New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique.
Two new jazz books grapple with the elusive subject of jazz musicians and the discourse that frames their images. John Edward Hasse's Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington deals with a certified American classic, the composer, bandleader, and celebrity whose work represents, in the words of a sympathetic observer, "by far the most comprehensive orchestration of the actual sound and beat of life in the United States ever accomplished."(3) Ronald M. Radano's New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique takes as its subject, by contrast, an almost singularly esoteric artist, an avant-garde experimentalist dubbed by one critic as "the Buckminister Fuller of Jazz." Hasse, hewing to a vein of jazz commentary that reaches back to the 1930s, achieves something of an apotheosis of traditional jazz historiography. Radano, challenging and deconstructing this entrenched paradigm, dares to propose a new conceptual framework for jazz scholarship.
Hasse's Ellington will be unfamiliar only to those whose perspective on this famous figure derives from an uncritical reading of James Lincoln Collier's controversial 1987 biography.(4) Coming in the wake of the firestorm unleashed against Collier for his portrait of the Duke as a relentless manipulator and artistic underachiever, Hasse's book appears as a modest, unpresuming reminder of the consensus line on Ellington as great artist, as cultural hero, as American genius. It is a useful corrective. Only the most contentious among us can deny the Duke his nonpareil status as a brilliant visionary and craftsman in matters of blues tonality, ensemble textures, and the underlining of a soloist's distinctive personality. (Ellington: "You can't write music right unless you know how the man that'll play it plays poker," p. 84.) Only the most jaded can fail to be fascinated by Ellington's colorful lifestyle or awed by his dogged determination to maintain the solvency and relevance of his band over a half-century of rapidly changing musical fashion.
That Ellington was "beyond category" is indisputable. Following his own dictum of keeping one foot in the academy and one in the street, Ellington evolved a musical language that imposed formal order on the rhythms, timbres, and attitudes of African-American everyday life. He struck a fine balance between organizational discipline and individual expressive freedom; and merged the traditionally distinct roles of composer and bandleader by embedding the writing process in a Deweyian social process of performative experimentation. The shifting contours of Ellington's life and career - the industrious, religious mentoring of his parents embellished by what he called his "poolhall education"; the solid middle-class black Washington of his youth supplanted by the sensuous elegance of the Cotton Club during high tide of the Harlem Renaissance; the hurly-burly pace and fluid social exchange of dance halls and night clubs on the way to august European concert halls and mixing with the Brahmins - render foolish and shortsighted any effort to pigeonhole Ellington (or jazz itself) into neat sociological or artistic categories.
One need not endorse Wynton Marsalis's fundamentalist excesses - his literalist reading of it-don't-mean-a-thing-if-it-ain't-got-that-swing as a dogma of exclusion rather than a celebration of the black spirit - to share his reverence for the Duke's sweeping musical gifts and magnanimous personality. Unfortunately, Marsalis's hagiographic forward in this book ("Duke Ellington touched more people than confetti"; "He was patriotic"; "He worshipped his mother," p. 13) introduces a saccharine tone that threatens to undermine Hasse's more rigorous insights. Hasse, a music curator at the Smithsonian, was the point man in the National Museum of American History's 1988 acquisition of a 200,000-page archive of Ellington materials, including music scores, scripts for stage works, scenarios, and publicity scrapbooks containing thousands of newspaper and magazine clippings from the 1930s through the early 1970s. A trained musicologist and accomplished pianist, Hasse also has an MBA from the Wharton School, a credential which probably proved most helpful in his negotiations with the Ellington estate and in his lobbying of Congress for funds to purchase the archive, a successful effort aided by a strong initiative by the Congressional Black Caucus (p. 16).
Hasse's musical background pays off with clear descriptions of the performing styles of Ellington and his heralded sidemen (especially James "Bubber" Miley, "Tricky" Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams), and with keen technical observations that convey a broader cultural meaning - for instance, his insight that with the decline of the piano as a mainstay of middle-class homes and the subsequent marketing of cheap spinet pianos, we have lost a sense of how deeply resonant and mellifluous the pianos of Ellington's youth sounded (p. 35). But what most distinguishes Hasse's work from the extant Ellington secondary literature are, first, its scope, and, second, its keen observations of the music industry. Mark Tucker's Ellington: The Early Years (1991) remains the paragon of Ellington scholarship, but only takes the story up to 1927. The impressionistic and critical pieces Tucker has collected into The Ellington Reader (1993) cover all of Ellington's career and make for wonderful reading. Hasse, drawing on much of this same material (especially trumpeter Rex Stewart's superb memoirs) along with primary sources from the Smithsonian archive, surveys the entirety of Ellington's career for the general reader.
Scholars may object to the book's unnumbered, end-of-the-book notes - a trade press capitulation that neutralizes Hasse's claims for the Smithsonian archive as a research lodestone. But specialists and lay readers alike can learn much from Hasse's discussion of developments in the entertainment industry over the course of Ellington's career. Ellington's genius, we learn, lay not only in his inquisitiveness about how this reed player's low A-flat might sound when juxtaposed with that brassman's cup-muted G,(5) but also in his grasping the aesthetic possibilities of the dance hall, the radio microphone (for which "Mood Indigo" was expressly crafted), the three-minute ten-inch record, the forty-odd minute long-playing record, and the jazz festival (notably, Newport 1956, where Ellington revived a waning career by unleashing saxophonist Paul Gonsalves on an epic, twenty-seven chorus solo on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" that sent the crowd into a frenzy and proved that, bebop and cool notwithstanding, a swinging orchestra still had a place in American music). Progenitor of a new musical language, Ellington also intuitively mastered the deep grammar of capitalism. As Hasse extensively documents in his best use of the Smithsonian archive, Ellington made a quick study of manager and publicist Irving Mill's techniques - such as taking lyricist credits on some sixty Ellington recordings in the late 1920s and early 1930s - and saw that to protect his creative product required ownership of his own publishing company (Tempo), and a lot of hardball bargaining with record companies for preferential contracts.
Beyond Category (also the title of a Hasse-curated Smithsonian exhibit) is the latest stage in an Ellington canonization process that began in the 1930s with Mills's and the William Morris Agency's shrewd marketing of Ellington as no mere jazz bandleader, but a composer and arranger who had won the support of such "legitimate" musical figures as Percy Grainger, chairman of New York University's music department, and Leopold Stowkowski, famed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. That French intellectuals professed to hear in his music "the very secret of the cosmos,"(6) and that Britain's Prince George was reputed to own one of the world's largest collections of Ellington records, served to confirm Ellington's lofty cultural status. Part of Ellington's cachet, of course, was precisely the fact that he, more than any other jazz figure, fit existing elite European and American preconceptions of the canonized artist. If Armstrong symbolized one half of the romanticist-primitivist art equation (the soulful noble savage), Ellington was jazz's singular example of an artist who completed the equation: a "genius" whose natural folk qualities were refined by a cultivated, systematic artistic vision. No small measure of Ellington's intelligence was his incisive reading of these critical presuppositions. By such gestures as referring to himself as a "primitive pedestrian minstrel" (in a British accent, no less) and directly invoking Shakespeare (notably in his 1957 composition "Such Sweet Thunder," also known as "The Shakespearean Suite"), Ellington shrewdly supplied the very rhetoric by which critics and historians might anoint him.
Given Hasse's position in an American institution dedicated to cultural preservation, it is not surprising that his book propagates, more than it critiques or analyzes, the ideas and imagery through which Ellington achieved his status as a preeminent symbol of the jazz tradition. For that sort of work, one turns to Radano's work, which while concerned finally with Anthony Braxton as musician and organic postmodern intellectual, aims for a deeper impact as a critical analysis of jazz historiography.
Indeed, Radano, who is trained in musicology but brings to his work in African American Studies and music a deep engagement with recent cultural studies scholarship, has written the most intellectually ambitious, theoretically sophisticated book in the jazz studies literature. Tellingly, before addressing Braxton's life and music, Radano searchingly probes the field of jazz criticism. While his main purpose is to show how conventional ways of thinking about jazz make it difficult to understand what happened in the music after the mid-1950s, Radano also offers a framework for rethinking how Ellington and other canonical figures registered their cultural impact. Rejecting the standard account of jazz history - the "grand vision of stylistic continuity and order" (p. 13) - as insufficiently mindful of "a black ethos that had historically challenged codified common practice and the analytic frames of a European musical tradition" (p. 16), Radano in particular shows how postwar jazz criticism developed a consensus ideology that flattened the past and proved wholly inadequate as a vision of the future. In line with the centrist politics of the Cold War era, the jazz establishment - represented institutionally by the Newport Jazz Festival, the State Department's foreign jazz tours, Voice of America jazz programming, and journals such as The Jazz Review and Jazz - propagated a pluralist, integrationist model in which jazz symbolized the achievement of a classless and raceless society at home and an emerging global cultural consensus abroad. Jazz critics, seeking an end to the sectarianism that had gripped their discourse since the 1930s, introduced the paradigm of the jazz "mainstream," a kind of vital center between the extremes of Dixieland revivalism and free jazz avantgardism. Meanwhile, recent converts to jazz in Newport and Washington celebrated the music's "universality."
Far from embracing the end of ideology, however, jazz in the late 1950s was poised to enter a period of unprecedented political warfare. One way to mark the difference between Hasse's and Radano's subjects is to consider late-career Ellington, an NAACP-style reformist now acting as an international cultural ambassador in a such hotspots as Morocco and New Delhi, propagating American democracy by playing "Satin Doll" at a tempo modest enough to encourage John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and their wives on to the dance floor; while back on Chicago's racially segregated South Side, a young Anthony Braxton begins to evolve a fusion of revolutionary politics and radical creativity through his membership in both CORE and in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the combination occupational guild and community-based black nationalist initiative that, by the early 1970s, had surged ahead of New York-based improvisers like Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp into leadership of the American free jazz movement. But such a characterization fails to capture the complexity of either Braxton or this book.
Through interviews with Braxton and other free jazz musicians, exhaustive primary research in the American and European jazz press, and an impressively lucid use of critical theory, Radano gives us a late-twentieth-century artist who exemplifies the reconfiguration of postwar cultural expression. If Duke Ellington was beyond category, then how are we to characterize a "jazz" musician who identifies himself as a disciple of John Cage and soulmate of European modernists like Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and Stockhausen, and yet traces his lineage to pop artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Frankie Lymon; white jazzmen like Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Dave Brubeck, and Lennie Tristano; black jazzmen like Ellington, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor; and to both gospel music and the military marches he played as the first black member of the Fifty Army Band? Does the pluralist vision of contemporary American music as a "happy babble of overlapping dialogues" (p. 7) adequately come to terms with an artist who has counted mysticism, astrology, numerology, Scientology, and Afrocentrism among his enabling worldviews, and whose boyhood infatuation with science fiction and NASA combined with vocational training in reading electrical wiring schematics informed his later use of diagrammatic picture titles in place of song titles? Radano thinks not, and so develops - in what amounts to as clear an explication of postmodernism as one is likely to find these days - a conceptual framework that focuses on the "interactive complex of culture" (p. 6) informing the contradictory, fragmented, decentered quality of both Braxton's music and, say, communication on the Internet. The difference between this book and other secondary jazz literature is the difference between analog and digital information universes.
Braxton, now a tenured music professor at Wesleyan University, is the author of "The Tri-Axium Writings," a self-published 1,700-page tome that elaborates a highly idiosyncratic theosophy, a "language system" of music, and a program for global spiritual and political renewal based on "trans-African creativity" (p. 235). To those who find Braxton unlistenable, or who would have preferred that he stay with the talent that made him a brilliant improviser in the tradition of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, these writings and other aspects of Braxton's biography may seem like a shaky edifice on which to hang as comprehensive a cultural history as Radano has written. Indeed, few readers will be as interested in Radano's close textual readings of Braxton performances - after castigating other critics for their reification of "art," he shows off some fine musicological chops of his own - as in his lively, well-researched discussion of black Chicago social life and political culture. One wishes for more of Braxton's own fascinating voice (the South Side storefront pentecostal churches he passed on his boyhood Chicago Defender paper route were so intimidating as to "make you beg forgiveness for sins you didn't even commit," p. 37), which strains for recognition against the force of Radano's erudition. Having made his case that an earlier generation of critics erred in casting jazz as an "ahistorical and depoliticized abstraction" (p. 16), Radano at times comes close to turning his own living subject into a historical and politicized abstraction.
What saves Radano from this pitfall in his transcendence of the false dichotomies that have always plagued jazz commentary - the tired, unimaginative debates as to whether jazz is either primarily African or European, black or white, or whether the jazz artist is either an existentialist outsider or a commercialized popular performer. Elaborating on Lewis Nkosi's insight that "the further back the African artist goes in exploring his tradition, the nearer he gets to the European avant-garde" (p. 98), Radano challenges cultural nationalist pieties, even as he honors the spiritual and aesthetic inspiration that Afrocentrism has provided Braxton and other African American creators of his generation. Insistent on a vernacular "difference" in black expressive practices, Radano nevertheless stoutly criticizes the "exotic romanticism" (p. 18) of all racial essentialist ideology, whether propounded by Archie Shepp or Norman Mailer (p. 68).
Braxton, Radano argues, is not so much a jazz musician as a "black experimentalist" (p. 27) who, enabled by both Du Boisian political double consciousness and Cageian aesthetic radicalism, has enacted his own distinctive creativity. Interestingly, in the final analysis both Radano and Hasse argue that the term "jazz" is too narrow to encompass the full scope of their subject's lives and work. Scholars like Lawrence Levine and Neil Leonard have succeeded, over the past couple of decades, in compelling the profession to treat jazz as a central topic in twentieth-century American cultural history, rather than as a curiosity, or as the New Yorkers' jazz critic once put it, "a kind of queer Victorian aunt who laces her tea, belches at the wrong moment, and uses improper amounts of rouge."(7) Are we now at the point where the signifier "jazz" has outlived its usefulness? Perhaps this is a question that a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars working in this area - Scott DeVeaux, David Stowe, Herman Grey, James Hall, Burton Peretti, and Ingrid Monson, among others - can use to bring more structure to a lively, but often diffuse, discourse.
1. John F. Szwed, "Really the (Typed-Out) Blues: Jazz Fiction in Search of Dr. Faustus," Village Voice, July 2, 1979: 72.
2. Of the recent deluge of jazz anthologies, an especially fine production is Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, eds., Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993).
3. Albert Murray, "The Rites of Rhythm and Tune," program notes to the 1991-92 Lincoln Center jazz season.
4. James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington (1987).
5. I borrow this description of the "Ellington effect" from Martin Williams's essay, "Form Beyond Form," The Jazz Tradition (1970, 1993), p. 107.
6. Richard O. Boyer, "The Hot Bach [part 1]," New Yorker 20 (June 29, 1944): 30.
7. Whitney Balliett, The Sound of Surprise (1959, 1978), p. 14.
John R. Gennari, Department of American Studies, University of Colorado, is the author of "Jazz Criticism: Its Development and Ideologies," Black American Literature Forum 25 (Fall 1991), and is working on a manuscript on the politics of race and culture in jazz criticism.
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|Author:||Gennari, John R.|
|Publication:||Reviews in American History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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