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The reality of the sweating brow

Many, perhaps most people listen to music with the hope that it permits them to step outside of the world as it usually is, the demands it places on us and the ugliness that so obviously mars it. People gravitate to music’s bright melodies, infectious rhythms, and perhaps especially to lyrics that, whether Beethoven’s or Beyoncé’s, give us some kind of life-raft or a phrase that clarifies our condition. What, though, can we know about music that usually contains no direct linguistic references outside of its titles? And what might the assessment of its religiosities in the crucible of race mean for us today?

Jazz is a family of musics that has always resisted its own name, its own pigeon-holing. Pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk said of jazz: “It’s about Freedom, more than that is complicated.” Guitarist Pete Cosey responded to questions about whether Miles Davis’ electric bands of the early 1970s played jazz by insisting: “don’t say that, that’s a dirty word.” Duke Ellington insisted on avoiding the term “jazz,” famously saying that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. He heard music as “beyond category,” noting that “to have a category, one must build a wall” and that a category “is a Grand Canyon of echoes. Somebody utters an obscenity and you hear it keep bouncing back a million times.”

One of the biggest, most binding categories in American life is “race,” something underscored of late by the challenges of Rachel Dolezal and the church shootings in Charleston. Perhaps unknown to some, the history of jazz’s reception implicates it in a related history of racial representation and self-determination in America. From its inception, the music was thought by both detractors and advocates to represent a modern, urban, secular America. Critics feared its libidinous urgings and heard the absence of the sacred in its propulsive swagger. Supporters championed it as art music, the very sound of progress and sophistication. Yet aside from these and other debates, what we hear in jazz from its contested beginnings to its multiform present is the abundance of race and religion.

Blendings of the musicological, the anthropological, and the moral often characterized the alarmed reactions to jazz’s emergence, many of which sought to serve as definitions in their own way. Famed revivalist Billy Sunday, the popular advocate of Muscular Christianity, judged with characteristic bluntness that jazz was simply “bunk.” Daniel Gregory Mason called jazz a “sick moment in the progress of the human soul.” Early critics found jazz to be musically “objectionable” because there was too much “ad libbing,” its formal freedoms portending social chaos and threats to musical respectability (and all that it stood for). Others objected on political grounds to “this Bolshevistic smashing of the rules and tenets of decorous music, this excessive freedom of interpretation.” Some feared, tellingly, that “jazz could have degenerative effects on the human psyche” or that it might popularize interracial sex (even African-Americans occasionally expressed such nervousness, with one journalist wondering in print if jazz might not be a stealth weapon of the KKK).

Jazz was scorned as “barbaric, sensuous, jungle music which assaulted the senses and sensibilities, diluted reason, led to the abandonment of decency and decorum, undermined dignity, and destroyed order and self-control.” While it was embraced by marginal figures for these very reasons, jazz’s innovations more commonly induced cautions. Varèse announced that jazz was “a negro product, exploited by the Jews.” The National Socialist Party of Germany dismissed jazz as the deviant, decadent product of American cultural miscegenation, while critic Theodor Adorno worried that jazz was a low art product of the culture industry, whose “veneer” and “rhetoric of liberation” actually masked its deep conservatism. But most American audiences and observers were less concerned with socio-political implications than with the music’s alleged libidinousness. Walter Kingsley wrote in the New York Sun – echoing the music’s early syntactic associations, e.g. “jaz her up” or “put in jaz” – that “[j]azz music is the delirium tremens of syncopation.” The New Orleans Time-Picayune contrasted the rhythmic urges of jazz with the “inner court of harmony” where true music lives (so much for Art Tatum!). Jazz may have been associated with the modern (which brought together seductions and revulsions of its own, including the possibility that jazz was the soundtrack of a permissive secularism), but it was also heard as atavistic and brutish. Anne Shaw Faulkner warned that jazz “might invoke savage instincts.” To justify such alarmism, Faulkner insisted that jazz “originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds.” These formulations of authentic music through the dynamics of wildness and control resemble obviously long-standing characterizations and denunciations of African-American religion (or indeed of enthusiastic religion broadly speaking) as too sweaty, emotional, and erotic. They constitute a field of representational and material constraint that musician Anthony Braxton has called “the reality of the sweating brow.”

Fats Waller at piano, Library of Congress
Fats Waller, seated at piano. World Telegram & Sun, photo by Alan Fisher. Library of Congress.

This was a music that seemed to spill beyond limits – moral, musical, racial – and to many demanded their vigorous reassertion. Big band music, while it is now often remembered for its art music aspirations, often had a lower-class or lower middle-class appeal, and African American churches in particular railed against it, frequently trading in typical “devil’s music” discourse. As Ralph Ellison recalled, “jazz was regarded by most of the respectable Negroes of the town as a backward, low-class form of expression.” Fats Waller’s father was a pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and as a child “[m]usic and religion became the keystones of Waller’s life.” But in response to his growing love for rag and jazz, his father told him that such music was “the devil’s workshop.” Though “jazz” has been subject to manifold misrepresentations that have obscured its musical values and complex cultural sources, its very multiplicity and instability has enabled its creative associations with religiosity beyond these early critiques: with established religious traditions, intentional communities, histories, and practices of self-cultivation beyond society’s normative gaze.

These links have long served jazz musicians as sources of identity and sustenance in a world that marginalizes creativity that cannot be easily commodified. Both these connections and their unstable fortunes are framed and constrained by a racial habitus whose long history echoes in parallel interpretations of jazz and religion. Curtis Evans documents changes occurring to the “racial habitus” between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in categorical shifts from “savage” to “emotive savant,” from degraded “animism” to “civilized religion.” “Race” came to depend on “religion” as one of its fundaments, and the racial taxonomies central to American public life took shape in part via a discourse that posited black religion’s innateness, emotionality, primitivism, and irreducibility. Both attraction and revulsion turned on these imagined traits, their wildness, their excess, their merging in spectacle. Jazz was born amidst and took shape in these very conversations linking racial imaginaries with religious naturalism and its socio-political implications. So too have jazz audiences persistently recapitulated these tropes, theorizing black creativity for the creators.

While cultured despisers may once have lamented black religion’s “heathenish observances,” “insane yellings,” and “violent contortions,” these very “unhallowed performances” and enthusiasms have long titillated white jazzbos who make of black vernacular music a cultural accessory. It was through the noisy embodiment of black religion that critics fashioned their understanding of black culture, proximity to which they warned could endanger one of falling under the spell of those sounds, lusty and immediate. Such sensory expression has also been the vehicle through which jazz’s reception dynamics reinforced key features of the racial habitus. Archie Shepp called jazz “the product of the whites – the ofays – too often my enemy,” but also “the progeny of the blacks – my kinsmen.”

American civic identity has always been bound up with, even dependent on, such representations of dark-skinned others. The extremism and abandonment associated with black expression have persistently been associated with threats to social stability or moral rectitude, even as their apparent exoticism proved alluring to audiences and observers. Musical performance, ostensibly a “natural” outlet for black expressivism, has been cited as evidence of the sorts of ontological enthusiasms rendering African-Americans unfit for other kinds of public discourse or participation. Though the music remained a source of cultural identity, and while its fluidity and evasion of reference helped fashion social criticism too, sound faced an uphill battle in enacting any change.

Albert Ayler’s dreams of universal sound were dismissed by reviewers who sneered, “[s]incerity, alas, has never yet sufficed to make notable art.” John Coltrane’s innovations were denounced as “anti-jazz.” “Jazz” again emerges as a discourse of commercial, aesthetic, and hence cultural limitation, even as its democratic freedoms are trumpeted. Attempts to move beyond its well-heeled expectations (gentlemanly swing, soul patches, Debussy-like chordal substitutions) are often met with questions about its authenticity. Braxton describes his endeavors as “creative music” since, “if I write an opera, then of course it’s a jazz opera. If I go have a hamburger, it’s a jazz hamburger.” Anthony Davis has said, “If somebody uses tradition as a way of limiting your choices, in a way that’s as racist as saying you have to sit at the back of the bus.” Clarinetist and composer Don Byron links such cultural and political limitations not only to slavery and Jim Crow but to the Tuskegee experiments conducted on African-American sharecroppers beginning in 1932, which he describes as “metaphors for African-American life.” It is easy to understand the urgency of these contentions considering that jazz criticism and “reception dynamics” have often appropriated the fantastical languages of the older (but alas, not yet extinct) racial habitus. In the 1930s, purportedly reputable jazz criticism was published with titles like “Shout, Coon, Shout!” Louis Armstrong was called a “noble savage,” whose playing exuded “intensity” and “intuition.” (Of course, Armstrong was also accused of “race betrayal” while Charlie Parker was dismissed as “too intellectual.”)

Even after such overt racism was largely erased, mid-century jazz-talk traded in a kind of exoticism and essentialism that recapitulated and echoed arguments about black religion’s “naturalism” and emotionality. Like other African-American creative traditions, “jazz” has challenged and subverted and ignored and overcome such misrepresentations and misunderstandings. And when musical expression is understood as religious – in inspiration or outcome, institution or ritual – the power of these challenges is amplified, given a larger history and cultural resonance.

If the expressive arts are, as Nathaniel Mackey says, “reaching toward an alternate reality, [and] music is the would-be limb whereby that reaching is done,” religions are like mutagens transforming already unstable identities into vehicles of new experience or change. Through shifting use of the languages and practices of “religion,” musicians have confronted or evaded or jazzed the languages and practices of authenticity that have often functioned as constraints on creativity and agency. This has not taken place through “religion” exclusively, or always even obviously. But religions, in all their unstable formations, have been “critical levers” in performance, community, and devotions; in relations of power between musicians and spirits; in meditation or trance states; in musical cosmologies that point beyond the social order. Religions are not simply counter-signs for players; rather, in these improvisations towards gods and spirits, drums are struck differently, breath becomes quickened by spirits, and ears awaken to the edifying possibilities of music that makes it possible to live differently in the world.

Featured Image: Instrument. By Drew Patrick. CC0 via Unsplash.

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