On Jazz Music, Jazz Politics and “Failed Ideas”

New Music Box, the house organ of the composers advocacy organization New Music USA has issued a two part request: that I respond to a posting attacking my article Jazz after Politics, and that I do so on their site, “subject to . . .  editorial review”.

As for the former, as it is mostly composed of trivial misrepresentations which I have dealt with previously, what I have to say about it I will deliver more or less in passing.  What is worth discussing is the latter: why it would be impossible to convey my reaction under New Music Box editorial auspices. The reason is that doing so requires broaching the main subject which I have been writing about over the past few years, namely, the relationship of the high arts to traditional elites of the past and present. Given that the organization has declared what I and others have to say on this matter essentially off limits, as I will observe in the following, it will be necessary to convey the substance of my position on this matter and on others relating to it elsewhere.

That NMB has imposed and maintains a de facto ban on these subjects may have passed unnoticed by most of its readers, though those who read it carefully will have recognized that something of the sort might be the case.  More conclusive is behind the scenes evidence provided by two episodes from my own experience with them.(1)  The first concerns their having commissioned me to write on composers’ reaction to the Occupy movement which was then attracting considerable attention.  The piece I submitted was initially enthusiastically received by the editors.  However, when it was forwarded it to higher-ups for approval, a problem was detected in that it “named names” of certain dubious financeers who are also funders of new music. Mentioning this rogues’ gallery would, according to them, draw an unfavorable response from their board possibly having financial consequences for their organization.  And so they rejected a piece they both commissioned and approved-or to be more precise, they censored it.

A second piece submitted to them on the subject of the historical relationship between composers and socialist politics was also initially favorably received, albeit in draft form. Unfortunately, the edited version they returned to me eliminated entirely the introduction where the subject of composers’ current relationship to the plutocracy was connected to prior epochs.  The result of this cut and others was logical and rhetorical hash which failed to convey what had been the article’s main point, so I decided to publish it elsewhere.

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While it might initially seem otherwise, I should stress that I am not mentioning these facts to criticize either New Music Box, its parent organization New Music USA, or to criticize them for running this article.

We all make various compromises to manage within the brutal economic realities which capitalism in its late, neoliberal form imposes all of us in the 99%, including artists and arts organizations. When it comes to composers, it has always been the expectation that we keep our opinions to ourselves about the hands which are feeding us and to stifle our inclination (insofar as we have one) to bite them.  In the current climate, what is required goes beyond this traditional arrangement in that what is increasingly expected by elites in exchange for their largesse is not only the suppression of ideas they find unpalatable but actual cheerleading.

That is the context in which the following assertion from the article, which claims to be a defense of jazz against what it sees as my attacks (2), is to be understood.

“It’s The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism.”

While I was initially annoyed by this, in retrospect I’m grateful that the sentence, tying together de rigeur bashing of academics with no nothingist red baiting, appeared.  For if nothing else, it removes any doubts that a hipster variant of rightwing ideology has penetrated into new music circles.

It also serves a nearly perfect illustration of two of the major points of the piece.  The first of these is that jazz has long since lost any connection with a past in which it was taken, at least by the left, to serve as a vehicle for radical, or at least minlmally progressive sentiments.  Long gone are figures such as Max Roach, the “Marxist Mozart” Teddy Wilson or Fred Ho who would have quickly dismissed the description of Marxism as a failed idea.  Now, whatever its purely formal musical virtues, and I heartily agree that these are substantial, jazz has become politically neutered and arguably reactionary, a development the author seems to approve of. (3)

What is likely behind the shift to the right is a second point discussed in the piece, namely, the substantial corporate funding jazz institutions have received over the past decades. A primary objective of this support is that just mentioned: to co-opt potentially dissident voices who might use their reputations to challenge the domination of the 1%.  It has been known for years that making artists aware of who pulls the strings is a guarantee that they will be less likely to exercise their independence, so this tactic should by now be familiar.

Another tactic, however, is more subtle and more insidious:  by supporting an art form deeply rooted in the historical sufferings and struggles of African Americans, elites masquerade as allies, or at least sympathetic.  The reality, as documented by historians Gerald Horne and Edward Baptist, among others, has always been exactly the opposite: economic elites were the predominant beneficiaries of the slave economy, of the Jim Crow policies which followed and, most recently, by the waves of offshoring, deindustrialization and wage stagnation by which African Americans have been among the hardest hit.

As I noted, waving the flag for jazz does effectively nothing for the five centuries of victims of the past or those of the present.  That we as musicians think otherwise is understandable though, of course, delusional on our parts. On the part of elites, however, it is not a delusion at all, but much worse: it is part of a cynical game by which they exempt themselves from legitimate demands that they return some reasonable fraction of the wealth they have accumulated on the backs (disproportionately African) of those who have produced it.  What they offer as compensation is patronage for a tiny percentage of those involved in the creative arts judged as “worthy”.  That this is a distraction from the unpleasant reality is among the core “failed ideas” that can’t be mentioned in New Music Box, except as a smear.

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It is, of course, well known that the establishment media functions as a megaphone for the elites agenda while limiting access to those attempting to challenge it. While it does consistently excellent work, like many other mainstream outlets, New Music Box is ultimately part of this establishment.

Given this fact, I hope that New Music Box has convinced its board that composers and jazz musicians’ flirtation with radical, anti-capitalist politics is long in the past.  Let’s hope that nine and ten figure contributions to NMB are in the mail though for reasons I have discussed, I don’t consider this likely.

In the meantime, composers and musicians need all the help they can get. New Music USA plays a vital role in providing it and they should continue in this capacity.

But that does not exempt those benefitting from it from the responsibility to recognize the ultimate taint from which the support derives and the underlying agenda being advanced through it.

 

The article is a useful demonstration of how far we need to go to achieve this awareness.

(1) I have informally recounted some of this story here.

(2) As discussed here, my response to the jazz canon should be seen as normal criticism of the sort which any serious artform should not only expect but welcome.
(3) Rather than applauding jazz’s right wing turn, other response to the piece challenged the claim that jazz musicians are no longer sympathetic to left wing causes. It’s obvious by now that the “concerts that jazz musicians staged in support of U.S. President Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008”, taken as an indication of left sympathies should be viewed as quite the opposite.

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One thought on “On Jazz Music, Jazz Politics and “Failed Ideas””

  1. I don’t doubt that the jazz musicians who staged concerts in 2008 in support of Obama’s candidacy THOUGHT they were supporting “the left,” though. For a great many people, “the left” means “anything not as reactionary as the Republicans.” And hey, Obama’s black, and he’s a Democrat, so he must be “left,” right? This is how many people think, as they lack much in the way of political education. (This may sound elitist but it’s nevertheless true.)

    (Though it’s also true that many people — if teaching young people at CUNY schools for ten years has taught me anything — have no idea what “left” and “right” even mean, either.)

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