Per Caritatem

Miles Davis My Funny ValentineAlthough it shares several features and impetuses with so-called classical modernism—for example, formal innovations and reaching new heights of expressivity—Afro-modernism of the 1940s manifests distinctive characteristics arising from and related to the particular socio-political and economic struggles of African Americans. Guthrie P. Ramsey highlights one aspect of Afro-modernism as the process of African Americans grappling with their place in the modern world and working out their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and stances artistically (Ramsey, 2003, p. 97). Whether we find Afro-modernist overtones expressed via bebop’s structural expansions, exceedingly complex harmonies, extended and virtuosic improvised solos, or hybrid African, African American, and Afro-Cuban musical styles, one must also take into account the tension-ridden, racially conflicted socio-political and economic context from which the music emerged.[1] Following Ramsey, I agree that it is a mistake or at least an incomplete characterization to describe bebop as chiefly concerned with the (abstract, ahistorical) principle of artistic autonomy. Granting this claim and considering the racialzed context in which it operated, bebop artists and advocates strategically employed a modernist narrative of autonomy in order to challenge and subvert stereotypical depictions of black musicians as mere entertainers (for whites). In the process of deconstructing white-imposed socioeconomic narratives of what a black musician is or ought to be, bebop artists self-consciously appropriated modernist tropes and discourses to construct their own personal and collective Afro-modernist stories. Yet, as Ramsey explains, not only do the new black-scripted modernist narratives proclaim that bebop was neither “dance music” nor “conceived for mass consumption,” it also asserted that bebop was “not designed for traditional ‘high brow’ concert audiences” (Ramsey, 2003, p. 106).

Although it drew upon past sources—from both the Afro and Euro traditions—and was thus clearly hybrid in nature, bebop as an Afro-modernist art form was something new. Having broken down the traditional rigid barriers and antagonisms between so-called “high” art music and “folk” music, as well as discourses claiming that art music has no political import, bebop opened up a new musical horizon whose artistic excellence carried socio-political substance. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. might put it, bebop musicians’ (re)harmonizations and transformations of musical “texts,” traditions, and discourses were signifin(g) acts. That is, not only the discourses about bebop but the musical pieces themselves are instances of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference” intentionally and strategically enacted to speak to social, political, and economic issues (Gates, 1988, p. 51; see also, chapter 2). In short, bebop’s harmonic, rhythmic, and structural complexity coupled with its blinding, virtuosic improvised solos and distinctive grooves combine to create an expression of black art music or strategic Afro-modern jazz, whose innovations and contributions, given the racialized context in which they emerge, carry with them multi-layered socio-political significations. To imagine that African American bebop musicians were simply performing and creating works for art’s sake in line with the Western art music tradition’s discourses on artistic autonomy is to ignore the harsh, racialized reality and lived experience of African Americans in U. S. history and to conceive of music as an ahistorical artifact untouched by its particular socio-political and cultural context.

 Although, as mentioned earlier, bebop artists were, on the one hand, decidedly not creating music for mass consumption nor for traditional “high brow” audiences; yet, like other highly skilled professionals they desired and rightfully expected a living wage. However, the complex of American racism and modern capitalism created a particularly constricting and slanted framework—a framework whose laws, discourses, and practices privileged (white) copyright owners while diminishing music-makers, especially black improvising music-makers. Before concluding, let me illustrate how bebop as an inflection of strategic Afro-modernism worked within and against these slanted structures and discourses in order to resist and transform the commodifying practices of capitalism—and of course simultaneously struggling against racist (il)logic.[2]While from a musico-theoretical perspective one could make a strong argument that composition and improvisation are emphases on a single continuum and thus differences between the two are more matters of degree; however, in the socio-economic sphere the difference between the socially prestigious label, “composer,” and the socially stereotyped label, “improviser,” is stark.[3] The traditional Western notion privileging the composer over the jazz improviser or the “mere” performer per se views the composer as the sole or primary originator and author of the musical piece. This understanding of what a composer is and does is intimately tied to the development of musical notation. A musical score takes the live, dynamic performed music and reduces it to signs on a page. From one perspective, such technologies are completely understandable, legitimate, and even helpful to the process of preserving and transmitting music to subsequent generations. From another perspective, these fixed (silent) signs make it easy to ascribe ownership and thus creative primacy and economic privileges to specific individuals. Within the framework of modern capitalism and its drive to commodify, ownership and copyright laws go hand in hand. Since the improviser is viewed as a mere performer, a conduit or tool, his or her significant contribution—or better co-creation—that transforms the silent signs on a page into (actual) music is diminished and this diminishment is made manifest in the economic realm.[4] As DeVeaux observes, even as the artistic talent of a jazz legend such as Charlie Parker is publicly recognized by musicians, critics, and jazz fans across the ethnic spectrum, nonetheless “in a music industry designed to funnel profits to the owners of copyrights, improvisers have found themselves in an anomalous and frustrating position. The history of jazz can be read, in part, as an attempt by determined musicians to close the gap between artistic ambition and economic reward” (DeVeaux, 1997, p. 9).

In fact, as many scholars have point out, the original Copyright Act of 1909 itself presupposes that only musical expressions that correlate to a written composition or score qualify as copyrightable material; thus, the composer, rather than the performer is given artistic preference or priority, which, in a capitalistic system, translates into economic privilege. Prior to the 1970s amendments to copyright laws, recorded versions or improvised performances based on but exceeding and often transforming written scores were not granted a legal copyright-protection status.[5] Consequently, songwriters (composers) and publishers receive the bulk of royalty payments, whereas performers (improvisers) are typically paid a one-time fee and their share of the royalties is significantly less (Monson, 2007, p. 336). Monson provides an excellent example of how such laws favored the composer/songwriter economically and continued to reinforce the idea that the composer/songwriter is the sole musical creator, whereas the improviser/performer is simply a conduit giving expression to the composer’s musical intentions. Take, for instance, Miles Davis’ 1956 recording of “My Funny Valentine” by Rogers and Hart. Here we have an improvised performance that includes significant harmonic and rhythmic additions, as well as masterful improvised solos creating a new form that many deem superior to the original version. However, as Monson notes, “Davis’s unique version of the tune was not copyrightable.” Moreover, not only did the songwriters and publisher receive the mechanical royalties, but when Davis’s version “was heard on radio or TV, additional broadcast royalties were earned by the songwriters and publisher and collected by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) (Monson, 2007, p. 30). Such a system clearly exhibits an unfair economic benefit for (mainly white) composers, publishers, and those controlling the radio and television broadcasting industry.


  1. Ramsey discusses several mid-twentieth century “processes and their contradictions and paradoxes” including: mass migration, the (mis)use of black bodies, an emerging black defiance that helped to fuel effective political strategies and collective actions, and lastly, the multiple and “conflicting discourses on art’s role in social change” (2003, p. 98, see also, chapter 5, “We Called Ourselves Modern,” esp. pp. 98–105).
  2. For a discussion of the resistance elements of bebop within the marketplace, see DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 20–27.
  3. For a theoretical analysis deconstructing the assumed rigid dichotomy between composition and improvisation, see Nielsen, 2009.
  4. DeVeaux sums up this process nicely: “Notation imposes upon music the idea of a permanent text to which authorship can safely be ascribed and ownership securely established. Such fixity is a necessary precursor to commodification” (1997, p.10).
  5. The federal copyright laws were amended in the 70s to cover recordings. See, Monson, 2007, p. 336, n.2. See also, DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 11–12. As DeVeaux explains, the growing ascendancy of recordings over sheet music did not change the economic privileges and power structures. “[E]conomic power remained stubbornly in the grip of music publishers, who insisted (with the help of copyright law) that all financial benefits to creativity must flow to officially recognized composers. Since royalties for performance per se were relatively rare (contracts typically dictated a modest one-time fee), ‘mere’ performers saw very little of this money, unless they somehow managed to claim the role of composer” (12).


Works Cited

DeVeaux, S. (1997). The birth of bebop. A social and musical history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gates Jr., H. L. (1988). The signifying monkey. A theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. (2007). Freedom sounds. Civil rights call out to jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, C. (2009). What has coltrane to do with mozart:  The dynamism and built-in flexibility of music. Expositions, 3, pp. 57–71.

Ramsey, Jr. G. (2003). Race music: black music from bebop to hip-hop. Berkeley: University of California Press.