Monday, June 19, 2006

Revise and Re-submit

The Race is Off: Butcher Jazz, Part 2

Can we make sense of jazz and machismo without thinking about race, the term that is conspicuously missing in John Gill's controversial screed in Paris Transatlantic? Probably not. We should start by recognizing that writing about jazz has long been preoccupied with the ways that white male musicians (and music fans) engage with black culture as a way to work out their identity-related anxieties, which in turn shapes their enactment of masculinity and class as musical performers or aesthetes.

Because what is at stake is the resolution of a specifically gendered crisis, it is easy (but wrong) to focus exclusively on the troubling sexual dimension of white males' identification with black culture: i.e., the way they enjoy fantasizing about temporarily inhabiting "black" personas, from Stagolee to Shaft to Shaq to Snoop, presumably as a means to escape the emasculating constrictions and Victorian residue of mainstream white culture. Equally important is the way that jazz culture offers an appealing intellectual and political alternatives to establishment groupthink. If this point is perhaps obvious, it does tend to get lost in the shuflfle.

A few years back, Robert K. McMichael wrote a great article about this topic (Robert K. McMichael, "'We Insist—Freedom Now!': Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness,'" American Music, vol. 16, 1998) looking specifically at the historical conjuncture of the 1960s-- the African-American "freedom jazz" movement and Southern white "massive resistance"-- as a significant moment of racial realignment.

McMichael provides an excellent summary of the complexities of jazz ca. 1920-1960 as a laboratory of cross-racial solidarity: "The integrationist subcultures of jazz clubs and other social spaces housed various kinds of cross-racial interaction between audience members and musicians, creating potentially important sites of resistance to racism." It is hard not to find many aspects of this phenomenon encouraging-- a celebration of hybridity, mestizization, or even the rejection of white identity advocated by scholars like Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger. The continuing engagement of white musicians with the rich and wonderful legacy of black music can only (one hopes) encourage cross-racial solidarity and understanding. It certainly couldn't hurt, right?

Not necessarily. McMichael notes that "much of the cross-racial interaction in the jazz scenes still reverberated with long-standing elements of racism, especially primitivism." For reverberated, we can substitute "reverberates." What McMichael means by "primitivism" here is the expectation, on the part of white audiences, that African-American artists will comply with racist stereotypes, and perform a "noble savage" routine still cherished by some white liberal listeners (now that jazz is no longer mainstream, "world music" has replaced it as the "primtivist" genre of choice).

A few years ago, a friend told me about a free jazz group from Alberta, Canada in the 1970s (made up of white fellows who were fanatics for the radical black music of the Black power era, and who surely thought of their enthusiasm as an expression of politcal solidarity with the civil rights movement and its legacies) who adopted the Art Ensemble of Chicago's practice of wearing elaborate costumes, but going one step further by also corking up in full blackface (!!!). Talk about a ne plus ultra demonstration of the aptness of the title of Eric Lott's history of blackface, Love and Theft.

Less inflammatory, but perhaps no less offensive, we know of many white jazz musicians/fans who find inspiration in the alleged sexual heroism of jazz heroes like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and many others . If fans and admirers do not typically attempt to replicate the precise boudoir antics of these icons, they do nevertheless relate libindinally to something in the jazz persona... in a way they do not with Lawrence Welk, Bill Monroe, or Angus Young (or white jazzers like Paul Desmond, Joe Pass, or Bill Evans). Where is this racial cathexis made visible? At very least, in the bragadoccio, the use of hipster jargon, and a particular "jazz" version of on-stage male bonding.

But let us not linger too long on the possible unseemliness of white jazz fandom. Like everything else under the sun, the politics of race and music are deeply contradictory... we should try to find the radical/utopian strain within the sketchy mimesis. While a certain racist libidinal investment charges some aspects of white participation in jazz, it accounts for only a fraction of the desire that sustains the interaction with the music. Equally significant (and frequently neglected) is the investment in African American artistic culture as an idealized intellectual and social milieu. I am not thinking of the familiar and banal denial of prejudice on the basis of inclusive musical taste (e.g. Gareth Kennan on BBC's The Office denying his homophobia by bragging about his record collection: George Michael , Pet Shop Boys, etc., and then immediately confirming it by referring to these artists with a British anti-gay slur).

We might recall another point raised by McMichael, who notes that the free/artist-centered jazz of the 1960s arose at the same time as the civil rights movement linked "blackness" with moral authority, political commitment, and spiritual integrity. Since the post-1960s backlash, the majority racist culture has tried to deny that African Americans have a purchase on these values, while profiting off of a commercial culture that peddles their very opposites to citizen-consumers: a Cold War/Neoliberal Globailization/War on Terror political "realism" that denies the grievances of victims of racism/international capitalism/US foreign policy in the name of strategic interests, the hidden hand of the market or domestic security; cynicism about grassroots activism and electoral/parliamentary bourgeois politics; and spiritual drift, New Age eclecticism, or servile obedience to religious leaders. With one hand, then, the majoritarian culture degrades the values linked with the Civil Rights movement and by extension, African Americans; simultaneously, with the other hand, it smuggles in a white, conservative, reactionary "values bloc" (Pro-Life, anti-gay, etc.) to supplant the activists of the hated 1960s in the national imagination.

We must keep this in mind when we confront the problem of "butch" jazz and the racial mimesis of white participants in jazz culture. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, participation in out-jazz subcultures provided white musos with a link to a resistant organic intellectual tradition, and access to a culture of collective enjoyment outside of (and viral to) the anomie of the suburban Galleria.

Which leads to the final point: the history of cross-racial interaction within the out-jazz tradition frustrates any simple binary distinction between "butch" neo-primitivism and intellectual engagement. What remains to be explored (in a future post) is neo-primitivism as intellectual engagement within the African-American avant garde tradition. Stay tuned!

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