Blue Notes: Jazz History, Fiction, and Poetics
Johns Hopkins University
Why Did Ralph Ellison Dislike Bebop?
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, with its jazz aesthetic, praise of Louis Armstrong and inhabitation of the spirit of the blues is widely regarded as an exemplary jazz novel. Published in 1952 but conceived in 1945, the novel's composition overlaps with the heroic years of bebop. Yet in Ellison's many essays about music he reveals a marked antipathy to the generation of musicians that emerged out of the dissolution of swing. His recently published correspondence with his close friend and fellow author Albert Murray confirms his skepticism of the new sound. Is this merely a question of taste, or is Ellison's critique grounded in a broader conception of the history and aesthetics of jazz? The present intervention is concerned to show how Ellison's aversion to bebop stems from a systematic understanding of the development and potential of jazz, which is in turn grounded in an aesthetics and a corollary conception of history. Because the question underlying that of the title is: On which aesthetic criteria does Ellison base his judgments, my paper's question becomes: What is Ellison's conception of a jazz aesthetic? How does this allow for a critical historiography of jazz? How can it be thought together with his literary aesthetics and with the artistry of his much studied, widely taught and broadly influential novel? Moreover, the pursuit of these questions flushes out, like the quail the young Ellison hunted, keys to a jazz aesthetic from the underbrush of cluttered motifs and symbols in Invisible Man. I therefore supplement my interpretation of Ellison's jazz essays with readings of selected moments from the novel. As part of my approach to these questions, I stage a peripheral but heuristically valuable exchange with another figure who also develops a systematic aesthetics as well as a reading of jazz, albeit one unrelentingly negative: T.W. Adorno. I discuss, finally, some consequences of my rehearsal of Ellison's conception of jazz in order to pose some questions about the relationship between his aesthetics and his art.
Swinging the Blues
Ralph Ellison, born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, came of age in the 20s and 30s and had a childhood saturated with the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the bluesy styles of his native town and Kansas City. Several of his jazz essays, now anthologized in the volume Living With Music, paint portraits of his musical background and of artists from the Southwest like Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing. Ellison notes the importance of this music for swing in a 1976 interview, recalling the "Southwestern rhythm and that great freedom within discipline that you first heard in Count Basie's band" and asserting that "we know that "swing" was generated in the Southwest" and that "in it the presence of the blues was more obvious, as were the kinds of improvisation" (30-31). Ellison's attachment to this music is made clear in the essays, but the real giant in his musical constellation is, of course, Louis Armstrong. The centrality of Armstrong for Ellison's thinking that is so clearly figured in Invisible Man is not, however, often mentioned in his essays, nor does he devote an article to him. It is as if the influence is so overwhelming that it should be taken for granted - and indeed his presence is felt uncannily between every line. Armstong, famously, was the musician who, as a young virtuoso in the 20s, established the twelve-bar blues as the basis for the subsequent phase of jazz. Swing was the jazz that Ellison learned to love, to which he danced and which inspired his writing: but the power behind swing was the blues. For Ellison, however, the blues were much more than simply a musical form: they were an attitude toward life, an approach to the world that engendered a philosophy and an aesthetic. All of Ellison's jazz writings circle around the blues: listing some of his many pithy definitions in the essays can help situate his understanding of the form:
their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit (118).
The blues is an art of ambiguity, they are a corrective, an attempt to draw a line upon man's own limitless assertion (47).
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolations of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism (103).
one sees "
the mysterious potentiality of meaning which haunts
the meanings which shimmer just beyond the limits of the
lyrics" (47) enacted in Chapter 10 of Invisible Man, in which the
narrator, newly arrived in New York City, meets the jiving Harlem bluesman
Peter Wheatstraw who sings:
She's got feet like a monkey
Legs like a frog - Lawd Lawd!
But when she starts to loving me
I holler Whoooo, God-dog!
Cause I loves my baabay,
Better than I do myself (173)
causing the invisible man to wonder, after the encounter:
What does it mean, I thought. I'd heard it all my life but suddenly the strangeness of it came through to me. Was it about a woman or about some strange sphinxlike animal? Certainly his woman, no woman, fitted that description. And why describe anyone in such contradictory words? Was it a sphinx? Did old Chaplin-pants, old dusty-butt, love her or hate her; or was he merely singing? I strode along, hearing the cartman's song become a lonesome, broad-toned whistle now that flowered at the end of each phrase into a tremulous, blue-toned chord. And in its flutter and swoop I heard the sound of a railroad train highballing it, lonely across the lonely night (177).
of the sphinx becomes, in the blues, the riddle of riddles, a cipher for
their speculative nature - how they "convey meanings which touch
upon the metaphysical" (47) - which Ellison wants to recuperate as
an African American philosophy for modern times.
While Ellison's attachment to the blues must be viewed within the framework of his recovery and transfiguration of African American folk culture and a consequence of a form of cultural nationalism, he clearly understands them as more than the expression of an ancestral heritage whose currency is superseded by avant-garde art. Indeed, the blues become the basis for the modernism of African American expression. Ellison notes in "Richard Wright's Blues" that the rural African American communities from which the blues originated did "not exist in a vacuum, but in the seething vortex of those tensions generated by the most highly industrialized of Western nations" (113). Furthermore, like flamenco, the blues are "an affirmative art, which draws its strengths and endurance from a willingness to deal with the whole man in a world which is viewed as basically impersonal and violent" (97). Again in "Richard Wright's Blues," he demonstrates how the blues "fall short of tragedy only in that they provide no solution, offer no scapegoat but the self" (118). Ellison thus sees the blues as arising from a modern experience in which the individual, unaided by community or religion, is confronted with an "impersonal and violent" world and, in the face of utter uncertainty, must choose to act, drawing its strength from "a willingness to deal with the whole man." This is what Ellison means when he - creating a contrast to the gospel singing of Mahalia Jackson - remarks "the secular existentialism of the blues" (92). The blues are a philosophy for the modern individual (like European existentialism), and adequate for the world in which it makes its uncertain way. Ellison, then, in seeing the blues as the basis for that which makes swing what it is, situates the modernism of jazz as a consequence of African American experience, not the inherited style of European innovators. The adequacy of jazz as an expression of African American experience for the modern world, as a message to and for humanity, is based in the blues and its "ontology" from which it derives not only its basic formal musical structure, but an aesthetic gesture that grounds a speculative moral and implied political approach to experience in the world.
Ellison arrived in New York just around the same time that the blues-infused sounds of the Southwestern jazz musicians hit New York like a twister and sent the swing scene spinning. Langston Hughes arranged the aspiring young writer/musician's meeting with Richard Wright in May, 1937, a year after Ellison left Tuskegee for Harlem. Count Basie and his Orchestra (combining the Blue Devils and Bennie Moten's band) played ruling king Chick Webb and his group to a dead heat at the famous cutting contest at the Savoy on January 16th, 1938. Ellison, who was still in Dayton, Ohio mourning his mother, (Jackson, 190-97) did not attend this epic showdown: but we can fruitfully imagine it as the embodiment of what Ellison means in his repeated invocations of jazz as an "institution" or jazz as "experience" (LWM, 39). Aside from his appreciation for jazz music as creative African American art, the significance of the jazz that Ellison loved and that inspired his writing lay in its lending shape to a ritual through a specific expressive language. Numerous moments in the essays provide testimony for Ellison's understanding of jazz as a communal experience, one made possible, in turn, through the relationships amongst musicians and between musicians and audience. Ellison notes that "the delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization" and how the musicians "lived [an often harsh life] fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form" (6). Of his lifelong friend and fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Rushing Ellison claims: "he expressed a value, an attitude about the world" (44) and when he sang, the music "achieved that feeling of communion which was the true meaning of the public jazz dance" (47). Rushing - the singer who fronted the Basie orchestra with his rafter-shaking bass voice - embodied the process in which "the blues, the singer, the band and the dancers formed the vital whole of jazz as an institutional form, and even today neither part is quite complete without the rest" (47). Ellison further defines the locus of this vital whole: "And in the beginning it was in the Negro dance hall and night club that jazz was most completely a part of a total cultural expression, and in which it was freest and most satisfying, both for the musicians and for those in whose lives it played a major role" (59). Finally, Ellison characterizes performance as a sort of unity-in-diversity, claiming that "true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest as a member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition" (36).
Swing, in Ellison's cultural politics, becomes a public and communal ritual in which the fate of the individual alone in the world can be counteracted through participation in a cultural event that combines music and dance in dynamic interaction. Furthermore, it is the one aspect of American culture that was thoroughly based in, motivated by and infused with the contribution of African Americans, but that had proceeded to become the popular music in America. If the blues individual is a lonely train in the lonely night of the modern world, it is the communal ritual of jazz as experience that holds the light of promise for some kind of deliverance through integration. For Ellison's cultural imagination swing - in keeping with Michelet's dictum that every age dreams its successor - is like the cultural dream that would become realized in the next generation's political struggle for civil rights and integration. Like Peter Wheatstraw's whistle that "flowered at the end of each phrase into a tremulous, blue-toned chord," the individual is trained in the sort of interracial harmony necessary in a multi-ethnic democracy, which the civil rights movement wanted to purge of its regressive antipluralism. The integrity of jazz as an institution, the "feeling of communion" that is provided for in the ritual of the swing dance, is a matter of political significance that registers the historical effects of a cultural form. Swing was thus seen by Ellison as a forward-looking cultural agent in political change, not just the reflection of a social reality that segregated, discriminated, lynched, deferred the dream and smashed the spirit. This is due, not in the least measure, to the creative ingenuity of the jazz musician, whom the young Ellison regarded as a sort of renaissance man (Jackson, 67). It is his "strong individual personality" and "fluid style" that creates through playful competition and individual assertion a polyphonic unity that is dynamic, expansive, diverse and inclusive. As a mutually determining and solidifying combination of the individual and whole, the jazz combo or band was a "marvel of social organization," and, Ellison implies, a model for society as well.
The situation of the African American performer, who must also survive within the cutthroat competition of the entertainment industry and the racist expectations of white audiences, was also theorized by Ellison. He praises the creative "masking" by the black musician (exemplified by Armstrong) that gives every performance a dual significance and that allows him "to perform effectively through the magic of his art" (70) and to "express an affirmative way of life through [his] musical tradition [which] insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame" (6). Ellison makes clear the historical resonances of masking with reference to Duke Ellington:
Ellington remarked "Fate is being kind to me, Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young," a quip as mocking of our double standards, hypocrisies and pretensions as the dancing of those slaves who, looking through the windows of a plantation manor house from the yard, imitated the steps so gravely performed by the masters within and then added to them their own special flair, burlesquing the white folks and then going on to force the steps into a choreography uniquely their own. The whites, looking at the activity in the yard, thought they were being flattered by imitation and were amused by the incongruity of tattered blacks dancing courtly steps, while missing completely the fact that before their eyes a European cultural form was becoming Americanized, undergoing a metamorphosis through the mocking activity of a people partially sprung from Africa (84).
Ellison the black musician presided over an event that was both negative
in the sense of the masked mocking of the "double standards, hypocrisies
and pretensions" of a social order disfigured through practices of
racial distinction and positive as the expression of an attitude of possibility
and transcendence through the ritual of communion and the exemplary relation
of individual and whole in the jazz combo. Swing's "tremulous blue-toned
chord" was, for Ellison, the modern and historically adequate form
of African American expression.
The Unbearable Bugginess of Bebop
comments about bebop appear in scattered references throughout his essays,
but the earliest comes near the end of his 1948 "Harlem is Nowhere,"
an essay that charts the effects of Harlem's urban environment on migrants
from the south:
Yet even his [the Negro's] art is transformed; the lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz - that artistic projection of the only real individuality possible for him in the south, that embodiment of a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness and yet did not clash with his neighbors - have given way to the near-themeless technical virtuosity of bebop, a further triumph of technology over humanism ("Harlem is Nowhere," CE 325).
is Nowhere" begins as a discussion of the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic
in Harlem and is an attempt to account for the "complex forces of
America" affecting its patients, Harlemites, who as "modern"
individuals make choices "in the here and now at the expense of hope,
pain and fear" and have along the way become "confused"
(321). Ellison discusses the psychological situation of the African American
individual in Harlem - "the scene and symbol of the Negro's perpetual
alienation in the land of his birth" - and identifies the "clash
of cultural factors" arising from the "impact between urban
slum conditions and folk sensibilities" as the source of the "confusion"
of the Harlemite. But this clash is also seen as the means of exceeding
and negating it: "For if Harlem is the scene of the folk-Negro's
death agony, it is also the setting of his transcendence," (322)
one facilitated by the "techniques of survival
the ease of movement
within explosive situations" that the "folk-Negro" has
brought from the "relatively static order" (323) of the South.
It is not that a static order has been simply transplanted to a different
locus, a village in the metropolis, but it is a wrenching contrast that
causes both the confusion engendered by Harlem - variously described as
a "chasm of mazelike passages" (323), a "capricious reality,"
a "ghetto maze" (325), "slum-shocked institutions"
(325) - as well as new and inventive strategies for survival, which amount
to a revolution in speech, thought and artistic production. This is the
Harlemite's response to an absurd "world so fluid and shifting that
often within the mind the real and the unreal merge, and the marvelous
beckons from behind the same sordid reality that denies its existence"
(322). The novel Invisible Man answers that beckoning, presenting the
marvelous with the sordid and remaining true, in the end, despite its
surrealistic effects, to a type of realism by representing the surreal
within the real. Life really is that strange: and to rise to the occasion
requires the development of strange capacities. The confusion of the Harlemite
is, in the end, not only, or not simply, a bad thing. The new forms of
speech and expression created by leaving the South - with its "semblance
of metaphysical wholeness" provided by religion, its "family
structure," its "body of folklore," and "the sense
of being at home in the world gained from confronting and accepting
the obscene absurdity of his [the Negro's] predicament" (324), and
landing in the "ghetto maze" (325) of Harlem - correspond to
the twin options of genius and madness. And for Ellison, bebop embodies
Langston Hughes's motto to "Montage of Dream Deferred" (written in the same year as "Harlem is Nowhere" but not published until 1951) provides his famously trenchant description of bebop - like it, his brilliant Harlem poem cycle is
marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition (387).
In a remarkably
parallel gesture, Hughes and his younger friend both equate the reflection
of the changes in the experience of life in Harlem with the technical
changes in bebop. But while Hughes expresses uninhibited enthusiasm for
the new sounds and inhabits their idiom to create his poetic essay on
Harlem, Ellison laments the new music's installation of "technology
over "humanity." This critique is repeated in different ways
throughout the many jazz essays that Ellison wrote over the subsequent
twenty years. The most sustained discussion of bebop as a movement is
in his recollective essay on Minton's Playhouse, "Golden Age, Time
Past" published in Esquire in 1959. The critical perspective on bebop
expressed in this dense passage reads like a counterpoint to the Hughes
It was itself a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully formed; its melodic lines underground, secret and taunting; its riffs jeering - "Salt peanuts! Salt peanuts" - its timbres flat or shrill, with a minimum of thrilling vibrato. Its rhythms were out of stride and seemingly arbitrary, its drummers frozen-faced introverts dedicated to chaos. And in it the steady flow of memory, desire and defined experience summed up by the traditional jazz beat and blues mood seemed swept like a great river from its old, deep bed (55).
changes to the basic structure of swing were something profoundly upsetting
to Ellison's entire aesthetics and philosophy. If swing was a twister
from the Midwest, bebop was a tsunami of sound from Harlem that not only
lifted the steamboat of music from the "steady flow of memory, desire
and defined experience" but that "great river" itself from
its bed in modern culture. Ellison was a longtime resident of Harlem by
the time Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others,
in revolt against the commercialized, white-dominated form to which swing
had been reduced, were experimenting at Minton's in the early forties,
and was a regular attendant at the club. But the changes in bebop - basing
the melodic line on chord changes, the paring-down of expressive flourishes
like glissandi and the "thrilling" vibrato tones, the sheer
velocity of the solos - must have sounded harsh and ascetic yet and the
same time empty and gray for Ellison. The moment of the thrill of anticipation,
like the sound of music approaching, is lost in the leveling-out in bebop
of the rhythmic and melodic tension that made swing swinging, danceable,
and expressive in a blues idiom. Whereas in swing the aesthetic categories
of technique and expression existed in an harmonious and integral whole,
in bebop technique came to dominate expression - or more precisely, technique
becomes expression itself.
Bebop also fundamentally changed the form of jazz as an experience. Despite later efforts by Gillespie to inspire a dance culture around bebop, swingers could not find the beat. Dancing in swing allowed for "the interchange between the orchestra and a moving audience" making it a "communal experience," but "after bop entered the picture the dancing went out," (275) because " most people couldn't dance to bop. Very often Dizzy and Bird were so engrossed with their experiments that they didn't provide enough music for the supportive rite of dancing" (28). This phrase not only reaffirms Ellison's understanding of the ritualistic aspect of dance as part of the institution of jazz, but signals another moment of Ellison's critique of bop: the elitism of the bebop performer, who, Ellison believes, "must act exactly the opposite of what white people might believe" and wants to be "absolutely free of the obligations of the entertainer" leading him to "treat the audience with aggressive contempt" (63). Ellison is dismayed by the bebop musician's presumed belief that "to be in control, artistically and personally, one must be so cool as to quench one's own human fire" (63) and contrasts this with "the exuberant and outgoing lyricism of the older men" (63). He understands this to be result of the "thrust toward respectability exhibited by the Negro jazzmen of Parker's generation," but goes ballistic when beboppers call his hero Armstrong an "Uncle Tom," charging that "they confused artistic quality with questions of personal conduct, a confusion which would ultimately reduce their own music to the mere matter of race" (69). The beboppers were caught in a vain attempt to break out of the entertainer's role, in the process discarding the humorous masking through which the older musicians expressed a duplicitous genius. This descended to the level of the "funereal posturing of the Modern Jazz Quartet" (70) and the "loneliness, self-depreciation and self-pity" of Parker's playing, from whose "vibratoless tone" issued "a sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as though he could never quite make it" (75).
But while Ellison connects the flat sound of bebop to the lack of exuberance and lyricism in the bebopper, going so far as to suggest that "many were even of a different physical build," (63) he also sees bebop and the bebopper as marked by a hyperactivity that stems from the newer musicians' inability to maintain that "fluid style" that allowed the earlier jazzman to lend form to the chaos of life. Ellison's letters to Murray contain references to the excessive ebullience of beboppers, such as that of a drummer (Jo Jones), whom Ellison meets and characterizes as "stepping around like he had springs in his legs and a bunch of frantic jumping beans in his butt." He continues: " Man, they tell a lot of wild stories about boppers but this stud is truly apt to take off like a jet anytime he takes the notion. He probably has to play his bass with a twenty pound weight on his trap foot." (LWM 237 [Letter to Murray, Oct. 22, 1955]) Here the echoes of "Harlem is Nowhere" can be heard, which gives the sociological reasons why
for a long time now - despite songs like the "Blow Top Blues" and the eruption of expressions like frantic, buggy, and mad into Harlem's popular speech, doubtless a word-magic against the states they name - calm in the face of the unreality of Negro life has become increasingly difficult" (CE 323)
Jackson notes in his excellent new biography of Ellison, bebop was described
as ""frantic" and "hectic" and "mad"
in the argot of 1940s Harlem" (277). In "Richard Wright's Blues'
(an essay written in close temporal and theoretical proximity to "Harlem
is Nowhere") Ellison remarks "
all those blasting pressures
have shattered the wholeness of its [the Negro people's] folk
consciousness into a thousand writhing pieces" (105) and how "the
movement north affects
his [the Negro's] entire psychosomatic structure"
and that "what is called hysteria is suppressed intellectual energy
expressed physically" (112). For Ellison, there was something of
this hysterical energy, this hectic bugginess of the migrant to Harlem
expressed in bebop, which, translating Ellison's metaphors, would be a
form of music-magic against the frantic state of mind that the ghetto
maze of Harlem engendered and which bebop named in sound. It registered
the fear born from the destruction of the folk consciousness and the loss
of the ability for grace under pressure, which results both in the stiff
reserve and the frenetic edginess of the bebopper. A similar duality in
the music undermines the expressiveness that swing inherits from the blues
and that accounts for its modernism: while the leveling-out of rhythm
and melody flatten out expression, the velocity, the "conflicting
changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms"
simultaneously insert an agitated nervousness and crazed jerkiness. While
style and expression exist in a harmoniously swinging dynamism in music
like that of Ellington, the two go separate and contradictory paths in
bebop, a process which, for Ellison, gets even worse in the next generation
of bebop-inspired musicians in the fifties. This can be seen in this passage
from letter to Murray describing the 1958 Newport Festival:
I finally saw that Chico Hamilton with his mannerisms and that poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis, who on this occasion sounded like he just couldn't get it together. Nor did Coltrane help with his badly executed velocity exercises. These cats have gotten lost, man. They're trying to get hold to something by fucking up the blues, but some of them don't even know the difference between a blues and a spiritual. (LWM 245 [Letter to Murray, 10/28/58])
If the power
of swing was firmly based in the blues, it is not surprising that the
loss of expressiveness in bebop is due to the bebop musician's "fucking"
The contrasts Ellison draws between swing and bebop present themselves clearly after this my rehearsal of his characterizations of the two forms. Whereas in swing technique is subordinated to the primacy of an expressiveness achieved through a blues tonality, expansive color, flourishes etc., bebop subordinates expression to the primacy of technical virtuosity. In swing, the involvement of the public through dance makes the jazz performance a participatory and communal ritual, whereas in bebop the involvement of the public is reduced to finger snapping, toe tapping and the sycophantic emulation of modes of fashion and speech. The active dynamism of the interaction between dancing public and performing musician is replaced by a one-directional, passive appreciation of the isolated consumer. The swing performance provided a ritual of communion for the lone individual facing a harsh world without the binding supportive rites of religion and community, while bebop merely reflected the egoism of the competitive individual and the disintegration of community. While swing, like the blues, promoted values of strength of character and perseverance, bebop reflected the fragmentation, chaos and sense of despair of post-war America. The communal nature of the swing dance, made dynamic by the interaction of participants on the stage and the dance floor, and the "freedom within discipline" in the jazz ensemble countered the alienation of the individual in the modern world and represented a "superior democracy," a model of a plurality operating in harmony. In bebop, however, the relations between the individual and the group are alienated. Individual expression and improvisation are discrete elements that taken together do not harmonize into an integral whole. There is a disjunction between the assertions of the freedom of the individual and the integrity of the community of musicians and the public, dancers and listeners alike. Bebop's emphasis on virtuosity undermined the dynamic unity-in-diversity of swing. While in swing the musician was able to creatively exist within the constraints of the entertainment industry through masking and humor and to express himself through a gesture of openness and tolerance, in bebop the artist is self-obsessed, funereally serious, disdainful to the audience, and elitist. The humanistic values that Ellison sees represented most thoroughly in the jazz band are undermined by the predominance of "technology" - by which Ellison means not only the emphasis on virtuoso playing, but more broadly the music's reflection of an advanced stage of industrial capitalism ruled by technocrats and organized around the demand for new machines and faster cars. If the blues/jazz musician, finally, reduced to the "chaos of living to form," with a "fluid style," the bebop musician deformed the music with a style that was jerky, nervous, ruptured, broken-up, "dis-integral." For Ellison this was a breach of trust in a realm that he held sacred.
Swing Aesthetics and Bebop Art
characterization of the progression from swing to bebop, read strongly,
can reveal the outlines of an historical aesthetic that I would like to
illuminate by sounding a brief counterpoint to an aspect of Theodor Adorno's
dialectic of modern music. I will not discuss (in this paper) Adorno's
writings on jazz, which were often grossly misinformed, in some respects
ignorant of cultural contexts and theoretically arrogant, imposing his
conceptual scheme on a presumably undifferentiated genre with crass insensitivity.
Nevertheless, his philosophy is unique as a comprehensive aesthetic philosophy
of modern art and an understanding of historical development in music.
As such it provides a useful point of comparison for understanding Ellison;
to this end I will briefly summarize an aesthetic movement that Adorno
theorizes in his Philosophy of Modern Music and in his article the "Aging
of the New Music" and bring it into dialogue with Ellison's thinking.
Philosophy of Modern Music is an exposition of the dialectic of the New
Music, that is, the compositions by Viennese composers Arnold Schoenberg
and his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg that pushed the styles of
late romanticism to the point where the tonal system was superseded. These
atonal compositions, in Adorno's reading, were the pinnacle of modern
music: in their rebellion against the rules of tonality they figure a
freedom of expression that gave voice to a dynamic subjectivity. He develops,
in his version of historical materialism applied to aesthetics, the concept
of musical material, which is not just sound as notes and chords, but
the music-historically determined state of their meaning or lack of meaning:
this is the raw material to which the composer applies his style, lending
it form. Late romanticism had exhausted the possibilities for expression
within the tonal system. In atonality, the relation between material and
form was such that the greatest freedom of expression was guaranteed -
through dissonance, which was "freed" or released from the constraints
of tonality. However, in the article "Aging of the New Music,"
Adorno carries his thesis further, criticizing the techniques of musical
organization like twelve-tone composition that emerged after atonality.
He laments the replacement of the freely composed work by a schematic
formula and the abandonment, once again, of the expressivity that had
gotten lost from tonality and restored in the atonal compositions. The
new music had, through progression from within the tonal system, given
birth to a new form, carrying through an immanent and necessary development
from one phase of the relation between form and material to the only possible
next phase. (This is analogous, in historical materialism, to the emergence
of one mode of production with its historically adequate relations of
production from within the previous mode of production, e.g. capitalism
out of feudalism). But just as tonality exhausted its historically possible
forms of expression, so did atonality, forcing the composers to search
for new methods of organizing the musical material. While twelve-tone
worked for a while, it lacked all expressivity, had, in effect, substituted
technique for expression, or even for the work of art itself.
A similar consciousness of the historical development of jazz can be read in Ellison. The movement from a form in which the expressive potential was realized with the greatest amount of historical adequacy, to a form in which expression has become subordinated to technique, to the mathematically schematic, is present in both. In both a subjective expressive capacity that creates a mutually liberating relationship between form and material is replaced by one in which society weighs too heavily, such that the preponderance of the objective, social alienation of the subject undermines the balance between composition and material. And like Adorno who sees the progression from atonality to twelve-tone as an ineluctable process, Ellison also locates the origins of the need for something new in the moribund state to which swing had degenerated under the pressures of the entertainment industry. This is how he characterizes it in "Golden Age, Times Past":
Part of this [the bebop revolution at Minton's] was arbitrary, a revolt of the younger against the established stylists; part of it was inevitable. For jazz had reached a crisis, and new paths were certain to be searched for and found. An increasing number of the younger men were formally trained, and the post-Depression developments in the country had made for quite a break between their experience and that of the older men (63).
in the understanding of the development expressed here lies in the ambivalent
gesture with which Ellison cites the two and presumably equally valid
aspects of the progression from swing to bebop. While for Adorno the progression
from late romanticism to atonality to twelve-tone is only necessary and
unavoidable, Ellison cites both the objective ineluctability of the creation
of the new form that is due to the "crisis" in swing, as well
as the moment of subjective will and "revolt." Ellison, thus,
by asserting the possibility for this subjective will, is suggesting an
anti-teleological moment in the historical development of new art forms.
It needn't have been so: something besides bebop, for example, could have
replaced swing, a maneuver which allows Ellison to both hold the beboppers
responsible for messing with the jazz he loved and to hold out the possibility
for alternatives. His critiques of bebop thus combine a sense of the necessity
of its historical origin and trajectory while maintaining the ability
for the agency of the creative artist to chart alternative pathways: I
want to submit this as the mandate that Ellison sees his own art as fulfilling,
as the task by which the young author of Invisible Man felt most urgently
Both Adorno and Ellison were schooled in historical materialist thinking at a young age, and both present revisions of the orthodox version. But while Adorno synthesizes a neo-Hegelianism and a perspective informed by modernist European art with his Marxism, his own aesthetic theory begins to take on necessitarian, deterministic traits in its understanding of the dialectic of musical material. Ellison revises the idea of history in reaction to the Communist movement of the 1930s. The economistic "diamat" he encountered in the party, according to which practices of racial distinction were understood to be superstructural epiphenomena of the material dialectic, could not account for the consequences of African American experience for the concept of humanity that Ellison was concerned to recover. In Invisible Man Ellison performs the breaking-out of the constraints of a necessitarian conception of historical development. In the prologue the narrator warns us to beware of those who discuss a "spiral of history" because they are really preparing a boomerang (6). The spiral is the image Hegel uses for the idea of progress that his historical idealism proposed and that Marx refashioned into historical materialism. But the boomerang is the more apt image for an African American experience of a history of betrayals and deceits, giving rise to an attitude of extreme caution in accepting any models for history. Key moments of the novel - the grandfather scene (16), the Wheatstraw episode (173-179), the eviction scene (270-280), the conversation with Jack (291), Brother Tarp (378), the Tod Clifton affair (Ch. 19), Hambro (503), the riot (Ch. 25), the dream (569) and finally the Epilogue - are signal episodes in the developing historical consciousness of the young protagonist, who leaves the timelessness of the South to a confront the Brotherhood's idea of history and finally to make his home underneath a border area in Harlem. Here he composes our story as a way to make sense of his own history, going underground and writing until he has "whipped it all" (580). But along the way he softens the harsh sounds of the music of history and sounds other notes from the lower frequencies. The novel's inhabitation of ambivalence is enacted in the end, in which the narrator leaves us with possibilities but no certainties: "having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there's still a conflict within me" (580). The ending of the book neither presents a culmination in the origins à la Hegel nor mandates a correct political practice à la Marx. What we are left with is the ambivalence of the blues, which give shape to chaos but prescribe no solutions.
My exposition of Ellison's relation to jazz has situated his rejection of bebop within an anti-teleological historical aesthetics that posits a relationship between technique and material, which can, in turn, be brought to bear on the novel itself. The question then presents itself: Does the artistry Ellison practices in Invisible Man itself correspond to the aesthetic judgments he makes in his essays and the philosophy upon which they are implicitly based? My preliminary answer in this limited paper is: not exactly. Despite the novel's nearly obsessive recycling of the figure of tragicomic masking; despite its inhabitation of a blues idiom; despite his narrator's reefer-induced, quasi-mystical descent into the lower frequencies with Armstrong as his Beatrice; despite the transfigurations of folk culture that the novel stages; and despite the effusiveness of imagery and symbolism that hark back to the polyphony of the New Orleans style, Invisible Man is, in many ways, a bebop novel. In the fast pace of events "sheerly happening" (Ellison, 1963, 243) throughout the novel one may hear the virtuoso speed exercises of Parker; in its hallucinatory flights of absurdity it recalls the intense creativity of soloistic improvisation in the bebop combo; in the montage of images and events that erupt into a dissonant lyricism at key points of the novel, e.g. in the eviction scene or the riot, are echoed "the broken rhythms and impudent insertions" of bebop; and in the withdrawal from society of the narrator to his underground den for hibernation, we sense the reserve and seeming despair of the bebopper. Thus does Ellison practice that against which he preaches. The author is, after all, always something of a trickster, and Ellison especially loved that role for himself. I have been one too, in casting Ellison's rejection of bebop in monolithic terms. There was something in the new sound that also moved Ellison and that found its way into his own novel. His reaction to bebop is, in the end, not just one of dislike, but one of ambivalence. This is best expressed in the penultimate paragraph of Invisible Man, which adjoins the quote from the epilogue above:
And there's still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, Open the window and let the foul air out," while the other says, "It was good green corn before the harvest." Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn't have thrown old bad air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air's horn that counted. Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I'll be up and around with mine (581).
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