Jazz Myth, Jazz Reality
The reception of jazz and its musical heirs, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, has always been the product of a deep ambivalence in the American grain. In the 1930s, the first professional jazz critics celebrated jazz for its redemptive primitivism. In the process, they had to slander the very achievement that they praised. For Carl Van Vechten, the more brutal the poverty of black life, the more authentic was the music to which it gave birth. The Yale-educated John Hammond, who drove through the South and the Midwest on the trail of legendary performers, valued musicians who could not read music more than those who did. Their illiteracy testified to the natural urgency of their expression. In the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer honored jazz for similar reasons. For Kerouac, the spontaneity of jazz improvisation was proof of its mindless honesty. For Mailer, the power of black music lay in the presumably savage power of the black people who had invented it.
What is troubling about the modern reception of jazz is what is historically familiar about it. Behind it looms an earlier mode of reception that it recapitulates even as it overturns: the history of American minstrelsy, the practice by which “blackface” white performers, beginning in the North in the 1830s, parodied black American music even as they deigned to exalt it. The minstrel tradition persists well beyond the 1950s. Imagine, alas, the vexing performance of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. Unlike their blackface inspiration, they cannot even sing or dance. Because of studio money, however, they are able to enlist as companion performers some of the greats of blues and rhythm and blues, from Ray Charles to James Brown. This is mockery, subtended by a domination based not only on the almighty buck, but on a racism rooted in minstrelsy that continues to accompany the mainstream appreciation of American music.
Is there another way of assessing the history of jazz and its progeny that is free of racist presupposition? Ralph Ellison is the best guide.
Although since the twenties, many jazzmen have had conservatory training and were well grounded in formal theory and instrumental technique, when we approach jazz we are entering quite a different sphere of training. Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth. For after the jazzman has learned the fundamentals of his instrument and the traditional techniques of jazz—the intonations, the mute work, manipulation of timbre, the body of traditional style—he must then “find himself,” must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul.
Jazz has a structure and a history, rooted not in the soil or in blind instinct, but in the self-conscious artistry of the musicians who play it. Jazz is a learned tradition. Like the history of any aesthetic form, it is defined by a complex interplay of convention and revolt. After 1950, the complexity deepens. Reactions to it produce a whole new epoch whose apotheosis is rock and roll.
Jazz and Rhythm and Blues
The history of American music after 1950 falls into a three-part sequence: the emergence of bebop as a response to swing, and bop’s eventual decline after Charlie Parker’s death in 1955; the emergence of rhythm and blues after 1955 as a response to bop, and r & b’s reinvention of swing’s easy danceability in a newer key; and the emergence of rock and roll as both a resolution of this prior history as well as the suppression of some of its key elements, particularly its African American foundations. To tell the story by focusing on representative or “canonical” figures will also provide a lesson about how so-called “popular culture” works by tale’s end.
Swing music dominated New Deal America and kept spirits high in the canteens of World War II. But it had a history and its future had a horizon. If combo Dixieland had given way to the small-orchestra “jazz” of the 1920s and the Jazz Age ideology that appropriated it, then “jazz” had given way to the expansive vision of swing in the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. By the end of World War II, however, swing’s infrastructure began to crack economically, and the mood of American culture at large had likewise become brooding and alienated in the shadow of the Bomb. Bebop was the music of the Beats, and Beat emphasized the solitary and the existential. The reflective bop soloist was its ideal emblem.
Parker’s battle with the influence of Lester Young is the key site of musical struggle in the shift from swing to bebop despite the attempt by some historians to blame it all on Dizzy Gillespie and his milder revision of swing trumpet. Muting the horn and gravelling its tone (Gillespie also bent the bell of his instrument by accident one afternoon, leaving it that way because it looked cool), Gillespie was good for publicity. By contrast, Parker drastically alters the tone, attack, and harmonic choices of saxophone forever. He expunges the most saccharine of swing horn mannerisms, vibrato, and introduces a tonal amplitude to saxophone that never capitulates to Young’s breathiness. Parker also combines a technical appetite unmatched in jazz before or since with a depth of blues feeling second to none except for that of Louis Armstrong.
Although Parker’s influence within jazz proper remains decisive well beyond his death in 1955—not until John Coltrane does a musician of peer power emerge to change the nature of saxophone again--by the late 1940s a new player appears on the jazz stage to challenge bebop’s dominance and take its place in popularity with the black listening public: rhythm and blues. Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five are the founding group, appearing at Minton’s in Harlem for the first time in 1938. Jordan himself sang in a swing style over the horn section’s jump riffs and played an early version of what is really rock and roll saxophone. The latter’s real father, however, is saxist Earl Bostic. If Parker invented bop out of swing, then Bostic, with his raucous transformation of swing vibrato into rock and roll flatulence, invented r & b out of swing.
Rhythm and blues eventually crossed with bop to produce “hard bop”: a fusion of bop phrasing and harmonics with r & b rhythms, particularly the funky beat, that becomes the via media for a music enduringly beset by the burdens of Parker’s precedent. Bop had often used Afro-Cuban instrumentation; the presence of conga and timbales added an extra layer of density to its experimentation with rhythms and time. But the reasons for hard bop’s emergence are more than circumstantial. LeRoi Jones and Arnold Shaw both regard hard bop as an umbrella of protection from Parker musically and from bop ideologically. Shaw even suggests that hard bop was a way lesser musicians, especially sax players, had of swerving from the demands of bop technique. The same could be said of a black public that, as Nelson George has documented, had grown exhausted listening to Parker and Gillespie, and that wanted easier, groovier music that it could simply relax to.
The absence of a canonical center for hard bop—one could choose among any number of group leaders, chief among them Horace Silver and Art Blakey—is a perfect example of its sensibility. Hard bop seeks the erasure of personality in the very act of securing it through deliberately generic, even formulaic means. Whether it is Cannonball Adderley, who played with Miles Davis, or King Curtis, who played with both Lionel Hampton and the Coasters, all of jazz goes on to feed on the synthesis of hard bop. As a common point of origin, hard bop joins the sound of the roadhouses of the 1950s with the revolutionary music of Ornette Colman, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, and John Coltrane in the 1960s. Miles Davis’s inspired (and still criticized) brand of “fusion” jazz beginning in the early 1970s—a mix of jazz and rock—is hard bop’s greatest legacy, and the basis of virtually all later developments in jazz and rock alike. So significant is Davis’s jazz-rock fusion that his earlier role in the history of bop proper is often overshadowed by it. If Parker changes saxophone, it is Davis, not Gillespie, who changes trumpet. Not only does he take on the influence of the single most powerful influence in all of jazz, that of Armstrong, and modulate its enthusiasm into wariness. He also takes on the influence of Parker, for whom he served as trumpet sideman in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Davis' s invention of “cool” jazz after 1955—a calm, selective mode of solo improvisation—is his resolved response to Armstrong and Parker alike.
Hard bop is a superb metaphor for the many tensions that American music and culture hold in suspension in the years that follow World War II. The consummate jazz trope for any resolving or miscegenating style, hard bop is the stance of any number of familiar American mythologies: the fusion of cowboy and dandy in the roughneck spiff of gangster heroes from Jay Gatsby to Michael Corleone; the fusion of country and city in the churchy urbanity of African American writers from W. E. B. Du Bois to Alice Walker; the fusion of low-life vernacular and the learned vocabulary of English Romanticism in the fiction of Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is not only a hard-boiled detective; with his combination of suavity, grit, and mischief, he is a hard bop detective, too.
John Coltrane, who served as Davis’s tenor sideman in the late 1950s, is the last of jazz’s major figures. Dead in 1967, Coltrane’s influence had replaced Parker’s, and remains the dominant style in jazz soloing even today. Like his contemporaries, Coltrane grew up in a climate that featured the consensus of hard bop; it also offered up hard bop’s resources for sale if you wanted to be original. Coltrane was always a dialectical musician. The biting cascades of sound represent both his debt to Parker and his flight from him; the replacement of finger-snapping by the graver blues tone-poem is his surest difference from the bop approach to phrasing, even as it is scarred by the desire to escape it. How does Coltrane win his originality and overcome Parker’s influence? By returning, not to Young, but to Bostic. Here he finds a means of inspiration in Bostic’s earliest of models for r & b phrasing, when it is still attached to the rigors of swing. As a youngster, Coltrane had actually recorded with Bostic at a date in Cincinnati in 1952, when he was also touring with the altoist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and hard bop organist Jimmy Smith.
Coltrane’s revisionist propensities run so deep that they also required him to follow one album with a response in the next, especially in his last phase. The growling, squealing adventures of Ascension, for example, which became a kind of holy text for the “out” jazz movement of the late 1960s, is greeted, with almost preternatural haste, by Meditations, a fearsomely shy and hesitant work. The epochal A Love Supreme is the most fiercely self-conscious effort in the history of jazz recording: each of the album’s movements comments upon and alters the phrasing of the movement before. Here, Coltrane breaks free of jazz history as no saxist before or since, although he does so, inevitably, by negotiating with the very history he transforms.
If jazz made some measure of peace with itself with hard bop, a wider form brought together rhythm and blues with the “gospel” tradition of Thomas A. Dorsey, Jr. to produce an entirely different kind of synthesis. The result is what is often known as “soul.” Soul is rhythm and blues in a post-Jordan mode. Jordan’s singing, including the ensemble chorus behind it on hit tunes such as “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” was still in the tradition of swinging jazz vocalists, chief among them Cab Calloway. Post-Jordan r & b is distinct from it thanks to Dorsey. It crosses the swing manner with another, and presumably opposed sensibility, the sound of the hymn. Soul is, like hard bop, also the result of the synthesis of two apparent antinomies, in this case the secular” and “dirty” stance of the blues and the stance of black religiosity derived from spirituals.
While always a religious man, Dorsey did not place the hymn on a pedestal, as did the earliest concert performers of the African American spiritual, the female Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, who toured Europe in 1871. Dorsey the musician came belatedly to the invention of a religious or gospel music, having first been a blues musician who arranged for such luminaries as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. When Dorsey first heard the music of Charles A. Tindley at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Philadelphia in 1929, his own compositional instincts found both kinship and a foil. Tindley, too, was blues-based, but not confined to the strict, twelve-bar world of its musical grammar. Using the song models of Anglo-Irish spirituals, with sixteen-bar structures often supplemented by a bridge, Tindley’s lyrics and moods were transcendent rather than circular and despondent. Dorsey joined the resources of this new discovery with the musical modalities of the blues itself. After 1929, he never looked back.
Thus, gospel was from the start a synthetic sound, a transformation of the traditional Anglo-Southern hymnal by means of the “classic blues” of the 1920s that had also informed the pre-histories of swing, bop, and r & b all alike. The discovery of a fresher realm from the belated vantage point of classic blues is not a surprising one in the history of blues tradition. Just as Dorsey discovers the sacred on the starboard hand of the secular, so Rainey had discovered the sound of the country blues that preceded classic blues only after she had thrived as a city musician. Nor does Dorsey himself cross only sacred and secular; he also crosses country and city. Like the storefront churches that sprang up in the poor neighborhoods of Northern cities that counted more and more southern emigrants among their populations after World War I, gospel is a theater of Southern inspiration within a Northern frame. By the time soul reaches its apex in the big-city studio sounds behind the voices of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin (all gospel musicians who had graduated to the mainstream), the pattern was polished, and accounted for much of the music’s broad appeal.
Dorsey’s gospel sound blends with the jump sound of early r & b, however, through a mediator: the magnificent sound of the 1950s and early 1960s that we associate with doowop. While doowop’s roots extend to the Ink Spots, an elegant vocal recording group of the swing era that emphasized tight harmonies, falsetto, and “tuba” bass, the sound’s imitators included kids without benefit of instruments, the necessity that became a virtue. It created doowop’s a cappella sound.
By the late 1940s, doowop had grown into a full-scale ghetto genre. By the middle-1950s, its recordings finally crossed over racial marketing lines with hits by the Cleftones, the Flamingoes, the Moonglows, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The next generation of doowoppers—the Platters, the Coasters, and the Drifters—paved the way for a number of solo artists whose names we know far better than those of their ancestors.
Now rhythm and blues hits its full stride. Sam Cooke’s career is a case in point. He was the first gospel star to cross over into commercial success. In 1957, after six years as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, the country’s leading gospel group, he recorded “You Send Me,” a number-one hit and the watershed that marks the transition from gospel proper to soul. The course of Marvin Gaye’s career a few years later on is even more representative. Like Cooke, Gaye began by singing gospel music as a child, although his route to soul stardom included an explicit journey through doowop as a teenager. It also included marrying into the family of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., who produced Gaye’s first hits in the early 1960s.
With Motown, all the elements in the history of jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel come together in the most fully realized sound ever achieved in American popular music. Memphis had the Stax house sound of Booker T. and the MGs; Atlantic Records had an outpost of progress at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. But the crown jewel of soul production was Gordy’s Motown label in Detroit. Motown was, as Smokey Robinson remarks in his autobiography, “a university.” Unlike “high culture” versions of urban art such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the sound of Motown presents the components of tradition, not as fragmented and broken off from a whole, but as related in a multitude of ways. Gordy is a gleeful archaeologist of blues knowledge, using the shuffle beat of Chicago blues, the walking bass lines of hard bop jazz, and the harmonies of doowop-inspired vocal back-ups as backdrop and collateral for an astonishing array of solo singers that included Gaye, Robinson, and Stevie Wonder.
After Sam Cooke, the epicenter of soul is Jackie Wilson. With Wilson, rhythm and blues singing becomes a school or strict canon. Wilson plays Milton to Cooke’s Shakespeare, structuring the diction of a newly unfolding tradition. Even more than Cooke, Wilson isolates a doowop device—the devastating falsetto, with roots in the ancient history of fieldhouse blues—and remakes it into a vocal strategy central to the subsequent history of r & b singing as a whole. Wilson’s 1957 hit, “Reet Petite” (also Gordy’s first published song) features a voice in self-conscious dialogue with itself, jump-cutting from falsetto to natural register and back like the alternating dialects of Chandler's prose or the double style of Mark Twain's that lies behind it.
In Wilson’s train follow, like the Romantic poets following Milton, Robinson and Al Green, to name only two of the principal proponents of soul as it moves into the 1960s and 1970s. Smokey resolves Wilson’s influence by resolving Wilson’s self-dialogue between tenor and mezzosoprano into a single falsetto pitch. Green resolves it again by returning to the self-dialogue. Green agonizes, in the Greek sense of the word, over his relation to Wilson. Green’s preacher father actually dismissed him from the family’s gospel choir as a boy when he caught him with a Wilson record. To contain the anxiety of Wilson’s influence, Green, with some irony, continued to rely on religious tradition, taking much of his performance persona from its investiture of the Passion of Christ. In 1980, Green the soul star also became a minister of God.
If Dorsey married the hymnal and classic blues, what kind of blues did gospel and doopwop marry to produce the synthesis of soul? They crossed with the sound of urban blues, particularly the sound of Chicago blues. Here, concrete history is symbolic. The emergence of Chicago blues can be dated with fair accuracy from the moment of Muddy Waters’s arrival in Chicago from Mississippi in 1943. Waters had already garnered fame as a Delta bluesman, and, in 1944, traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one. The terms of his achievement expanded radically. Not only is his journey up Highway 61 reminiscent of the movement from country to city that defines much of the mythology of black American experience in the twentieth century. Through the electrification of his guitar, Waters adds to the journey the modernist lament of a fall into the nightmare of technology, away from the grace of nature. But this is to read him too jejunely. The most perpetually surprising thing about urban blues is that you sometimes can’t tell the difference between the singer’s voice and his guitar. Waters, characteristically, muddies the waters separating the two. Here the difference between blues tradition and the white culture that surrounds it is especially clear. Waters in effect deconstructs the presuppositions behind the most presumably natural difference of all—the difference between nature and culture.
The Southern urban bluesmen who emerge out of T-Bone Walker in Texas are a groomier bunch than their Northern colleagues (Walker actually precedes Waters, amplifying a swinging guitar with Charlie Christian’s help in the late 1930s), but the same deconstruction of the difference between the savage and the civilized is at work. B. B. King of Memphis is exemplary. The dialogues between voice and guitar do not just cast the guitar (Lucille) as having a singing voice of her own; by implication, they also cast King’s own sweet-as-can-be voice into an instrument par excellence.
Coming as it does after Christian’s invention of electric jazz guitar in the 1930s as a light and supple-toned instrument, Waters’s brutal rhythm guitar of the 1940s is a self-conscious anachronism. It is deliberately atavistic. Its creation of a new, self-consciously primitive persona for the city blues carries the same irony as does any Romantic quest for beginnings. Its earlier African American counterparts include Du Bois’s notion of the “folk” and Zora Neale Hurston’s invention of a rich and fecund South designed to override historical trauma. In all three cases, a Northern perspective creates a rawer Southern appeal.
Now Chuck Berry’s pivotal position in the early rock and roll canon comes into focus. Recording on Chess records in the mid-to late 1950s, Berry worked for the same Chicago label most closely associated with urban blues. But there the similarity ends. The pure singing voice right out of a boys’ choir, riding high over jump riffs of a kind unique for electric guitar, presents a prima facie case for a major new turn in the history of American music. A master at managing overdetermination, Berry is not just a combination of gospel and urban blues. A complex mediation hides the shift that they only enable. The guitar timbre may be that of Waters, who mentored his younger Chess colleague. Something else, however, is afoot. The jump riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” or “Maybelline” come from a plain source, even though the continuity involved is surprising. There is autobiographical testimony to confirm it, and the invocation of the “other” Dorsey’s name as well. It was, says Berry, Tommy Dorsey, the white swing bandleader, who most influenced him as a teenager, and it was Dorsey’s hit, “Boogie Woogie,” that haunted him most of all. In other words, Berry’s signature guitar rifts are really the horn section of a swing orchestra translated into the language and technology of electric guitar. Berry’s signature riffs retrieve the sound of the big bands suppressed by electric blues, but voice it in the latter’s new electric guitar mode. Canceling each with the other, Berry acknowledges and deflects his two principal influences simultaneously. In the process, he also shifts the center of American music from jazz to rock and roll.
Rock and Roll
Gospel music not only created the tradition of soul. It also created the tradition of country music. While country began as an amalgamation of Dixieland, banjo, and picking blues guitar in the form of hillbilly bluegrass, it also began in Texas in the form of country swing. Country swing was an extraordinarily sophisticated music that joined the horn section with a fiddle to revise the sound of the black big bands of Kansas City. The Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts from Nashville always counted black listeners among its audience; listeners and musicians both knew how thin a line separated, or failed to separate, white America from black, especially in the South.
No wonder Buddy Holly’s role in rock and roll history is decisive. Born in the Texas panhandle (he died in a plane crash in 1959), Holly blended country with rhythm and blues to produce a foundation for rock and roll that enabled the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and even Bob Dylan. It is Hank Williams’s voice together with the instrumentation of bluegrass that provides Holly and other white southern musicians with the mode with which they can cross or miscegenate rhythm and blues. Both r & b and country were too close to home. The invention of rock and roll allowed Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley to render the components of both traditions uncanny—something at once familiar and strange. Holly’s “Reminiscing” exemplifies the crossing. King Curtis’s highly manicured rhythm and blues horn dresses up Holly’s wailing vocals over a tight, funky studio band that is missing the one instrument that serves as the model for both the singing and the saxophone: the sound of the banjo that is common to country and blues alike.
Much, then, as hard bop came to organize jazz by the mid-1950s, a synthesis of country and rhythm and blues came to organize rock and roll by the mid-1960s. The Beach Boys are its richest example. So strategic is their achievement, however, that the country dimension of their sound, unlike, say, that of the Everly Brothers, is neatly repressed. Southern white musicians cannot call in the definitive resource that the Beach Boys could: doowop. For the Beach Boys, it is the newer sound of the inner city that mediates between country and rhythm and blues. Surf music is a form of urban folk. If the Beach Boys' voices revise the wail of the Ozarks by virtue of doowop, surf guitar revises the sound of blues guitar by virtue of Chuck Berry.
The eventual model for folk rock, of course, is Bob Dylan. Dylan the singer joins the voices of Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie; Dylan the songwriter joins Main Street and the Imagist lyric. Once Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the die was cast. He also joined, as Waters had, voice and instrument in a byplay of sounds that deconstructed the differences among them. The crossing of lines informs Dylan’s career as a whole. As a youngster playing New York’s Folk City, he sounded like a gnomish old man; as an aging country enthusiast moving towards religion, he sounded like a boy. No rock and roll songwriter has had the degree of Dylan’s influence as a composer, since no other rock and roll songwriter has controlled the overdeterminations of tradition so well.
But it is, with great irony, a non-American rock and roll—the music of the British Invasion of the early 1960s— that catapults it into the hysterical popularity that has defined it ever since. Jackie Wilson caused female fans to faint at his performances, but not until the Beatles did the phenomenon reach the world of white girls. Heirs to Buddy Holly, the Beatles were, even more than the Beach Boys, also heirs to Chuck Berry, who had transformed the sound of the big-band horn section into the sound of electric rhythm guitar. The rock and roll synthesis was nearing completion.
The Rolling Stones finished the job. Keith Richards’s rhythm guitar, like John Lennon’s, carried with it the whole history of the jazz horn section, although now it is reimagined in overdrive, with the help of the Chicago bluesmen. Not an ecumenical band like the Beatles, the Stones were less interested in doowop back-up effects than in taking on the entire history of jazz as amplification revised and refigured it. The distance from America made the British climate richer in invention. The most influential solo guitarists in rock history, Eric Clapton and expatriate American Jimi Hendrix, also found an imaginative home in England in these same years.
The school of Chuck Berry was by now paying staggering dividends. Hendrix was Berry’s most original disciple, hiding his dependence on the master with the groaning, shuddering swerves that define the very sound of his guitar. “Purple Haze” is an overt revision of “Maybelline.” Listen to the two songs back to back, or, better yet, “sample” them—play them at the same time and look out for the uncanny combination of repetition and difference that the relation between them produces. But the school had more than a valedictorian in Hendrix. It also featured guitarists such as the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page, who, with the formation of Led Zeppelin in 1968, completed Berry’s transformation of swing horns into electric guitar by helping to invent the sound of heavy metal. The fashion of the ear-splitting trash guitar band is no fashion. It is the central fact in American musical history that joins the big-band sound of the last era of a popular jazz, swing, with the sound of rock.
The two major trends in rock and roll in the 1970s, disco and punk, have, at least on the surface, little in common. But the good-time party strut of disco and the engine-like thwack of punk rhythm guitar share one central thing: an overheated and overpressured beat, up-tempo and built deep into high-hat, bass, and bass drum. Their common legacy is likewise plain: it is hip hop. Whether it is the Ramones and Donna Summer, or the Sex Pistols and the Village People—sampling them together is a worthwhile exercise—the grinding overdrive of punk tempos and the syncopated oom-pah of disco cymbals are resolved by hip hop time and stance. Reggae—hip hop’s nominal source—provides a strategy to cover the anxiety of influence felt from both.
Despite its seeming radicality, hip hop is a profoundly conservative form musically. Its radicality lies not in the diction of its lyrics, but in its fusion, or re-fusion, of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. It is a synthesis of the two. From Run-D. M. C. to 2 Live Crew, hip hop emphasizes a back beat as a heavy metal rock group would, but also resists it by its conversational vocal stance, which is temporally skewed in relation to it.
Where does the back beat, the most recognizable of rock and roll tropes, come from? The marching band. Much as Armstrong bends the oppressor’s bugle and invents jazz, so rock and roll, following the tradition of black esquadrilles in New Orleans and throughout the South, discovers the back beat as an answer to the sharp cadence of rule. The back beat turns rule back on itself. In the process, it gains a rule of its own.
The Myth of Popular Culture
No discussion of postwar American music can avoid an eventual confrontation with Theodor Adorno’s infamous estimate of jazz in particular and “popular music” in general. Despite his allegiance to the Left, Adorno appears to think very little of the ability of African Americans to think very much at all. Nor is his dull Marxist contention that all “popular music" is lifeless and commodified sufficient intellectual cover for a palpable quality of hatred whose origins only an encounter with the street, or with a psychoanalyst, could explain. In his brackish essays on jazz, Adorno cannot keep bop separate from swing, or New Orleans separate from Chicago. Nor is he embarrassed by his Eurocentrism, which measures all things against classical time signatures and the authority of the maestro rather than the groove. But the crux of Adorno’s dismissal of jazz and, by implication, of blues tradition as a whole, comes in an astonishing passage on the difference between “higher music” and “popular” in the Introduction to the Sociology of Music, published in 1962:
The higher music’s relation to its historical form is dialectical. It catches fire on those forms, melts them down, makes them vanish and return in vanishing. Popular music, on the other hand, uses the types as empty cans into which the material is pressed without interacting with the forms. Unrelated to the forms, the substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization. The substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization.What a dazzling display of allusion. Adorno, the closet Platonist, is actually an aesthete, although a poor one whose appeal to Marx (“withers”) creates a smokescreen to keep the reader from reflecting on what he or she has just read. If the history of jazz and its legates is anything, it is “dialectical.” Far from using its “types as empty cans”—the metaphor is typically flattering—jazz and its musical heirs take the “forms” that enable them as their very subject. However, the distinction between “form” and “material” in any kind of music is misleading, since music has no semantic plane that it signifies, only an endless series of “formal” ones. The “vulgarity” that Adorno assigns to “popular music” is a projection. What is vulgar is the analysis and its presuppositions.
Properly speaking, there is no difference between the “popular” and the “higher” for a simple reason. All traditions are structured dialectically. Whether it is the relation between Mary Tyler Moore and The Dick Van Dyke Show or I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, the revisionary ratios are manifest for any interested viewer. The ceaseless transfigurations in the history of “popular culture” reveal something else, too: the presence of the canonical master, who manages historical overdeterminations and anxieties of influence as the stock-and-trade of his or her business. Chuck Berry’s ability to transform big-band boogie woogie into the jump sound of rock and roll guitar is what makes him canonical, not the imposition upon him of a “moral” or “thematic” role from outside the terms of his medium. He is canonical because he transforms material, to insist on Adorno’s own vocabulary, dialectically. Like painting or literature—or, God forbid, like classical music—blues tradition is a self-conscious and learned tradition. To enjoy it requires education, too, although not, ideally speaking, at a German university.
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Originally published in A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture. Edited by Josephine G. Hendin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.