Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Frank Kofsky's Jazz

I thought it would be appropriate to use the time traveling to Oregon for the RPA to read Frank Kofsky's Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), and it was time well spent. In retrospect, I am quite surprised that it took so long for me to read it (it's been sitting on my shelves for several years, unread beyond a few pages here and there). Which is too bad because Kofsky treats the world of jazz as a microcosm of the socio-political upheaval that showed so much promise in the 1960s and early 1970s. That Kofsky is not your typical jazz critic can be seen in the preface, when he acknowledges the importance of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and even Plehkanov to his approach.

The book (note that I'm using the first edition rather than the more recent revised version) is broken into four parts: a critique of the critics, an analysis of black nationalism in post-bop jazz, the interviews or articles about selected members of Coltrane's so-called "classic" quartet (but, wait, where's the chapter on Jimmy Garrison?), and something like a coda on Malcolm X. The theme unifying these sections is that black nationalism is at the heart of the advances of jazz. Rather than a story of technical advances by a series of proficient players who seek to innovate for innovation's sake (which is the attitude Kofsky attributes to white musicians seeking to inscribe jazz in classical European musics), each qualitative leap in jazz is related to, and expresses, upheaval in the black community and advance in black nationalism, that is, the successive moments of black self-consciousness as a group oppressed in the United States. Instead of a straightforward review, I only want to register a few thoughts.

First, Kofsky's critique of the critics is a first-rate analysis of the ways in which so-called criticism serves to domesticate and dismantle the political message of avant-garde jazz. He argues that the white establishment in criticism dismisses black nationalism because it is a challenge to the establishment's position of privilege (which, Kofsky adds, is an assertion of white privilege) within the jazz milieu. Rather than dismiss (reject, edit out, or accuse of reverse racism) the strains of black nationalism in avant-garde jazz so that the white critic can listen to his jazz records without a feeling of bad conscience, criticism ought to 1) "muckrake [and] lay bare the sordid conditions that prevail within the jazz milieu" (80) including the exploitation of black musicians in clubs and by record labels. 2) Critics could relate "the present revolution in jazz to the changes in society that have helped shape it" (81). Instead, Kofsky finds, the critics want jazz within what they have established as a set of aesthetically pleasing parameters, without the challenge to white supremacy (not that they don't see oppression-- as Kofsky points out Mike Zwerin never tired of pointing out oppression in the Soviet Union while ignoring it at home, and, I might add later ruined his book Swing under the Nazis with his egotistical and narrow-minded rants about how life has treated him unfairly). While I can't repeat it all here, the evidence, especially against Down Beat, is staggering.

In the second and third parts Kofsky faces a more difficult challenge than he did in his critique of the critics. He seeks to establish the central role of John Coltrane in the advance of black nationalism in jazz. As we know, Coltrane, and many others, were quite reticent to discuss their political views, knowing that their more outspoken comrades, such as Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, or Cecil Taylor could never find sustained gigs. Much of Part 2 is dedicated to showing how the white ownership of the means of production in jazz music penalizes those who speak out about the political status of black Americans; that is, Kofsky seeks to show how the reticence is tied to determinate socio-political conditions. 

Admittedly, getting Coltrane or McCoy Tyner to speak on record about black nationalism was difficult. Nevertheless, one can see how they would approach the topics while refusing to use the terminology. One sees how they signal assent to many of Kofsky's radical claims without repeating  the rhetoric, noting that the black musician cannot escape a socially and economically segregated United States. Here's Tyner, after expressing some reticence to talk politics:
Kofsky: Do you think in jazz white musicians get better treatment than blacks, on the whole?
Tyner: In jazz? Well, to tell you the truth, I really couldn't be conclusive on that; but one thing I do feel: that being that society is the way it is, and white supremacy seems to be a dominant thing, it's only natural that a white musician, under certain circumstances, would get better treatment (212).
And here is one of my favorite passages from the Coltrane interview:
Kofsky: In particular, some of the people have said that jazz is opposed to poverty, to suffering, and to oppression; and, therefore, that jazz is opposed to what the United States is doing in Vietnam. [...]
Coltrane: In my opinion I would say yes, because jazz-- if you want to call it that; we'll talk about that later-- to me, it is an expression; and that this music is an expression of higher ideals, to me. So therefore, brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. And also, with brotherhood, there would be no war (227-228). 
Even though more scholarly treatments of avant-garde jazz have appeared in recent years, and despite the fact that Kofsky might have overcorrected at points against the criticism of his time, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music remains a crucial reference for those interested in the politics of avant-garde jazz during its peak. Not to mention that Kofsky's book motivated me to give a new listen to records I hadn't listened to lately-- especially Albert Ayler.

Within the next few weeks I plan on posting a review of Kofsky's more recent Black Music, White Business.

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