Jazz and Sociology Revisited

By | February 11, 2014

Finding myself with a couple of hours to spare between meetings I sat with a glass of wine in a London pub and wrote a short blog on ‘jazz and sociology’. As a long-time listener to jazz of most – non-banal – varieties, and an avid reader, I had a few half-formed views up my sleeve; but otherwise it was off the top of my head. The result was a series of five hypotheses, which I tried briefly to articulate. The hypotheses were:

Agency is structured, and jazz performance tracks the individual ‘soul’ as it emerges, even occasionally escapes, from its social hinterland.

Jazz is a political statement against racism.

Music communicates, but mostly via convention and in context.

Drugs disinhibit.

The capacity of jazz to motivate ‘collective action’ is dependent on structure, structured culture and agency and the moment.

This blog was picked up and retweeted via @Soc_Imagination, eliciting intriguing responses from Sam Watts, a professional jazz musician, and Amber Thomas, a ‘rusty jazz pianist’ with a ‘daytime’ academic post. This is belated clarification of my hypotheses/reply to their remarks. There is one particular point – concerning the sociological project – that I want to push home here

Contesting my stated preference for blues-based ‘black’ jazz and companion skepticism over many forms of ‘white’ jazz, Sam argues that this black/white binary is more widely cited outside than within the jazz community. In fact, norms within contemporary jazz subcultures typically lead to the ostracism of players who are not colour-blind. And in historic American jazz subcultures things were not so different. Notions that bebop soloists like Charlie Parker were consciously representing what would now be called Afro-Americans, or rejecting racism, or trying to out-perform or marginalize or exclude white players have their genesis in commentaries from non-jazz players functioning outside of jazz communities. Many jazz standards (probably 60-70%), he adds, had white composers. In summary, jazz musicians, past and present, have generally been uninterested in, even indifferent to, skin pigmentation; and no more engaged in politics. Again, it is outsiders who hijack and re-brand their gigs, recordings, arrangements and performances. Black jazz iconography is predominantly by and for outsiders. He quotes Coltrane: ‘I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing … the emotional reaction is all that matters, as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood’. Non-using Sam also suspects my idea of ‘drug disinhibition’, suggesting that jazz playing doesn’t actually require high levels of concentration: musicians improvise their musical ideas in their playing; they do not regurgitate memorized information. For Parker, innumerable hours of ‘practice’ renders playing like speaking.

Amber’s remarks are focused on Sam’s claim that most jazz standards have white composers. Picking up on a theme of interpretation, she argues that ‘each performance is an assertion of entitlement: I can play this tune, I can play it my own way, I can do something new with this’. When the great black musicians of the twentieth century articulated this sense of entitlement, or ownership, there was something ‘politically progressive’ going on. ‘It’s like sitting on the front of the bus. I have every right to play this.’ Moreover it is creativity embedded in sociality and togetherness. Playing or participating is different from listening. And playing or improvising jazz is different from playing rehearsed classical music.  ‘Jazz improvisations … highlight the fluid collective creativity, watching it you see the eye contact, you see them subtly reading each other, you are acutely aware of them as individual players.’ Amber adds that some jazz musicians have been deliberately political (eg Nina Simone’s ‘the King is Dead’ about the death of Martin Luther King). Even if individual musicians are not consciously political, however, their ‘ability to do what they want to do’ testifies to ‘a sort of freedom within a culture’. She recalls hearing jazz in a number of former Soviet states and that those states had strong jazz traditions aligned to political counter-cultural movements.

Amber recasts my initial hypotheses in line with these comments:

Agency is enacted within a social structure, with each agent negotiating the freedoms and responsibilities of collective creativity.

Jazz is an assertion of entitlement to be part of a culture.

Jazz improvisation is collective creativity impossible without an agreed structure.

Maybe drugs disinhibit, but disinhibition is probably not required to play jazz.

The collective creativity within jazz improvisation is only possible through collective recognition of the expected structure. A shared awareness of expected structures/conventions is a pre-condition for creativity. It is also a pre-condition for political and social change and may therefore correlate with social movements.

I am grateful for and impressed by these responses by Tom and Amber, and have a few thoughts to share and one point to labour. Wisely or not, I am again blogging without returning to either jazz or sociology literature. First, I lack the experiential knowledge of Tom and Amber: I do not play jazz myself. There is no substitute for this first-hand engagement and I respectfully defer to them in this regard. Second, I think their personal experiences are fuel for a micro-sociology of jazz subcultures (Amber’s understandably more than Tom’s given her day job). Third, I have no strong objections to what they say, even when their statements appear to contradict my own.

This leads directly to my fourth and more provocative reflection. Tom (exclusively) and Amber (primarily) are responding as erudite and reflexive jazz musicians; but my blog was entitled ‘jazz and sociology’. Experiential and sociological knowledge are not the same thing. As Schutz would say, sociology trades in ‘second-order’ concepts. The sociological project is to explain the common-sense understanding we all deploy day-to-day in terms of the changing nature of the societies we inhabit. Sociology’s contribution here is partial but irreducible (for example, to the biological or psychological). Moreover sociology is tasked with identifying mechanisms at work beneath-the-surface (for example, class, gender or ethnic relations) that are critical to a credible, some would claim ‘scientific’, explanation of events, including gigs and jamming sessions, on-the-surface. My blog was pitched as macro- rather than micro-sociology.

Why does this matter? Consider Sam’s quotation from Coltrane insisting that there was no message he was purposefully imparting to his audience; he implies that he was ‘lost in his playing’ – itself a mode of communication of course – and Sam and Amber capture this intimacy so well. But for the sociologist Coltrane does not have the final word here. A second-order sociological account of his gig might conclude that he was indeed imparting a message, and that this comprised a fulsome rejection of racism, even, in the era of civil rights in the USA, a call to arms. How might this be? No gigs, or events, occur in a social or cultural vacuum. There is always more than one hermeneutic at work. It is commonplace for agents’ writings, paintings, recordings and performances to be attributed meanings beyond any intended, if indeed any were intended. Coltrane’s jazz improvisations took on a life of their own once in the public domain (Popper’s ‘world 3’ if I recall correctly). In this way jazz can be, and I would contend has routinely been, re-interpreted or appropriated, generally in ways consonant with socially structured culture and agency. Thus blues and jazz performances and recordings acquired meanings transcending any ascribed to them by their pioneering practitioners and often came to stand for black resistance to white supremacy. The debate over whether Louis Armstrong ‘sold out’, became an honorary white, has to be understood in the context of a white-dominated, near-apartheid musical industry that still has resonance.

I may be wrong but I suspect that Sam and Amber might not baulk at this? But I stick by my original analysis (possibly excepting my stab in the dark on drug disinhibition). My message in this blog: rather like the physics of sound waves or the psychology of addiction, sociology offers a second-order analysis beyond the first-order accounts of participants.

Leave a Reply