Issue 64 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1994 Copyright © International Socialism

Three replies to 'Jazz: a people's music?'


Charlie Hore writes in his article 'Jazz: a People's Music?' that jazz has been in a steady decline since the 1970s, and as a result is no longer at the cutting edge of innovation. Neither does it have a resonance with the struggle for black emancipation that it once had. He concludes that its position has been taken by other forms of black American music, or by the development of 'world music'. Charlie claims that since the 1960s there have been neither innovations of substance, nor the emergence of a figure of the stature of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. This development, he thinks, should not be mourned, for it shows that the world proletariat has now entered the cultural stage.

The Marxist tradition has always argued that the aesthetic evaluation of art is based on objective criteria, on the grounds that it is necessary to understand the science of an art--its internal structures and forms--as well as the particular historical and political context of its creation and consumption. Charlie's assertion that there have been no fundamental innovations in jazz music since the early 1970s is simply wrong.

At every level of the music, innovation has been such that a musician armed only with the theories and techniques of the 1960s would find it nearly impossible to cope with the demands of contemporary jazz. The great diversity of approaches in contemporary jazz music has been brought about by integrating two seemingly incompatible elements, the 'commercialism' of funk/fusion and the 'academicism' which increasingly characterised free jazz. Thus musicians with such diverse backgrounds as Mike Brecker, David Murray, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett and the M Base Collective have all developed and theorised what in the 1960s was only just being discovered.1

Jazz music in the 1970s and 1980s combined the existing elements of jazz to create new musical relationships. These developments in jazz were in line with the overall patterns of evolution in jazz up till then. More complex musical theories allowed improvising musicians more choices of sound combinations. This has taken place across the board in rhythm, harmony, acceptable melody and in the very structures of improvising itself. It is difficult to argue that these innovations have not been fundamental, although almost certainly they have not been so rapid or intense as in other periods. It is also probably true to say that a musician of the stature of say, John Coltrane, has yet to emerge. This is certainly the opinion of Wynton Marsalis. However, to use the early 1960s as a benchmark is essentially misleading. The coincidence of a healthy jazz economy with a very high level of struggle was itself the main factor in allowing John Coltrane to fully realise his artistic potential, and for the incredibly rapid advances in jazz music. However, when the tide ebbs, it does not mean that innovation ceases. Indeed the last 20 years of jazz have not been anything like as catastrophic as the period between 1929 and 1935, which virtually eliminated existing jazz forms, or the period of 1947 to 1953, during which the jazz economy could not support a single black touring modern jazz band of stature.

Charlie goes on to argue that jazz has lost an influence which it once had. Again I find this surprising given the use of jazz on samples, the presence of jazz musicians of stature on non-jazz releases and the omnipresent figure of Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson's album Thriller. Already the harmonic ambiguity of M Base is feeding its way into modern funk and hip hop. Perhaps Charlie feels that jazz is no longer the spokesperson for militant black America. But militant black America is still emerging from a prolonged period of depression following its defeats in the 1970s.

The emergence of successive generations of musicians such as Antonio Hart, Steve Coleman and the Marsalis brothers shows that young musicians have returned to acoustic jazz throughout the 1980s in ever increasing numbers. It is a signal for cautious optimism, since without doubt they will be unable to fully realise their music without a significant increase in the intensity of the struggle.2

Charlie not only gives us a wrong idea of the present, he gives a distorted and oversimplified view of the past. I will look briefly at three issues, the question of jazz influence on militant black America, the development of a world proletariat and the influence of classical music.

At the height of the ghetto uprisings the emotional power of free jazz seemed its most potent musical expression. However, it is precisely at this time that the jazz clubs which supported the music went into chronic decline. In fact many commentators blame the declining popularity of jazz in general on free jazz in particular. Looking back at the specialist jazz magazines of the time, a rather different picture emerges, which has little to do with changes of taste in the black ghettos.

The big record companies bought up the independent record companies which recorded jazz music. This was not because of jazz's popularity, but because the same labels tended to record rhythm and blues and the increasingly popular 'rock' acts. Led Zeppelin, for example, were signed by Atlantic. Basically, the record majors had no interest in jazz, with its tiny sales which just reached break even point, and wound down the jazz catalogue. This is clear from Blue Note, which was bought by Liberty, who then rushed out albums of lesser worth to fulfil contractual obligations with their artists. The other pillar of the jazz economy at the time was the jazz clubs. Musicians point out that many were closed by the police at the height of the uprisings. In addition many white patrons stayed away from the majority of jazz clubs which were located in the black areas.

As Charlie rightly pointed out, jazz funk has been almost completely dismissed as an innovative music. This needs to be emphasised since this development of jazz has been of crucial importance in the formation of new ideas in jazz during the last decade. As soul music grew in popularity, so too did albums playing jazz versions of soul hits. It is this strand, that of tenor organ groups and funky jazz, which remained economically healthy and, as Charlie says, is inseparable from the developments in black pop music and art music. Young black musicians never stopped playing jazz, they just played a jazz which jazz critics did not like. Jazz has always used the pop music of the time. When it was based on show tunes, standards, it was art. When it was based on songs written by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield it was debased commercialism. Thus, when jazz was supposed to be dying on its feet, jazz singles began entering the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts in some numbers.

Another problem with Charlie's analysis is his overestimation of jazz's popularity in earlier periods. David Rosenthal analysed certified sales of jazz albums on record labels associated with hard bop and early crossover musicians like the organist Jimmy Smith. The average sales worldwide of a single issue on Blue Note records, the most influential of the specialist jazz labels, before deletion, were a mere 5,000. It took ten years for Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue to sell 100,000 copies. Bear in mind that by 1921 Bessie Smith saved CBS from bankruptcy with a million selling 78. However, Rosenthal goes on to point out that at least half the record sales were in shops in the black ghettos.3 Even in London, Blue Note records were sold in the shops which imported blue beat from Jamaica.

Jazz influence has always been indirect, far greater than record sales would suggest. But at no stage has innovative jazz been anything remotely close to a mass music, even in the ghettos which are its spiritual wellspring. The musicians, however, articulate in both their music and their sentiments the spectrum of nationalist and socialist politics. Politically conscious blacks therefore often form a deep love of the music and form close relationships with individual musicians.

Charlie ends his article on a triumphant upbeat. Jazz is dying, long live the music of the world proletariat. The development of the world market and its effect on the world proletariat have been a constant element in our political analysis. However, it is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the internationalisation of the proletariat and the internationalisation of working class culture begin at the very beginnings of world capitalism. Peter Linebaugh's excellent The London Hanged gives tantalising glimpses of this process in 18th century London.

Jazz itself has played a central role in the development of an international music culture. It both absorbs influences from musical cultures it comes into contact with, and in turn influences them. By 1922 jazz bands based on King Oliver were noted in Shanghai, Lagos and Bombay. Trotsky was even reported to have been welcomed on board the Battleship Potemkin by a jazz band. So America is not the only place from which great music comes. Salif Keita, for example, records in Paris with musicians who are thoroughly conversant with the jazz tradition. This music is not a different species, but a different breed of the same animal. The real question is whether or not black America remains the main centre of innovation in the world of music. So far no national capital has produced a music of the harmonic and rhythmic complexity, or continuing rapid evolution, of the jazz musicians of America.

Another of Charlie's misunderstandings is his idea that classical music was brought into jazz by middle class blacks. Classical music so dominated musical education that whether or not a musician was formally trained, they would see music in terms of harmonic structures invented by the classical composers. Gospel and military music both have the same overall approach, while the music lessons that working class blacks could afford would be given by teachers conversant with classical music. All the popular songs published up to the 1940s quite openly stole harmonic structures and melodies from composers who were safely dead and out of copyright. Classical music, the musical representative of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, dominated music education throughout European and American societies. In music as in other areas of social life, the culture of the bourgeoisie predominates. Underemphasising this detracts from the outstanding achievement of jazz music in effectively becoming the art music of the 20th century, not in isolation from the classical tradition, but out of it. As the music has progressed, it has grown further away from its classical roots.

Although Charlie has provided a concise account of jazz development, both the way he sets out the problem and his conclusions reproduce the same mistakes that previous critics have made. Instead of looking at the way the jazz tradition actually develops as a musical expression of deep social processes in various musical forms, he identifies jazz with its development up to a particular point in history. Thus every new development in jazz has been greeted by a chorus of critical voices proclaiming the death of the music. Currently critics brought up on the avant garde decry Wynton Marsalis for his 'traditionalism' and contemporary fusion for its 'commercialism' and the whole of jazz for its 'cold professionalism and technical proficiency'. Charlie's article resonates with a deep pessimism for the present, a depiction of a previous golden age and a retreat into Third Worldism.

Charlie's main problem is that he sees race as the only motor in the history of jazz's development. But jazz was not the product of the ghettos in general but of professional musicians in particular, contemptuously dismissed first as dance band musicians and more recently as session men. Secondly, slavery, segregation and the racism they produced are an integral feature of capitalist development and therefore cannot be separated from it. This analysis does not stop the moment a person picks up a musical instrument. Indeed, the history of jazz illustrates these relations clearly, and in the process shows the enormous achievement of jazz musicians in general and black musicians in particular.

Charlie, following Hobsbawm, shows how segregation ironically allowed black musicians a space to develop the jazz tradition without the levels of interference suffered by other working classes. However, this was not without the interference of capital itself, which does not have a skin colour. The dilution of the music for audience acceptance was not essentially racial, but the continuing attempts of capital in various forms to produce a cultural product which suits its purpose. Berry Gordy of Motown was not the first black capitalist to try to dilute the music. His relative failure reflected the high levels of struggle in the ghettos and the confidence this gave musicians in the studios. Benny Goodman was not somebody outside jazz who stole the music like some thief in the night, but was a respected musician inside the music who got caught up in the struggles round the integration of entertainment, fought out through copyright law and royalty payments.

Charlie completely ignores the role of jazz in the struggle for integration. This varies from the daily integration of after hours clubs and bars to the use of jazz as a conscious focus for integration. This is true for the 'diluter' Benny Goodman, who helped organise the first integrated band at Carnegie Hall in 1936 and later for Norman Granz, a real diluter, who used Jazz at the Philharmonic tours to desegregate audiences in the deep south. At a higher level, musicians from classical and jazz backgrounds organised against a segregated union. In California, for example, Charles Mingus was a key figure in a three-year campaign which started with a fundraising concert by an integrated symphony orchestra. The major symphony orchestras themselves did not desegregate until the early 1960s. Stravinsky insisted on using the black musician Richard Davis, a well respected modern jazz player, to play on a recording session of his music. Ron Carter, a key figure in 1960s jazz, joined him on the session, thus breaking the colour bar in American classical music.

The real contradiction in jazz is, how can a music which so expresses the potentiality of our class, and with an influence way beyond music, be so isolated from its class of origin, even in the black ghettos? As Ruby Braff explained years ago, jazz is 'a poor man's music which only the rich can afford'. The explanation is no mystery once the most basic ideas of Marxism are applied.

The specialised division of labour creates deep divisions within the working class, which isolate groups of workers from each other and is the material basis for sectionalism. Marx noted in Theories of Surplus Value how cultural production was separated from consumption even in live performance. He pointed out that 'an actor's relation to the public is that of an artist, but to his employer he is a productive labourer.'4

Through specialisation and the laws of private property and so on, capital has to create the conditions in which the vast majority of workers are dependent on the culture industries for their entertainment. This means that there will be continuous struggles both inside and outside the entertainment industries round the production and consumption of culture. As in other areas of social life, capital imposes capitalist relations of production on culture, but in so doing creates a specialised sector of the proletariat. The skills of cultural production are not removed from the working class, but concentrated in a specialised sector of it. People working in the entertainment industries will necessarily be isolated from the class as a whole, unless they develop an organic, and ultimately conscious, relationship with it. Thus capitalism creates a unique society, in which the majority of people are unable to make music, and many suffer from a non-existent medical complaint, tone deafness.

While musicians face the same struggles as other workers, may live in the same area as other workers etc, they will have sectional interests and attitudes, and develop all sorts of contradictory ideas, like other workers. This shows the material basis for the difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the cultural arena. As Trotsky says so eloquently, the bourgeois artists '...lived and still live, in a bourgeois milieu; breathing the air of bourgeois salons, they received hypodermic inspirations from their class. This nourishes the subconscious processes of their creativity.'5

The proletariat, in marked contrast, does not have such a cultural milieu. In music not only is the mass of the proletariat musically 'extremely backward' for all the reasons Trotsky pointed out in regard to literature, but those of its members who specialise in making music are structurally isolated from the class as a whole.

Jazz, a product of the particular conditions of American capitalism, illustrates these processes to the extreme. Hence its importance in the debates around culture and its ability to enlighten our politics. Jazz is the product of the most advanced capitalist relations of the production of music, in the biggest capitalist economy in the history of world capitalism, operating still under the most intense conditions of exploitation and racial oppression. Its isolation shows the importance of artists seeking a genuine expression of proletarian experience seeing the need to build organic links with the working class. The failure to do so, as the history of jazz so clearly shows, is not only that the majority of people miss out on good music, or that the liberating message of jazz is mediated by capital, or even that so many musicians have lived unnecessarily short lives. Much worse, the innovations and ideas which express the spirituality of our class, expanding our imaginations' horizons and stimulating the intellect, are turned into the opposite. The ruling class take the structures of the music and use them for their own purposes. Even in such a seemingly esoteric world as jazz music, the basic concerns of our politics remain: the enormous creativity and intellectual capacity of our class in its self activity, and the limitations of that activity, without the conscious knowledge that it is the basis for a socialist society.


  1. These include multi-time playing, the use of alternate scales as a harmonic base, the use of out melodies and their acceptance to the human ear as well as new structures. As with all major changes in jazz, these affect rhythm section players the most, since they directly affect how the musicians relate to each other and the way in which 'swing' is articulated.
  2. A detailed examination of the interrelationship between jazz development and black militancy is beyond the scope of this reply. The development of a small jazz academia, a concession to the 1960s uprising, and the expansion of the festival circuit, made jazz less dependent on the specialist clubs and record labels. This may have removed the music further from the ghettos, but it also isolated it from the extreme pessimism of the militant black movement. If you take the view that fusion/funk was a jazz form, then the music never left the ghetto in the first place.
  3. D Rosenthal, 'Jazz in the Ghetto: 1950-1970', in Popular Music (1987), vol 7.
  4. K Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, vol 1, p411.
  5. L Trotsky, Trotsky on Literature and Art, p77.


Charlie Hore's article deserves both to be welcomed, as a serious attempt at taking his kind of fun seriously, but also criticised, for not applying classical Marxist methods of analysis to his subject. True, Charlie has come to add a question mark to the title of his Marxism 93 lecture, 'Jazz: a People's Music'; and yet, strangely, he gives us no definition of 'jazz', of 'a people' or even of 'music'! Does the fact that music is played by black musicians make what they play 'black music'; and if so, precisely how? Then again, what, if anything, do the 'people' have to do with 'the nation', let alone the working class; and if we push this idea as far as Charlie does, aren't we in danger of making unnecessary concessions to black nationalism and separatism, as the US Communist Party did in the 1930s,1 and as Finkelstein (from whose book Charlie took his own title) did in 1948: 'The Negro people are in a sense a group within America, a nation within a nation'.2

Are blacks a class, and are all the 'oppressed' to be found within the urban working class, or even in the working class as a whole? And why, in any case, is 'jazz' fundamentally 'American'3--by which, I take it, Charlie means the US? Was there really something there which could properly be termed 'the black American experience'4, somehow monolithic and non-contradictory; and what sense does it make to write of a 'black culture' as a whole way of life when, as Trotsky reminded us, no oppressed class or group can hope to control many of the key cultural resources and institutions it needs?5 (That said, we are still in need of a concept which accurately grasps the specificity of the cultural practices and products made and used by working class people.)

Then there are other questions we can fairly ask of this article, to do with historical factors and theoretical issues. If, as Charlie rightly insists at one point, 'jazz' was 'neither European nor African',6 exactly how did such music appear in Chicago or New York, and from what precise musical and related cultural resources was it made? Did 'it' travel up from the Mississippi Delta, maintaining its alleged purity intact; or was it mainly a spontaneous creation of the recently migrating Northern urban poor? The article seems to postulate--though, of course, it doesn't name--the idea of some 'golden age' of 'jazz', containing some undefined essence, which then got 'watered down'7, co-opted, commoditised or (in Frank Kofsky's revealing phrases) bleached out and whitened in later years?8 Was there ever really an 'authentic' historical period or 'moment', which produced music that was an 'expression' of some unmediated, transhistorical and universal 'alienation'--a music, which, in turn, can be held to be one of the means to 'overcome' oppression? Can music ever do that, or is it really a question of how music, music fans and musicians relate to the wider struggle?

I hope by this point that the reader will accept that these questions and criticisms are not just nit picking, or churlishness, but relate to the problems we find when we try to analyse cultural products and practices from a classical Marxist perspective. One key problem for Charlie's article is the nature of the secondary literature in the field, which is both pretty dated and, amongst writers on the political left, of a certain kind. So the article leans rather heavily on The Jazz Scene, written under the pseudonym of Francis Newton and published in 1959 by Eric Hobsbawm, a writer we tend to find particularly unhelpful as a historian of this century, and also on Sidney Finkelstein's Jazz: A People's Music, first published in 1948, and dedicated to 'the people of the new nation' of Israel, with nary a mention of the Palestinians that 'new nation' displaced.

Of course, Hobsbawm was to some extent defying the prevailing Moscow line on 'jazz' by producing his book at all, and he gives us revealing asides on the romanticism of the likes of A L Lloyd and 'Ewan MacColl' (Jimmy Miller)9; but his book generally toes the Stalinist cultural line, as does Finkelstein's, for all its covert reliance on the cultural pessimism of Theodor Adorno10, and its uncritical praise for the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams11 , someone 'proud to be described as a bourgeois'!12 Charlie's other chief authority, Frank Kofsky, while not a thoroughgoing Stalinist--he dedicated Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music to both Malcolm X and John Coltrane--shared Hobsbawm and Finkelstein's habitual masculinism, could be oblivious to the sexism of black musicians,13 and clearly had serious illusions in the Cuban regime.14 These are not very promising sources for a classical Marxist analysis; and, moreover, as Charlie notes in passing,15 people like Hobsbawm took a position on other popular musical styles which was, well, unembarrassedly elitist.

Now, this is not at all to convict the article by association--but it is to suggest that what we take from such dubious sources needs to be evaluated very carefully indeed, and this is particularly true of what passes for theory in the works of the likes of Hobsbawm, Finkelstein and Kofsky.

Take just one example. Whenever these writers have a problem in explaining the complex connections between economic, political and cultural factors, they reach for their mirrors.16 Actions, events, music even, 'reflect' something else; and when, as in Kofsky, the vulgar reflectionism seems too crude even for him, we simply get moved upmarket to prisms, which are said to 'refract'17 whatever it is that can't be connected to this vulgar materialist perspective. Marx believed the matter was rather more complicated than that: he thought the term 'correspond'18 encapsulated the complex and contradictory relations between what he called 'base' and 'superstructure'; yet Charlie carries over the bad habits of his sources, seeing mirrors everywhere, 'reflecting' reality in what seems to be an unmediated and mechanical fashion. Mirrors reverse images, and all you tend to see in them is yourself. Surely there are enough problems with using Marx's suggestive metaphor without inviting ridicule on this point?19

That said, it is also true that Charlie's article recognises some of the pitfalls of adapting to the Stalinist critique of 'jazz', including the refusal to accept Hobsbawm's smug elitism about rock and roll. For example, the article recognises that some 'Africanist' writers tend to be pulled towards a static, ahistorical essentialism about the music20, as they adapt to the general politics of black nationalism or black separatism; but there is little evidence of a serious engagement with the important article by Philip Tagg,21 which raises problems with analyses which regard 'Black music, Afro-American music and European music' as monolithic, static and self-enclosed entities. For example, Charlie repeats the old idea that 'blue notes' came only from Africa,22 whereas Tagg is able to show that such sounds can be found in Scandinavia and Britain, as well as West Sudan, and in the white made music of the Appalachians in the US itself.23 Tagg also criticises the idea that 'call-and-response', 'rhythm' and 'improvisation' have been or are unproblematically 'black' or 'white', and ponders long and hard about the implicit 'reverse racism' which seems to underpin many statements to the contrary.24 In addition, the Hore article hints, quite correctly, that every single so-called stylistic or generic name for bodies of popular music has come under scrutiny in the past ten years, on suspicion of being conceptually soggy.25 So, just as 'folksong' has been shown to have been a thoroughly bourgeois concept (taken over in the UK by Stalinists, and given a left populist inflexion, while retaining the nationalistic, reactionary and largely ahistorical content of the term),26 so there are currently serious debates about what, precisely, is 'American' about 'the blues', where the 'punk-ness' is in punk music, and what is necessarily Liverpudlian about the 'Mersey Sound'. Much of this work has been prompted by the awareness of the general problem of mediation of 'popular' and working class cultural practices and products; and while Charlie's article mentions this difficulty, and the analogous problems of the commoditisation of 'jazz' by the capitalist music business, he doesn't really develop his analysis even so far as to explain what he terms the 'decline' of jazz' after 1945.

It is true that most of what we know about the cultural activities of working class people has come to us through the heads and hands of people who were (and are) usually white, male, heterosexual and overwhelmingly petit bourgeois or even bourgeois. The same is true of 'jazz'. Louis Armstrong, for example, is spoken for by Hobsbawm as 'not just a trumpeter: he is the voice of his people speaking on a horn'.27 It is as though Hobsbawm, Finkelstein, Kofsky and, now, Hore offer to go back, so to speak, and grasp this golden age's essence, behind the back of bourgeois ideology and mediation! But how did that 'it', that 'jazz', remain uncontaminated on its travels, in what seems to be represented as a kind of social Darwinian progression across the United States of America; and how did those urban ghettos (so important to Charlie's thesis) remain hermetically sealed from the baneful influence of 'white' made music, even before bands came to be desegregated? How, after all, can you segregate a radio audience? And how do we know that 'jazz' was a majority taste, even in that ghetto--after all, Louis Armstrong was not known for his uncritical praise of 'bebop', as Charlie notes!28 Besides, could not the ability of black artists to make it in the white owned music industry--'Thank God for Elvis Presley', Little Richard proclaimed29--be a key factor in the 'decline of jazz' from the mid-1950s? And why not make records for a black owned record business like Motown, if that label was best placed to exploit the commoditisation of black made music for a predominantly white audience? Isn't there something odd about the lament for the 'decline of jazz', through a phase which Hobsbawm openly admits was one in which 'a people's music' was made by professionals for a tiny percentage of the record buying public--and a largely white, male, college educated minority at that?30 And is Charlie's article in danger of suggesting that we should be nostalgic for the cultural products coming out of older forms of oppression? Though the comparison is cruel, Hobsbawm saw fit to compare the sentimental idealisers of 'traditional jazz' of the 1950s with those people who 'regret that we cannot hear our Handel exactly as Handel meant us to because, unfortunately, we no longer castrate boy singers'.31 The dangers are obvious; but at least Hobsbawm understood, as Charlie and Kofsky do not, that 'jazz by itself is not politically conscious or revolutionary'. Music--any music--cannot set us free.

So where does this take us? It seems obvious to me that, if we want our tradition to be taken seriously by people close to our politics and practice, then we have to accept there is a lot of work to be done in developing a distinctive and coherent position. It does us no credit to pretend that we should treat black artists as 'honorary workers', since many of them were decidedly lumpen proletarian in origin, and those who found a regular paying audience rapidly made the transition to bohemian, petit bourgeois or even bourgeois status. (This is in no way to devalue the music, naturally.) Similarly, whereas someone like Finkelstein may well have wanted 'jazz' to become 'A People's Music',32 it was not, is not, and may never be working class music in any meaningful sense. To say anything else is to make concessions to left populism, popular frontism, and even outright Zhdanovism, against which Trotsky railed:

Neither, outside the rhetoric of windy Stalinists, does the idea of 'a people' have any connection with the theory and practice of class struggle, or of a revolutionary party rooted in the working class.

That said, I want to acknowledge Charlie's initiative in risking showing us his enthusiasms and in trying to understand them, and I hope his article gets the feedback it deserves.


  1. M Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (New York, 1985), throughout.
  2. S Finkelstein, Jazz: A People's Music (London, Jazz Book Club, 1964), p20. This book was originally published in New York in 1948.
  3. C Hore, 'Jazz: a people's music?', International Socialism 61 (Winter 1993), p92.
  4. Ibid, p91.
  5. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (London, Redwords, 1990), pp213-242.
  6. C Hore, op cit, p94.
  7. Ibid, p94. One of Hore's chief sources, 'Francis Newton' (aka Eric Hobsbawm), tended to use similar metaphors--see, for example, The Jazz Scene (London, Jazz Book Club, 1960), p13.
  8. F Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York, Pathfinder, 1988), p32. This book was originally published in 1970.
  9. Hobsbawm, op cit, pp42, 43n.
  10. For example, Finkelstein, op cit, pp 13, 28, 150, 159, 245, 249.
  11. Ibid, pp264, 266.
  12. R Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays (London, Oxford University Press, 1963), p63. For Vaughan Williams' attitude to the 'Teutonic idiom and Negroid emetics', see pp47-8.
  13. F Kofsky, op cit, p25n.
  14. Ibid, p141.
  15. C Hore, op cit, p103. For Hobsbawm on the 'infantilism' of rock and roll, see The Jazz Scene, op cit, p32.
  16. For example, E Hobsbawm, op cit, pp 18, 54 (twice), 76, 82, 90,148, 166, 186, 243, 250, 259, 265, 269, 276.
  17. F Kofsky, op cit, p163n.
  18. MECW, vol 29, p263. See also F Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (London, Pluto Press, 1990), throughout.
  19. For a critique of various abuses of Marx's metaphor, see T Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London, 1977), p49. It is true that some long standing Socialist Workers Party contributors to International Socialism do recognise the problem with this habit, as John Molyneux does in International Socialism 61, p63, but within nine lines he takes out his 'mirror' once more!
  20. C Hore, op cit, p107, n4.
  21. P Tagg, 'Black Music, Afro-American Music and European Music', Popular Music (Cambridge University Press, October 1989), vol 8, no 3, pp285-298.
  22. C Hore, op cit, p94.
  23. P Tagg, op cit, p288.
  24. Ibid, pp289-90.
  25. C Hore, op cit, p92.
  26. D Harker, Fakesong: the Manufacture of British 'Folksong', 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1985), throughout. In another work in that series, P Oliver's Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music (Open University Press, 1990), pp5ff, 174, this highly respected authority on 'blues' also questions the conceptual and historical status of 'black music'.
  27. E Hobsbawm, op cit, p121.
  28. C Hore, op cit, p98.
  29. The Rolling Stone Interviews (New York, 1971), vol 1, p371.
  30. E Hobsbawm, op cit, pp 146, 163, 239, 240, 242.
  31. Ibid, p137.
  32. Compare Hore at Marxism 93, on 'jazz' as the 'beginnings of a global culture'. This is not unlike the enthusiastic vegetarian several of us had to argue with some years ago, when she told us unreconstructed carnivores that 'after the revolution, we'll all give up meat'!
  33. L Trotsky, Culture and Socialism Manifesto (London, 1975), p29. For the wit and wisdom of A A Zhdanov, see his On Literature, Music and Philosophy (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1950), especially pp15, 38, 42, 54.


Charlie's piece on jazz was certainly valuable, and this reply is intended to be in the same spirit of debate. I am particularly concerned to comment on how the Marxist method may be used to address cultural matters--musical ones specifically--and certain aspects of historical interpretation in the history of music.

Despite his claims, Charlie's article does not discuss jazz in 'America', but rather in the US. This becomes an increasingly relevant point for Marxists attempting to define the way in which culture arises in specific historical circumstances. There was, after all, in both Southern America and the Caribbean islands, a very considerable (and in its own way particular) interaction between cultural forms exported from Europe, the influence of indigenous forms and the influence of various cultural forms from Africa brought by slaves. And indeed, there has been subsequent interaction throughout the 20th century across Europe, the Caribbean, South America and Africa--not a thing to ignore when we look at a form of music which arose in, among other places, New Orleans.

But further, there is the whole knotty problem (on the whole sidestepped by Charlie, but probably worth at least a mention) of what constitutes 'black' culture. Should it be defined purely in terms of US black culture; how is that differentiated class from class, urban from rural, north from south, east from west and period from period? Is there any reason to assume that cultural forms exist in anything other than contradictory, mixed forms, rather than pure ones?

The debate around what is specific about 'black music' has centred on musical features of blues and jazz, and the presence or absence of these features in music from different places on the globe. The most commonly discussed are: the use of blue notes; the use of call and response structures; the use of polyrhythm and the use of improvisation. Now the extent to which any of these is exclusive to music in which some element of 'African' origin can be traced is by no means clear.1 It may well be the case that the particular kind of improvisation, call and response and so on found in jazz and/or blues is different from those found in European (or, say, Middle Eastern) music. This is certainly a matter requiring further thought and research. What is most pertinent here is the question of whether these aspects of music are particular to jazz.

To clarify this, we really need to search back to the origins of 'jazz'. We need to consider the history of the various musical styles which arose in the various parts of the US in the years between the civil war and the First World War. We know something about the kinds of music that flourished in the US in this period, though the further back we go, the less clear the picture becomes. Paul Oliver's researches have given some picture of some of the music which had arisen. He charts the rise of minstrel songs, ragtime, jazz, ballads, blues and gospel occurring between 1893-1914. 'The concentrated period of innovation was a mere decade: 1897-1907.'2 His account of this, while tentative (and attempting to avoid the dangers of a mechanical explanation), suggests that it cannot be mere coincidence that these new styles arose at a time when the end of slavery was closely followed by post-war segregation, which was coming to be enacted and imposed in all its despicable oppressiveness.

So, while this remains an area crying out for continuing research, what is already clear is that, although at certain times jazz musicians claimed 'the blues' as an important antecedent to jazz, the various kinds of music that later became known as jazz and blues arose in broadly the same period in different places in the US. There is no clear evidence to identify jazz as 'based' on the blues--indeed, if anything, the blues was the last to develop of these new musical styles. Later the early jazz and blues recordings, both primarily for black audiences, were made during the same period, and whatever had given rise to the various styles of music played by black musicians, those styles interacted very strongly during this period of recording.

This starts out as a matter of historical detail, perhaps. But the consequences of this argument are that the claims made exclusively for jazz need to be clarified. It was the case, in fact, that a range of different musical styles arose in a specific historical period. Charlie seems to have set out to place jazz in the context of its historical development as one among a range of musical styles in the US but then moves on to make explicitly distinct claims for jazz alone. He acknowledges that the distinctions between the styles are by no means clear cut. But then he makes special claims for jazz as the black music of the urban working class. But if it is the case that minstrel songs, ballads, ragtime, various forms of what became known as blues, and various forms of what became known as jazz arose at the same time with their own particular mixtures of European, US, Caribbean, indigenous and African origins, would we not expect to find aspects of these other musical features in all these kinds of music? There is certainly a story to be told here about the rise of new musical styles, primarily played by black musicians for black, mostly working class, audiences.

This brings me to my third point, which is about the slight historical confusions underlying some of Charlie's account. Charlie argues, 'From the 1930s onwards the developments of radio, jukeboxes, televisions and cheap audio equipment... broke that separation [between black audiences and white audiences] down.' Elsewhere in the article there are further figures that are used to address the same matter, but they still cloud the issue. Let me try to clarify. It is true that in 1926 there were 'only' some 15 million homes with radios. It is also true that the home consumption of recorded music became relatively unimportant in the years after the 1929 crash. But 1925 was the end of the first phase of recording history, and the start of the second: electronic recording. The value of US recorded music sales peaked in 1921 at $106 million, and tailed off gradually until 1929 when they nose-dived (only $6 million in 1933).3

Ultimately, this partly depends on what you choose to emphasise, but my suggestion is as follows. It is best to characterise the rise of jazz, blues and the other musical styles as having taken place precisely at the same time as the development of the technology which led to recorded music, cinema and radio. It took the economic impetus provided by the First World War to ensure the US saw full development of radio, electronic recording, sound films and so on. So ultimately I'm carrying out a more thoroughgoing critique of Hobsbawm's idea than Charlie allows himself: although live performance remains of importance for most forms of music, jazz (and indeed blues) is primarily music of the technological age.4

Indeed, Hobsbawm's account has an element of the 'golden age' about it--a golden age when culture was not 'corrupted' by technology. Now, where do such arguments have their political root, and what is their consequence?

Writing about popular music is a particularly hard task at the best of times. There are few examples to follow. Many of those which do exist fall into the tradition more usefully identified as Stalinism than as Marxism. This is indeed a problem lying behind Charlie's title. He uses (a number of times) the phrase 'the people's music' to refer to jazz or, elsewhere, to rock'n'roll or soul. But nowhere in the article does he identify the origin of this phrase or discuss its meaning. I am assuming it is drawn from Sidney Finkelstein's book title, Jazz--a People's Music. What did it mean originally? How does Charlie rework it?

Unfortunately, there are problems with the word 'people' in this context. It was a fudge (not clarified by Charlie) which stems from the ideas about class, nationality and the popular front pushed by Stalin and his pals in the 1940s. We find, for example in Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural axeman, such spurious internationalism as, 'it is impossible to be an internationalist in music or in anything else unless one loves and respects one's own people. All the experience of the USSR testifies to that.5 (This sentence is also quoted approvingly by Finkelstein in his 1952 book, How Music Expresses Ideas, p105). That is the kind of context in which we find the word 'people', and it lurks behind the title of Finkelstein's book. It blurs questions of class. Charlie rightly identifies some traces of a similar brand of ideas in Hobsbawm's writing.

We need to start from a Marxist position (not a Stalinist one) on class and nation before we can move into the question of national identity and struggles against national oppression. In a useful quotation from Trotsky, Charlie raises the idea that 'Marxism alone can explain how and why a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history'. It seems to me that, by and large, Trotsky was not suggesting that this had already been done, but rather that it was a task that as yet awaited attention. I have yet to read an effective account from a bourgeois or Marxist theorist of the process of musical style change: it's hard. So there are (and I'm trying to be helpful here) a number of theoretical areas which usefully could be addressed.

  1. Trotsky's point about explaining how and why styles arise etc--can Marxism actually do this? Let's find out!

  2. Over much of today's writing on popular music falls the shadow of 1940s-50s Stalinist writing. We haven't, by and large, any body of writing (journalistic, scholarly, practical, theoretical or otherwise) which can combat or replace this as things stand. Perhaps our comrades feel (as I do from time to time) that other things should come first; but continued chipping away by writers from our tradition would do no harm at all. Why not aim at hegemony on the left in such areas?

  3. There are areas in which we should intervene as cultural critics. Charlie rightly identifies that this should take off from the bits of decent Marxist writers who comment on culture, in however fragmented a way: Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Gramsci (but not Gramscians), Benjamin, Lukacs... The current hegemonic forces of cultural studies and popular music studies come out of Althusser via Stuart Hall via Gramscianism, and hence little is said about what could loosely be termed 'what is to be done'. But I'm hopeful that the theoretical understanding and the depth of cultural knowledge exists in and around our tradition to put this right.

  4. To do this, we need to clarify another issue: how do we learn from cultural history? Not an easy question, and one which Charlie has clearly felt a need to try and answer. I hope his attempt provides the starting point for a new stream of valuable contributions.


  1. These four areas are explored (and our 'commonsense' assumptions about them are called into question) in P Tagg (1989), 'Open Letter: Black Music, AfroAmerican Music and European Music', Popular Music, vol 8, no 3, pp285-298.
  2. P Oliver, 'The First Revolution in Black Popular Music', paper given at Paris Conference of International Association for the Study of Popular Music (1989).
  3. D Harker, One for the Money (London, 1980), p223.
  4. I suspect Charlie's emphasis gives more apparent support for the idea that bebop was the key period of jazz development. But this seems to be pushing unnecessarily for a mechanical correspondence between 'culture' and 'society'.
  5. A A Zhdanov (1948), 'On Music', speech at a conference of Soviet Music Workers, reprinted in On Literature, Music and Philosophy (Moscow, 1950), p63.

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