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Culture and Freedom In the Fifties: the Case of Jazz

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

Today we think of jazz as a uniquely and preeminently American art form. But this very judgment has given rise to something of a culture war. Indeed, it’s hard not to be astonished at the palpable anger and bitterness with which critics and musicians (Collier, Crouch, Lees, Marsalis, and others) have fought over the most basic questions: what exactly is jazz, and how does one distinguish the good stuff from the bad, the real from the phoney?

Jazz, as a serious and enduring form of art, is essentially a phenomenon of the American 50’s: to understand jazz is to understand the 50’s, and to understand the 50’s is to understand jazz. I offer this as a historical, rather than social scientific, proposition. Following Collingwood and Oakeshott, among others, I take historical analysis to be a pursuit of intimations. Its goal is not to discover scientific laws but to provide an account of events occurring in time with a view toward describing their meaning—a meaning, moreover, that the participants themselves may have understood only subliminally. The historian proceeds by locating a particular event in the context of other events occurring at more or less the same time, and uses that context in order to make the event in question comprehensible, to explicate or reconstruct its sense, its underlying significance. History, unlike social science, is not primarily, perhaps not at all, a search for causes and effects. Its aim is simply to make things intelligible.

I propose to consider the emergence of modern jazz as a historical matter by examining it in the context of two central problems of the 50’s, the problem of popular culture and the problem of freedom. If we can get some purchase on these connections, I think we can begin to make sense of jazz not simply as an object in a culture war but as an aesthetic form whose relevance and appeal is likely to persist for quite some time indeed.


On Aug. 9, 1945, a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. It’s no less true for being a cliché that the world was thereafter never the same. I give this date, rather than any number of obvious alternatives, a certain prominence. For the bombing of Nagasaki demonstrated beyond any doubt that the similar event of a few days previous, the bombing of Hiroshima, was no fluke but was, rather, an event of both unspeakable horror and scientific fact that could, in principle, be reliably reproduced, time after time.

Is it outrageous to suggest that the “50’s,” as a more-or-less coherent cultural phenomenon, really began with Nagasaki? At the least, it’s hard to think of any other occurrence that so shaped and constrained the mind of the 1950’s in America. The signature events of the years following Nagasaki were both various and hardly inconsequential—the aftermath of Potsdam, the attack at Inchon, the Army-McCarthy hearings, Brown v. Board of Education, the coming of the television age and the interstate highway system, and Sputnik, to pick but a few. But each was either derivative of or else shaped and colored by the most central feature of the Cold War. The mind of the fifties operated under the dreadful, though often only insidious, logic of Mutual Assured Destruction as it unfolded inexorably, step-by-step, from the first Soviet A-test (in 1949) to the development of the hydrogen bomb and, continuing well beyond the end of the decade, to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It’s rather less easy to think of a single moment when the fifties, so construed, came to an end. But it seems clear that by, say, 1968 the American public mind had changed quite dramatically. The murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 cast a new light on the death of John Kennedy, suggesting that the politics of assassination—from which America had been largely free since the turn of the century—was now something perpetually to be feared. The urban unrest of the same year seemed to prove that what had happened in Watts three summers earlier was no fluke. The Tet Offensive, again in 1968, established beyond any doubt that the policy of containment (conceived in the shadow of Nagasaki) had reached a certain natural limit. In the face of all this, the values and predispositions, fears and forebodings, hopes and longings of the fifties could not be sustained.

It’s striking, I think, that this period, roughly from the mid-40’s to the mid-60’s, coincides almost exactly with what I believe to be the most productive and creative, indeed the definitive, period in the history of jazz. I would put this claim even more strongly: from 1945 to about 1965, jazz found its true bearings and came of age as a serious art form. For it was precisely in the mid-40’s that Charlie Parker, along with such colleagues as Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, changed forever how jazz would sound and how it would be conceived; and it was in 1965 that John Coltrane’s great quartet broke up, and only a short while later that Miles Davis’ last important quintet began to dissolve, thereby bringing to an end an extraordinary period of individual and collective creativity.

Now in saying this I don’t at all mean to disparage the accomplishments of the earlier era, the wonderful music of Armstrong and Bechet, Ellington and Basie, among so many others. Nor do I intend to slight the exemplary musicians of the last three decades who have mastered the language of Parker, Davis, and Coltrane and have spoken that language with any number of distinctive and engaging accents. But a few crucial facts deserve emphasis:

First, the change in jazz wrought by Parker and his colleagues in the mid-40’s, the so-called “bop” revolution, was both sweeping and astonishingly swift. In one sudden stroke, the harmonic, rhythmic and lyric materials of jazz were simultaneously and unalterably transfigured. At the time, the change may not have been easy to define, but to the ears it was unmistakable. The new music sounded like nothing ever heard before. And yet, despite this, it also sounded inevitably “right.” It’s true that some uncommonly vocal and well-placed critics were offended at first, and some of these never got over it. But the actual extent of this has been greatly exaggerated; there really never was a jazz equivalent to the scandal of the “Sacre du Printemps.” For countless musicians and listeners, the conversion to bop was almost literally instantaneous. This was the way jazz was supposed to sound.

Moreover, it continues to be the way jazz is supposed to sound. Play a record today from the swing era and, however enjoyable it may be, it almost invariably seems dated, a piece of nostalgia. But play something characteristic of the early- or mid-50’s, perhaps a record by Horace Silver or Art Blakey, and it will likely sound as fresh and challenging as if it had been conceived and performed only yesterday. This is no accident. For the fact is that the contemporary curriculum of the jazz musician is composed primarily of bop and neo-bop materials. To learn to play jazz in the 1990’s is essentially a matter of studying those materials and rather few others.

The music of the 50’s thus constitutes a canon. For three decades this canon has been analyzed, codified, reinterpreted, extended, and refined. But it has not been superseded.

What this means, briefly, is that jazz today, like jazz in the 50’s, is a music of themes, briefly stated, and solo improvisations, elaborated at length. It is played by small groups, rarely larger than a sextet. It is a music neither of arrangements nor of compositions, but of songs. Songs, moreover, are conceived of not primarily as melodies but as chord progressions or “forms.” Any particular performance is unified primarily by the form of the song that is being played; the improvised solos that compose the bulk of the performance have, as a rule, no melodic connections either with the song’s original theme or with one another.

In these crucial respects, and in many others, the bop revolution was a revolution indeed. For example, while all jazz is supposed to “swing,” the way in which this happens has changed dramatically. In modern jazz, the basic rhythm is played not on a drum or a “high-hat” cymbal, as before, but on the “ride” cymbal, either in a bright shimmer or in a kind of clunk. The result is a much lighter, more open texture that gives both soloists and accompanists an unprecedented opportunity to accentuate different beats, or to anticipate or lag the beat, producing thereby a kind of on-going, improvised rhythmic counterpoint. In a typical modern jazz performance, as many as four or five different rhythmic patterns might be played at one time, imparting a polyrhythmic quality hitherto unknown in the history of Western music, jazz or otherwise.

All of this merely underwrites, however, the single most important element of modern jazz, namely, a particular approach to the improvised melodic line—an approach attributable largely to Charlie Parker, and practiced by Parker with a degree of virtuosity and ingenuity as yet unsurpassed. Parker’s attack has, I think, been widely misunderstood. It was, in fact, harmonic in origin. Whereas an older musician might play the first four measures of a song, say a blues, using a single chord, Parker would instead fill up the same space with a series of modulations, using as many as seven or eight different chords before arriving at the appropriate harmonic destination. These modulations, in and of themselves, were rooted in standard Western music theory; they broke no new ground. But Parker saw, as no else had, their improvisational potential. With breathtaking speed and facility, he would often play distinct and complex melodic patterns on each of the seven or eight chords in succession as they rushed by, using cannily chosen “half-steps” or accidentals to get instantaneously from one chord to another and playing his patterns with a rhythmic variety that can only be termed dazzling. Parker’s ambition, and his glory, was to produce long, involuted lines that utilized the resources of each and every chord in the progression without any sacrifice whatsoever in thematic coherence. The distinctive sound of bop—with its jagged lines played rapid-fire and seeming literally to change directions, to twist and turn relentlessly and in unexpected ways—was attributable to the fact that every single measure that Parker played was, in effect, a lesson in harmonic theory. And this also is why modern jazz, despite its occasionally careening, almost-out-of-control exuberance, often sounds as rational, as coherent, as a Bach fugue.


These features of bop describe, in effect, the rules for playing modern jazz. Rules are proven by their exceptions, and in the case of jazz exceptions are numerous. Nonetheless, the basic principles are still intact and authoritative after 50 years. It’s true that the period of the “fifties” as I’ve conceived it, roughly from Parker to Coltrane, was a time of exceptional ferment and development in jazz—from the classic bop of the founders to the “hard-bop” of Blakey and Silver, the cool-bop of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, the so-called modal or “post-bop” music of Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Wayne Shorter, and the like. Each of these, however, was fundamentally a refinement or extension of the established rules, not a departure from them. Moreover, since the end of this period, since the mid-60’s, there have been, I would argue, no major innovations in jazz.

Those are fighting words, and they demand qualification. For one thing, it’s quite true that the hegemony of bop has never been complete. In particular, the “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, itself rooted in the 50’s, quickly emerged as a sharp rival and critic of the mainstream. It continues to attract a small but devoted coterie of listeners and accomplished practitioners. But free jazz was not, and has never been, part of the canon; to the contrary, its role and value, such as it may be (and it may be very great), lies precisely in its heresies.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, jazz-rock “fusion” emerged with a vengeance in the 1970’s, packaged precisely as a major step beyond bop. But although embraced by certain musicians of great accomplishment such as Shorter and Herbie Hancock, fusion was and is hard to take seriously on aesthetic terms. Without putting too fine a point on it, the electrification of musical instruments does not, in and of itself, constitute serious musical innovation.

Even granting this, however, the rather tidy picture that I have drawn—a unified movement beginning in the mid-40’s and completing its development in the mid-60’s—does belie a certain real-world messiness. For example, it’s true that some of bop’s innovations were not completely without precedent in earlier jazz. Intimations of the new sound, though hardly more than that, can be found here and there in the Swing era, most famously in the work of bassist Jimmy Blanton, drummer Jo Jones, and saxophonist Lester Young. Beyond this, any account of the pre-bop era must somehow make room for the really quite anomalous figure of Ellington, who was not only a bandleader and entertainer but also a serious orchestral composer of consequence. Something similar might be said for Charles Mingus, a bop-era bassist whose astonishing orchestral manuscripts have only recently been discovered and edited. But more generally and, in my view, more importantly, bop-inspired jazz of the 50’s was itself stylistically so variegated—so diverse in mood, temperament, and aesthetic sensibility—as to make virtually any generalization hazardous.

Perhaps most challenging in this regard is the connection between bop and the modal, “neo-bop,” or “post-bop” jazz of Davis and, more especially, Coltrane. In a sense, post-bop was an explicit rejection of the bop aesthetic. The complex harmonic modulations of bop, the endless chord changes, were replaced by the very opposite, a minimalist harmonic conception in which an entire song might be composed of only two or three chords. The soloist was thereby freed from the constraints—though also the opportunities—inherent in elaborate chord progressions. The result was a dramatically new sound. The constant twists and turns of bop improvisations were replaced by a wider fabric in which soloists often relied on repeated figures, unorthodox scales, and innovative harmonies to create interest and variety. Improvisations were less linear, less lyrical. They often seemed directionless and trance-like, having no inherent beginning or end. Every Charlie Parker solo followed a map, an itinerary defined by the song’s harmonic grammar; each passage had a logical destination, however tortuous and complex the route might be. In contrast, Coltrane negotiated a comparatively featureless landscape, apparently going nowhere, speaking a language with few linguistic markers. In terms of narrative style (though perhaps only that), Parker is to Coltrane as Conrad’s Marlow is to Joyce’s Molly Bloom.

Even where post-bop musicians retained a rich and complex harmonic structure—as in the superb and influential work of Shorter—chord progressions were unorthodox, avoiding “natural” resolutions. Again, Parker’s geography was largely obliterated. The logical tension-and-release of harmonic modulation was gone, replaced by a new-found emphasis on timbre, coloration, muscularity, and the peculiar but undeniable satisfactions of the ostinato.

But if the break with bop was dramatic, the continuities were nonetheless substantial. For the repeated, mantra-like figures of post-bop improvisers were, in and of themselves, recognizably boppish (Molly Bloom does speak English, after all). Moreover, those figures were typically linked with one another by longer, boppish lines that provided the connective tissue of the new music. Parker’s mode of attack was, so to speak, taken apart and flattened out—each phrase removed from its natural, grammatical context and reconceptualized as a riff, something to be repeated over and over as a kind of modernist chant, sometimes ecstatic, even hypnotic, and often extremely hip. In the very act of doing this, however, Parker was reaffirmed. Coltrane and the others had simply wrung from the resources of bop its ultimate and perhaps most exotic possibilities.


Charlie Parker did not reharmonize “I Got Rhythm” because a bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The innovations of bop and its successors were purely musical. And those innovations stopped in the 1960’s not because of assassinations or the Tet Offensive but because the logic of bop had simply run its course. Any attempt to put a sociological spin on these developments is doomed to make of them a shambles.

It’s true, of course, that the face—the outward appearance—of modern jazz was indeed shaped by external factors: the politics and economics of the recording industry, cabaret laws, questions of race and social class, and the like. None of this, however, provides any evidence against a simple truth, namely, that music is not merely, nor even primarily, a Durkheimian social fact, explicable in terms of larger social forces. It is, rather, a fundamentally autonomous enterprise.

As such, though, it invariably has a history, hence calls for a historical analysis of some kind. Music develops on its own account, but it does not develop in a vacuum. It’s always juxtaposed in various ways to other, non-musical enterprises. Such enterprises help to establish a context of assumptions and understanding—a universe of discourse, however tacit and inchoate it may be—out of which music emerges and which determines, in part, the meaning or significance of particular musical developments.

In these terms, two facets of modern jazz strike me as especially revealing of its relationship to the larger mind of the 50’s. They pertain, respectively, to the problem of popular culture and the problem of freedom. They describe obvious features of the culture of jazz, but features that are often either overlooked or else widely misunderstood. Together they shed particular light, I think, on the meaning of jazz as a historical phenomenon.

With the development of bop, jazz became an ambitious art form. By this I mean that it acquired the accoutrements of an activity concerned not primarily with entertainment and marketability but with the most stringent demands of music itself. Clearly, modern jazz was, and is, difficult. For the player, it requires a level of theoretical knowledge and technical ability far beyond most of what we find in the pre-bop era. The modern jazz musician has the equivalent, if not always the fact, of a conservatory training. But for the audience too, modern jazz requires time and effort. It’s neither dance music nor sing-along music nor music for “easy listening.” It refuses to be relegated to the background but requires, instead, a fixed and focused attention. Modern jazz is primarily concert music, something to be listened to without distraction and for its own sake.

In this sense, of course, it’s hardly distinctive. What is distinctive, though, is the degree to which it combines these elements of seriousness and intellectuality with the very opposite—a pronounced and undisguised culture of “hipness,” informality and irreverence radically at odds with anything that we find, for example, on the classical stage. Jazz in the 50’s thus both affirmed and rejected— annulled and preserved—the distinction between high art and low.

Consider the simple question of names. In the older jazz tradition, nicknames prevailed—”Duke” and “Count,” to pick the most obvious examples—and this was not abandoned by the modernists. Nicknames were often treated merely as nicknames (Charlie Parker was known as “Yardbird” or “Bird”), but in a great many other cases the nickname actually became the name of record: “Bud” Powell instead of Earl, “Sonny” Rollins instead of Theodore, “Red” Garland instead of William. Most revealing were nicknames that carried humorous and/or descriptive connotations: Dizzy, Cannonball, Philly Joe, and the like. The importance of such names in identifying musicians—to the public as well as to insiders—cannot be overestimated. If I refer to “Eddie Davis,” even to an experienced and knowledgeable student of jazz, this might not ring a bell. But if I mention the name “Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis,” my reference will be instantly clear.

The contrast with the culture of classical music could hardly be greater. Can one imagine an opera starring Cannonball Domingo, a concert featuring Dizzy Horowitz playing a composition by Lockjaw Liszt? Of course, the contrast goes beyond mere proper names. The very words used to describe styles of modern jazz—”bop” or “bebop,” “cool,” “funk,” and the like—demonstrate the degree to which modern jazz retained many of the trappings of pop culture, even as it pursued a most elevated and esoteric musical agenda.

But further, that agenda itself was a curious and perhaps unprecedented amalgam of high and low. For all its intellectuality, and despite the daunting technical demands that it makes on practitioner and listener alike, modern jazz is entertaining at the most basic level. Properly played, it swings and swings hard, inviting listeners to tap their toes and snap their fingers, to stand up and move body parts in rhythm. Some music may soothe the savage breast; modern jazz stimulates the adrenal gland. It is, moreover, rooted in and constantly in touch with the folk tradition known as the blues. The most abstract and complicated of Charlie Parker’s improvisations were strewn with “blue notes” that established an undeniable and on-going linkage between bop and any number of low-brow musical forms: gospel, rhythm and blues, Tin Pan Alley, and the like. It is in part for these reasons that modern jazz played in the formal setting of a concert hall almost always seems artificial and out of place. Jazz is, indeed, a concert music, but one whose proper venue is, for better or worse, the nightclub.

As a phenomenon of the 50’s, then, jazz presented itself as a distinctive combination of high and low, the esoteric and the popular. But in this sense, it wasn’t merely a compromise, as was, say, light opera, in which aesthetic ambition was diluted in the name of accessibility. In general, and with some notable exceptions, jazz in the 50’s was uncompromising with respect to its artistic goals. Its best practitioners reveled in the music’s inherent complexity, its intimidating and forbidding esoterism, its freedom from the tyranny of the dance hall and popular taste. They did not seek, and had no illusions about attracting, a mass audience. Theirs was an elitist enterprise. But at the same time they reveled equally in its folk elements, incorporated not as novelties or external thematic materials—this wasn’t like Copeland writing about cowboys—but, rather, as fundamental and constitutive features of the music itself; and it was natural for them to package their art in a veneer of showmanship, manifesting itself in flashy clothes, hipster language, and a general attitude of studied eccentricity. No one save Parker could exploit the resources of bop with the proficiency and command of Dizzy Gillespie; yet Gillespie was, at the same time, a clown and an entertainer very much in the tradition of Armstrong and Waller.

In this sense, then, jazz in the 50’s established something of a model for aesthetic culture. There is, to my knowledge, little if any evidence to suggest that the musicians themselves were particularly interested in or even self-conscious about this. But we are not talking here about explicit intentions; our focus, rather, is on the implicit logic of an aesthetic practice. As such, modern jazz heralded the breakdown of the opposition between high and low art; but at the same time, it celebrated precisely the distinction between them. It insisted on the autonomy of an art governed simply and solely by artistic criteria, by the need to exploit the internal logic of artistic practice largely free from the vicissitudes of the marketplace. In doing so, however, it refused to divorce itself from the habits and practices of the everyday world, a world of nicknames and attitudes, a world that’s bluesy and that swings, a world far removed from the mannerisms and pretenses of high culture. And it incorporated those everyday habits and practices not as accessories, but as inherent, constitutive elements of the music itself. However complex and ingenious a bop improvisation might be, if it doesn’t swing it isn’t jazz.

The problem of high art and low—the question of popular culture—preoccupied the mind of the 50’s, perhaps uniquely so. The somewhat earlier essays of art historian Clement Greenberg had explored the emergence of “kitsch,” understood as a commodified kind of visual art driven by popular taste and financial opportunity. The near hegemony of kitsch threatened the very existence of serious artistic endeavor. In response, said Greenberg, abstract expressionists such as Pollock and De Kooning produced, in the late 40’s and 50’s, rarefied works whose subject matter was art itself, works that ignored the everyday world and that focused instead on unmediated elements of form and color. In literature, formalist theories claimed to have discovered structural principles common to all varieties of imaginative writing. Such claims raised serious questions about hard and fast distinctions between, say, the high-brow novel and more popular genres, and these questions in turn prompted writers consciously to challenge those very distinctions, to write in defiance of them. In music, of course, the rock-and-roll industry demonstrated as never before the economic potential of popular culture. Rock music established, perhaps, a negative standard against which serious composers—abstract expressionists of the ear—sought an ever more disembodied sound, farther and farther removed from familiar landmarks of tonality and time.

In this context, modern jazz was arguably unique. It consciously pursued the high road. But in the very process of doing so, it reaffirmed—both in its mannerisms and its music—the authority of ordinary experience. It proposed, in effect, a solution to the problem of high and low that in many other cases appeared to be utterly intractable.


In the popular mind, modern jazz is an embodiment of artistic freedom. The soloist plays nothing—or, at least, very little— that is actually written down. Improvisations are spontaneous. Most art, including musical art, is crafted with care over time, pondered, refined, edited. Jazz solos are different. They are wondrous and inexplicable emanations, flowing from some kind of mysterious creative power, unconstrained by the tyranny of the written score. The rigid, pedantic, overly theoretical, and even bureaucratic exigencies of formal composition are burst asunder by jazz musicians who play what they feel and off the top of their heads—symbols of artistic liberation.

This picture has something to do with modern jazz, but not much. It reduces the most exacting and stringent of disciplines to a kind of exotic and inexplicable knack. It views the jazz musician as an idiot savant, as if mastery of the genre were something that just happened rather than being what it really is, namely, the result not simply of talent but also of arduous, exhaustive training and serious theoretical study. Most of all, it misses the sense in which modern jazz is a rule-governed enterprise, based upon strict formal principles that govern virtually everything that happens in performance. As such, it misunderstands the very real sense in which the jazz musician is indeed an embodiment of freedom; and it does so precisely because it misunderstands the true nature not simply of jazz but of freedom itself.

In 1958, Isaiah Berlin published his famous “Two Concepts of Liberty,” distinguishing what we today might call the freedom of empowerment from the freedom of laissez-faire. His essay spoke directly to the fundamental anxiety of the time. The end of the Second World War had signaled, simultaneously, the end of one land of massive unfreedom and the burgeoning, seemingly uncontainable power of another. In this light, freedom became an “essentially contested” concept. Joe McCarthy, a man of the 50’s if there ever was one, argued for the suppression of liberty in the name of liberty. Justice Brennan (in Roth v. United States [1958]) said that the freedom of the individual is, at least in certain respects, appropriately hostage to “contemporary community standards.” On the international scene, decolonization in Africa and Asia raised disturbing questions about the connection between formal independence and the real liberty of citizens.

In all such cases, the issue turned, at least in part, on the relationship between freedom and necessity. Society, if it is to flourish, requires order. It depends crucially on law and discipline; beyond a certain point, individual eccentricities cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, flourishing also presupposes the freedom to choose, to select and pursue a life plan, to resist regimentation, to defend autonomy in the face of conformity. How to resolve this tension? How to balance the requirements of order with the virtues of disorder?

If the glory of the modern jazz musician is the long improvised line, the private conceit of the jazz community is the ability of groups to perform at a high level without benefit of rehearsal. It would be wrong to say that jazz bands never rehearse. But rehearsals, at least for small groups, are far from de rigueur, and when they do occur they are apt to be brief, unsystematic, and sketchy. The jam session, of course, is unrehearsed by definition; but even the most formal concerts and recording sessions often take place with little or no collective preparation. The audience rarely knows the difference. Jazz is such that extremely complex and demanding group performances can be played with seamless unity and coherence by musicians who literally have never seen each other before the first tune is called.

This could not happen but for the fact that modern jazz is a music of strict rules. Some of these rules are written, as in the “charts” that describe the harmonic forms of particular songs. Others are unwritten, as for example in the particular roles assigned to each instrument. The rules can be revised, of course, but there are even rules about that. If someone in the group says “In the fifth measure, let’s play an A-altered instead of an A-7,” the rules determine what that means and how it is to be implemented. This very flexibility suggests, of course, that communication sometimes breaks down and mistakes are made. But that’s only to say that jazz musicians are, like everyone else, fallible.

Freedom in modern jazz is created by the very stringency of the rules. In this sense, jazz is much like language. That’s hardly an original claim, but I think its real force is almost universally misunderstood. For when I say that jazz is much like language, I’m referring in particular to the idea of natural language as conceived by philosophers such as Wittgenstein and J.L.Austin. These writers— working mainly in the 1950’s, no coincidence—focused not primarily on syntax and semantics, but on “pragmatics,” the actual use of language in everyday life. For them, ordinary language is an on-going exercise in improvisation. We make up conversation as we go along, on the spur of the moment, off the top of our heads, without a script, without rehearsal. Of course, we take this for granted. But for conversation to happen, said Wittgenstein and Austin, all participants, hearers as well as speakers, must be thoroughly trained in the rules of the language, including not just principles of grammar but also those various social conventions that determine the appropriateness, perspicacity, and intelligibility of particular utterances.

Indeed, the ultimate insight of language philosophy in the 50’s is, I think, compelling. Without rules, there is simply no such thing as language; and without language, there is literally—literally—nothing to say. Freedom of speech is undermined not just by artificial constraints on what is said but, perhaps even more decisively, by the adulteration of language itself. Properly understood, then, freedom of speech is utterly dependent on the strictures—the rules—of language, without which speech would be impossible.

These notions are nowhere better exemplified than in the practice of the modern jazz musician. The freedom of improvisation absolutely presupposes the grammar of the music in all complexity. To be sure, the improviser of genius tests the rules of that grammar at every turn, challenging their foundations, stretching their outer limits, dissatisfied with conventionality and restlessly seeking new possibilities, new implications. But without those rules, jazz would degenerate into the unintelligibility of random noise, the musical equivalent of what Hegel once called the “freedom of the void,” a freedom that he himself understood to be no freedom at all but simply a pretext upon which to pursue the “fanaticism of destruction.”

Beleaguered and confused, the mind of the 50’s could not help but fear the impending destruction of the simplest and most familiar realities. It faced what Hannah Arendt, one of the period’s most ingenious and brilliant thinkers, called the “loss of the world.” In the atomic age, ordinary, common experience seemed to be imperiled on all sides—by the flimsy illusions of the culture industry, by the flight of serious artists into other-worldly scholasticism, by the attractions of license in the face of conformity, as much as by the bomb itself. Yet modern jazz seemed somehow to have preserved a powerful connection with everyday life—with structure and orderliness, with the “ready-at-hand” world, with everything that was solid, earthy— even as it pursued the freedom of an autonomous art.

As much as it naturally and instinctively undermined the opposition between high and popular culture, while at the same time reaffirming the most austere and demanding aspects of aesthetic practice, so did modern jazz exemplify, however unselfconsciously, an elevated and highly nuanced understanding of the relationship between freedom and necessity. In doing so, it spoke directly to the most urgent and vexing concerns of the 50’s. Of course, insofar as those concerns continue to preoccupy us, jazz remains a profoundly contemporary enterprise. Indeed, this conclusion—seemingly quite theoretical in nature, hence far removed from the experience of music itself—nonetheless helps to explain, I believe, just why it is that modern jazz still sounds so good today.


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J B's picture
J B · 3 years ago

Well said, brotha.


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