Jazz: An Unfinished Conversation (Race and Language in the Digital Age)

Jazz was – among other things – a century-long political conversation between Black Americans and White Americans. It was a musical, intellectual and spiritual conversation within a highly politicized social context whose axes were language, race and power.

Jazz was also a conversation about technology, and about techno-cultures. To be specific, in jazz the conflict between literate eurocentrism and oral afrocentrism was constantly made manifest. The technology (and culture) of the human voice and the technology (culture) of the written word have been at war since the dawn of writing itself, and in America, in jazz, that conflict was primordial. For Black Americans, jazz represented the power of the generative word yet it could only exist publicly stripped of cognitive meaning, relying on a panoply of creative codes to transfer revolutionary meanings from Black ear to Black ear. And on the flipside, for White Americans, jazz (and its children R’n’B,  Rock’n’Roll, funk, disco etc.) represented the liberation of the embodied social and sexual imagination from the restrictive confines of the passive-aggressive and prudish printed page, and arguably acted as the single greatest catalyst for the social revolutions that shook America throughout the century, both those that reordered the relationships between Black and White Americans and others.

Yet the political conversation that was jazz now plays out in a different social context, with different musical tools, and towards different political ends. Above all, coded conversations are a thing of the past. At least those that were coded out of necessity, out of fear, out of resistance and need. On the contrary, since the early 1960s when Black civil rights were  incrementally obtained, the popular Black – and (the inevitably following) White ear – has turned from instrumental  jazz codes to other forms of popular music, from Soul to Reggae to Hiphop – in which singers and MCs can – and do – express the full spectrum of their political aspirations and feelings with potency and passion.

Although we might well wonder why – since they now possess this power – so few choose to exercise it for the common good in this age of glorified thuggery and bling. But I’ll return to that question in another post.

For now I want to talk about jazz and race and the technology of writing. And specifically writing about jazz on the web. I recently came across a couple of interesting examples of this. First there are the provocative blog posts of Nicholas Payton, a renowned trumpet player who insists he doesn’t play jazz (which he says died in 1959 and which he derides as a colonial term that he refers to as the J-word) but instead plays Post-Modern New-Orleans Music. (Payton is actually from N’awlins.) He is a polemical, pugilistic and very intelligent writer who despite – or perhaps because – his ego is the size of Stagolee’s, says a lot of bold and interesting things. Like this:

“The Jazz musician will never be free, not in music, not in America. To call the music Jazz is to enslave a music that was meant to be free. To call Black music Jazz, is to call a Black person a Nigger. As long as it’s Jazz, some White person like this guy is going to feel entitled to let you know just what your place is in his world.”

And right on cue, following his posting of this and other similarly provocative sentiments, at least one white critic with a large online presence, ironically named Black Black, did just that, mocking and generally dissing Payton’s career, music and ideas while insisting that Payton’s racial analysis was divisive and outdated. Black believes that jazz is essentially post-racial, that it always has been, and that Payton’s words represent “Racial separatist venom at it’s finest.”

Now, the part about jazz having always been somehow post-racial is obviously deeply misguided. Black didn’t use those exact words but that was the gist of his earlier posts (now deleted). It’s misguided because anyone who doesn’t understand that jazz was Black music made by and for Black people first and foremost is rather missing the most essential point.

But as for jazz being post-racial today, I think this is closer to the truth. Although the actual truth is that Payton is right. Jazz is dead. More dead – I would argue – than even Payton is willing to admit. And that the popular Black music known as jazz (which I would personally argue died – or at least went into a gloriously satisfying retirement – in about 1967, after Coltrane ascended to whatever heaven he currently inhabits) exists as influence only. As one musical tradition amongst many others from klezmer to mariachi to soukous to punk and further afield, all of which contemporary musicians remix and mashup to their pleasure, and ours. And that global musical mashup of Post-Modern New Orleans Music with Post-Modern Everywhere Music is, truly, post-racial. Or polyracial, perhaps. But it ain’t Black anymore. Even hiphop isn’t Black music anymore. Like jazz it is world music.

In America in particular, this is most evident in the fact that so few young jazz musicians are black. And why would they be? Jazz music emerged from a very specific social context, and had a very specific purpose above and beyond good times and great sounds. Jazz was a story, a shared narrative rooted in a time and place, a culture, all of which are no more. Today jazz is a great musical school and a great musical ingredient, a wonderful and rich classical music where improvisers can live and play, and occasionally even discover a new twist to an old tale, but it is not – unless it is being mixed into a post-racial post-modern musical melting pot – an authentic living music anymore.

So in a sense both Payton and Black are right, though Black is really only right by accident (since he doesn’t know jazz is dead, being a moldy fig jazz critic of the old school) and Payton has a lot more worthwhile insights. (Payton is also, of course, a musician, unlike his adversary, which makes his point rather emphatically.)

Lastly, it is crucial to note that this discussion is happening online, where I can chime in, and so can you. (Please do). Because the web represents the future of public improvisation, both musical and social. It represents the triumph of many jazz values, such as the constant renegotiation of reality in the moment and the rule of relationships and creative iterations rather than creative artifacts. The web is all about blowing, and it represents the next home of the political conversation that jazz once embodied, except now the whole world is in on it.

The web is a dialogical culture, just like jazz. And online, as in jazz, creative conversations between equals are the essential political message. The sharing of meanings and dreams and the invention of possibilities through collaboration and communication, the creation of community through communal conversation. All enabled by a mutating technology, a morphing medium where literate distinctions like audience and artist, producer and consumer, reader and writer are entirely irrelevant. Just like that old-time New Orleans music, just like a second line rambling back from the cemetery, bringing everyone back to the hood for a party, though in this case it is the global hood. So that in the 21st century anyone can say about the Internet what Black Americans could say about jazz in the 20th, “This is our music”.

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