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"Classical jazz" and the Black Arts Movement.

The period between 1960 and 1970 represents an era of important and extraordinary cultural change in the United States. Longstanding issues of the relationship of ethnic vernacular art to the "mainstream," and that of the American "mainstream" to European "high art," came into focus in these years in a particularly contentious yet artistically fruitful manner.

If one recalls artists such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, it is clear that jazz musicians were never before so technically proficient on their instruments or in their mastery of European "classical" traditions. On the other hand, these artists consciously intended to foreground non-European musical influences as well as the Afrocentric and folkloristic elements of jazz. At the same time, the poets and theorists of the Black Arts Movement (including Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Askia Muhammad Toure) were making a very popular case for an aesthetic conceived as openly oppositional to both European and white American culture.

The roots of the Black Arts Movement are easily traced to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. That earlier movement was the first attempt by African American artists to produce work consciously grounded in their folk heritage and to utilize that work for the social advancement of the race. For Larry Neal, the Harlem Renaissance "was essentially a failure. It did not address itself to the mythology and the lifestyles of the black community" (78). This statement seems puzzling today, but its meaning was crystal clear in 1968 and pointed to a political philosophy underlying aesthetic discriminations.

Whereas the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance hoped to prove the cultural worthiness of African Americans byy demonstrating their aptitude for cultivation, development, and progress in terms understood by white American society, the leaders of the Black Arts Movement hoped to celebrate a kind of proletarian and vaguely "African" culture. Like Zora Neale Hurston's appreciation of the folk, the Black Arts Movement sought to identify a certain intrinsic beauty and vitality in African American authenticity.

This view particularly affected the way that Black Arts Movement writers dealt with jazz. In an important essay titled "Jazz and the White Critic" (1963), Amiri Baraka declared:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help at all. Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgment and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (186)

By 1966, Baraka had framed the message much more concisely: "The music you hear (?) is an invention of Black lives" (Black Music 176). What was at stake, of course, was a cultural hierarchy explicit in American society. As a visiting African student once expressed it, "They love your music - but they don't love you." The Black Arts Movement asked, basically, what's love got to do with it?

In the area of music, the prevailing cultural hierarchy assigns value to the European symphonic tradition at the expense of indigenous American musical conventions. Compared to jazz, classical music has been assigned a higher cultural value which - of course - has very little to do with music per se.

In 1948 Sidney Finkelstein noted that "the man who listens to jazz, whether New Orleans or bebop, is hearing as unstandardized a set of musical scales and combinations of scales as is he who listens to Copeland or Ives." Finkelstein logically concluded that "the artificial distinction between 'classical' and 'popular' has been forced upon our times by the circumstance that the production of both ... has become a matter for financial investment instead of art" (9).

There is, however, a definite political rationale involved that touches on aesthetic questions. The Black Arts Movement tried simply to dismiss the problem along with the European tradition. The critics of an earlier generation, however, attempted to elevate jazz by developing it as a "classical" music. A close examination of the reasoning behind each position suggests that the dynamics of assimilation and resistance in African American culture involve a dialectical movement that reflects a general tendency in American society's unresolved search for a national cultural identity.

Just as the African American is on a continuing quest to learn what is African about him, so America seems persistently clueless about what makes it American.

Early African American critics and commentators took great pride in the notion that jazz was innovative and influential. As early as 1917, Maud Cuney Hare extolled the refinement of what she called Afro-American Folk Music by serious musicians such as Anton Dvorak and Walter Damrosch, but she also spiritedly attacked "the ordinary songs of today ... written in ragtime set in execrable rhymes" (Ferris 299-300). She was also prepared to diss the more pretentious adapters. Of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Mrs. Hare sniffed that "Gershwin wrote [it] within a month's time" and suffered the piece to be "orchestrated by a trained musician, Ferde Grofe" (149).

Damrosch, despite Mrs. Hare's praise and his own interest in adapting Negro folk themes to symphonic forms, complained in 1928 that jazz "stifles the true musical instinct by turning away many of our talented young people from the persistent and continued study and execution of good music" (qtd. in Ogren 157-58).

Jazz, then, was appreciated by such commentators as a type of raw material. This view was surprisingly widespread, held by genteel integrationists as well as by Black Nationalists. "At a time when the Negro's possibilities and capabilities are discussed," wrote William H. Ferris in Garvey's Negro World in 1922, "it is of interest to know that the Negro has evolved a form of music which when pruned of its corruptions and developed contains wonderful possibilities" (300). Three years later, J. A. Rogers exhibited a similar cheerfulness. "Musically," he wrote, "jazz has a great future. It is rapidly being sublimated" (221).

Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University, was the most prominent spokesman of the Harlem Renaissance and the most eloquent propagator of the view that jazz should be refined into an indigenous American "classical music." Locke recognized the beauty of the spirituals and the energetic invention and originality in jazz, but he felt that his critical task was to foster their development. "In spite of the vitality and importance of folk music," he wrote, "the climax of any musical development is in the art forms and on the formal art level." Throughout his long career, Locke was also concerned with devising strategies "to raise the status of the jazz musician" in both economic and aesthetic terms ("Negro Music" 119-20).

Always on the lookout for "the vindication of the higher possibilities of jazz," Locke hoped that it would come from the works of Black musicians, and he was not at all happy with the state of things in 1934: "Vital musical idioms have not been taken up sufficiently by our trained musicians; most of them have been intimidated by their academic training." Those who were in touch with the folk traditions were, Locke lamented, "the very ones who are in commercial slavery to Tin Pan Alley." The few reluctant and half-hearted efforts he saw (in the attempt to place what he called Negro music on a par with the serious music of the European symphonic tradition) "resulted in an actual watering-down of these idioms by the classical tradition" ("Toward" 110-11).

The musician that most clearly embodied the direction Locke wanted to encourage was Duke Ellington, "the person most likely to create the classical jazz towards which so many are striving" ("Toward" 113). As Michael J. Budds notes in Jazz in the Sixties, "Ellington had exhibited an interest in these so-called 'extended forms' for several decades and continued to champion such methods until his death. By 1960 his works already included 'concerto-substitutes' for various members of his band, multi-movement and multi-section 'tone poems,' and suites" (78).

Ellington's late works for the Alvin Ailey Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem might be seen as the culmination of Locke's design. Nevertheless, though orchestrated for symphony orchestra by Luther Henderson under Mercer Ellington's supervision, these works are recognizably Duke Ellington music - just played by a different band. When I say "recognizably Duke," I mean beautiful - luxuriant with the melodies of the spirituals and the intensity of the jazz shout.

The musician that Black Arts Movement theorist Amiri Baraka championed was Sun Ra, and it is here that two seemingly contradictory aesthetic philosophies meet in the kind of gyroscopically delightful resolution that virtuoso jazz soloists nightly pluck from the air. During the 1960s when he was based in New York and frequently performed at Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem and at Slug's nightclub on the Lower East Side, Sun Ra's arkestra typically began rehearsals with Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter's Stomp" and proceeded through jazz history decade by decade. Like the members of Charles Mingus's band - or Ellington's - they knew and were able to play any style of jazz that had ever existed. Or not play it.

In his erudite and sometimes polemical Jazz: America's Classical Music, Grover Sales begins where Alain Locke left off, noting that "the music of black America began as a primitive folk entertainment and grew with amazing speed into a complex and varied art form that interacted with classical music; the ethnic musics of Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Orient; and with jazz's offshoots, rhythm 'n' blues and rock, and became an international language" (3). After three-quarters of a century of such development, Sales can state. with assurance: "Monk, Mingus, Dolphy and the Miles Davis Sextet with Coltrane and Evans will fuel musicians of the future, just as Bach and Haydn prepare conservatory graduates" (219). What is understood here as the musicians themselves know - is that African American music (which many of the artists, taking a cue from Mr. Ellington, do not like to call "jazz") is, in fact, a music with its own highly developed and carefully curated traditions. It is not classical music because it resembles 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century European styles but because it is, partly, the result of a similar historical process. A group like the talented Uptown String Quartet might epitomize this development. These four women perform arrangements of spirituals, bebop standards such as Parker's "Moose the Mooche," transcriptions of Max Roach drum solos - and they improvise in the genuine jazz tradition on all of these pieces.

What is especially notable about the Uptown String Quartet is that their performance embraces the entire history of jazz styles - from the collective improvisation of early jazz in New Orleans to the "free" style of collective improvisation that was the hallmark of the 1960s Black Arts Movement avant-garde. They are, as well, proficient in the European traditions associated with their instruments and the quartet ensemble.

Alain Locke was right; and even if we cannot presume to think that he would have either been pleased or displeased by today's music, I do not think he should have been surprised that it did not turn out precisely as he envisioned. Speaking for his own generation in 1925, Locke wrote: "When the racial leaders of twenty years ago spoke of developing race-pride and stimulating race-consciousness, and of the desirability of race solidarity, they could not in any accurate degree have anticipated the abrupt feeling that has surged up and now pervades the awakened centers" (New 7-8). Neither would Alain Locke know the distant impact of his own exhortations. Unlike W. E. B. Du Bois, Locke himself did not live to see the 1960s, when a significant portion of the energy that was the Black Arts Movement emanated from centers that he had indeed awakened.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amid. Black Music. New York: Morrow, 1970.

-----. "Jazz and the White Critic." 1963. The LeRoi dones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thuncler's Mouth, 1991. 179-86.

Budds, Michael J. Jazz in the Sixties: The Expansion of Musical Resources and Techniques. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.

Ferris, William H. "Negro Composers and Negro Music - Is There Race In Music? Is There Race In Art?." 1922. African Fundamentalism: A Literary and Cultural Anthology of Garvey's Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Tony Marlin. Dover. Majority P, 1991. 299-302.

Finkelstein, Sidney. Jazz: A People's Music. 1948. New York: International, 1988.

Hare, Maud Cuney. Negro Musicians and Their Music. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1936.

Locke, Alain."Negro Music Goes to Par." 1939. Stewart 117-21.

-----, ed. The New Negro. 1925. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

-----. "Toward a Critique of Negro Music." 1934. Stewart 109-15.

Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." 1968. Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. Ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989. 62-78.

Ogren, Kathy J. The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Rogers, J. A. "Jazz At Home." 1925. Locke, New Negro 216-24.

Sales, Grover. Jazz. America's Classical Music. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Stewart, Jeffrey C., ed. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture. New York: Garland, 1993.

Lorenzo Thomas is Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, Downtown. Professor Thomas is also an alumnus of the Umbra Writers Workshop, a New York-based, pre-Black Arts Movement, Black-oriented collective of writers and musicians. This paper was presented at the "Towards An African-American Aesthetic" Conference at Amerika-Institut, University of Munich, Germany, 2-4 July 1993.
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Author:Thomas, Lorenzo
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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