I apologize for the lack of new content this week. It’s because my p.o.s. Hewlett-Packard computer, barely 6 months old, is in the shop for repairs. In the meantime I’m using an ancient and borrowed Mac running OS 10.3.9, and I’m damned if I can get it to do what I need it to in order to process my clippings for the blog. It’s a bummer and a headache.
In the meantime, for want of fresh old news, I figured I’d do something a bit different. It’s come to my attention that a professor of Communications at Albion College is making pedagogical use of this popular post, Jazz-A Drug, for an undergrad course on media and entertainment. I was flattered to see the Hope Chest added to a syllabus of higher learning, but then the other night I ran across the blog of Albion student Ellie R. which shed some interesting depressing light on the interpretive use to which the item was being put in the classroom. I quote:
“Two factors must be closely examined when looking at the article. First, it is an influential black newspaper, and secondly, it was written in 1925. These factors are so important because, they highlight the racial issues at that time; during a period when in America blacks were definite second-class citizens if not worse.
In class we compared it to the theory of Marxism, in this case the blacks are the proletariats, and the whites are the bourgeoisies. The paper is instructing blacks to shun a music their own people are credited with creating, in an effort to mimic the whites who shun the music as seeing jazz as a non-white commodity.”
Not to put too fine a point on it (nor to snipe at Ellie R., who can’t be faulted for paying attention in class), but this is a deeply vulgar and simplistic spin to put on the clipping in question. It’s also one that speaks to a bugbear of mine, which is the lazy, ahistorical and presumptuous habits of the average academic in addressing popular culture. So, in the spirit of pro bono public service, I thought I would offer an alternative reading of the item for the possible benefit of Ellie R. and her classmates at Albion. So listen up, kids: This won’t be on the exam, but it may help you in future efforts to make sense of the past and maybe even the present.
First, you have to understand that jazz in the 1920s (aka The Jazz Age) was a self-consciously and defiantly counter-cultural phenomenon. It’s hard for us to listen to this paleo-jazz music today and perceive it as dangerous and sexy and threatening. To us, it sounds charmingly organic and acoustic and quaint. But in its time, it was intended by performers and perceived (by fans and haters alike) as very, very naughty indeed. It was associated with defiance of Prohibition and sexual immorality and what then passed for dirty dancing. Like gangsta rap today, it was the soundtrack of thug life, because gangsters controlled the nightclubs where it was played. The music itself originated in the Teens in houses of prostitution. In fact, the word “jazz” derives from the slang term “jass,” which was a synonym or precursor to “jizz.” (For a revealing audio snapshot of the environment in which jazz was born, check out this awesome recording of Jelly Roll Morton playing The Dirty Dozens–NSFW!– which is a song he first heard in a Chicago brothel in the early Teens.) It’s only much later on that jazz became respectable, unpopular, and dependent upon philanthropic support.
Second: It’s goofy and simplistic to reduce Dr. Rawlins to a puppet of white bourgeois hegemony. Rawlins is a doctor, which is to say that he was bourgeois himself. And the black bourgeoisie of this era was morbidly concerned with maintaining respectability–even more so than their white counterparts. There were good reasons for this, because racial segregation made it harder for middle-class blacks to insulate themselves from the black lower classes, and the black lower classes included some pretty scary elements due to the higher levels of poverty among the black population. Suppose, for example, you were a middle-class black person and you wanted to travel somewhere on business. You couldn’t stay in a whites-only hotel, and the separate accommodations for blacks could be pretty rough in places where the Jim Crow economy wasn’t big and diverse enough to offer alternatives to both middle-class business travelers and locals enjoying what was known as “the sporting life.”
Third: It wasn’t just status-anxious middle-class blacks who recoiled from jazz. Religious conservatives among the black working class (both industrial and agricultural) would have seen it as immoral and profane and sinful. That’s an attitudinal split between the sacred and profane that persists into well into the 20th century. For such people, church music (spirituals and later gospel music) was the only acceptable music.
Fourth: It’s extremely presumptuous for us, in the present, to look back at jazz-hating black people in the 1920s and indict them for “mimicking” white cultural values. (If I wanted to, I could score a cheap shot here by calling this position “racist,” but I’d just be lowering myself to the prevailing standards of the academic argument. So instead I’ll just call it “essentialist,” which among academics is to racism what manslaughter is to murder in the human realm.) Did the external weight of white cultural values play a part in creating these divisions? Inevitably. But to reduce the conflict to white hegemony and black false consciousness is just plain nuts. You wouldn’t argue today that Jessye Norman is obliged to love hip-hop by the fact that she’s black, or that Henry Louis Gates properly ought to know how to throw up a decent burner.
Fifth: It’s probably worth mentioning that Marxism has been traditionally hostile to jazz. The leading Marxist cultural critics of the 20th century were a bunch of pop culture-hating old poops known as the Frankfurt School, and they hated jazz with a particular passion, even more than most forms of popular entertainment. Most American Marxists followed the Frankfurt line in espousing the European classical tradition as the only valid musical form. Later on, so-called “folk” music was added to the canon of musical virtue. But jazz represented decadence to Marxists until it lost its popularity. Then they started hating on rhythm and blues, which took over from jazz as the cutting-edge of musical immorality.
Anyway, I hope I’ve helped to confuse the issue for you. Good luck with the semester. Drop a line if you need help with your term papers.