is smooth to the point of blandness and almost completely devoid of excitement... The overall effect is one of `pretty' but relatively vapid music."
Kofsky explains, the issue is not whether some white musicians can become competent jazz performers or even innovators in the music. Nor is it whether whites can appreciate the music. But rather who's music is it? From what people and experience does the music draw its vitality? "Dave Brubeck, a white jazz pianist," writes Kofsky, "is certainly unique in his approach to the piano, but unlike the no-less- unique Black pianist Thelonious Monk, his style has never been sufficiently compelling to produce a `school' of musicians whose playing can be unequivocally traced back to him."
Coltrane is not simply a revision of Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. It contains some 150 additional pages of material. In addition to the new chapters in the book the author invested effort in reworking the original material so as to make it easily accessible to younger generations.
Coltrane also provides a richer analysis of jazz music in an added chapter on drummer Elvin Jones. It illuminates the central role played by the relationship between Jones and Coltrane in the evolution of jazz rhythm in Coltrane's quartet. Music readers will gain even more from the numerous musical notations that have been added.
`Are we running any record companies?'
"Where the control is, the money is. Do you see any of us [black musicians] running any record companies, booking agencies, radio stations, music magazines?" asks trumpeter Rex Stewart in Black Music, White Business.
Black Music, as the title suggests, illuminates the political economy of jazz. It is among the most serious treatments of the subject available. As Kofsky explains, no genuine approach to this issue can be attempted without examining the principal contradiction in jazz pointed to by Stewart: Blacks create the music but wealthy whites own it.
The expropriation of the means of expression of a whole people - and its transformation into just one more commodity to accrue profit - is the key to understanding the ruthless exploitation of jazz music and the musicians.
Black Music opens with examples of how three of the biggest names in jazz and blues - Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith - were rendered helpless in face of this fundamental relationship between the makers and owners of the music.
Parker was the most prominent innovator of the bebop style of jazz. In 1946 he was arrested and sentenced to a state hospital for the mentally ill. Ross Russell, then owner of Dial Records, a company that owed its existence to recording Parker's music, arranged for the saxophonist's release. As a price for Russell's aid, Parker was forced to sign a renewal of his contract giving Dial exclusive recording rights.
John Hammond, a descendant of the Vanderbilt family and a top executive of Columbia Records for many years, fashioned himself as a promoter of jazz music and friend of the musicians. The truth is that Hammond despised the musicians and the music. He increased his wealth at the expense of talented artists such as Holiday and Smith.
Even the money Hammond could make was of secondary importance whenever an artist got out of place. Black Music recounts the executive's displeasure at Holiday's decision to hire a woman from a "distinguished" [i.e., wealthy] family of his acquaintance as her manager.
"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," Hammond relates in his autobiography. After his intervention Holiday lost her manager "and never worked at Cafe Society again" Hammond added.
Billie Holiday: $30, no royalties
Hammond signed Holiday and Smith to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave them a small flat fee for each recording and no royalties. In one instance Holiday received $30 for half a dozen recordings. To add insult to injury, company policy at Columbia designated Hammond "the sole recipient of royalties" from sales of a 1970s reissue of Smith's albums. Kofsky estimates Hammond made $60,000 off Smith alone. In 1998 dollars the amount is at least four or five times as great.
Jazz history is replete with the continued exploitation of the musicians even after death. Recordings withheld from the market are often released with much publicity after the artist has died.
Following Smith's death Columbia released a memorial album with much fanfare. It was later discovered that Smith lay in an unmarked grave. After a campaign by rock singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, a Black nurse, a few hundred dollars was raised for a headstone and a scholarship in Smith's name.
Columbia records finally saw fit to part with $1,000 to augment the fund. Hammond added his own princely contribution of $50.
In Black Music Kofsky drives home the totality of white control of a Black art form. Even those who interpret the music in jazz journals, books, and academic forums are white. And with few exceptions their attitudes are at best patronizing and often disdainful.
What the critics dislike most about the revolution in jazz led by John Coltrane is what Kofsky so brilliantly describes in both books, the defiant humanity of Black workers, which is so unmistakably clear in the music.
Sam Manuel is a member of the United Transportation Union in Washington, D.C.
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