January 2015

Peter Landau


Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli, translated by Grégory Pierrot

If Free Jazz/Black Power, the first English translation of a work of French critical writing by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli on the free jazz movement, originally published in 1971, does nothing more than take readers back to the many old blues, jazz and avant-garde sides it references than it's worth reading for that alone. There's a jukebox full of great music, much canonized and much still marginalized, touched on in these pages.

The authors, however, explicitly write that it's not their intention to chart the progression of jazz one more time like a musician bitterly submitting to the audience's demand to play that clichéd chestnut for the millionth time. Here music isn't treated as a commodity whose value is determined by units sold. This is art as sociopolitical expression. That expression is solely the voice of black America, according to the authors, and not the white musicians and critics who made it palpable to a general public who have danced to their tune for decades.

To understand the connection between the birth of free jazz, which was a movement by musicians to reclaim that which had become either old and recycled or "cool" (in both cases alienated from its roots in black experience and creativity), but acceptable to the mainstream, and the rise of the black power movement, a history lesson is required. At first it may seem counterintuitive to see the dissident and polyrhythmic sounds of free jazz as a reflection of anything other than expression gone wild. But the authors detail an alternative history of slave revolts, Jim Crow and beyond that is tethered to the work song in the fields, the deviant boasts of the blues, and every major development in jazz.

A good chunk of the book only tangentially revolves around music, its main thrust being the debasement of a people stolen from their native lands and sold as objects to fulfill the needs of a capitalist system. Race, a social construct, comes only after slavery, where racism provided a means to legitimize and maintain a profitable business.

If you're picking up on some ideology here, it's not by accident. The authors are looking at black culture in America through a Marxist lens and it's hard to argue with their conclusion that music is either a commodity or propaganda for the revolution. Much as I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the authors at the barricades, by judging jazz to the rule of dogma nuance is lost, and loss of nuance is dangerous. It flattens realities of flesh and blood to dry abstractions and often sacrifices principle for policy.

Ironically, the free jazz movement was mostly criticized as an art-for-art's-sake frivolity. Outside of context, if one never listened to the statements of these artists or even paid attention to the titles of their songs and albums, not to mention the many who literally changed their names, much of which is wedded to the political, it could sound as if free musicians were either indulgent or crazy. Even a child could do it. However, to identify them strictly as propagandists is to ignore the strong current of spiritualism that is the impetus of many of their compositions.

The multidimensional nature of free jazz cannot be contained by ideology or criticized by western standards because it comes from an African sensibility dropped in the crucible of American capitalism. The Marxist interpretation is valid, as the movement's use of "free" as a distinction from past jazz forms proves. This is a radical music, a rebellious call from a people who have reached a point where the status quo is no longer good enough. Rebellion is a transition. It never gets there, of course, as once conflict is resolved it is no longer in rebellion. You can hear that in the music. It's constantly searching, reaching out for its brothers and sisters, not to entertain or for escapism, but to engage in a moment and take action. In this way it is a colorless art that can touch all humanity.

Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli, translated by Grégory Pierrot
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN: 978-1628460391
256 pages