Music and Politics

Jerome Camal, French by birth, is an Assistant at Washington University in Saint Louis in Jazz Studies, Logic of Music, and Logic of Ethnic Music. But he is also a saxophonist who is not satisfied with living off academic pursuits and does not want to be called by the teacher, but prefers to play in places, immerse himself in jam sessions and teach the practice of the tool. .

A stimulating character, who hosts on his home page a section devoted entirely to the analysis of political jazz from the sixties.

Camal’s observations are stimulating, ideologically not direct, also managing at the same time to recover important figures of that season, giving them a correct position (worth above all the examples of Frank Kofsky and Amiri Baraka, now somewhat considered, in kind the first). .

Camal quotes them, criticizes them. I remark that his “strong” ideas about jazz keep his charm intact, over the years.

Studies on jazz, increasingly serious and philologically correct, are receiving space never before had. There are authors who provide innovative theses and readings that are different from the usual ones, for example the scholar Paul’s Gilroy Black Atlantic, professor of black studies at Yale University, who offers a reading that has the breath of historical-political-geographical freshness.

From the correspondence by e-mail this interview was born, which in addition to opinions not discarded on Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, provides a list at the end -also everything else that is not banal- of the “politics” of jazz music.

Frank Bergoglio: In your pages on jazz and the civil rights movement, or when you talk about the jazz of so-called “black nationalism”, it is common to find the name and work of Frank Kofsky. What opinion has matured of his work after having studied it in depth? Do you think that he introduced too much ideology in relation to the issues discussed or that, on the contrary, the period is both well described in the writings of Kofsky and Amiri Baraka?

Jerome Camal: Kofsky is an interesting character. In fact, ideology wraps up his writing in a powerful way to make more objections to his reasoning. An example of this attitude is his interview with Coltrane in which he puts him to the test, without actually making us endorse Coltrane’s political ideas.

However, some points in his speech are approached in an interesting way and pick up significant aspects: the most effective example is the description of the economic conditions in which black musicians must work. His book, Black Nationalism in Music, is probably more profitable in the end if it is read as a primary source, reflecting the ideology that informs a part of the avant-garde musicians.

FB: Amiri Baraka is more of a sociologist in analysis, Kofsky is a more “political” jazz researcher… I think his intention was to put the Marxist method of analysis into practice in his studies, don’t you think?

JC: Okay, but I think we should think of both of them as two highly politically motivated researchers. And’ spent a good bit’ of time from my reading of “Blues People”, but, as I remember, Baraka seems to me that he emphasized the African-American culture as the product and the reaction towards slavery and at the same time as a connection to African affairs Baraka’s are based on a “class” vision, probably influenced by Marxism and even bordering on existentialism. For him, the most commercially successful forms of jazz and blues have been corrupted by the white mainstream. Reading it makes him think that he thinks assimilation is a form of corruption; what the bebop is a reaffirmation of the heritage of black roots in music and a departure from the white hegemony that was consolidated during the Swing Era. Many groups and artists in the movement coagulated around African-American arts, Baraka’s reasoning resonated. About another song, the black writer Ralph Ellison strongly disagreed with Baraka’s theses and saw the blues as a way of celebrating the results achieved by African-American art. In demonstrations like the blues, where Baraka has a tendency to view people of color as victims, Ellison stresses the strong sense of representation and affiliation instead.

FB: What opinion have you formed in the course of assigning Coltrane’s work? He previously quoted a famous interview of his, and in that as in others, the shyness of the saxophonist emerges, always with few words, which leads to reserved, humble and ultimately ambiguous responses compared to the course of the Coltranian legacy. .

JC: I think in the case of Coltrane we need to consider his music from two separate visual angles. Primo: What kind of political message (if any) did Coltrane envision for his music? According to: What political means have been linked to his music behind his back, from the most different listeners? In other words, I think there is a difference between how Coltrane conceived and viewed his music and the way it has been received and performed. Starting from this, I see a Coltrane who “uses” his music to communicate a message of integration and universality. I like to show a parallel between his interest in modal music and particularly that of India and Martin Luther King’s attention to the philosophy of non-violence advanced by Gandhi. In the early days of the black civil rights struggle, ML King often drew a parallel between the struggle for freedom in the United States and the movement for independence in Africa. It seems to me that I can say that both men saw his work in universal terms. However, it does not seem to me that the music of John Coltrane has been received in this way and some of the more radical parties in the Civil Rights Movement were quick to summon the saxophonist as a musical spokesperson. Coltrane himself is not enthusiastic about the idea, as his interview with Kofsky shows quite clearly, where he prefers to delve into his musical explanations with a more general meaning of the human condition. As Craig Werner points out, Coltrane and Malcolm X saw his message transformed and used to justify the pursuit of more radical goals within the Movement, whether or not they wanted his work to be used and interpreted in such a way.

FB: Do you think there is a connection between New York and jazz? And what kind?

JC: And’ a question too broad for a quick answer. I have never reasoned about the connection between the New Left and music, although it seems like an interesting topic to develop.

FB: Do you want to make a short list of political passages that you consider fundamental in the history of jazz and give us a brief comment on each one?

JC: You’re my pretty obvious first choice: We insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid 1961). This recording exemplifies in many different ways how music can be used politically. In the first place, it is an example of artists of color who use their art to regain authority and control over their own history and over their storytelling. The Roach Suite follows the story of the Afro-descendant population of color in the United States than in Africa, starting from the experience of slavery, continuing with the declaration of emancipation, to end the fight for equal rights in America as in Africa. Facing the matter from this point of view, it is stimulating to observe, as Scott Saul and Ingrid Monson do, that the order of the sections of the Suite, separated from each other, has been changed compared to the starting ideas of Roach and Ingrid Monson. Oscar Brown Jr. Originally the suite provided for the departure with the African section before moving to the experience of slavery and moving on to emancipation. Putting slavery at the beginning serves to ground African-American history strongly into the experience of slavery. Starting with Africa would have emphasized the African heritage of African-American culture. In the background the Freedom now Suite also represents well what Gilroy defines “black Atlantic”. All of Africa blends American jazz with Cuban music and African percussion: it is an excellent example of the continuous cultural exchange that takes place between Africans, Caribbeans, Europe and, naturally, even the United States. . Finally, it is necessary to remember that the Suite is, after all, a great moment of music, in which advanced composition techniques can be seen used. Max Roach uses a 5/4, perhaps a response to the success of Take Five, but with more disposition and bravura than Brubeck’s. The tone of the breaths, perfectly on the “fourth” in Driva men is interesting and anticipates the times. The cover photo showing students standing up at a cafeteria counter is provocative, and Nat Hentoff’s cover notes are also candid and fresh for today’s reading. The second example is probably less well known. In fact, if he has written much about Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, I would like to draw attention to a recording from 1956, The house The live in, performed for the Prestige. It’s a pretty harsh conventional bop passage, but it’s also a great beautiful example of meaning in music. At the end of the piece, Rollins inserts the theme from Raise all voices and sing as a tail. That spiritual has subsequently become a kind of unofficial anthem for the colored population. In the cover notes of the Prestige’s little-cd-park, container of everything recorded, he explains that the saxophonist appreciated the social significance of the text written by Robinson and wanted to strengthen his words by ending the song with Lift every voice. and sing. Perhaps he also wanted to respond to the recent recording of that song performed by Frank Sinatra. In all cases it is interesting to note that this is the only song from that session that has not been immediately performed by the Prestige, immediately after recording. I haven’t done much searching on this drive, but I think both are too often ignored these days. If we then want a complete list of passages we should include at least the Haitian fight song and Fable by Mingus Faubus and Art Blakey’s Freedom rider, John’s Coltrane Alabama, Archie Shepp’s entire appearance at the Newport jazz festival and Appointment in Ghana. by Jackie McLean. Then there is Strange Fruit of Billie Holiday, but the list would be very long…

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