Free Jazz & Free Love, or, Is Branford Marsalis a Neocon?

10.29.2004 | Eric Adler | Music
In the Summer 2000 number of the left-wing culture journal Raritan, Michael E. Veal refers to “the emergence of a younger (and mainly African-American) generation of neoconservative jazz musicians (such as the Marsalis brothers) who have attempted—with much corporate support and spin control—to legitimate jazz by grounding it in a classicized version of African-American aesthetics.”

To any reader attuned to the realities of the American political climate, this should appear curious: Wynton and Branford Marsalis are neoconservatives? What can Veal mean? Neither Marsalis brother was a radical who became conservative due to what he perceived as the excesses of the 1960s New Left. Neither has become an outspoken champion of the liberation of Iraq. And Wynton Marsalis’ views on jazz as inherently African-American do not jive with political discriminations that could earnestly be called neoconservative.

Clearly, Veal—like so many critics—is using the term neoconservative inappropriately. These days it seems that neoconservative has become a synonym for bad.

Yet Veal’s labeling, however inappropriate, begs another question: Is avant-garde jazz necessarily tied to leftist politics? Must avant-garde musicians be allies of the radical Left? Or is this as unfair as describing the Marsalis brothers as neocons?

In the course of my attending numerous avant-garde jazz shows, I have been struck by the overlap between free jazz and lefty politics. Oftentimes, audience-members will come clad in clothing championing various radical political causes. And many jazz musicians associated with the avant-garde—Dave Douglas comes to mind—have discussed their commitment to such politics.

Why is this so?

First, one must note that free jazz originally bore a relationship to the civil rights movement. Although the first “new thing” jazz albums began appearing before the crux of this social movement, the connection between freedom in music and the call for equal rights in America is well-documented. Perhaps it is because of this relationship that avant-garde jazz has remained associated with the political Left.

Yet there are problems with this thesis. Most assuredly another key influence on free jazz—conscious or unconscious—are the revolutionary changes in Western classical music that emerged toward the beginning of the twentieth century. The movement toward atonal (or pantonal) classical music was an important precursor to avant-garde jazz. Although plenty of avant-garde classical composers have political views associated with the Left, others, such as Milton Babbitt, did not. As such, one can see free jazz as connected to the traditions of European classical music, not necessarily with avant-garde politics.

One must conclude, moreover, that avant-garde jazz is hardly the exclusive purview of American blacks. Since the first flowering of new thing jazz, white musicians—both in the US and in Europe—have flocked to this music. In fact, the first recorded version of a free-jazz piece was played by Lennie Tristano, the white father of Cool School jazz.

More recently, as prominent an avant-gardist as British guitarist Derek Bailey has averred that many black musicians associated with free jazz—Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders come to mind—departed from the movement once they perceived that it was trailing ever further away from the jazz tradition. According to Bailey, those musicians most dedicated to continued experimentation are white.

Perhaps the support for arts funding plays an important role in the connection between free jazz and lefty politics. After all, various Western European countries are far more generous in this support than the American public arts establishment.

Yet this explanation doesn’t satisfy. A number of European avant-garde jazz musicians of my acquaintance have carped about the damage that government funding can bring to the free-jazz community, asserting that American musicians worked harder to develop followings and spread their music, as they were not assured government money, while that money has led many European musicians to foster a malignant laziness; the self-promoting sass displayed by those on our side of the Atlantic is largely unknown on the continent.

Certainly, however, support for arts funding plays some role in the connection between avant-garde jazz and left-wing politics. Free jazz, after all, has been the most commercially unsuccessful brand of improvised music, and, given the pitiful market share that jazz albums enjoy, public funding—although the object of musicians’ consternation—is of great aid.

Perhaps the philistinism of the political Right also plays a role in the ties between free jazz and the Left. To be certain, almost all neophytes—regardless of their political persuasion—would recoil in horror upon hearing their first Cecil Taylor album. To the vast majority of people, avant-garde jazz is inaccessible, demanding, and irksome.

The critical response to such music from those associated with the political Right, however, has been illuminating. Take Terry Teachout, the in-house music critic for Commentary. Although lauding of such modernist writers as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound does not seem out-of-place in the pages of Commentary, Teachout offers a marked hostility to both avant-garde jazz and classical music. Why do such magazines praise the difficult writing of modernist masters, and yet condemn their musical equivalents?

Such critical judgments are not solely the prerogative of the political Right. When Ken Burns’ controversial series of documentaries on jazz were first aired, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the liberal New Republic, ignorantly blasted those critics who claimed that Burns had given the avant-garde short shrift. Wieseltier went so far as to lambaste current avant-gardists as John Coltrane’s “idiot progeny.” Free jazz has clearly ruffled the feathers of some left-leaning critics too.

Maybe it all comes down to temperament. Tim Marchman claimed in this space that, in his experience, right-leaning jazz fans were more likely to hunt for dusty trad-jazz records, and lefties were more inclined toward the latest trends. Perhaps so. Yet the earliest free jazz records are almost fifty years old now, and many of them have become collectors’ items.

Serialist composer Anton Webern famously asserted that, decades after his death, children would sing his songs. This ultimately proved false; to most ears, twelve-tone music sounds as revolutionary and unmusical today as it did those many years ago. Can the same be said for the work of Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler? I think so.

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