Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties
This book is an unintentional companion to Eric Porter's What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (2002) which brought to light the self-awareness of African American jazz musicians, shaped as they are by their social and political context but also active participants in its shaping. It is both "a history of one strand of jazz" and, more interestingly perhaps, "a history of its uses," and is intended as a contribution to the cultural history of the period under study through the examination of the music's aesthetic evolution.
The period covered stretches from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, a time when the sound of jazz was changing from bebop on its way to free jazz, a time also when it was associated with militancy, that of the civil rights movement, of Black Power and of the counterculture.
The "strand of jazz" in question is what the author calls "hard bop" in his introduction, although the term is a bit of a misnomer, as what is studied here has nothing to do with the combos usually associated with the genre (The Jazz Messengers or the Horace Silver Quintet, among others). Rather, Saul focuses largely on the innovative jazz of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane (parts 3 and 4 of this five-part book) that was in fact the transition between hard bop proper and free jazz. "Post bop" or "avant-garde jazz" would indeed have been more appropriate terms and, in order to justify his questionable choice, the author feels compelled to define "hard bop" as "the loose genre of jazz that flourished alongside Mingus between 1955 and 1967" [p. 2]. This is far from accurate historically and musically. In a similar attempt, he includes [page 3 of his introduction] a comprehensive cast of characters, artificially placing them in the same family, and Silver and Blakey do get their mention, only to be as good as forgotten for the remainder of the book. Scott Saul does own up that "jazz music in this period is simply too diverse to be explained by any one theory of the fit between its aesthetic principles and its cultural role" [p. 6], but the reader may easily forget this incidental disclaimer and come off with the wrong impression. The stretching of the genre ends up making the category meaningless and its use here unwarranted and misleading.
This problem aside, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, which emerged from Scott Saul’s Ph.D. dissertation in American Studies defended at Yale University, offers many qualities and facets, and ambitiously, indeed potentially perilously, blends musical analysis with political science and cultural/intellectual history to tell "a story about the redemptive power of struggle in politics and art." As such, it goes beyond traditional musicology and its aesthetic preoccupations and examines the conceptualisation of jazz by the musicians but also by non-jazz artists and by activists. Saul's ultimate ambition is to "bring together several readerships: historians of American culture, jazz lovers, scholars of African-American life, [and] literary critics" [p. xi]. The enterprise, on the whole, meets with success but the reader who might be interested in this book would be well advised to read its articulate, painstakingly expository 25-page introduction, "Hard Bop and the Impulse to Freedom," first.
The book's starting point is the observation of postwar jazz’s broad impact on intellectual and social life, "as the values and practices associated with jazz—freedom, spontaneity, social and aesthetic experimentation, the rediscovery of one’s roots—percolated through American culture at large" [p. 1].
Parts 1, 2 and 5 are largely "cultural" and thus generally accessible to the average reader with no particular musical knowledge. They relate how generations of jazz fans of all stripes and persuasions saw jazz as "the music of dissent, an important element in the subculture of cool and a key element of postwar leisure" [p. xi]. The central parts (3 and 4) are more closely musicological and thus require close familiarity with the jazz works of the period as well as a good musical background, for there are detailed technical musical descriptions, though very few scores are analyzed.
The author is off to a good start with an analysis of what he calls "a new intellectual vernacular," namely "hipsterism." Claiming that the appeal of jazz in the 1950s and 1960s was "tied to its sense of 'cool'," he first draws up "an intellectual genealogy" of the concept by delineating "the performance styles of jive-talking DJs, zoot-suited swing musicians, and the 'signifying' hipsters of bebop and hard bop" [p. x]. Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard are given pride of place in these pages. The period examined, however, witnessed the rise of hipness from the underground to the mainstream, "from a form of African-American dissent to become the language of the advertising world" [p. 32], unfortunately but perhaps inevitably climaxing in the concept of "hip consumerism."
A complementary element in the appeal of jazz was its aura of rebellion. Here, Saul refers to the various sorts of experimentation and protest it inspired: "new rhythms in film and drama, new structures in poetry and new palettes in painting and photography" [p. x], (a sample of the works of jazz-inspired artists like Robert Thompson, Roy DeCarava, and James Baldwin is examined in these pages) but also "new forms of collective organizing, new critiques of the shallowness or injustice of the status quo and new visions of the 'good life'" [p. x].
The ambiguities of "cool" are addressed in rich and illuminating detail in chapter 2, "The White Negro Meets the Black Negro." The reference to "the white negro" comes from Norman Mailer’s 1957 controversial essay by the same title in which he urged dissenters from the American way to embrace Negro culture and encourage the psychopaths in themselves. It is easy to understand why Blacks took offense to this and why Ralph Ellison attacked the hipster vogue represented by Mailer and Jack Kerouac among others as "the same old primitivist crap in a new package" [p. 69]. Earlier, in the initial chapter, Saul had focused on Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe's Really the Blues (1946), the first "white Negro" biography. This had given him an opportunity to define the limited view of jazz as "a mere quest for ecstasy" for white Negroes, while, for Blacks, the cool pose of the 1940s and the jazz that went with it, were "a form of everyday resistance to a society that tended to pigeonhole [them]" [p. 45].
2, perhaps the most enlightening from the standpoint of cultural
history, is a detailed study of the rise of the jazz festival—originating
in Newport, R.I., in 1954—, "a late 1950s model of the
weekend getaway, an unstable compound of cultural uplift and carnivalesque
self-indulgence" [p. 105]. The story of the racially-tinged
power struggles between musicians and organizers, with the creation
of a counterfestival by Charles Mingus and other black musicians,
is something of a revelation. The youth riot at the Newport Jazz
Festival of 1960, caused by young whites who had been refused access
to the grounds, and Langston Hughes's artistic reaction to it in
his poem "Ask Your Mama," are given in-depth treatment
in chapters 3 and 4, respectively. Scott Saul returns to the topic
of music festivals in chapter 9 with a study of the shift of obligatory
countercultural venues from the jazz festivals to the pop or rock
festivals of the late 1960s.
Part 4 is devoted to John Coltrane's revolutionary approach to jazz, a move away from the "ironic hipsterism of bebop" helping jazz to enter a dialogue with the Third World in a kind of musical fusion perceived by critics as an apparent answer to the global surge of black consciousness and solidarity. Next to the musical analysis, Scott Saul judiciously places the debate that developed during those crucial years not only around Coltrane's music and his saxophone "screams" but also around the new jazz criticism championed by black writers like LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Harold Cruse who dismissed traditional (white) jazz criticism of judgment; instead they meant to concentrate on the "radical energies of the music and on its roots in history" [p. 225]. The last few pages of this part address the black cultural hero status of Coltrane and Malcolm X during those revolutionary years, reinforced by their untimely deaths.
The analysis in these more strictly musicological chapters may seem a touch repetitive when it insists on the element of collective deliverance as opposed to unbridled individual freedom. Saul highlights the blend between individual freedom and collaborative group work in both the music and civil rights activities, but the link was probably more symbolic than direct. Similarly, musical freedom and racial freedom are always linked, with no room left for the coincidental.
The last part broadens the spectrum and tackles the "ascendancy of separate white and black countercultures in the late 1960s," a period when rock was overwhelming jazz commercially, leaving its exponents without a livelihood, when the previously jazz-propelled (white) counterculture embraced rock as its musical idiom of choice, but also when the black community itself was embracing soul music rather than jazz. In chapter 9, special attention is devoted to Sam Shepard who, typically, moved from "a jazz-inflected theater of spontaneity to a rock-inflected theater that lamented the disappearance of spontaneity" [p. 9] and to John Sinclair, the founder of the White Panther Party, who moved from free jazz partisanship to being "perhaps the leading advocate of 'sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll' as a revolutionary platform" [p. 9.] Finally, chapter 10 approaches the various ways in which the musicians dealt with the crises they were faced with by creating jazz collectives that owed nothing to a music industry perceived as callous and discriminatory, or by associating with the Black Panthers for some or Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket for others, like Cannonball Adderley and his group who found a place under the all-inclusive banner of "soul power."
In sum, this complex, multi-facetted book presents us with a thorough, often illuminating, and extremely well-researched treatment of its various topics. The author, as perhaps befits someone who is at present Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, remains painstakingly pedagogical throughout, never failing to inform the reader of where the next step(s) of his demonstration will take him. If the analogy between the music's aesthetic and the cultural stance of the freedom movement is occasionally carried further than absolutely necessary, the demonstration remains generally valid. One does come away from this study with a sense that, in the author's apt formulas, the jazz composed and played during this period was indeed, in many ways, "the sonic alter ego” [p. 2] of the civil rights movement or "a musical facet of the freedom movement" [p. 5]. Finally, similarly to Eric Porter's book, it also succeeds largely because it empowers jazz musicians, portraying them as thinkers, intellectuals in their own right, thus correcting the clichéd vision of jazz as the music of spontaneous hedonists.