Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity

By Burford, Mark | Notes, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity


Burford, Mark, Notes


JAZZ STUDIES Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity. By Paul Austerlitz. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. [xxii, 260 p. ISBN 08195-6781-7. $24.95.] Videography, discography, bibliography, index.

We ask a lot from jazz. To some commentators, jazz is definitive of twentieth-century Americanness, with Ralph Ellison characterizing American life as "jazz-based." To others, jazz is the epitome of the musical avant-garde, indeed central to "the great modernist tradition in the arts" (Alfred Appel, Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002], 7). During the Cold War, jazz was the United States' "secret sonic weapon," as touring musicians helped proselytize Third World domino countries to counter perceptions of American racism (Penny von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004]). And in the music's early decades, jazz was at once, to many young white Americans, a marker of earthy, streetwise hipness, and, to some cosmopolitan urbanites in other parts of the Americas, emblematic of sophisticated North American savoir faire.

Paul Austerlitz seeks to thicken this well-seasoned stew further with Jazz. Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity, which takes jazz's multivalence as a foundational premise. The book's somewhat portentous title accords with Austerlitz's ambitious aims. The theoretical touchstone of his project is the often-cited passage from W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk that casts African Americans as gifted with "double consciousness," born of their status as both black and American. As Austerlitz deploys the concept, however, Du Boisian doubleness is actually tripleness: jazz is African American, American, and transnational. These discrete but overlapping layers of identity are brought into dialogue through the concept of "consciousness," which Austerlitz introduces as something like a Weltanschauung, or as he puts it, an "awareness, mind-set, worldview" (p. xiii). "Jazz consciousness," he argues in his introduction, "creates a virtual space where we can confront, learn from, and even heal the contradictions resulting from social rupture" (p. xvi).

The book's odyssey very much tracks the author's own, which he describes as "a scholar-musician's journey." At a very early age, the Finnish-born Austerlitz moved to the United States, where he grew up listening to both European- and African American-influenced musics. He later became active as a jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and bass clarinetist and was inspired by the Black Nationalist politics of the free jazz movement. Austerlitz, trained as an ethnomusicologist, is also an active performer and scholar of Latin music, with several publications on popular musics from the Afro-Caribbean and especially the Dominican Republic, including his first book, Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997). The various thematic strands of Austerlitz's biography-Afro-diasporic musicality and musical politics, the intersection of jazz and Latin American musical styles, Finnish cultural identity, the relationship between musical and academic performative spaces-parallel the structure, content, and argument of Jazz Consciousness.

Austerlitz outlines the book's theoretical framework in his first chapter, an exploration of "the larger phenomenon of North American jazz consciousness" (p. 1). The windup to this pitch is a slightly plodding survey of some fairly well-trodden terrain: the difficulty of denning "jazz" and musicians' ambivalence toward the label itself; the social constructedness of American and African American national identities; and "creolization" in the United States and its consequences. Austerlitz seeks to establish that in a country whose diversity has produced both social antagonism and the unparalleled opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, jazz is a singular vehicle for the elevation of individual and collective consciousness. …

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