Jazz and Sociology

By | August 13, 2013

I have no musical pedigree, or ability. I have experienced this ‘lack’ the more so since moving to the village of Mickleham, which seems to have more than its fair share of talent. Stand-out musicians include Clare Kennington, a superb soloist on the violin, and sister Georgie, whose jazz singing I have enthusiastically blogged about already. Annette has joined an impressive choir presided over by Juliet Hornby, with Lynda Chang (and sometimes Tracy Kennington) accompanying on the piano, so I am aware of what ‘amateurs’ can do. (I should add here that David Kennington too shares the family’s gifts and more than holds his own in the choir.)

Eschewing my parents offer of music lessons in early adolescence and settling thereafter for intermittently enjoying ‘the noise it makes’, I only came alive when a trip to New Orleans was on the cards and I bought a handful of jazz cassettes (yes, it was 30+ years ago). I discovered not only pre-eminent players like Louis Armstrong and his ‘Hot Fives’, but also the Creole-like mix of blues and jazz in all its pre-modern guises. As for the visit itself, I fell in love with this African-cum-European outpost in southern USA. I was totally unprepared for a city that oozed its own musicality. There were plenty of jazz venues, including the legendary Preservation Hall and the dives of Bourbon Street. But there were ubiquitous jamming sessions: tram drivers would carry their instruments at their sides, primed and ready for opportunities to play. I collected more cassettes, Jelly Roll Morton in the brothels of North-of-French-Quarter ‘Storyville’, following Armstrong’s shift to King Oliver’s band in Chicago, and encompassing the distinctive styles, post-traditional as well as pre-modern, to be found in other US cities. I liked much of what I was hearing. Over time sax players drifted to the top of my list of favourites, but then there was Bix and Miles and, uniquely, Billy Holiday, whose voice came hard and straight out of her disjointed lifeworld.

I like what I like, which is quite a lot of jazz (although I draw my lines, often at ‘white’ West Coast efforts). But – an occupational hazard this – I began to ask sociological-type questions. I was aware of Howard Becker’s shrewd, semi-autobiographical and seminal essays, but my interests were different. I rapidly came to see (blues-based) jazz as ‘black music’. I felt almost affronted listening to ‘white’ performances or recordings. But what did this mean? How can music be black or white? And, a query beyond, how can music communicate? And within what parameters? A side-issue: how come musicians like my all-time hero Charlie Parker could improvise sublimely while out of his socks on heroin?

In this blog I suggest an answer or two to these questions, and I do so – with cool if risky abandon – without consulting the views of others, musicians or fellow-academics. In other words, I am on a learning curve and inviting feedback and dissent.

Here are a number of hypotheses up for grabs and ‘testing’:


This may need a comment or two of elucidation. The notion that agency is structured merely recognizes that we are all in part products of our social circumstances (as well as of our genes, psychological makeup and so on). Class, gender, ethnicity and the like demonstrably matter for who we are, who we become and the decisions we take day-to-day; which is not to say that we are lacking in free will, merely that we use it more sparingly than we think. For the jazz player, this translates as structural and cultural conditioning, contingency or happenstance (what cops up), plus a potential to differ, to improvise. We are what we do and not what we say we are; and, as Sartre spelled out, we must and do ‘take decisions’, in the process turning our back on all the alternative decisions we might have taken. Maybe this is the social source, the tap root, of the blackness of jazz. For the best part of a century, and most conspicuously in the American south, black musicians translated their lived-experience into ‘their sounds’. In doing so they drew upon an oral tradition. Classical music’s roots lie in written scores (open to interpretation of course); not those of blues and jazz. The voice of jazz, to me at least, remains obstinately and importantly black in this sense.


Marxist historian Eric Hobsbaum, faking an identity, tracked jazz to its black and radical basics: it has always been associated with leftwing politics and rebellion as well as beards and sandals. The southern states of the USA remained resolutely racist until, and in many ways through, the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Billy Holiday and her black consociates had grown used to entering and exiting venues by their own ‘back door’. In the postwar era of bebop, black musicians fought back in ways they may or may not have been able to articulate if challenged. Not only were blues and jazz their music; but they consciously performed solos no white counterpart could cope with. Nor did they need a political manifesto to do so. Listen to Parker’s ‘Ornithology’, high on drugs or not; and then Coltrane; and ultimately, I guess, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. And who could miss out Miles Davis (as competent at reinventing himself as David Bowie in quite another genre, even onto the electronic scene)? Musicians, to my mind, made (and continue to make) statements, sometimes reflexively, sometimes not; and no black citizen of the USA, Britain or other Occidental countries past and present has not experienced racism as a personal or family affront and grown angry in consequence.


Holst’s planet suite sets parameters. Mars seems invites thoughts of war. It is readily reminiscent of bagpipes soliciting red-bloodied aggression prior to battle. There is surely something we might call, in shorthand, ‘biological’ here? Certain music stirs the blood, which is why it has been put to military use. If it falls short of commanding combat, it facilitates an appropriate mindset. But how much of this is in us? And how much is a product of convention and context? No music, or for that matter statement, is or could be interpreted in a social vacuum. I tend to think that when black jazz players strutted their stuff – style-by-style – in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, even as visitors to overseas, they not only transmitted certain messages deliberately, but even despite themselves. You can hear the angry rebuff of racist rejection or patronage, but only, or at least more acutely, if you have learned to do so.


Drugs from soft to hard disinhibit. They release performers. I suspect improvisers are more readily released than interpreters of inscribed scores. Listen to Grappelli ‘versus’ Menuhin (and the former was ‘clean’ as far as I know). So maybe drugs clear the way for the statements jazz players may or may not be aware they are depositing in the public sphere.


Catch the moment! Music can favour fascism as well as visions and commitments to a ‘better society’, ask Wagner. But when structure in its manifold guises, the coming together of convention, context and an opportunistic ‘taking advantage of the moment’ coincide, well …

Any interventions to help me out here would be greatly appreciated.

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