Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain

By Rawlins, Robert | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain


Rawlins, Robert, Notes


Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. By George McKay. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. [xiv, 357 p. ISBN 0-82233573-5. $22.95.] Index, bibliography, illustrations.

George McKay has two aims for this book: 1) "to consider African American jazz music as an export culture," (p. ix) and, 2) to explore "the ways the cultures of jazz have been used or understood by musicians, critics, and enthusiasts, as well as by its enemies, in British social and political realms" (p. x). His primary interest is not in the music itself, but, rather, the nature of the cultural statement that was intended by the music's founders, and the adoption of jazz in Great Britain by those who used it as a vehicle for social activism and political change. The book is driven by McKay's conviction that jazz is a highly political music and his steadfast refusal to view jazz as pure musical practice. "Frankly, I see nothing but worry in the effort to depoliticize the musical scene. My aim ... throughout the book ... is precisely to challenge such an interpretation" (p. 241).

And challenge it he does. Circular Breathing is painstakingly well documented with copious references, including a myriad of personal interviews with activists, musicians, and fans. Through this long journey, many fascinating stories and unexpected facts are revealed, while a host of questions, contradictions, and paradoxes are explored. For starters, McKay finds the international nature of jazz problematic in itself. The music is often described in terms of syncretism or a hybrid of African and European elements. Yet, as McKay points out, "syncretism" implies an attempt to reconcile opposing beliefs or practices, with the very real likelihood that the result may fail or be less than perfect. Similarly, "hybrid" carries several negative implications, including the suggestion that the "hybrid" is inferior to the "pure." Here, as elsewhere, McKay finds his way by urging caution as we search for better understanding. "Syncretic, hybrid: if these words are to be used in the context of jazz it should at least be with knowledge of their limitations. Yet they are useful to us" (p. 7). In his quest to understand jazz as an export culture, McKay seeks to "revisit those cultural arenas where such processes of dynamic exchange have historically happened" (p. 7), which for him is "a transatlantic [focus], between North America, the Caribbean, and Western Europe, with a timely dip to Africa at one point" (p. 5).

Circular Breathing consists of five chapters, following a lengthy introduction that clarifies the book's intentions. Chapter 1, "New Orleans Jazz, Protest (Aldermaston), and Carnival (Beaulieu)," explores the surprising association between traditional New Orleans style jazz and leftist social activism that took place in Great Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the marriage seems an unlikely one (traditional jazz is usually considered "conservative, retrospective, unimaginative, and worse" [p. 49]), it was at the time a vibrant and effective union. McKay focuses on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, emphasizing the significant role played by New Orleans style brass bands at rallies and demonstrations. The photographs included, showing peace signs and placards alongside trumpets and tubas, provide a curious juxtaposition for modern eyes. Interrogating this "odd conjunction," McKay unearths some convincing reasons why traditional jazz filled the bill for the leftists. For one thing it was acoustic, portable, adaptable, and could be played while walking. More important, the music was festive, communal, collective, raw, earthy, and non-elitist It was easy to listen to, and relatively easy to play. From this perspective, one can understand why folk music ultimately became the music of choice for social activists.

Chapter 2, "Whiteness and (British) Jazz," raises a number of issues, all aimed at "exploring how this music contributed to the social and cultural understanding of the shifting terrain of racial identities in Britain" (p. …

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