What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists


Despite the plethora of writing about jazz, little attention has been paid to what musicians themselves wrote and said about their practice. An implicit division of labor has emerged where, for the most part, black artists invent and play music while white writers provide the commentary. Eric Porter overturns this tendency in his creative intellectual history of African American musicians. He foregrounds the often-ignored ideas of these artists, analyzing them in the context of meanings circulating around jazz, as well as in relationship to broader currents in African American thought.

Porter examines several crucial moments in the history of jazz: the formative years of the 1920s and 1930s; the emergence of bebop; the political and experimental projects of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and the debates surrounding Jazz at Lincoln Center under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. Louis Armstrong, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Yusef Lateef, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Wadada Leo Smith, Mary Lou Williams, and Reggie Workman also feature prominently in this book. The wealth of information Porter uncovers shows how these musicians have expressed themselves in print; actively shaped the institutional structures through which the music is created, distributed, and consumed, and how they aligned themselves with other artists and activists, and how they were influenced by forces of class and gender.

"What Is This Thing Cal


Bassist and composer Charles Mingus was among the musicians who developed their craft in the intellectual and cultural climate that produced bebop. Born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922 and raised in Watts, Mingus was a member of the community of young modernists working in and around Los Angeles during the 1940s. Like other musicians who came out of the educational and performance networks in Los Angeles, Mingus maintained a catholic approach to music. Although he was never fully immersed in the bebop idiom and was initially ambivalent about this music, in the late 1940s he drew upon the beboppers' harmonic and rhythmic innovations while incorporating influences ranging from the blues to Ellington to composers of classical music. After moving to New York in the fall of 1951, he eventually developed important working relationships with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and other architects of the idiom.

Beyond its musical influence, bebop at various times symbolized for Mingus both the possibilities and the limitations of jazz. the music and personae of Charlie Parker and other artists represented black musical genius, a community committed to artistic exploration and fulfillment, and an assault on musical convention. Yet bebop, and the tragic lives of some of its practitioners, also signified the mistreatment of black artists by the music industry and the limitations that generic categorization and marketing placed on art. Contemplating the legacy of bebop was but one element of Mingus's intellectual project, which sought, among other things, to make sense of his own music, the position of improvised and composed music in mid-twentieth-century America, the experiences of African American musicians in the jazz business, and the future of American society.

Beginning with a letter written by Mingus to jazz critic Ralph Glea-

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