Banal identity reasoning

Phil Watson reviews 'John Coltrane and the jazz revolution of the 1960s' by Frank Kofsky

This book by Frank Kofsky is an examination of black nationalism and the revolution in music. Although this work is highly readable, its navigations around the subject matter prove to be unrewarding and, at times, exasperating reading, in that we are always seemingly waiting for the evidence and logic that will clinch Kofsky’s thesis beyond all reasonable doubt. Based upon a study of the role played by John Coltrane and his peers in jazz innovations of the 1960s, Kofsky’s work provides us with a beautiful example of how not to investigate popular music.

Kofsky’s point of departure is an examination of ‘ideology and reality’ in jazz. In the words of Archie Shepp, “Jazz is American reality - total reality”, being “a gift that the negro has given” to white America (p25). Kofsky counterposes this to the ‘ideological’ stance of white jazz critics keen to deny the Afro-American status of the art form, its support from the black community and the fact that it has a distinct social content. On the surface such an approach seems entirely appropriate for a Marxist exploration of jazz music.

However, Kofsky’s problem is a theoretical one, in that he takes the “camera obscura” metaphor of ideology (used by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) too literally (p27). The outlook of jazz critics, even in obscuring the social origins of the music, can at least take account of artistic specificity, albeit in a crude and ahistorical manner. Therefore to sweep aside the claims of the aesthetic (even when represented in this vacuous way) is taking Kofsky down an erroneous road. This is reinforced by the attempt to equate jazz and ‘reality’. Like all conscious products, art (even in its ‘realist’ guise) is fundamentally partial - an abstraction which has to vulgarise precisely in order to gain coherence.

This partialised understanding of art should bring us towards a realisation of the nature of artistic mediation, its precise form in ‘reflecting’ the world. Kofsky on the other hand merely opposes the “cross-pollination that takes place between jazz and the black community” (p80) to the purely aesthetic mode of the jazz critic. Kofsky sees a work such as Charlie Parker’s Now’s the time as a response to the growing confidence of Afro-American blacks in challenging racism in the 1940s.

The critic Ira Gitler denied “‘the obvious social implication’. The title refers to the music and the ‘now’ was the time for the people to dig it” (p82). In reality both standpoints contain an element of truth that needs to be superseded in a higher dialectical totality. Kofsky’s spirited emphasis on Parker’s personal hostility to racism brings us nowhere near understanding how this became manifest in Parker’s musical output, the author apparently being satisfied with positive assertion.

Kofsky argues: “There is, then, no reason whatsoever why we should not view the social aspect of bebop as a manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation. Unfortunately [for Kofsky?], at the time of its origins this manifesto had to be proclaimed primarily in musical terms and its social implications left tacit ...” (p83). He goes on to note the “muted, symbolic or indirect nature of black protest within jazz” (p91).

It is Kofsky’s insistence on the equation of ‘reality’ to jazz that prevents him from working out such contradictions fully towards an examination of jazz music’s mediated relationship to an undoubtedly racist society. In short, what we are dealing with here is an idealist method that proves spectacularly unable to formulate the specific nature of historical determination.

These fundamental theoretical errors are writ large when Kofsky attempts to illustrate the various constituent elements of his thesis by using interviews with John Coltrane’s ‘classic’ quartets of the mid-1960s (comprised of Coltrane, the pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassists such as Jimmy Garrison, Steve Davis, Arthur Davis and Reggie Workman). One becomes immediately suspicious when Kofsky supplements his own cross-examination of McCoy Tyner with italicised excerpts from a separate 1970 interview with the Black scholar (pp399-416) - almost an admittance from the author that his own analysis does not really stand up to examination in terms of his perspective.

The fact that Kofsky has to resort to this trick (we are denied access to the full transcript of the Black scholar interview) is unsurprising. After noting Tyner’s “reluctance” to engage with “social questions” (p403), Kofsky asks Tyner the quite honestly banal question of whether “musicians spend time discussing ... social questions” (p404). Tyner on the other hand consistently stresses the relative autonomy of his art: “I feel that for me, as a musician, this is the primary thing - the music. If you want to, let’s say, dedicate some time to discussing social problems, I feel that it’s a different category, even though it’s all related, but it’s still a different category, it’s a different subject” (p403).

Even when Kofsky quotes John Coltrane’s opposition to the Vietnam war from a Japanese interview, the saxophonist’s emphasis is on transcendence rather than the concrete: “The Vietnamese war? Well I dislike war - period. So, therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it should stop, it should have already been stopped. And any other war. Now as far as the issues behind it, I don’t understand them well enough to tell you how this should be brought about; I only know that it should stop” (p455).

Now, if Coltrane’s rather ahistorical musings were to be taken as the starting point for a manifesto on war then clearly that opposition would be vacuous. But if we take Coltrane’s reasoning aesthetically we can see the expression of this transcendence (also represented by Tyner’s statement that “music ... is universal” - p401) as growing out of the alienated nature of art in modern capitalistic society (this after all was also the major structural theme of Coltrane’s A love supreme), in that its values come to be defined against the meaning of everyday life.

Nevertheless, there is a sublimated core of truth in this world view which cannot simply be brushed aside by playing it off against the imposition of the ‘social question’. This should push us towards an understanding of how jazz music mediates the social world in terms of its own laws. The alternative to this approach (tacitly drawn by Kofsky) is to construct another fetish that proves unable to account for the specificity of social forms.

The most damning critic of Kofsky’s method is perhaps the author himself who, in arguing that “the avant-garde movement in jazz is a manifestation of negro repudiation of the American consensus”, writes of the “unwelcome but inescapable fact” that he is “reduced to using, for want of anything more serviceable, what the distinguished Norwegian sociologist Svend Ranulf called (with some disdain) ‘the method of plausible guesses’. That the ‘plausible guess’ can never be wholly satisfactory, that it can readily lead one astray, I will not deny; my rationale for employing it nonetheless is that the risk of error pales beside the penalties we must unavoidably pay if we do nothing but keep a discrete silence on social questions of immeasurable gravity” (pp225-226).

Although one can at least admire Kofsky’s honesty in admitting that his approach does not guarantee success, we are duty bound to point out that the issue behind the reliance upon so-called “plausible guesses” is the author’s miscomprehension of art’s mediated nature in relation to the social whole. It is this outlook that brings the entire edifice crashing down when Kofsky attempts to ‘explain’ jazz in terms of an exterior dynamic.

The development of John Coltrane’s mature work in the 1960s should certainly be seen in context - not just of a negro revolt against the racist structures of the United States, but of a period where the values and structures of bourgeois society where up for question by increasingly large masses of people. If however we go on to transpose this directly into the particular motifs of Coltrane’s work then we end up with the method of the “plausible guess”; rather the question is how such factors are mediated aesthetically. In the words of Fredric Jameson, “Modern music finds itself at once deeply implicated in a social struggle without so much as straying from the internal logic of pure musical technique ...” (F Jameson Marxism and form Princeton 1974, p35).

Frustratingly Kofsky gives us some of the raw material for such an analysis when considering the way in which Coltrane sought to confront “the problem of how to infuse improvisation built on a foundation of chord sequences with new vitality” (p261). Coltrane’s early attempts (replacing one chord with several - the three-on-one approach) only brought him back full circle to the relative stultification of bebop. Kofksy is unable to really do anything with this exposition, being precluded by his own logic.

Like Ornette Coleman, Coltrane moved towards a freer structure in terms of tonality in the years prior to his death in 1967, particularly on recordings such as Ascension. Clearly, jazz musicians were beginning to work out the contradictions of their age in terms of their own musical language. Of course, such solutions could only ever be partial. It is therefore interesting that recordings made by Coltrane shortly before his death from cancer (posthumously released as Stellar regions) show the saxophonist forced back into a dialogue with structure. Although the elements of Coltrane’s ‘late period’ remain in evidence with the use of the high-register and non-tonal notes, there are many moments of luminous beauty, given, in the words of David Wild’s liner notes, “added coherence and impact through the reappearance of form, of relative brevity, of renewed control”.

In this abstract sense, artists are forced to come to terms with their relationship to society as a whole. Thus the move towards freer composition was always going to lead Coltrane back to the pathways of Stellar regions, therefore reproducing “the structure of the alienated society in miniature in the intrinsic language of the musical realm” (F Jameson ibid). Coltrane’s mature work thus foreshadows the closure of the 1960s, the manner in which those interrelated rebellions became frozen on the cusp of their own internal limitations.

Kofsky’s book has the merit of posing serious questions, but it is difficult to think of another work that so miserably fails to answer the tasks it sets itself. All of this could have been avoided if Kofsky had dialectically cross-examined his initial concepts. ‘Totality’ should be used in an explanatory capacity, something to aid us in accounting for specific social developments. In Kofsky’s lexicon such a category is entwined with a banal identity reasoning that mangles our appreciation of the sensuous world in a distinctly fetishised manner. Having said all that, this book reproduces some of Kofsky’s beautiful photographs of Coltrane and other jazz musicians, suggesting perhaps that what was left unachieved in print was certainly realised on film.

Phil Watson