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.

4 thoughts on “Anti-Enlightenment nature of Jazz”

  1. Cynthia, I appreciate your comments here. I have often longed to hear what Chopin’s, Bach’s, Beethoven’s improvisations actually sounded far (if ever) it may have deviated from traditional western harmonies at times. I know that some of their improvisations were written down (i.e. Chromatic Fantasy of Bach), but doubtless, more went on when they actually did it than what we have.

    You might find the following Rodney Clapp essay of some interest. It is a kind of natural revelation use of the jazz idiom and is quite provocative (be warned!). I’ll send it as a Word attachment.

  2. Hi Mark,

    I just received the R. Clapp essay and having glanced over it, look forward to reading it this evening.

    Thanks for sending this my way!

    p.s., Given that guys like Bach did so much improvising, its kindof funny that Bach-only people are generally so critical of jazz…

  3. An old friend of my from the Netherlands has warned me about getting into discussions with Van Tilians …

    When I was twelve years old I was riding home on my ten-speed bike late one fall afternoon when I spied a library book laying open face down on the road and stopped to pick it up. The book was Jam Session by Ralph Gleason (pub.1958). I took it home and kept if for forty years and then returned it to the library.

    The book included excerpts from a long poem “Autobiography” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This cut down version of the poem like Ezra Pound’s recension of “The Wasteland” was an improvement on the original. The poem is jazz.

    Jam Session also included an article by Dave and Iola Brubeck. Unlike Ferlinghetti, Brubeck was a friend of the enlightenment.

  4. Hello Cynthia,
    Please allow me to introduce myself. (not an intentional allusion to the Stones- I am not the devil…)
    My name is Craig Brann. I’m from Brooklyn, a Van Tilian (although I’ve not been afforded the Escherian card…), and a jazz guitarist/composer.
    If you are interested in opening this up a bit…I think that there is a great deal of potential in this line of thinking. My one and only post on Blogger has been a brief, autobiographic, effort toward the idea of art (with particular emphasis on jazz) as theological mimicry.
    It certainly has far reaching implications for a post-modern anthropology…

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