Improvisation in Jazz Writing
2003 SAMLA Panel
Atlanta, GA
14-16 November

Scott DeShong
Quinebaug Valley Community College

The Jazz of American Identity: Improvisation in Black and White

Do not cite without permission of the author.

By "the jazz of American identity," I mean the improvisation of identity in the sociocultural context of the United States. I focus particularly on identity that's acknowledged as racial, specifically on the matter of blackness and whiteness in the U. S. In connecting jazz with racial identity, I follow a tradition of writing about jazz, particularly as emphasized by authors in the Black Arts movement. The key connection is that the improvising voice (or voicing) in jazz can disrupt musical normality in the same way that racialized identity can thwart naturalizations that have produced (and which are circularly based on) the identity.

Addressing identity means addressing context. Certainly all identities (human or otherwise) belong to multiple contexts, and within context they shift--human social or cultural identities aren't "singular or internally consistent," in Judith Roof's words (2)--yet an identity can't change itself, but only change in terms of configuration within context. To the extent that a particular identity can be understood as performative, it must be understood as working upon the context in which the identification takes place. Identity, while fully dependent on context, may be found engaging context such that context shifts or changes--for example, insofar as a context loses naturalization. When American racial and ethnic identity are seen as improvised, sociocultural contexts are recognized as not natural, but rather as constructed and both fissile and unstable.

In jazz improvisation and in the context of identity, naturalizing frameworks are put into play when otherness intervenes--when what's outside the frame alters the structure and semantics of the framework. When voice or race works improvisationally upon context by engaging what's outside any purported totalization of context, the respective context becomes denatured. Frames of reference give way to decentered ensembles of relations in which neither voices nor identities have full presence but emerge as traced by, while always referring beyond, the playing amid relationships.

Craig Hansen Werner explains that jazz performance addresses binaries that mark the inside and outside of rhythmic and tonal forms, although demarcations aren't entirely destroyed or replaced during improvisation. The framing contexts of inside and outside are played upon, as the player works, for example, to be both inside and outside at once while sounding wholly outside the key or the bar (another permutation might be sounding inside while not being so). A doubled (or multiple) being or doubled consciousness is experienced in the playing, and in the listening, or conceivably between the two. Of course this isn't simply entertainment: there's pain and struggle in the art of jazz, as Werner notes in tying improvisation to what Ralph Ellison calls the "blues impulse" (Ellison 28), an "ancient" source entirely anterior to the musical context. (Werner xxi) Such doubled consciousness and the concomitant irruption of temporality put the formal aspects of the music under critique, or under erasure, as the temporal and physical presence of the performance context become denatured by the intervention of the non-present (but not simply absent); improvisation (as its etymology emphasizes) engages the dimension of the unforeseen. That is, improvisation (of voice or identity) performs a critique of metaphysics, of presence and totality. Jazz performance is paradigmatic of a deconstructive moment of identification, where what's outside the contextual framework is revealed as intervening on the frame.

Certainly the denaturing, surprising aspect of improvised performance occurs in all music, and moreover all art. This definitional moment of art is consistent with claims by artists and aestheticians concerning what's critical in art--claims that art denatures, disrupts frameworks, always engages what in jazz language is commonly termed "outside." Seen thus, all art troubles assumptions about being--is always deconstructive--and thus metaphysical in the sense of engaging in a metaphysics of the unassimilated, in the sense of engaging otherness, radicality, indeed radical otherness. Writing about jazz has tended to emphasize this aspect of art particularly well, emphasizing the issue of being alive to alterity lying in unforeseen time.

Thinking of race in terms of improvisation requires an understanding of race as constructed reality. Charles W. Mills discusses race as ontological without being physical or essential (xiv): race is real, but real in an "intersubjective" way, by virtue of having been naturalized in culture and language (48). W. E. B. DuBois, famously, discusses how for African Americans, an awareness of racial marking usually entails an indelible sense of socially mediated identity. According to DuBois, the African-American subject can grasp the paradox of "double consciousness," by which inclusion in and exclusion from naturalized (read Enlightenment) human being coincide (DuBois's "color line" being a function of naturalized sociocultural context) (45). DuBois locates in subjective human blackness a critical awareness of simultaneous belonging and not belonging, a sense that one should belong, yet doesn't, to citizenship and full humanity. Sandra Adell sees this double consciousness as exemplary of Hegelian unhappy consciousness, in which the subject hasn't achieved the full light of Reason (which of course even for Hegel remains a mythic achievement). Adell's observation yields an understanding of blackness as poignantly typical of modern human experience--typical of consciousness that's aware of its contextual contradictions, unable to avoid or mask them with a naturalizing myth of transcendental subjectivity.

Of course DuBois doesn't say blackness is typical of everyone in the U. S., yet the formulation of double consciousness opens up general subjectivity (and avoids racial essentialism): what's most significant is his opposition of doubled subjectivity to the transcendental and deracinated subjectivity that has become widely associated with "whiteness." Doubleness emerges as what Trinh Minh-ha embraces as "hyphenated" existence, entailing interrogation of any claim regarding what's naturally human. Adam Lively writes that such interrogation via blackness breaks up the illusion of unmediated human being, as the resultant denaturing overcomes classical subjectivity. As is commonly expressed in the field of whiteness studies, the naturalizing force of whiteness begins to look strange once we gain a critical awareness of the complexity of what have been termed non-white subjectivities.

Stuart Hall notes that blackness is "always positional": "Blackness as a political identity in the light of the understanding of any identity is always complexly composed, always historically constructed. It is never in the same place" (152). Hall further describes blackness (again like all identity) as being continually developed, always in process, involving ambivalence and entailing a splitting of the human subject and a lack of completion. That is, blackness per se always already exceeds what it's identified to be. Considering the category of human blackness as an object of knowledge, we find the object incomplete, or incompletely known (albeit without being able to tell the difference). "Blackness" becomes a term for experience by which expressions of human difference are seen to fail and thus lead to différance (to apply Jacques Derrida's terminology to Laclau and Mouffe's thinking; Laclau 125, plus see Rapaport 1-2). Blackness becomes a notion of incompleting--a movement of deferral and deflection of knowing about humanity.

There have been various approaches to such a notion of blackness that, rather than reifying African or African-American experience, expresses under the signifier "black" a humanity that plays against what's thereby framed as mythic whiteness. Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and others have referred to the thematics of jazz in discussing such self- and social improvisation by black subjects. Even in revolutionary and separatist Black Arts rhetoric, the term "black" is used almost always in a knowingly metaphorical way. Although of course the word had and continues to have material referentiality (with skin tone as the purported referent), even in Black Arts use it's metaphoric to the extent that it may be read as suggesting an exemplary notion of always incompletely accomplished human identity.

For the Black Arts movement, the object "blackness" emphasizes black culture, what Stephen Henderson calls the "commodity" of blackness (4). In articulating this object, the most recognized voices of the movement (such as Baraka, Larry Neal, and Addison Gayle) draw upon folk traditions, developments in jazz, and other perceived (and somewhat selective) features of practices inherited from African peoples, thus developing a pan-Africanism that--in its imaginative depth and breadth--emphasizes the excessive feature of blackness: an emphatic proliferation, always incomplete. Kimberly W. Benston suggests this amorphous blackness is no less effective or less real for its being legible as a synthetic "necessary fiction" (4). He emphasizes that the Black Arts movement's attempts to construct a "primordial blackness" have led to a broad "(re)discovery of the subversive ambiguity of any expressive act," so that these attempts have led to a performative and thus counter-essential notion of blackness (10). As Black Arts rhetoric yields black culture as a radical object that functions politically as a discourse, black culture emerges as doubly metaphoric and self-undermining: lacking and opposing totality, it does transformative work on itself and its broader contexts.

Mackey devotes an essay to the aesthetic transgression of "othering" performed by African-American musicians ("Other"). He discusses how black Americans can take the experience of having been cast as others while being incorporated within American life--that is, their having been palpably "othered"--and can convert that experience into an othering of the art forms they receive within the American context, typically European forms. Baraka discusses an example of such othering when he writes of John Coltrane's performances of received popular songs. Baraka notes that Coltrane alters or destroys the songs' formal aspects so severely that he "murders" the songs and the forms (Black Music 174), the result being the reincorporation of the musical materials in what must be understood as an entirely different American musical context.

Baraka and Mackey locate the development and dynamics of jazz improvisation in the historical struggle for African American liberty and power--in the history of opposition to categorical and othering whiteness. Black American experience, in this history, appears as the experience of being or feeling marked or impacted by an ancestral connection to slave subordination, within a culture that's marked and impacted by slavery. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha emphasizes the post-coloniality of African-American experience as indispensable for any attempt to locate or identify black culture. According to Bhabha, signifying black experience divides signification itself. Signifying blackness--trying to make it present--splits the present, as the past intervenes: black experience per se is an intervention of the slave past on the present. Bhabha discusses how the splitting of metaphysical time by history emerges in Frantz Fanon's view of the "belatedness of the black man," who must live the trauma of having come after the arrival of (white, Enlightenment) "Man" (Bhabha 236-37).

Bhabha cites Toni Morrison's notion of a "not-there" that he refers to as a "'black' space that [Morrison] distinguishes from the Western sense of synchronous tradition--which then turns into the 'first stroke' of slave rememory [sic]" (198-99, 251). This signifying space or "void," Morrison writes, "may be empty but it is not a vacuum" ("Unspeakable" 11). Such a "dis/location" of black culture--perhaps better put as a dis/location of blackness in American culture (that is, discernible at least potentially by any American)--intervenes on systematic thought that would privilege synchronic time, time that would organize and naturalize human relations. The intervention of history on the present thereby overcomes what Bhabha calls the "collusive sense of cultural contemporaneity"--that is, overcoming a metaphysics of totalizing culture, which would claim to incorporate blackness within the putative pluralism of a transcendentally organized culture (4). Morrison's re-memory as a "stroke"--the intervening post-colonial moment--recalls Ellison's depiction of the "blues impulse" (78); also, this stroke is expressed as the outrage in the Black Arts practitioners' work to construct cultural blackness. Seen thus, blackness bears collective scars of American history. As Morrison develops throughout Playing in the Dark, black life in the United States is where the history of American cultural violence can be witnessed.

Ellison makes the point (which is implicit in DuBois) that blackness is endemic to Americanness. Conceived as improvised identity, Americanness-as-blackness would exceed any naturalization of the transcendental citizen subject. Broadly disseminated, such blackness could alter radically what Mills refers to as the intersubjective ontology of race. The politics of improvisational thinking would emphasize non-exclusivity, rather than the liberal ideal of inclusiveness, as the emergence of otherness reconfigures the field in which it emerges. This is to begin by recognizing the discontinuity of humanity, recognizing that while commonality might be negotiated, it should never be assumed.

Two examples show how specific aspects of U. S. culture have been affected by a logic of improvisation with the outside, in each case reconfiguring the particular field through a logic of non-exclusion as opposed to one of totalizing inclusiveness. Both occurred during the 1960s and '70s, when African-American struggle helped effect major changes in thinking about what's naturally human. In The Death of White Sociology in 1973, Joyce Ladner reflects an aspect of a change in process. Ladner explains that once black experience was seriously taken as valid and valued human experience, fundamental change occurred in the social sciences. She writes that African Americans were no longer seen as outside normalized American life, yet also not newly included in a naturalized group of Americans. Rather, the study of black experience per se broke open the prior naturalization: the addition, the unforeseen voicing, reconfigured the entire field. Houston Baker describes a similar change in the arts, drawing an analogy to Thomas Kuhn's concept of "paradigm shift" in the sciences (Baker 74-77). For Baker, the Black Arts movement's development and valuation of black culture helped create a change in the "artworld" (Arthur Danto's term), a phenomenological shift in which objects, perception, and production all were altered.

Such contextual shifts involve a dominant mythology's giving way to a critical consciousness of its own mythmaking. As articulated in terms of improvised identity, subjective blackness is always other to the mythology of full human presence. As Alton Pollard points out, DuBois didn't want double consciousness resolved into assimilation: African-American life for DuBois contains a revolutionary aspect that would oppose all tendencies toward regimentation in American society and culture (Pollard 50). Yet once expressed, double consciousness becomes a model for the way all subjectivity is contingent, as every person is other to the transcendental subjectivity of what Derrida calls white mythology. Clearly, all humanity isn't black in what remains a significant referential sense. Yet all humanity resists white mythology as black humanity does.

I reiterate that I use "blackness" in this paper as opposition to the very category of the naturally human, working with a theory of non-exclusion rather than one that articulates inclusiveness; this avoids expressing blackness as human nature and thus maintains the deconstruction of any notion of natural human subjectivity. Developing the conditions of double consciousness as proper to human life posits a ubiquitous sociocultural play in which the subject improvises his or her position. These are conditions under which the violence of Baraka's or Coltrane's approach to improvisation as revolution won't seem bizarre, or contrary to what humans do, susceptible to being judged as unnatural or inhuman. Arguably, DuBois's exposition of double consciousness in 1903 expresses a desire for a fully free and inclusive, civilized subjectivity, amenable to an imagined plurality that's perhaps conceivable in terms very much like the naturalized, universalizing category of whiteness. So toward valuing the doubleness of improvised life, it remains important for us to emphasize a movement always toward the trace of something outside any possible naturalization, as played in an ensemble of relations where the time of voices leads beyond any possible totalization of context.

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