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.

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17 thoughts on “When Jazzbros Attack”

  1. african-american musicians have been taking heat from white critics for as long as both have existed. c’mon man, it’s 2014.

    sure, lots of jazz fans are boring white dudes. sure, there are lots of mediocre improvisors out there. sure, people who support african-american classical music aka jazz (a small percentage of americans) get upset when the thing they love gets disparaged. because it’s been getting disparaged since the very beginnings of the music, and it never seems to let up.

    i guess it feels like missing the point when a discussion of joe henderson’s performance of “without a song” focuses on forgotten lyrics that aren’t even present in henderson’s version; while ignoring the fact that the jam is a white-hot blast of hard-swingin’ emotional expression.

    i’m not sure what kinds of jazz you’re wasting your time with, mr. hale. when i check out jason moran, vijay iyer, charles lloyd or gerald cleaver–whether i’m at their concert, reading their twitter feed or buying their records–i see engagement with broader ideas including race & politics; not to mention with women, with people of color, and with intelligent art lovers who couldn’t care less about a minor key or aggressive scherzo. there are plenty of people who just want to be moved by seeing improvisor/composers react to the moment.

    speaking of which, it’s damn shame that this conversation is happening among “jazzbros,” critics & college professors in their ivory towers. meanwhile, most of the musicians who played on “without a song”–kenny barron, louis hayes, ron carter, grachan moncur III–are still out there in the trenches, putting a lifetime of soul into their art. where are there voices? why aren’t we hearing from them?

    maybe there’s print space in the jacobin for an interview with some elder african-american musicians.

    a brother in jazz

    p.s. you misspelled “freddie hubbard.” :0

    1. I appreciate your comment a lot. Thanks for taking the time. I’d bet if we sat down for a couple of beers we’d discover we agree on a lot, including some of what you say here. But we do, I think have an honest disagreement on two points. 1) I don’t think the problem is that the music is getting disparaged all that much, or even criticized. My perspective is that it has almost 100% approval, particularly among intellectuals and academics. In all my years in universities, I can’t remember anyone once disparaging the music-or even criticizing any aspect of it. The problem with that is that people, which is to say normal audiences, don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions out of fear of appearing inadequate or uniformed. As I say, that’s death to an art form, so it seems to me that jazz needs more criticism, not less, which is why the defensiveness on display in reaction to this is both disturbing and counterproductive if you admire the music. 2) I don’t mean to be critical of the quality of jazz which is on the scene today-this is by no means one of those “everything was better back then” screeds. In fact, I like a lot of what I hear a great deal. What I’m observing here, however, is that if it was ever the case that there was a political/adversarial position implicit in jazz (and that might never have been really the case), it has long since lost it. That’s a different matter from whether the music is good or bad: a lot of music whose politics I admire doesn’t work for me as music-and I imagine that’s true for most people. Finally, here’s a point we agree on. I would be great to have a Jacobin interview with any of those guys you mention. You’re obviously a smart, knowledgeable and articulate guy. Why don’t you do it and send it out to Jacobin. I’ll be glad to lobby them to publish it. P.S. Thanks for correcting my spelling!

  2. I believe what Iverson was referring to was Henderson’s reharminization of “without a song” using Coltrane changes.

  3. man, it seems like you are annoyed that jazz doesn’t provide as much fodder for academic inquiry as classical does. basically, only an smug academic would be able to write something condemning jazz so strongly and unambiguously off of such cherry-picked evidence. no one else would have that much hubris. white academics in the humanities aren’t capable of providing a worthwhile analysis or critique of black genius. isn’t that obvious? you validate jazz by comparing it to an advanced school of european classical music, which is imminently analyzable for music professors. it’s not that jazz is too shallow to admit to such a critique, but that such a critique is too shallow to illuminate or problematize jazz. – an inarticulate jazzbro

  4. I translated your article in Romanian. Here it is: http://wp.me/pWdEA-od
    Reading it was a breathe of fresh air.
    Did you know that April the 30th was declared International Jazz Day by Unesco? The Romanian jazz establishment organized on the day a series of concerts in Bucharest in which most of the players performed pro bono, just for the sake of advertising. The day culminated with a jam session which filled up the otherwise empty club, most of it with musicians and their friends. The club charged an entry fee from which the organizer kept his usual share of 25-33% (he gets more money than any musician on stage) after splitting it with the house band. At 5 30 next morning (ironically, it was the 1st of May), as I was leaving with fellow musicians, having played for hours, I found out I needed extra $16 to pay the bill (it was nothing on the house) which I couldn’t borrow. I phoned up the organizer (I play in his venue for 20 years, since its inception) to get to pay him later, which he didn’t agree. The barmen closed the club’s doors to force me pay. After 20 minutes of hassle I called the police to be able to leave, which I had after completing the report. Later, when I phoned him up, he claimed that he’s called the police himself after being phoned by the staff about my antisocial behavior, which is conflicting with the police report. This person is, such most of the establishment here, closely linked with the local version of CIA called “Securitate” before 1989, which has preserved its influence over time, and nowadays organizes events in collaboration with US embassy celebrating his 20th year of jazz activity. His ownership of the club was carefully hidden until last year, when he got arrested and spent a day in jail for tax evasion revealing that he cashes the rent himself. He always said that the rent is huge and he can’t afford to pay the musicians anything but dismal. He actually cashes the rent for other places in town while keeping a heavy hand on the local jazz scene and being really loud on his love for jazz. There is no musicians’ union in this country, as in Europe or US, and observing the electoral campaign currently going on here, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be any time in the near future. The funny thing about the “Green Hours” club is that it purports to be leftist and environmentalist such as its following jazzbros, mainly composed of yuppies. Its latest event is called “Celebrations Of The Spirit”, in English in original, as in Romanian would sound really dreadful. They actually failed to specify it’s The Spirit Of The US Department of State in world premiere. Check it out: http://life.hotnews.ro/stiri-muzica-18036402-premiera-mondiala-romania-teodora-enache-aisha-benny-rietveld-quintet-sua-brasov-bucuresti.htm

    1. Amazing. Thanks so much. Interestingly, the role of the CIA in promoting jazz as “the sound of democracy” has been almost entirely ignored by the left which tends to focus on its promotion of various forms of artistic modernism-most notably abstract expressionism in the visual arts. (Frances Stonor Saunders The Cultural Cold war is good on this.) Also, this reminds me of the infamous CIA memo which celebrated the election of an African American president as this would “enhance US credibility”, particularly in Eastern Europe. Looks like the one-two punch of Obama plus jazz did/is doing the trick!

  5. Could be… I actually started to listen jazz in 1987 when Broobeck came to Moscow and my elder brother, who was in charge with family’s magnetophone, taped the tv broadcast and I didn’t listen to anything else for six months (it didn’t last too long, though). But unfortunately today’s jazz scene here is crafted by and for jazzbros and there’s nothing to be seen/done jazzwise, really. It has gained an intellectualist uptight attitude which completely destroys it. Any jazz aficionado would raise eyebrows hearing about left having anything to do with jazz. It used to be different a couple of years ago, but is getting worse as they’re closing in Ukraine, I suppose. No leftist messages allowed in the media, everyone bellicose. If that’s the wheel of history, it doesn’t sound good. It kills the swing.

  6. After that particular Mayday I actually started to act as an activist, filed a petition to the UN, announced my candidature to the Romanian Presidency (voting day the 2nd November) and other silly stuff such as translating various Leftist writings on my blog. Some of the stuff is in English, please check it out… Even made a logo called “We Are One” and a slogan that says “I am a prisoner on may own planet” on an old Romanian communist children’s melody with which everyone here grew up with… Unfortunately, most of the people nowadays are not really used to reading and listening, there is a background noise attached to everything that seems to render any communication jammed. The most unfortunate sense of the verb “to jam”. Did you know that Romanian current president got to render communism (and, effectively, the Left) morally illegal by presidential decree in 2006? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Commission_for_the_Study_of_the_Communist_Dictatorship_in_Romania

  7. I’ve read your Jacobin article a couple of times today. I have several objections to the arguments you’re making. First is the broad category of “jazz” to mean the subset of jazz with the characteristics you don’t like. You may believe those characteristics are self-evidently typical and nearly universal, but that’s simply wrong. Criticizing a whole genre or art form or culture based on what you assert without evidence are its typical flaws is not useful. In fact, that kind of disdain for a whole cultural project *is* redolent of racism or ethnocentrism, and that similarity that you say several of your readers have noted, however rudely or crudely they’ve stated it, is not so easy to dismiss. What does a categorical put-down of a whole body of work (which you don’t really make clear is a single body of work) by thousands of artists over a period of years tell us? The entire argument is then about the boundaries of the category, and no one will agree on those, nor of any attempt to characterize what’s typical of everything within those boundaries. Why not express your disdain for particular pieces or instances of mediocrity or artistic failure without asserting that they are representative of the whole? That’s the territory of middle-brow comedians, but done without the pay-off of a laugh. (Jack Black and Stephen Colbert have already made your point on late-night TV: bad jazz is bad in a particularly bad-jazz way.)

    Is it really an important insight to say that some, even much, jazz is bad? Are you implying that a higher percentage of some other art form or practice better, or that this is a new and unique situation? It’s like saying conversation is rarely as good as the best dialogue in the best plays, therefore I’m sick of conversation; let’s have less of it. There are also many bad plays, and there is some pretty good conversation; rarely there’s a bit of brilliant, amazing conversation. What are we learning from these observations? That a theme followed by improvised solos followed by a recapitulation is no guarantee of great music? What is? Sometimes the improvisations are great, or at least pretty interesting, and the aspiration to get there is compelling to those who care. A truly great, nearly perfect jazz performance may be about as common as a great painting or poem or composition; it’s been a while since we’ve had one, and no one is required to consume them in the meantime, but there is an audience and group of artists who find the effort worthwhile. “Down with them”?; is that the point?

    I’m immersed every day or week in at least two distinct communities of jazz musicians in the Northeastern US, in communities of college jazz teachers and students, and in the community of jazz history researchers, and I read a lot of the popular and academic writing on jazz. I don’t recognize your characterization of any of these scenes as intolerant of all criticism. There is no aversion to criticism of particular performances, of trends, of the limitations of traditional practice, of the dangers of certain demographic and economic trends in audiences and players with access to education and business. These are the subjects of constant, open debate. Who are these people who think all jazz is perfect and who can’t brook any form of criticism? Of course, there are always a couple of institutional cheerleaders playing their predictable roles, like anyone who is fundraising has to do. “Jazz is America’s classical music,” “jazz is democracy in action,” etc. Those are feel-good statements for public consumption to reassure funders and broadcasters and programmers, not dominant voices or representative of real dialogue on the ground.

    About Joe Henderson’s alleged oblivousness to the lyrics of “Without a Song,” I’d love to read your best recollection of the conversation, word for word. African-Americans of his generation, and many others, knew Billy Eckstine’s dignified and clearly reclaimed version of the song with its altered lyrics, a hit record in their youth. (Most jazz musicians I associate with know it today.) Certainly Joe Henderson knew it, and knew that Sonny Rollins, who can’t be accused of obliviousness to lyrics, had recently and famously recorded the song. Do you really not know this (Google?), or are you being disingenuous? I didn’t know Joe Henderson really, but I observed that he was often reluctant to engage in conversation, and in his SF days, as you probably know, there may have been an herbal element to that reticence which could be, I think, misinterpreted as obliviousness if his obvious critical intelligence (for example, in easily accessible published and recorded interviews) was not already known. It doesn’t require more than general knowledge, certainly nothing about the secret meaning of reharms or discovery of abstruse symbols of deconstruction, to see that when black musicians of Henderson’s generation played standards, they were using and abstracting them for their own ends, which had little to do with their previous incarnations. It’s possible he didn’t know the original words and only knew Eckstine’s performance and words, and Rollins’ performance. That he knew neither of those is not plausible. Why don’t you mention them? Cursory research before slandering someone you encountered on a pick-up gig seems advisable. I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

    Anyway, you indicate some awareness that many, many standards in jazz repertoire have lyrics that, even if only a few in current circulation have words like “darky,” depict racist characterizations, longing for the good old days of slavery and the plantation, use offensively exaggerated pseudo-dialect, etc. Virtually none of the jazz musicians I’ve known well, at least in the US, have ever struck me as oblivious to this fact or to the general cultural resonance(s) (including racial and class overtones and general squareness) of the show-tune repertoire. They react to it in varied ways, some not highly audible or easily interpreted as disapproval, but I wouldn’t say obliviousness was common. (Yes, younger players know less history and fewer lyrics. Some are learning. Some don’t play standards anyway. Etc.)

    I know this is far too long, unedited, disorganized. But I also have to question your implied past where there was some clearer, unified and uncomplicated association between jazz and The Left. 1968? Yes, and maybe even 1959-69, for a notable and visible cohort that could seem typical of high-profile jazz in general. But Lionel Hampton and Ruby Braff and Steve Lacy and Max Roach all lived and worked at the same time. Maybe we’re talking about nostalgia for ignorance (a time when we only knew about certain parts of “jazz”) or a dream rather than a real past that existed in all its complexity and variety.

    I don’t mean this to be uncivil, but I have real problems with most or all of the points you make about “jazz” in the article. You can’t be surprised by the invective you say you’ve received when you publicly insult the life’s work and passion of thousands of people with a broad brush, especially when you do so angrily, unfairly, and inaccurately.

    There’s a kind of abusive vibe in this article, isn’t there? Writing like that, then smirkingly complaining about the abused’s lack of a sense of humor doesn’t come off well.

    1. A couple of points. 1) As I have repeatedly stated, to express an opinion as to what I regard as a flaw in musician X’s music does not constitute “slander”, any more that pointing out the weak orchestration and cheesy triumphalism in Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory March is slander, the dorky tune of Shepherd on the Rock or the rhythmic stodginess of Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet etc. That jazz musicians regard it as such is indicative of jazz having become a cult. 2) This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that only a tiny percentage of the responses to the article were anything other than abusive and, usually, obscene. And these were constantly retweeted by others as if they constitute substantive arguments. In a cult, abuse count for argument. Elsewhere it does not. 3) On the question of why I pointed to Henderson’s recording of Without a Song (and not Sonny Rollins), as is explained in the piece, it is due to the fact that it occurred “in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are ‘Power to the People,’ ‘In Pursuit of Blackness,’ ‘If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,’ and ‘Black is the Color.”” It is true the album is “The Kicker” but it is within a year or so of these, hence the discontinuity is glaring. Had Sonny Rollins’s work made its connection to the black power movement equally explicit, I would have mentioned him. He did not so it is irrelevant to the point. 4) On the question of whether jazz “skews left” as this silly piece claims, to take one example, I agree that there is probably less than meets the eye-and that there is a certain amount of projection by the left on this score. But that’s not the point I’m making. Rather, the point is that the left has a “long history of embracing jazz and jazz musicians.” That’s simply a historical fact as indicated by, for example, one of the first, if not the first scholarly history of jazz, “Jazz a People’s Music” having been written by Daily Worker music critic Sidney Finkelstein. 5) You have not pointed out a single instance of where I have been “unfair” or “inaccurate” in the above, nor have any of the literally hundreds of high dudgeon responses. Despite this, I appreciate your having taken the time to write this and take seriously the reservations and objections you have registered. (I also respect and value the work you have done over the years which I am somewhat familiar with.)

  8. P.S. For context, let me add that I had not read Ethan Iverson’s responses (http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/2014/09/without-a-song.html) or this (http://shujaxhaider.tumblr.com/post/96913433533/in-response-to-john-halle). I knew the old and new (Eckstine, Sinatra, etc.) lyrics to “Without a Song” because I own “Book No. 1,” the fakebook most jazz musicians knew before there were “Real Books,” and it has cut-and-paste lyrics from the original sheet music.

  9. John- First may I say how much I admire your dignified responses to some of the critical barbs that have been coming your way on this topic. I don’t necessarily subscribe to all aspects of your analysis but I have thoroughly enjoyed the thought-provoking views which it has prompted. Moreover I think that a healthy debate on the subject is to be welcomed. For that reason the contributions of some others, including Ethan Iverson, have a great deal in them which is stimulating and add value to the subject. But these would not have been registered had you not kicked things off with your initial Jacobin piece.The other thing which shines through your analysis is the respect in which you rightly hold the great Mr Henderson. So thank you and best wishes.David

  10. I’m a bit leery of entering the lion’s den here, but would make a substantive point:

    The Kicker was recorded in May 1967, two years before Power To The People, not “a year or so.” In the interim was Tetragon, from 1968, which also contained no political content. Henderson may well have been influenced by the cultural milieu of the Bay Area, where he moved at this time, in pivoting to explicitly political themes in his titles and musical production on the albums you reference, which followed 1969. Sometimes, a title is just a title. By the way, Henderson had a big band arrangement of “Without A Song” that he recorded in 1992, but was probably generated circa 1967, when he made “The Kicker,” for a workshop band he led in NYC. To my ears, it seems apparent from Henderson’s opening salvo on the 1967 version that he has Sonny Rollins’ 1962 of version of “Without A Song” in mind.

    It may also be that Henderson, like more world-class interpreters/improvisers than you’d think, was more influenced by notes and tones than lyrics when he played standards. I prefer to think of him as akin to a painter who works through all possible permutations of a structure or a form, rearranging components in a systematic yet spontaneous way. Overt political consciousness doesn’t really seem to factor into that kind of process. I extrapolate that from this remark he made to saxophonist Mel Martin in 1991, which is really essential reading, and certainly more fleshed out than the conversation you cite. It may be that to operate consistently with this level of internal freedom is as radical an act as the most explicit political statement. (http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/henderson.html)

    By the way, what is a “jazzbro”?

    “Having a sense of composition has served me well, and also having a rich sense of rhythm, and a desire not to repeat stuff. I consider it one of the worst sins a musician could possibly commit, to play an idea more than one time. You’ve got to keep changing things around, keep inventing, and especially when you’re making records. I came into it thinking of change being a constant thing. I can remember going onto the bandstand after being around Detroit for a few years, and consciously getting my brain to start phrases on different notes of the bar, with a different combination of notes, and a different rhythm. I developed the ability to start anywhere in the bar and it lent to a whole new attitude of constant variation. I would start with the first bar, not starting it on one but starting it on the ‘and’ of four or the ‘and’ of three, with a series of sixteenth notes with several triplets. I would let the first four bars take care of themselves until we got to the fifth bar, and start that at a certain point of the rhythmic structure of the bar. Then I’d start something in the seventh bar. What I was developing was a sense of not falling into that habit of playing the same things all the time. We are creatures of habit anyway so its easy to fall into them. You practice early on so that habits don’t form which have to be dealt with later, like bad fingerings that you have to clean up later.”

    1. With respect to: “It may also be that Henderson, like more world-class interpreters/improvisers than you’d think, was more influenced by notes and tones than lyrics when he played standards. I prefer to think of him as akin to a painter who works through all possible permutations of a structure or a form, rearranging components in a systematic yet spontaneous way. Overt political consciousness doesn’t really seem to factor into that kind of process.” Please read paragraphs 3-5 in the updated response above where this matter is addressed. Incidentally, as I also note there, contrary to your claim as to the absence of “overt political consciousness” Ethan Iverson insists that Without a Song is “absolutely a political statement about pretty tunes, hard bebop, Coltrane, race, velocity, and transition.” Perhaps you can take this subject up with him. In any case, glad I could help with the attempt to attain some clarity, if not consensus, on the question.

  11. i don’t want to add much more fuel to the fire, but mr. halle’s reply to my first comment is revealing what’s at the heart of the problem:

    “My perspective is that it has almost 100% approval, particularly among intellectuals and academics. In all my years in universities, I can’t remember anyone once disparaging the music-or even criticizing any aspect of it.”

    this conversation is happening almost exclusively among intellectuals & academics, and that creates a pretty myopic view of a music that originated on the bandstand, in the clubs & on the streets. if the problem is that jazz isn’t connecting to the average music fan–politically or otherwise–then keeping the discussion among elitist institutionalized critics is just going to keep it going in circles with no real resolution.

    anyway, shouldn’t a socialist platform like jacobin be advocating a position that reaches readers among the proletariat? not everyone who digs jazz has studied it in college, and halle’s original article only reinforces that harmful stereotype.

    finally, i’m intrigued by your challenge to publish an interview with one of the elder african-american musicians in question. (many thanks to ted panken for his longtime efforts in this regard). hearing louis hayes’ thoughts, for example, would be revealing, although he might not give a damn about politics, so i’m not sure jacobin would be the proper outlet for it. but i’ll give it some thought….

    1. Pretty much agree with you here. I meant it when I said “Nonstop official consecration makes judging any given piece, performance, or artist superfluous — even risky. Listeners become anxious about expressing what they really think and feel about the music.” But if you find discussion about jazz to be monopolized by intellectuals and academics all the more reason you should do the interview and bring up topics which you feel are being excluded. As Mao said, let a thousand flowers bloom.

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