Per Caritatem

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

Kind of Blue SessionsIn his work, After Virtue, MacIntyre provides a multifaceted definition of practice as well as a helpful discussion of a practice’s internal and external goods. As he explains, a practice is

any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity.[1]

Clearly, jazz qualifies as a complex, socially created, communal human activity. The excellent jazz improviser, for example, must achieve a high level of technical proficiency combined with the ability to employ her technical expertise in a way that allows her to develop her own musical identity. In order to accomplish this she must devote herself to years of practice and training, acquiring the requisite skills or “internal goods” of her craft, which includes familiarizing herself with the works of respected and exemplary jazz musicians. Internal goods, then, are intrinsic goods specific to a particular practice that are acquired through intentionally submitting and immersing oneself in the activities essential to that practice. As MacIntyre puts it, we acquire internal goods by “subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; […] and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies.”[2] In so doing, we acknowledge that practices with internal goods have standards of excellence that have been established over time by a community of practitioners. However, these standards, having been created by human agents, are open to transformation by present and future human agents employing their skills excellently to advance and enrich the practice and broader tradition. With respect to jazz, such intrinsic goods include: a highly developed ability to improvise, an excellent sense of rhythm and ability to perform complex, syncopated rhythms at any tempo and in multiple styles, and a thorough knowledge of and ability to imitate exemplary jazz players. Lastly, the internal goods of a practice are recognized and identified only by those who possess the requisite experience of and training in the practice at hand.

In contrast, the external goods of a practice are those goods, which, when acquired, become the property and possession of particular individuals and/or institutions.[3] External goods include: power, fame, prestige, and money. Although internal goods arise through competition with others desiring to excel at their particular practice, such goods serve to enrich the community of practitioners. Mark Banks describes this type of competition as “emulative competition.” Emulative competitors value and prioritize the achievement of internal goods and advancing a practice’s standards of excellence over the mere pursuit of external goods. In addition, emulative competitors view money and other external goods as requisite components that help to sustain the practice.[4] External goods, however, are often “objects of competition” whose goods accrue to the individual (or institution) rather than the community of practitioners. As Banks explains, unlike the emulative competitor, the market-focused competitor gives priority to external goods and “production largely takes place in order for these to be most effectively obtained.”[5] Lastly, as the name suggests, external goods are not intrinsic to a practice; they can be obtained through participation in many different practices and activities. Thus, they have no essential connection to any particular practice.

MacIntyre also stresses that practices must be distinguished from institutions. For example, jazz, medicine, and baseball are practices, whereas universities, hospitals, and baseball leagues are institutions. Unlike practices, institutions must be concerned with funding, status, hierarchies, prestige, and power. In short, institutions and external goods are mutually involved. According to MacIntyre, practices require institutional forms for their sustenance and development. Given this causal relationship, institutions likewise influence the internal goods of a practice, subjecting them to institutional goals and activities. Here we have the potential for corruption, since the internal goods of practice often conflict with the external goods and market-focused aims of the institution. As MacIntyre observes, “the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution.”[6] Here the importance of virtues comes to the fore. Not only are virtues such as humility, perseverance, justice, and courage required for a practitioner to excel, but also such virtues (as well as others) are needed to maintain the integrity of practices and to withstand the corrupting power of institutions.

___
[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 187.

[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 191.

[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 190. Given what MacIntyre says about institutions (and ipso facto, corporations), it seems reasonable include institutions in this description.

[4] Mark Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,” Popular Music 31 (2012):  69–86, here, 72.

[5] Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,”72.

[6] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 194.

 

Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  “signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.

 Notes


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.

 

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.

Notes

  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.

 

 

Black Swan AdvertisementBlack Swan Records was a small, black-owned record company created in the early 1900s under the direction and leadership of Harry H. Pace, a former student of W. E. B. Du Bois.[1] Although Black Swan’s lifespan was brief, an examination of its history and activities provides a glimpse into the complex, racialized music and recording industry in the early twentieth century. Discrimination in the world of music was just as prevalent as discrimination in other spheres of society, making it difficult for African American musicians to earn a stable, living wage. Moreover, white ownership of clubs, hotels, concert halls, and record companies created a power differential, which when operative within a racialized society, meant that white musicians often received the best performing venues—both economically and with respect to cultural capital. In contrast, blacks were given less prestigious performance sites and regularly received inadequate and incommensurate pay for their artistic contributions and musical performances. Given these conditions, Pace and his colleagues decided to create a black-owned record company that would promote and support African American musicians, treating them with respect and paying them commensurate with their talents. In addition, Black Swan Records had a lofty mission that included a desire to reshape negative racialized conceptions of black music, as well as to develop strategies for greater “access to, and control of, material resources” that would “support and encourage African American business development and economic self-sufficiency.”[2]

Early on when record companies finally agreed to allow African American artists to record their music, the industry only permitted styles that conformed to white stereotypes and negative valuations of black music. Thus, so-called comic “coon songs” and minstrelsy—the only styles endorsed by the industry for recording purposes—were established as qualitative standards for African American musical contributions.[3] In other words, the industry’s own racially biased judgments of African American music, combined with its selective, gatekeeping practices played a key role in constructing and perpetuating racialized conceptions and evaluations of black music as non-serious and subpar in comparison with European high art music. Within this rather hostile context, Pace, an entrepreneur eager to enact his own variation of Du Bois’s notion of racial uplift and socio-economic equality, established the first black-owned record company, Black Swan Records. Well aware of the racial prejudice, stereotypes, and negative estimations of African Americans and the alleged limits of their musical contributions, Pace devised a plan to record a variety of music performed by black artists. Among the wide spectrum of styles to be recorded were the following: blues, spirituals, opera, and concert music.[4] Racial uplift, economic independence, proper artistic esteem of African American music (as well as a simultaneous challenge to and subversion of white stereotypes and negative appraisals of black music) were all key components of Pace’s visionary project.

Although African American music quickly became a major force in American popular music culture, black artists and performers “exercised little control over the terms of their employment or the kinds of music they could produce professionally, and by the late 1910s they were even being displaced as the primary interpreters of the musical styles they had originated.”[5] Finally after constant pressure from the African American community as well as key court decisions and patent expirations that allowed new record companies to compete in the market, African American singer, Mamie Smith, was allowed to record with Okeh Records. Smith’s two records were released in February and August of 1920 and were instant hits, selling extremely well among African Americans.[6]

Even though Smith’s success opened up possibilities to record for other, up-and-coming African American artists, the white-owned music industry continued its race-based discriminatory practices. For example, Pace and W. C. Handy, the well-known blues musician, wrote several songs together and formed their own publishing company, the Pace & Handy Publishing Company (hereafter, Pace & Handy).[7] Although their firm was doing relatively well and had now relocated to New York, it continued to encounter racial barriers. On one occasion, a white-owned record company would not allow white singers to perform a blues piece penned by Pace & Handy. On another occasion, a white recording manager “refused to issue records of songs published by Pace & Handy because he did not want the black publishers to earn royalties from the phonograph company’s records.”[8] Pace also approached record companies about the possibility of recording African American artists performing music other than the blues—for example, opera and other “high art” and classical styles. Here again Pace encountered widespread racialized views of blacks and their musical abilities. In fact, the white managers were quite frank, informing Pace that “white prejudice made it commercially impossible” for their company to record black artists who performed music outside blues and other so-called “low art” forms. Classical music was associated with a civilized, cultured white society and “high art,” whereas blues music was alleged to be more suited to the “raw” vocal styles and less cultivated music of African Americans.

Eventually, Pace parted ways with Handy in order to establish Black Swan Records—a company dedicated to his vision of racial uplift, the achievement of social equality, and black economic independence and self-determination. Central to the realization of this vision was the promotion of African American musical talent. On the one hand, gifted black artists producing excellent music encouraged and strengthened the black community, fostering pride in African American artistic achievements. On the other hand, black musical achievement challenged white society’s negative valuations and confining, racially biased stereotypes regarding African Americans and the status and range of their musical abilities and aesthetic contributions. Thus, Pace’s plan was to record talented black musicians in order to actively shape and re-shape public opinion regarding African Americans. Du Bois likewise believed that music could be, and indeed must be given the circumstances, deployed for social and political purposes. For example, in his essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois writes, “until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”[9]

Although Black Swan Records issued a wide range of music performed by black artists—everything from the “serious” music of concert vocalists Revella Hughes and Carroll Clark to the more popular styles of blues, ragtime, and jazz—the company’s financial stability depended largely upon its production of popular music. In fact, the enormous success of blues singer Ethel Waters’s first record in the early 1920s among both black and white audiences not only kept the company afloat but also enabled it to turn a small profit.[10] Waters’s musical ability and her wide-reaching success was such that it helped to reshape and to challenge the notion of blues as a lower and disreputable form of music—a notion held by many in both black and white populations. Even so and in spite of the commercial success of its increasingly popular blues records, Black Swan “remained committed to middle-class ideas of refinement and self-control.”[11] In short, tensions between Pace’s musical mission to foster “a taste for high musical culture,” his ambivalent position on popular music and his strategic use of popular music to further his more lofty musical mission ultimately proved incompatible and unresolvable.

Other factors likewise contributed to the company’s downfall—the advent of radio, an ill-timed business decision, and the increasing popularity of blues and jazz.[12] Regarding the rising popularity of blues and jazz, Suisman highlights a certain irony in that the success of Black Swan’s recordings of blues artists encouraged other white-owned record companies to sign and promote African American blues artists. In other words, because of the company’s selectivity regarding signing contracts with certain more respectable blues musicians, once the “‘hotter,’ rougher-edged artists” grew in popularity, it became “more difficult for Black Swan to promote its program of musical uplift and increased the economic power of Black Swan’s rivals.”[13] Thus, its commercial success with the blues and other popular music artists it chose to promote made it impossible, economically speaking, for Black Swan to fulfill key aesthetic components of its broader vision (that is, musical uplift). Moreover, Black Swan simply could not compete with the larger budgets of white-owned record companies; consequently, many of their singers choose to sign contracts elsewhere.

The emergence of radio in the music industry also negatively impacted Black Swan’s momentous yet brief existence. As millions of dollars were invested to fund radio broadcasting, the entire phonograph industry witnessed a sharp decline in sales.[14] Under economic duress and facing the possibility of losing his company, Pace made a decision that contradicted his musical and social mission to promote exclusively black artists and their musical endeavors.[15] Although it was originally conceived as a desperate, temporary measure, Pace began issuing records of white artists under pseudonyms creating the impression that they were black artists.  Undoubtedly, Pace’s decision involved deception and was less than optimal; yet, from an analytical perspective, it presents us with an interesting historical case that challenges the cogency of racialized musical categories or labels. That is, a key aspect of Pace’s project was to confront and critically question various racialized views of music, in particular, those views claiming that African Americans were incapable of producing and performing music exhibiting the seriousness, complexity, and aesthetic value of their European counterparts. In addition, as musical styles such as blues and jazz became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences, these styles became associated with African American artists.  Such an association is not completed unwarranted, since at the time the leading innovators in these genres were by and large African American. However, if issued as essentialist claims regarding black music, such assertions are problematized and rendered incoherent by the examples of Black Swan’s white artists who, as it were, “passed” as black artists. That is, when audiences heard the white performers’ music, the alleged racial difference was not perceived. Ironically, as Suisman observes, “the deception demonstrated the contingent, extrinsic character of racial categories in music, which [in fact] had been one of Black Swan’s basic goals. […] Racial difference was not audible; rather, it was artificially and arbitrarily assigned.”[16]

Despite its short career, Black Swan Records under Pace’s leadership accomplished much for African American artists and the black community as a whole, especially when one takes into account the structural injustices and discriminatory practices firmly entrenched in American society during that period. By promoting black musicians and showcasing the wide range of styles and musical capabilities of African American artists, Pace challenged many common racial stereotypes and negative appraisals of blacks’ abilities to make significant aesthetic and cultural contributions. However, one could argue that Pace himself employed and furthered a racially biased aesthetic standard. That is, through his adoption of musical categories and descriptors such as  “high” and “low” musical art and his urging of potential African American customers to purchase “higher class” concert and other “serious” music performed by blacks, Pace casts a shadow on the artistry and cultural contributions of blues and jazz. In short, his statements imply that European, classical traditions are the standards by which one must judge musical excellence.

Notes

[1] For a detailed historical study of Black Swan Records, see David Suisman, “Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” The Journal of American History 90 (2004): 1295–1324. The present section on Black Swan Records draws heavily from Suisman’s article.

[2] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1295.

[3] Ibid., 1296.

[4] Ibid., 1297. As Suisman explains, “blues” in this context refers to “vaudeville blues,” which typically consisted of a female singer accompanied by piano or a small band (ibid., 1307).

[5] Ibid., 1299.

[6] Ibid., 1300.

[7] Ibid., 1301.

[8] Ibid., 1302.

[9] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” in The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, ed. Arthur P. Davis and Michael W. Peplow (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), 496. On Du Bois’ complex “elitism” and his anti-dualistic notion of art as an “aesthetic politics” that weds Beauty, Truth, and Freedom, see Ross Posnock, “The Distinction of Du Bois: Aesthetics, Pragmatism, Politics,” American Literary History 7 (1995): 500–524.

[10] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1307–8.

[11] Ibid., 1310.

[12] Ibid., 1316. I focus on two of the three factors listed here. For a detailed account of the ill-timed business expansion, see Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Politial Economy of African American Music,” 1316–17.

[13] Ibid., 1318.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 1319–20.

[16] Ibid., 1320.

 

fineartamerica.comThe term, “improvisation,” is often used in colloquial speech to connote activities, actions, or plans undertaken with little or no forethought or preparation. Similar ascriptions have been applied to musical improvisation—jazz in particular—in order to suggest that improvised music lacks the technical, intellectual, and cultural complexities and refinements of traditional Western classical music. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] I find the strict, rigid division assumed between jazz (as largely improvised music) and classical (as largely non-improvised music) to be inaccurate and misleading. There are, of course, improvisatory elements in classical music, ranging from the motif development that characterizes the compositional process to the performative variations of specific melodic lines ornamented and executed by the musicians themselves. Rather than a dichotomous view of composition and improvisation, I suggest understanding the two as occupying different “places” on a continuum and having the ability to move to a different “place” depending upon the degree of improvisatory space the particular composition or piece allows.

Having stated these initial caveats (with more to come), nonetheless, there are features that characterize jazz improvisation, distinguishing it from the common practices of Western classical composition. For example, the jazz improviser cannot take back, or as Lee B. Brown puts it, “erase,” the notes he has played in the course of his improvised solo.[2] In contrast, in the process of working out her composition, a composer can alter a theme, as well as a rhythmic or melodic motif, or she can decide to abandon the theme altogether in favor of a new one. This antecedent compositional activity is something we, as listeners, never experience. A jazz improviser does not have this past-time luxury but must play in the moment, in time. “He can only build upon the steps he has just taken.”[3] Brown calls this the improviser’s “situation.” This dynamic, out-in-the-open, present compositional activity in which the jazz improviser engages is, of course, risky. A player might exceed his technical abilities and thus be unable to recover from a lightening speed melodic run developed in conversation with the other musicians. Likewise, a soloist might begin a musical idea that starts off well and yet fails midway through the piece. Even so, risks and “imperfections” of this sort are, at least in part, what jazz enthusiasts appreciate, as they create an unfolding musical drama for the musicians and the audience. Stated with more specificity, because the jazz improviser always plays in real time and thus must choose to act (to choose not to play is also an act), her musical acts—failures and successes alike—become, in a very literal sense, part of the musical piece itself. As Brown puts it, in jazz improvisation, “[t]he risk-taking process itself becomes an ingredient in the result. […] With improvised music, all attempts at revision too become part of the music.”[4]

Notes

[1] See, for example, Nielsen, “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart.” See also, Gould and Keaton, “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance,” 143–48.

[2] Brown, “‘Feeling My Way’: Jazz Improvisation and Its Vicissitudes,” 114

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 119.