Magazine article The Antioch Review

"The Loud Music of Life": Representations of Jazz in the Novels of Claude McKay

Magazine article The Antioch Review

"The Loud Music of Life": Representations of Jazz in the Novels of Claude McKay

Article excerpt

Claude McKay (1889-1948) is most famous for the poem "If We Must Die," which was popularized as a battle cry by Winston Churchill in the European fight against fascism. Ironically, the poem had been written as a militant response to a Harlem race riot some twenty years earlier, during a period when McKay himself wouldn't have been caught dead supporting a war between capitalist, nationalist states.

Such are the vagaries of history, a process that has been particularly unkind to Claude McKay. Jamaican-born, McKay came to the United States in 1912. His 1922 book of poems, Harlem Shadows, is acknowledged by many to have inaugurated the Harlem Renaissance. Though much anthologized during, and directly after, the Renaissance, McKay's Edwardian verse has gradually faded into semi-obscurity. However, McKay also wrote three novels - Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933) - that not only deserve a closer look, particularly for the way they deal with jazz, but ultimately as a litmus test for McKay's reputation as an artist and thinker.

McKay was writing when jazz first flowered on the national stage and when Broadway musicals opened up to a black cultural influence that superseded minstrelsy. Shows such as Shuffle Along, for example, glorified all things African, a trend known as Africanisme. McKay, who had a deep interest in music and folklore (he even reviewed Shuffle Along for the socialist magazine Liberator), wove jazz and Africanisme into the fabric of Home to Harlem, as well as Banjo, which is set along the docks of Marseilles. The novels display a stark yet compassionate realism that gives readers a feeling for what life might have been like from the point of view of a Harlem intellectual at the time. The clear-eyed gaze McKay brought to jazz and issues of popular African American culture rings a strikingly modern note.

Jazz became popular outside New Orleans in 1917, when the first jazz recording was released. Many African Americans, particularly those of an aspiring, but tiny middle class, were emphatically displeased by its sudden popularity, objecting to it as nasty, sexual, and primitive, something they wished to leave behind, a cultural representation of themselves that was embarrassing. A 1917 quote from a black newspaper in Seattle captures this reaction: "One must be careful that the alluring god of jazz, Mumbo Jumbo, does not lead us so far from the true god of music, Pan. . . . Is there not a chance of jazz becoming the key to open our souls to the passion our forefathers once spent generations in trying to overcome?"

This perception of jazz as a vestige of the pagan African past is all too commonly found in the autobiographies of African-American musicians, who, as children, often were not allowed to listen to jazz, since it was forbidden by their parents as the "devil's music." Taking the other side of this argument were the Africanists, who asserted that this vigorous, "loud music of life," in McKay's fine phrase, was one of the most precious contributions African Americans had to offer the world. Rather than be ashamed of their African roots, they should celebrate them.

When McKay was writing his novels, other ideas were afoot that could be read as reinforcing analogies to this Christian-pagan binary. Freud's theories of sexual repression, for example, and his invention of the unconscious, teeming with Oedipal, primitive anti-social desires, were at the height of their popularity. F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as the lesser-known Carl Van Vechten, who published a book about Harlem called Nigger Heaven, helped to popularize these theories before McKay (though they were not aware of each other's work), espousing the notion that the Jazz Age was one great, healthy, acting-out of "repressed desires." Like pictures drawn on two transparencies, these two ideas merge rather nicely into a coherent picture of the world: Jazz, being "primitive" and from the "dark continent," was equal to primitive, repressed desires. …

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