When Jazzbros Attack

While I enjoyed writing it, I confess that I was not looking forward to the various screeds which were sure to emerge in response to my Jacobin piece Jazz after Politics.

As mentioned, jazz audiences tend to be disproportionately drawn from the “jazzbro” demographic whose linguistic competence rarely extends much beyond monosyllabic obscenities. And so it wasn’t a surprise that “Fuck this shit” became a fairly representative utterance posted to various comment sections though I was taken aback by the small flood of hate mail coming over my transom.I use the term “bro” here advisedly, as with one  exception, the outpouring of invective derived from names such as “Ryan”, “John”, “Mark”, “Jacob”, “Andrei”, “Jesse”, a lone “Esther” appearing among a sample of 30 odd names.


That implies that jazz remains as gonadally challenged as it was when, as I well recall, unmitigated misogyny towards “chick singers” was routine.  In any case, these ejaculations served as a useful reminder that I neglected to mention women as a constituency joining others who have long since voted with their feet to escape the stultifying embrace of the jazzbros.

In addition to these was a minority of responses which managed to communicate something other than baffled contempt by managing to make empirically verifiable claims. As might be expected, these were not of much better quality, among them the confident assertion that I “know nothing about jazz.”

As a subsequent commenter noted, this is worthy of nothing more than an “lol” given that as a performing musician in San Francisco and New York in the 1980s working with, among others, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Henderson, and Freddie Hubbard, I am intimately familiar with most of the classic repertoire and syntax of the genre.

Those parading their ignorance about my expertise no doubt assume they are doing God’s work by defending jazz from the infidels.  But in fact they are doing nothing other than making themselves, and by extension, jazz, look absurd.  LOL indeed.

What seems to lie behind this display of willful blindness is the assumption that that one cannot deeply admire an art form while maintaining a critical awareness of when and how it fails to achieve its expressive aspirations.

Of course, this is routine in concert music: pretty much everyone will admit that Beethoven is a great composer but that Wellington’s Victory March is a compositional disaster.  Same with Brahms’s Triumphlied.  Even some of us find certain pieces by Schubert saccharine, Mahler overwrought, Lizst annoying, etc.

But critical admiration, the only admiration worth taking seriously, is anathema to the Manichean jazzbro mentality.  In jazz circles, deference to authority is de riguer, those violating taboos by asking questions consigned to the gallows or targeted for ritualistic abuse.

One such taboo topic came up in the piece, namely, whether the great saxophonist and composer Joe Henderson could have been “oblivious” to the now long forgotten racist lyrics of a standard tune he recorded in the mid 1960s.

Daring to view this matter critically elicited the expected torrent of hostility:
“How dare John fucking Halle purport to know what Joe Henderson was thinking?” asked one blogger.

The simple answer to the question is that I know because I asked Henderson when i was on a gig with him in San Francisco in the mid 1980s. His response clearly indicated that he was entirely unaware of them, which is to say, he was “oblivious.”


But even if I didn’t know this based on first hand evidence, the music provides clear evidence that it is the case:  the harmonization, instrumentation, form, and basic character are no different from the treatment accorded numerous other pretty songs which Henderson recorded over his career.  Had Henderson been responding to the vile racist sentiment, by fashioning, as pianist Ethan Iverson claims, “absolutely a political statement about pretty tunes, hard bebop, Coltrane, race, velocity, and transition” it would have been required to be different in kind from the others in at least one significant respect.  But the much vaunted “scholarly” retort fails to identify any such characteristic, nor does it even attempt to do so-for the obvious reason that it can’t be done.

The gambit here is, of course, familiar as a variant of the long standing debates on Shostakovich, specifically the claims by partisans that the music reveals him to be “a hidden dissident”.  For Shostakovich, there is at least a superficial basis for the assertion: the  minor key, aggressive character of the scherzo of the tenth symphony could be construed as “a musical portrait of Stalin.”  The same goes for the ultra triumphant finale of the fifth symphony which could be construed, as Solomon Volkov notoriously claimed, as representing the “forced rejoicing” required of loyal citizens.  Similarly, the “torpid” third movement could be understood as memorializing the victims of the purges.  The key word here, of course, is “could” for all of the evidence indicates that nothing of the sort WAS the case, as scholars such as Laurel Fay, Richard Taruskin and others have taken pains to point out.
The difference with respect to the claims for Henderson’s arrangement of Without a Song is that there is nothing to debunk.  While Iverson will, of course, deny it, I’d be willing to bet that he, or the other jazzers reacting with such outrage, never had any idea of the original lyrics before they encountered them on Sunday.   His construction of the ex-post facto ironic narrative is pure invention-a bad faith attempt to shore up the ideological foundations of the music-a task which is both futile and, as I mention in the piece, entirely unnecessary.
Utlimately, the real problem here isn’t intellectual dishonesty but rather the stultifying, cultish atmosphere surrounding jazz, one which craves establishment respectability while dismissing as heretical any failure to wave the pom-poms with sufficient enthusiasm.
Of course, the music of Shostakovich survived his defenders and there’s no reason to think Joe Henderson will fail to survive his.  I’d like to think, based on the few brief conversations I had with this elegant, brilliant and occasionally eccentric genius that he’d be the first to grow tired of the tedious, universal, uncritical adulation directed at him by cultists and quickly show them the door.
Updated: 9/11/14
Ethan Iverson seems to think that I am “scolding” Joe Henderson.  That is the case only insofar as centuries of critics and scholars have been “scolding” great artists when they discuss what they regard as flaws in some major or minor aspect of their work. As I have pointed out ad nauseum, it is only in cults that such a conversation is impossible, and it is clear from the unhinged reaction to my attempts to have it that jazz has regrettably assumed this status, the obscenity laced tirades and frantic retweeting of banalities or trivial falsehoods accomplishing nothing other than further revealing to those outside what they had already suspected to be the case about jazzbro culture. Iverson’s response is unusual and maybe unique among these in that he does not dismiss with contempt an attempt to reconcile the musical form of a work with its immanent content.  Indeed, Iverson implicitly accepts that it may be at times necessary or at least desirable to wrestle with the question.


The problem is with the evidence which Iverson provides, including his useful transcription, which simply reinforces the point that Henderson’s treatment of Without a Song is little different in kind from other standards with which he was associated over his career.  Yes, there is the minimal reharmonization, but why should a reharmonization indicate any kind of critical perspective on the source?  Are we to interpret Coltrane’s reharmonization of Body and Soul as somehow a repudiation of the underlying lovey dovey sentiments of the original?  In both cases, it is exactly as Iverson shows, a technique to introduce a quicker circulation of pitch materials allowing both Coltrane and Henderson to demonstrate their remarkable fluency in negotiating these.

Had Henderson transposed the entire song into a minor dirge (along the lines of, say, Coltrane’s Alabama) that would have indicated an awareness and a response, or had he somehow transformed it into a blistering group free improvisiation along the lines of Coltrane’s Ascension or Freddie Hubbard’s Sing me a Song of Song My.  But Henderson does nothing of the kind-altering only slightly the original tempo of the song, maintaining the bright harmonies and essential upbeat sensibility of the original.

Does this matter?  As I say repeatedly, for many listeners, it does not and that was the case for me when I first discovered the recording in the mid seventies and wore it out on my Thorens TD 160 turntable.  It was only some years later that I became aware of the back story and began to feel that there was something absurd about the discontinuity. Those who find this difficult to understand should consider what their response would have been had Henderson performed a slightly reharmonized, up tempo arrangement of the Horst Wessel song.  Would anyone regard that as anything other than weird if not altogether pathological?  Why should an equally offensive relic of Jim Crow culture be regarded any differently by us? That so many are willing to take this in stride is unfortunately indicative yet again of one of the essential points of my piece: that society shows repeatedly that it does not care about black people-all of our genuflections to certain selective artifacts of their culture notwithstanding.

That said, I wouldn’t have discussed this had I not felt there was a larger critical observation to be made: as a general matter, I do feel that jazz overemphasizes autonomous syntax sometimes at the expense of considering the expressive ends to which these syntactic means are put.  Interestingly, in that respect it shares some similarities with post-war modernism of the Second Viennese School and its numerous descendants in the domestic academy which I have also been critical of.

While I find the general tendency disturbing, I should make clear that jazz musicians, when they choose to do so, can register an awareness of the implicit and explicit expressive content of standard tunes and react to it, or even against it.

To give an example of a classic performance from the jazz repertoire which arguably does just that, I’d point to Bud Powell’s rendering of Bronislaw Kaper’s All God’s Chillun . While not nearly as offensive as Without a Song, the lyrics clearly trade off the same class of stereotypes which are made gruesomely explicit in Without a Song:

All God’s chillun got rhythm, all God’s chillun got swing
Maybe haven’t got money, maybe haven’t got shoes
All God’s chillun got rhythm for to push away their blues

Powell’s response, as I hear it, was to eviscerate the original, imposing on it what can only be called a proto thrash metal arrangment.  The tempo is not just fast, of the sort which only he could manage (as he shows in Cherokee and Tempus Fugit) it is faster than fast, reminscent of Schumann’s marking in the Symphonic Etudes: Presto Possibile, followed a few pages later by Piu Presto in the coda.  The effect is extraordinary-in its protean virtuousity but also in its seeming unalloyed contempt for the source.

Is this a viable reading?  Unlike the case of Without a Song I have no external evidence that Powell was aware of the lyrics or of the trivializing portrayal in the movie A Day at the Races where the song was employed-though it’s likely that he was.  What we do know is that Powell was a repeated victim of racist violence and it appears that, unlike Charlie Parker and Lester Young who managed elaborate and evidently sufficiently effective strategies for coping with it, Powell had few adequate emotional and practical defenses (hence his bouts with institutionalization). As such it is the rawness of Powell’s emotions which comes through in this rendition-counterpoised to the perfect, effortless fluency with which Henderson negotiates the changes in Without a Song.
Do I wish Henderson had pushed himself to do more?  Yes I do.  Does this in any way significantly diminish his stature as an artist?  No it does not.  Is this matter and others related to it not worth discussing? Only if one is comfortable with the intellectually debased musical culture which the jazzbro contingent seems to desire and has succeeded, at least in part, in imposing.