Anti-Enlightenment nature of Jazz

Last Fall in my “What is Enlightenment?” course we read The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. As a whole, I found the book quite interesting, though a difficult read. Some of the intriguing aspects include the following: a Foucaultian knowledge and power as synonymous thesis, criticism of the totalizing tendencies of the Enlightenment, and the thesis that rationality of the Enlightenment becomes purely functional–a functionalized reason with no content etc. However, the one thing that bothered me about the book was H & A’s negative view of jazz. (This in no way detracts from their overall critique, it just personally bothered me). In several places, H & A criticize jazz, yet their critique seems odd and somewhat misinformed. For example, they list Guy Lombardo as jazz figure and do not mention any African American figures. The strange thing about this is that the history of jazz, which of course involves the great suffering of African Americans, in some ways parallels H & A’s own sufferings as Jews. Given H & A’s negative presentation of jazz, I’ll try to paint a different picture for those of you who are not so familar with jazz, but who are open to giving it a try.

Two central elements of jazz are improvisation and syncopation. Improvisation might be defined as “instantaneous composition.” In other words, when a jazz player improvises, he or she is not playing written music, but is instead spontaneously composing, utilizing various scales, patterns, melodic lines etc. that he or she has practiced to the point that they are second nature. What many people do not realize is that improvisation did not originate with jazz. In fact, as R. Beirach notes, “prior to the beginning of the 19th century, the roles of composition, execution and improvisation were much less clearly separated, and accomplished musicians were expected to be adept at all three” (in the CD jacket of “Sunday Songs”–an excellent CD where Beirach does the “unthinkable”–he improvises over traditional classical works). For example, the great composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin were known for their skill in improvisation.

Turning to the second element, syncopation, we might explain this as an emphasis on the “off” or “weak” beats. That is, in 4/4 time, the strong beats are 1 and 3. Most traditional classical music and even rock music emphasizes the strong beats. However, jazz accents the weak beats (2 and 4), and this produces a completely different rhythmic feel. The combination of these two elements–improvisation and syncopation–is the heartbeat of jazz, and it is perhaps not accidental that the fusing of this spontaneous composition with accenting the “weak” beats arose primarily from a people who were themselves oppressed by those who would want to stress the static, and in H & A’s language–reduce all particularity to universality. By definition, jazz resists both.