"Classical Jazz" and the Black Arts Movement

By Thomas, Lorenzo | African American Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

"Classical Jazz" and the Black Arts Movement


Thomas, Lorenzo, African American Review


The period between 1960 and 1970 represents an era of important and extraordinary cultural change in the United States. Longstanding issues of the relationship of ethnic vernacular art to the "mainstream," and that of the American "mainstream" to European "high art," came into focus in these years in a particularly contentious yet artistically fruitful manner.

If one recalls artists such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, it is clear that jazz musicians were never before so technically proficient on their instruments or in their mastery of European "classical" traditions. On the other hand, these artists consciously intended to foreground non-European musical influences as well as the Afrocentric and folkloristic elements of jazz. At the same time, the poets and theorists of the Black Arts Movement (including Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Askia Muhammad Toure) were making a very popular case for an aesthetic conceived as openly oppositional to both European and white American culture.

The roots of the Black Arts Movement are easily traced to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. That earlier movement was the first attempt by African American artists to produce work consciously grounded in their folk heritage and to utilize that work for the social advancement of the race. For Larry Neal, the Harlem Renaissance "was essentially a failure. It did not address itself to the mythology and the lifestyles of the black community" (78). This statement seems puzzling today, but its meaning was crystal clear in 1968 and pointed to a political philosophy underlying aesthetic discriminations.

Whereas the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance hoped to prove the cultural worthiness of African Americans byy demonstrating their aptitude for cultivation, development, and progress in terms understood by white American society, the leaders of the Black Arts Movement hoped to celebrate a kind of proletarian and vaguely "African" culture. Like Zora Neale Hurston's appreciation of the folk, the Black Arts Movement sought to identify a certain intrinsic beauty and vitality in African American authenticity.

This view particularly affected the way that Black Arts Movement writers dealt with jazz. In an important essay titled "Jazz and the White Critic" (1963), Amiri Baraka declared:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help at all. Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgment and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (186)

By 1966, Baraka had framed the message much more concisely: "The music you hear (?) is an invention of Black lives" (Black Music 176). What was at stake, of course, was a cultural hierarchy explicit in American society. As a visiting African student once expressed it, "They love your music - but they don't love you." The Black Arts Movement asked, basically, what's love got to do with it?

In the area of music, the prevailing cultural hierarchy assigns value to the European symphonic tradition at the expense of indigenous American musical conventions. Compared to jazz, classical music has been assigned a higher cultural value which - of course - has very little to do with music per se.

In 1948 Sidney Finkelstein noted that "the man who listens to jazz, whether New Orleans or bebop, is hearing as unstandardized a set of musical scales and combinations of scales as is he who listens to Copeland or Ives." Finkelstein logically concluded that "the artificial distinction between 'classical' and 'popular' has been forced upon our times by the circumstance that the production of both ... has become a matter for financial investment instead of art" (9).

There is, however, a definite political rationale involved that touches on aesthetic questions. …

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