Iain Anderson. This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. vi + 258 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8122-2003-2.
Reviewed by Zachary J. Lechner (Department of History, Temple University)
Published on H-1960s (July, 2008)
The Cultural Challenges and Limitations of Free Jazz in the 1960s
The emergence of free jazz music in the 1960s presented a significant challenge to the jazz canon. Free improvisers such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, and Sun Ra pushed the boundaries of jazz. For these performers, bebop, hard bop, modal, and other jazz innovations of the 1940s and 1950s were too restrictive. They abandoned fixed chord changes and tempos. For some listeners, it sounded innovative and exciting; others found the music chaotic and threatening.
Iain Anderson, an associate professor of history at Dana College, disagrees with the critics of free improvisation, as Anderson generally refers to the style. His book This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture is much more than a defense of free jazz, although he does analyze the criticisms in an epilogue. Anderson's main concern lies in understanding the functioning of cultural authority. In the introduction, he writes, "This book explores the question of who makes decisions about the value of a cultural form and on what basis, taking as its example the impact of 1960s free improvisation on the changing status of jazz" (p. 2). He posits two chief questions: How influential were black activists and intellectuals in transforming the cultural hierarchy, and, after World War II, did a broadening of wealth and education bridge the void between high and low culture? Anderson argues that free improvisers and their supporters challenged the promotion of jazz as "America's artform" and often attempted to claim it as distinctive of the African American experience. In doing so, they drove away most of the jazz audience. Universities and other high arts institutions interested in better representing and supporting black culture, as well as the avant-garde in the arts, welcomed free jazz. The irony of free improvisation's reassessment in the high-brow world, Anderson demonstrates, "suggests the difficulty of resisting ongoing attempts to sustain the stratification and sacrilization of American culture" (p. 181).
Over the course of five chapters, Anderson describes jazz's emergence as a national cultural symbol in the 1950s, the challenges posed by free improvisation, free jazz's complex relationship with black nationalism, the narrowing audience for jazz in the 1960s, and finally, the institutionalization of jazz outside of the music marketplace.
For those readers acquainted with Penny Von Eschen's scholarship, much of Anderson's treatment of jazz in the 1950s will be familiar. Nevertheless, his discussion of the connection between jazz and American Cold War foreign policy helps to orient the reader to the contentiousness at the center of debates over the music. Washington policymakers reeling from the international embarrassment of U.S. racism sent abroad State Department tours headed by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and other performers. Designed to celebrate jazz as "America's artform," these tours strived to tell a progressive story of racial integration in America. They equated jazz with American freedom and individualism. Not surprisingly, the tours created controversy. While some black performers and critics lined up behind this depiction, seeing it as a way to improve race relations and the livelihood of black musicians, others chafed at what they saw as the United States' racial hypocrisy and the unequal treatment of black artists in the music business.
Besides outlining the debates engendered by the State Department tours, Anderson investigates how jazz gained national prestige in the 1950s. Bebop musicians faced accusations of criminality and depravity during the previous decade. Anderson contends that new technologies, new venues, and expanded audiences accounted for the new credibility, as did the rise of an innovative "cool" sound developed by Miles Davis and other purveyors that contrasted with the more frenetic bebop. Jazz promoters began moving the music out of nightclubs and into concert halls. This change lent greater artistic credibility to the music and enabled record companies to record live performance cleanly. The long playing record (LP) allowed artists to create more thematic albums in high fidelity. Promoters' creation of jazz festivals, despite their sometimes mixed commercial success, helped cement jazz in Americans' minds as a high-class genre defined by development and progress. Anderson notes how many Americans' association of jazz with progress and individualism fitted well with the consensus interpretation of U.S. society in the 1950s. The author's understanding of non-musical reasons for jazz music's shifting fortunes is astute. It recognizes that a cultural product like jazz operates within the larger framework of the marketplace. Anderson's attention to this obvious, but often neglected facet of jazz history, requires us to place cultural productions in the midst of an interplay between cultural, economic, and political forces.
The author posits this interplay at the core of free improvisation's threat to the freshly formed jazz canon. The question of who controlled the jazz tradition, he insists, underwrote this dispute. Free improvisers questioned the liberal assumptions of the jazz establishment from which they felt increasingly marginalized, both musically and economically. Some of these musicians linked their lack of commercial opportunities with the economic and racial structures of the music industry. Their dissatisfaction in turn influenced an aesthetic debate among critics, musicians, and black nationalists regarding whether jazz should be considered a modernist artform or an intrinsically black cultural expression. Anderson thus identifies a conflict not only between critics and supporters of free jazz, but also between devotees who disagreed about what the music should represent. Jazz performers in the 1940s and 1950s frequently represented their work in a language of modernism, "including the integration of intellect and emotion and an emphasis on continuous reinvention." Anderson points out that the fit was not perfect, as other types of artists drew upon jazz as a "primitivist inspiration" (p. 55). Regardless, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, many jazz critics--Nat Hentoff, Martin William, and Gunther Schuller among them--employed a modernist discourse in order to aid the respectability of jazz. Anderson states that this focus unintentionally assisted in obscuring the music's black roots.
The book's third chapter, "Free Jazz and Black Nationalism," investigates the reaction of many musicians and critics against invoking free jazz as a modernist expression. Anderson relies heavily upon Amiri Baraka, the noted black nationalist poet, essayist, and music critic. Anderson skillfully describes Baraka's attempts to position free improvisation as part of a nonwestern, Afrocentric tradition devoid of western culture's capitalist drives. In focusing on Baraka's desire to "put the culture" back into jazz the author builds on William L. Van Deburg's conception of Black Power as a largely cultural movement. Baraka could not overcome the fact, Anderson explains, that despite the adoption of nonwestern influences by John Coltrane and other free improvisers, their music did indeed bear a strong resemblance to avant-garde Euro-American aesthetic forms. Anderson stresses, though, that by incorporating free improvisation into the Black Arts Movement "[c]ultural nationalists took free jazz, a travesty of accepted norms of musical discipline, and turned it into a symbol of racial distinction" (p. 119).
Despite the influence of black nationalism, the black audience for jazz continued to dwindle throughout the 1960s. Anderson is particularly attuned to this point. The question is why the jazz fan base among both blacks and whites declined so precipitously. The author's explanation helps to support his argument about the continued pull of a cultural hierarchy in post-World War II America. He explains that the challenging nature of free improvisation surely alienated many traditional jazz fans; competing genres further siphoned away audiences. 1960s soul music and rock 'n' roll drew black and white listeners enticed by socially conscious, yet more accessible, music. Experimental jazz musicians found themselves as artists in search of an audience. They tried to overcome this dilemma with varying success, Anderson details, by forming organizations like the Jazz Composers Guild and Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
In his final chapter, "Jazz Outside the Marketplace," Anderson discusses the institutionalization of free improvisation by universities and philanthropic organizations. This development beginning in the late 1960s allowed free jazz artists to remain true to the black nationalist vision of the music "as a repository of community values" while also finding a much-needed audience and monetary sustenance outside of an indifferent music industry (p. 152). Anderson does an excellent job of explaining free improvisation's entry into the world of high culture. Nonprofit organizations, corporations, the federal government, and institutions of higher learning considered free jazz's lack of commercial achievement appealing. Their commitment to a fringe artform operated within a paradox, Anderson writes. Universities and donors identified with free jazz's connection to European avant-garde aesthetics, and they also valued the racial pluralism seemingly embodied in the music. Thus, the conflict between modernism and racial consciousness so important to earlier considerations of free jazz now helped the music, serving not as an obstacle but as a strength. The music's new supporters, Anderson clarifies, did share two main goals with the critics of free jazz: placing free improvisation at the margins of the jazz tradition and jettisoning its relationship with racial nationalism. Anderson points to other structural factors in the rebirth of free improvisation. Higher education expanded in the postwar era and encouraged students to take more courses in artistic disciplines. Jazz studies grew quickly in the 1960s. Finally, the federal government's greater commitment to arts support and the loosening of laws governing corporate donations further aided the cause of free improvisation.
Anderson respects the role of the nonprofits, the federal government, universities, and corporations in helping to sustain and promote free jazz. Free improvisers have taken advantage of these opportunities in the form of fellowships, grants, and professorships. Ultimately, however, Anderson asks the question, "At what cost?" Drawing on the work of Paul J. Dimaggio, he contends that both nonprofit and proprietary sponsorship greatly influences what we consider low and high art. That certainly holds true, as Anderson exhibits, for free improvisers. He is quick to question the dissolution between highbrow and lowbrow forms that the institutional acceptance of free jazz seems to promise. Experimental artists castigated the coronation of jazz as "America's art form" in the 1950s, and yet their current sponsors contribute to the continued hierarchical divisions within American culture. From my reading, Anderson appears to believe that the cultural challenge of free jazz has been tamed. The genre remains just outside of "mainstream" jazz with its black nationalist implication muted.
This Is Our Music, with its focus on cultural hierarchies, does an excellent job of locating free jazz's evolution in the context of cultural authority. The keepers of the jazz canon such as Wynton Marsalis, the Musical Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, still promote a progressive version of the jazz narrative that treats post-bop innovations as part of a divergent path--perhaps interesting but ultimately going nowhere. One might consider Anderson's take on cultural authority alongside David Farber's in his 1994 book ¬The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. Farber stresses the centrality of a crisis of cultural authority in the 1960s. Youthful behavior, he argues, exposed the economic value of consumer hedonism in the context of a society that also valued hard work and restraint. This paradoxical situation helped to loosen traditional hierarchies of authority. Anderson, conversely, portrays the continuing pull of traditional forces of cultural authority. The difference in the scholars' interpretation perhaps lies in the virtual removal of free jazz from the marketplace. In the post-World War II consumer-driven society, cultural arbiters have often been unable to maintain standards of taste (see, for example, rock 'n' roll in the 1950s). But cultural authority still exerts a strong influence in differentiating nonconsumer high culture with low or consumer culture if we accept Anderson's strong case for the potency of cultural stratification. The democratizing effect on cultural authority has not extended to the world of jazz sponsorship where free improvisers' lack of commercial success leaves them largely dependent on those who control the purse strings to define the artistic and cultural significance of their work.
In researching this challenging and controversial music, Anderson consulted several archival collections, including Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies and New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Utilizing mostly published sources, he grounds his primary research in contemporary publications like Downbeat, Jazz, Newsweek, and the New York Times and makes extensive use black nationalist writings. Anderson also cites free jazz album liner notes and recordings, although he rarely provides much description of various recordings. Consider the following description of Cecil Taylor's early 1960s output: "Taylor's use of extended form mirrored [Duke] Ellington's work since the 1930s, his complicated chord alterations echoed George Russell's compositions of the 1950s, and his free form experiments found precedent in some notorious Lennie Tristano sides from 1949" (p. 59). To jazz aficionados and music historians, this sentence should make perfect sense. I suspect that cultural historians, who will comprise a large part of Anderson's audience, may have more difficulty comprehending it. Granted, it is always a challenge to write about music, especially a genre with a structure as loose as free jazz, but a little more background and more detailed descriptions of the music would have been helpful for readers not well acquainted with free improvisation and its antecedents. I do not want to overstate this criticism. Anderson is mainly concerned with highlighting the response to free jazz's critics; nonetheless, a book about music--even one focused on cultural impact and not musicology--should provide a reader with a reasonable sense of how the music sounds without previously hearing it. I suppose in a perfect world university press publishers would possess the resources to include in their music-related books a CD with a selection of relevant recordings.
Putting aside this minor criticism, Anderson's keen insight into cultural authority and distinction makes this book valuable to jazz scholars and postwar cultural historians. I am impressed with how effortlessly the author moves between issues as diverse as postwar government policymaking, the tenants of black nationalism, transformations in the music industry, and the evolution of sponsorship of the arts, and manages to tie them together into a complex, yet comprehensible, discussion of the challenge of free improvisation, not just to the jazz canon, but to American culture as well. When Ornette Coleman released the 1959 LP This Is Our Music he surely could not have anticipated the far-reaching impact of free improvisation. Iain Anderson has shown us that free jazz may have always been music for the margins. Its influence nevertheless has infused issues of culture and racial identity very much in the mainstream of American society.
. Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997); Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004).
[2.] William L. Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
[3.] Paul J. Dimaggio, "Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston" in Nonprofit Enterprise in the Arts: Studies in Mission and Constraint (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 41-61; see also "Introduction," 12.
[4.] David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 176.
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Zachary J. Lechner. Review of Anderson, Iain, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture.
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