War/Philly Blues/Deeper Bop

Jacob Lawrence, Migra­tion Series

The fol­low­ing text by Amiri Bara­ka was writ­ten in the late 1970s, and was orig­i­nal­ly part of a larg­er study that remained unfin­ished, John Coltrane: Where Does Art Come From? It was sub­se­quent­ly released in a 1979 col­lec­tion of Baraka’s arti­cles and plays. Bara­ka com­posed this piece short­ly after his turn to Marx­ism, specif­i­cal­ly the anti-revi­sion­ist Marx­ism of the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment in the US, in the mid-70s. Its con­tin­u­al ref­er­ences to the African-Amer­i­can nation­al ques­tion (the Black Belt the­sis) and the ris­ing threat of monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism sure­ly will strike some as dat­ed, but in many respects it con­sti­tutes a vital update of Baraka’s ear­li­er writ­ings on blues and jazz found in Blues Peo­ple and Black Music, and points the way to a lat­er edit­ed col­lec­tion, Dig­ging. Baraka’s under­stand­ing of jazz is a fun­da­men­tal­ly Du Boisian one: it is a musi­cal form close­ly tied to the polit­i­cal strug­gles and social move­ment of the African-Amer­i­can peo­ple in the US, and can thus only be exam­ined through the speci­fici­ty of that his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence. John Coltrane, one of the great jazz vision­ar­ies of the 20th cen­tu­ry, was right in the mid­dle of the pow­er­ful his­tor­i­cal forces and styl­is­tic cur­rents that shaped the devel­op­ment of bebop, a key rev­o­lu­tion in the genre: the Great Migra­tion, World War II, inno­va­tions in rhythm and blues, but also new modes of black rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. Coltrane’s ear­ly life, par­tic­u­lar­ly his tra­vails as a sol­dier and fac­to­ry work­er, thus becomes a lens for Bara­ka to ask a more gen­er­al guid­ing ques­tion: name­ly, how does class strug­gle shape music?

Around the time the Nazis were begin­ning to pay for the mis­take of invad­ing the Sovi­et Union, John Coltrane was com­ing out of high school. This was 1943, the Bat­tle of Stal­in­grad, and the turn­ing point of the antifas­cist war. Hitler did not learn from either Napoleon or the fox who f-ed with the tarba­by, i.e., you can get in but get­ting out’s a real prob­lem! By the end of the year, the entire war had been turned around and the back of the Ger­man offen­sive thrust twist­ed and gnarled. For exam­ple, one third of the 300,000 Nazi sol­diers were encir­cled and cap­tured – that is, 100,000 troops – and 147,200 Nazis died. As Stal­in said, “Stal­in­grad sig­ni­fied the decline of the Ger­man fas­cist army. As is well known, the Ger­mans were unable to recov­er after the Stal­in­grad slaugh­ter.” (“The Twen­ty-sixth Anniver­sary of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion,” The Essen­tial Stal­in, Anchor.)

I point this out in detail because most of us in the U.S. thought it was sole­ly the efforts of the U.S., notably Van John­son & co., who had beat the Nazis, when in fact the sec­ond front that the Allies promised to the Sovi­et Union, i.e., the inva­sion of Europe, D-Day so called, did not take place until the next year, 1944, after the Ger­mans had got their behinds kicked hard and reg­u­lar by the Rus­sians!

John Coltrane had now fin­ished high school and split for Philly with some friends, mak­ing the clas­sic jour­ney from the African-Amer­i­can home­land to the “promis­ing” North. If you con­sid­er it, it is real­ly a jour­ney into the Unit­ed States from the land of one of the nations the U.S. oppress­es. More immi­grants into the “melt­ing pot” look­ing for the streets filled with Gold. Hey. And what you find? For the blacks, the war years offered a fur­ther way into indus­try, toward a fur­ther pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing of the mass­es of Afro-Amer­i­cans, a fur­ther trans­for­ma­tion from the large­ly peas­ant peo­ple black peo­ple were at the end of the Civ­il War (and the lat­er destruc­tion of the Recon­struc­tion gov­ern­ments that com­plet­ed their con­sol­i­da­tion into an oppressed nation in the Black Belt South) into a large­ly pro­le­tar­i­an, i.e., indus­tri­al work­ing-class-cen­tered mass, both as an oppressed nation in the South and as an oppressed nation­al minor­i­ty-oppressed nation­al­i­ty in the rest of the U.S.

Com­ing into the Phillys and Newarks and Harlems and Chica­gos real­ly meant and means com­ing into minia­ture ver­sions of the Black Belt home­land itself. They immi­grants find out that they are the gold that the streets are lined with, and the boss­es drop them into their pock­ets. There is more mon­ey, it is more reg­u­lar than the incon­sis­ten­cies of the farm or small mill in the Black Belt. The exploita­tion and oppres­sion may take on a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form, but the con­tent is the same. It is a nation­al oppres­sion. The blacks are dou­bly oppressed, as a work­ing class in rela­tion­ship to cap­i­tal­ism, and also because of their nation­al­i­ty, Afro-Amer­i­cans, and the forcible occu­pa­tion of their land, the Black Belt South, by U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. And this nation­al oppres­sion and the paths and meth­ods of “escape” from the new ghet­to trap being all the more eas­i­ly obstruct­ed.

They did not come to Philly, they came to South or North Philly, or not to Newark but to “The Hill.” They didn’t check Man­hat­tan so much as Harlem, and South Chi was where you could be if you went up that way. They came to sec­ond­hand neigh­bor­hoods, with sec­ond­hand house, and sec­ond­hand schools and some­times even sec­ond­hand fac­to­ries. But all the time sec­ond­hand jobs no mat­ter if the fac­to­ry was brand-new. But in com­par­i­son to before the war, the fac­to­ries offered “good mon­ey” – if you could find some­where to live, and get your chil­dren in school all right. But they lived in repro­duc­tions of the Black Belt; as Har­ry Hay­wood says, “the shad­ow of the plan­ta­tion” extend­ed itself right up into the U.S.A. prop­er, as it had since the huge migra­tions at the turn of the cen­tu­ry into the twen­ties. Even though there was not the same pro­lif­er­a­tion of “White Only” signs one still saw in the South, in the exact same fash­ion as in South Africa, the nation­al oppres­sion and racism, and its con­comi­tant out­rages, seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion, slums, shack hous­es, shab­by health care, unem­ploy­ment or under­em­ploy­ment. Even dur­ing high-employ­ment peri­ods, poor edu­ca­tion from low-lev­el schools, police repres­sion and bru­tal­i­ty – these were con­stants that made the North­ern cities just like home. For it was to the cities, the urban cen­ters, brought into exis­tence by the great con­cen­tra­tion of indus­try and com­merce, that the Afro-Amer­i­can immi­grants came. And to this day, the great­est part of the migrat­ing Afro-Amer­i­can nation­al­i­ty is housed in about twen­ty-six cities in the U.S.

Fac­to­ry wages were “good mon­ey” only in com­par­i­son to the no mon­ey of slav­ery, or the next to no mon­ey of share­crop­ping or small farm­ing. If one con­sid­ered, how­ev­er, that work­ing on an assem­bly line, say, with thou­sands of oth­er words, one did not see Hen­ry Ford or his lat­est mis­tress on the line with one, and yet for every employ­ee on that line – Ford had 200,000 such employ­ees by 1974 – Ford made him­self a clear two-dol­lar prof­it per hour, which is $400,000 an hour prof­it for him, then one might not think that mon­ey [was] so good. In fact, one would then be wak­ing up to the prin­ci­ple called sur­plus val­ue that Karl Marx hipped the world to, which is the secret of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion and exploita­tion.

John Coltrane, like the oth­er immi­grants, got a job in a mill. Lat­er on he worked across the riv­er in the Campbell’s Soup fac­to­ry. But John’s real focus and inter­est in Philadel­phia was still what had grown up inside him these last few years, music. He start­ed going to music school – first to the Orn­stein School, and then for a longer peri­od to the Gra­noff Stu­dios [Gra­noff School of Music], where he began to stretch out much more. 

In the North­ern cities there was more mobil­i­ty and anonymi­ty for a young man like Trane. The old mores of the Black Belt were changed by the indus­tri­al North in all areas. The death of both of the male bread­win­ners in the Coltrane fam­i­ly had also shift­ed the fam­i­ly more direct­ly into the pro­le­tari­at, as is always the case with the low­er pet­ty bour­geoisie: they are the first ruined by any neg­a­tive change in the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my and are eas­i­ly bro­ken and pau­per­ized by any rapid shift of for­tune. Through­out the whole peri­od of Philadel­phia res­i­dence Trane most­ly went to music school and worked in a fac­to­ry. In Philadel­phia also was a close-up rela­tion­ship to the slick harsh big-city blues. It is in the cities that the basic twelve bar AAB form is tak­en to its heights (its depths). What is heaped on it is the expe­ri­ence of life, and absorp­tion, under­stand­ing, of its forms and process­es. Also there is a more thor­ough­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed “urbane” use of musi­cal resources. To the four-, eight-, ten-, twelve-stringed gui­tars with the bot­tle­necks slid up and down the frets, there are added elec­tric­i­ty, wail­ing horns, and groups on every cor­ner or in every oth­er hall­way, cut fur­ther away from the church, and the reli­gious frame­work, though in some ways indeli­bly linked to it.

From the ear­ly city blues, with gui­tar or boo­gie piano accom­pa­ni­ment, the changes of the clas­si­cal singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang with larg­er groups or even big “show” bands, we absorbed, and dur­ing the thir­ties and the war years still fur­ther changes devel­oped in the blues form. The cities could con­tain at the same time (now espe­cial­ly because of phono­graph records and the radio, plus the con­stant migra­tion of peo­ple from the Black Belt) all the blues and jazz styles, inter­re­lat­ing and influ­enc­ing each oth­er. (See “The Blues Con­tin­u­um” in Blues Peo­ple, p. 166.) No mat­ter the var­i­ous forms and styles Afro-Amer­i­can music took on, the blues, as the blues, still devel­oped direct­ly, i.e., no mat­ter what it was shaped like in oth­er, relat­ed expres­sions, such as jazz. There was still a straight-out blues, going through changes, but still a blues, and still straight out. The great jazz play­ers, the great Afro-Amer­i­can musi­cians and com­posers, have always under­stood this and used the blues one way or anoth­er. Pres and Bird could play blues [to] make you weep, and so too would John Coltrane.

Around the ear­ly for­ties in the big cities, rhythm and blues was the straight-out blues style most pop­u­lar. It espe­cial­ly car­ried the blues fire of the Kansas City-South­west area, where a good many big blues bands, includ­ing Bill Basie’s came from. There were oth­er bands like Ben­nie Moten (K.C.), Wal­ter Page and the Blue Dev­ils (Okla­homa City, Char­lie Creath (St. Louis), and Tiny Floyd (Texas) were all big blues bands rum­bling their most expres­sive dur­ing the thir­ties. These bands, even dur­ing the effetery that com­mer­cial swing was spread­ing around, main­tained their big brash dra­mat­ic blues sound. The big-band blues “shouters” came out of this tra­di­tion. Although the blues sound is as old as the gri­ots (singing his­to­ry tellers) of the African con­ti­nent, the emer­gence of the big blues bands, and with them the elec­tri­fied gui­tars and smash­ing dri­ving rhythm sec­tions with many horns, meant that the singers lit­er­al­ly had to shout to be heard. The R&B shouters were also hooked up direct­ly to the field hollers and coon yells and blue shouts the ear­li­er coun­try blues and work song era, i.e., when they pre­dom­i­nat­ed, because you can hear both coun­try blues and yells right today.

“The con­stant use of the riff, heavy drum­ming, and uni­son scream­ing sax­o­phones behind the singers was all a lega­cy of the blues-ori­ent­ed South­west­ern bands,” with singers like Joe Turn­er and Jim­my Rush­ing. Men like “Wynon­ie Har­ris, Jim­my With­er­spoon, Bull Moose Jack­son and B.B. King were among the best and most sophis­ti­cat­ed of the shouters; the more ‘prim­i­tive’ school of shouters like Mud­dy Waters, T-Bone Walk­er, Bo Did­dley, Smokey Hogg seemed to bring a deep­er knowl­edge of old­er blues forms into the music.” (Op. cit., p. 170.) Dur­ing the war years R&B devel­oped to the height of its pop­u­lar­i­ty. It seemed, and was, loud­er and wilder than the old­er blues forms. Added to the plain­tive­ness and wail of blues was a pow­er and dynamism, an aggres­sive­ness. R&B emerged as the basic con­tem­po­rary black blues style of the for­ties. The whole style embraced both show busi­ness and per­for­mance, but also cen­tered on the deep con­cerns of black life.

There also devel­oped an instru­men­tal style that went fur­ther and fur­ther out, in the direc­tion of the ever wilder shout­ed R&B style. Eddie “Lock­jaw” Davis, Illi­nois Jacquet, Willis “Gator­tail” Jack­son, Big Jay McNeely, and Lynn Hope were known as “the honkers.” Dur­ing this peri­od there was a reac­tion among those clos­est to the blues to the com­mer­cial­ism and vapid­i­ty of monop­oly music. The R&B shouts, honks and screech­es took them out­side all that, though to be sure, and this is a con­stant of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, soon there were also imi­ta­tions and imi­ta­tions of imi­ta­tions, and indeed a full-blown com­mer­cial style of R&B emerged which was as monop­oly-con­trolled and vapid as com­mer­cial swing. As long as the motive of mak­ing mon­ey is an end in itself, to the major­i­ty of the people’s detri­ment, com­mer­cial watered-down ver­sions of any­thing will be man­u­fac­tured and com­mer­cial­ized for just that rea­son, mak­ing mon­ey, and noth­ing else. For some­one not to under­stand this, or to expect some­thing else of this soci­ety, is naïve and ide­al­is­tic. The pur­pose of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is not the well-being and devel­op­ment of human­i­ty, love, truth, pro­fun­di­ty, art or any of that; it is to make mon­ey, and it does this by exploit­ing the major­i­ty of the peo­ple in the world.

So that Trane enter­ing into Philly entered into two devel­op­ing streams of black music. The basic blues thrust was rhythm and blues – the most mod­ern blues form, the stan­dard speech of the ghet­to. And now, more than in High Point, North Car­oli­na (where Trane spent his ear­ly years), this basic mod­ern city blues form became the fun­da­men­tal envi­ron­ment for Coltrane. With the radio, phono­graphs, and trav­el­ing blues bands, there is lit­tle doubt that R&B had some entrance into the small towns of the South as well as, nat­u­ral­ly, the Black Belt cities. But the ear­li­er, raw­er blues styles were always more in evi­dence in the Belt as the pre­dom­i­nant expres­sion than in the North. The scream­ing style com­ing out of the South­west fol­lowed the big-band cir­cuits, and the small­er night­clubs that fea­tured full-out blues expres­sion – although some of the big­ger bands tried, if they could afford it, to stay out of the deep­er South, where they would run into the straight-out pres­ence of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, and its run­ning dogs racism and repres­sion.

The fact that Coltrane had come from the kind of back­ground he had, and had learned music the way he had and where he had – in the Black Belt – did not mean that he “nev­er heard much black music until he moved to Philadel­phia,” as some sim­ple souls would have it. Black music is a broad expe­ri­ence and expres­sion. There is a blues con­tin­u­um wher­ev­er a siz­able num­ber of black peo­ple live and work and have some his­to­ry of res­i­dence. It means almost all the forms of blues expres­sion have got some influ­ence there. The black spir­i­tu­al and the dance band both have some con­nec­tion with the over­all expres­sion and life of black music. What Coltrane was exposed to in Philadel­phia was the most con­tra­dic­to­ry urban blues style. But in the nation­al oppres­sion of a peo­ple, there is a lev­el­ing and gath­er­ing of all the ele­ments in that nation, not the exclu­sion of class dis­tinc­tions but in spite of them. And this lev­el­ing and gath­er­ing makes the resources of the Afro-Amer­i­can folk and con­tem­po­rary tra­di­tion, in what­ev­er area, much more com­mon – and much more acces­si­ble – to a wider num­ber of the oppressed. R&B could not have sur­prised Coltrane; it is much more like­ly that it sim­ply con­firmed and extend­ed what the blues tra­di­tion had already taught him. It was the basic con­tem­po­rary blues expres­sion of the Afro-Amer­i­can urban mass­es.

The first pay­ing job Trane had in music were with R&B groups, and the nec­es­sary cre­den­tials for the R&B sax­ist was a big band sound, and a blue funk­ing into­na­tion. The root­ing in the bad blues, the old blues, was fun­da­men­tal. To my own view, the Afro-Amer­i­can musi­cal tra­di­tion is root­ed in blues – i.e., rhythm and blues, in all its basic forms. And with­out anchor­ing one­self in those basic tra­di­tions, absorb­ing them and being absorbed by them, the nature of one’s approach to black music can only be shal­low.

No mat­ter what kind of inno­va­tions are made with­in the over­all tra­di­tion of Afro-Amer­i­can music, the most impor­tant of these inno­va­tions have rein­forced and raised to a high­er lev­el, the Afro-Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tion, i.e., those mate­ri­als and expe­ri­ences drawn from out of the lives of the mass­es of work­ers and farm­ers who con­sti­tute the major­i­ty of the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple. It is cru­cial to under­stand this because it is the nature of this rela­tion­ship as it exists in var­i­ous musi­cians’ musi­cal con­tri­bu­tions that has deter­mined the essen­tial char­ac­ter and valid­i­ty of those con­tri­bu­tions. These times Trane fin­ished high school and came to Philadel­phia in were hec­tic times. Times of great tran­si­tion and rapid-fire change. The whole world was in tur­moil, as war raged across Europe and Asia. And peo­ple all over the world were drawn in some way, whether great or small, into the cur­rent of change cre­at­ed by that tur­moil.

The same year the U.S. joined the war (1941) was the year that Char­lie Park­er, born six years before Trane and the great­est of the bebop inno­va­tors, the new Afro-Amer­i­can musi­cal expres­sion that erupt­ed at the begin­ning of the for­ties, final­ly reached the Big Apple, New York City. It was only two years lat­er than Trane came to Philly­Dil­ly! The dif­fer­ence in age and expe­ri­ence account­ed for the dis­par­i­ty of their accom­plish­ment at this time. But it should be estab­lished how much of a con­tin­uer of a tra­di­tion was Coltrane.

The ear­ly war years saw Bird (along with Dizzy Gille­spie, Thelo­nious Monk and Ken­ny Clarke) exper­i­ment­ing in places like Monroe’s and Minton’s in Harlem, devel­op­ing the musi­cal explo­sion of bop. By the time Bird final­ly stood the world on its ear on “the street” (Fifty-sec­ond Street, which was the down­town mec­ca of the bebop­pers at full expo­sure – just as New Orleans had been for ear­ly jazz, Chica­go in the ear­ly twen­ties, Kansas City in the thir­ties, and the Vil­lage in the six­ties), Coltrane had been draft­ed into the U.S. Navy, where he played clar­inet in the band.

From 1942 to 1944 there was a record­ing ban imposed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians due to dis­agree­ments with the major record com­pa­nies, but also there was a short­age of basic record­ing mate­ri­als because of the war. This was the rich­est peri­od of the devel­op­ing new music, includ­ing the short-lived exis­tence of two of the best of the few big bop bands. The first was the Earl Hines band (in 1942), which includ­ed Dizzy Gille­spie and Ben­ny Har­ris in the trum­pet sec­tion; ben­ny Green, trom­bon­ist; Shad­ow Wil­son, drums; and Bird and Scoops Cary in the reeds. Lat­er on, in 1943, a young female singer joined the band: Sarah Vaugh­an from Newark, New Jer­sey. Bird played tenor in this group.

The oth­er was Bil­ly Eckstine’s “dream” band, the bebop ultra ultra. B was a mid­dle class, Howard Uni­ver­si­ty ex who front­ed the band as, of course, the male vocal­ist. He lat­er went on to become the most influ­en­tial male vocal­ist of his time, before racists whitelist­ed him for refus­ing to play porters in movie musi­cals. B was nev­er a great valve trom­bon­ist, but he put togeth­er a dyna­mite band, which was main­ly unrecord­ed. In fact, the chief record­ings of the heavy bop years were made by ama­teur record­ing non­ex­perts who were get­ting it down for their own plea­sure. Some of them cut out Bird because they didn’t dig him, oth­ers cut every­body else out but Bird, because all they want­ed to do was dig Bird’s solos. (See Ross Rus­sell, Bird Lives!, Char­ter­house.) B’s unbe­liev­able band con­sist­ed of nine car­ry­overs from the ill-fat­ed Hines band, Dizzy, Bird, Gene Ammons, Leo Park­er, Ben­ny Green, John Malachi, Tom­my Pot­ter, Shad­ow Wil­son, Sarah Vaugh­an was the female vocal­ist, plus Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, arranger, among oth­ers. Miles Davis, anoth­er prod­uct of the pet­ty bour­geoisie, the son of an East St. Louis den­tist, showed up as a tem­po­rary sub­sti­tute for one of the band’s trum­pet play­ers, Bud­dy Ander­son.

What the record­ing ban did also was keep the music to more or less a small cir­cle until well into 1945. To a cer­tain extent bebop rep­re­sent­ed a revolt against the monop­oly music of com­mer­cial swing and against the big-band “jails,” as Bird called them, where this non­mu­sic was made. Bebop arose out of the small bands which were the exper­i­men­tal lab­o­ra­to­ries for the devel­op­ment of new ideas, which could nev­er see the light of day in the big non­swing swing bands. The small groups, work­ing out their ideas in small clubs to small audi­ences, tend­ed to enforce a kind of iso­la­tion, some of which could not be avoid­ed. The record­ing ban saw to that. But some of the musi­cians held up the iso­la­tion as a pos­i­tive thing in itself, rather than see­ing that it was iso­la­tion from the com­mer­cial garbage of monop­oly-con­trolled music that was pos­i­tive, but cer­tain­ly iso­la­tion from the peo­ple could nev­er be pos­i­tive.

The record­ing ban set up a kind of exag­ger­at­ed “cul­tur­al lag” between what the most cre­ative musi­cians in the Afro-Amer­i­can musi­cal tra­di­tion were doing and their widest audi­ence. So by 1945, since the music had not been chron­i­cled step by step through its ear­ly grow­ing stages because of the record­ing ban, when bop was first heard wide­ly it cause quite a few peo­ple to mis­un­der­stand it and dis­miss it fool­ish­ly. Though it should be clear that it was tak­en up by many youth, and oth­er sec­tors of the peo­ple, as the pure breath of change itself!

Trane first heard Bird and Diz in the Navy, as the first records were begin­ning to get released. “Groovin’ High,” “A Dizzy Atmos­phere,” “All the Things You Are,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Shaw Nuff,” “Hot House,” “Lover Man” (fea­tur­ing Sassy Vaugh­an) are some of the first releas­es and some of the best, all put out by a small inde­pen­dent label that shot off into the field while the monop­o­lists were still has­sling with the musi­cians’ union.

Trane was not a child with heavy influ­ences pass­ing around him invis­i­ble to his con­scious self. He was already a some­what accom­plished musi­cian. To get in the mil­i­tary bands you have to be able to get around a lit­tle on the instru­ment and read fair­ly well, because there is a high degree of com­pe­ti­tion based on all the dudes in the ser­vice, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the time of the draft, who found them­selves in with “them war cats” but who were “not inter­est­ed in no war shit.”

The Bird-Diz-bop influ­ence was a shap­ing force, a crit­i­cal ele­ment in John Coltrane’s musi­cal and intel­lec­tu­al life. And all the things that bop was, as music, as social com­men­tary, as life doc­trine, as class expres­sion, had to be, to some extent, absorbed by the youth­ful but rapid­ly matur­ing Trane.

If R&B was the basic con­tem­po­rary Afro-Amer­i­can urban blues, what was bebop? And what were its roots? Var­i­ous kinds of bour­geois-ori­ent­ed, chau­vin­ist and oth­er­wise flawed music and art and social crit­ics had unkind words to say about bop, and by now these are well doc­u­ment­ed (See Blues Peo­ple or Bird Lives! or Jazz: A People’s Music). The unhep, then unhip, then corny, music mag­a­zine Down­Beat actu­al­ly had to rere­view bop clas­sics because they had tore their ass so bad when they reviewed the records when they first came out – demand­ing, as the bour­geoisie always does, that any expres­sion in this soci­ety be account­able to and con­trol­lable by it. Why Did The Music Have To Sound Like That? was the ques­tion. Why didn’t it sound like some­thing qui­et and invis­i­ble and nice or dead and respectable or at least Euro­pean? (And this is not to make the case that jazz is some­thing that is exclu­sive­ly black, that there are no white or Asian, etc. play­ers. That is non­sense. A nation­al­ist friend of mine was gen­uine­ly embar­rassed but enlight­ened when he found out from me that a record he admired, “I Can’t Get Start­ed,” and the dude who com­posed and played and sung it, Bun­ny Beri­g­an, was a trag­ic Irish­man with a der­by.) But the heav­i­est sources of jazz and blues are Afro-Amer­i­can folk sources and it has been Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple who have been the prin­ci­pal inno­va­tors. And this has shaped the pecu­liar strengths and weak­ness­es of the music.

Just as the monop­oly music manip­u­la­tors had suc­ceed­ed in flood­ing the coun­try with infe­ri­or imi­ta­tions of real big-band swing, the most cre­ative musi­cians broke away from this ster­ile form in rebel­lion, and using small groups as lab­o­ra­to­ries pro­duced a new music that raised the lev­el of jazz, of Afro-Amer­i­can music, of Amer­i­can music, of “pop­u­lar” music and of world music in gen­er­al. Sid­ney Finkel­stein in his impor­tant book tell us that how the immi­grants, “Jew­ish, Ital­ian, Irish…who came to these shores with a cul­tur­al her­itage that could have added much to Amer­i­can life, were dis­cour­aged from using this her­itage and instead giv­en not a bet­ter cul­ture, but the pho­ny con­trived and syn­thet­ic ‘pop­u­lar’ cul­ture that is good busi­ness but bad art. They have nev­er­the­less made a con­tri­bu­tion.” (Jazz: A People’s His­to­ry, pp.270-1.) For the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple, how­ev­er, the basic foun­da­tion of the exploita­tive cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is built on the fun­da­men­tal and his­tor­i­cal exploita­tion and oppres­sion of black peo­ple, and then and now on impe­ri­al­ist con­trol of the Afro-Amer­i­can nation in the Black Belt South.

The added ele­ment of racism (i.e., nation­al oppres­sion is basic, the racial aspect of it mak­ing it even more hideous­ly effec­tive) has served to iso­late and sep­a­rate the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple from the Amer­i­can main­stream. The bour­geoisie has desired this, so as to super­ex­ploit them, as well as divide the white and black work­ing class to obstruct the devel­op­ment of the multi­na­tion­al rebel­lion against the bank­rupt sys­tem of monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism. But at the same time the bour­geoisie has tried to impose the same main­stream bour­geois ideas on the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple so as to tie them to the same sys­tem. Of course, there is a con­tra­dic­tion in this: it means that nei­ther the iso­la­tion nor the absorp­tion can be com­plete­ly effec­tive.

Part of the resilien­cy of the Afro-Amer­i­can cul­ture in the face of the attempt to sub­ju­gate and absorb it by the bour­geoisie is its sep­a­ra­tion. The Afro-Amer­i­can nation in the Black Belt South has not been “assim­i­lat­ed” into the U.S. nation via “the pro­duc­tive forces of impe­ri­al­ism” as the back­ward social-democ­rats and the bour­geoisie wished. The seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion heaped on the black peo­ple all over the Unit­ed States, In the repli­cas of the Black Belt they are made to live in, serves to keep blacks on the mar­gins of Amer­i­can life, despite the pet­ty bour­geois sym­bols, i.e., tokens, the bour­geoisie lift up to pre­tend that there is some “equal­i­ty for the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple in the U.S. or democ­ra­cy for the mass­es rather than bour­geois democ­ra­cy, which is in real­i­ty a bour­geois dic­ta­tor­ship. So that even the major­i­ty of the pet­ty bour­geois blacks under­stand the hypocrisy of the cap­i­tal­ist white suprema­cy sys­tem. The black work­ing mass­es inhab­it a mar­gin­al stra­tum in, and have a mar­gin­al rela­tion­ship to, the U.S. eco­nom­ic sys­tem, in the sense that they have the worst jobs with the low­est pay, and the high­est unem­ploy­ment. One third of the black pop­u­la­tion today are in the pover­ty stra­tum as defined by the U.S. Depart­ment of Com­merce.

In the music busi­ness, for exam­ple, the same frus­tra­tion and racism was dis­cov­ered as any oth­er facet of U.S. life. The blacks who had to devel­op a com­plete form of more or less self-sat­is­fy­ing self-ori­ent­ed musi­cal expres­sion because of their nation­al oppres­sion found that even in that area they had been forced to devel­op stag­ger­ing com­pe­tence and cre­ativ­i­ty but they were still the last and the low­est! So even the black col­lege types who front­ed some of the suc­cess­ful big bands in the thir­ties found that “suc­cess” was more artis­tic than finan­cial, and that it did next to noth­ing to break down the real exploita­tion and oppres­sion they and the mass­es suf­fered, no mat­ter who said what.

The exploita­tion of work­ing peo­ple in gen­er­al in the Unit­ed States must be under­stood as a fun­da­men­tal plat­form for all this nation­al oppres­sion of black peo­ple we are point­ing out. But what is key is that the Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple, like the oth­er oppressed nation­al­i­ties in this soci­ety, are dou­bly oppressed, by class and by nation­al­i­ty. And it is this dou­ble oppres­sion, and the atten­dant iso­la­tion, that gives the folk cul­ture, and its mod­ern expres­sion, its strength and resilien­cy in the face of bour­geois assaults.

Bebop rebelled against the absorp­tion into garbage, monop­oly music: it also sig­ni­fied a rebel­lion by the peo­ple who played the music, because it was not just the music that rebelled, as if the music had fall out the sky! But even more, dig it, it sig­ni­fied a rebel­lion ris­ing out of the mass­es them­selves, since that is the source of social move­ment – the peo­ple them­selves!

The urban blood cir­ca the ear­ly for­ties react­ed to life in the U.S., and its con­stant oppres­sion and exploita­tion unlike the bloods before them. This is true only in terms of the inten­si­ty and the lev­el of con­scious­ness, but these are only pos­si­ble because of what had gone on before. There have been slaves rebel­lions since the slavers grabbed the Africans in Africa and dragged them back to the thir­teen colonies to build up the ear­ly accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal of devel­op­ing cap­i­tal­ism. But the peo­ple in the for­ties had all the past to stand on, as the peo­ple in the fifties had the for­ties and the rest of it. As we in the last part of the sev­en­ties have all of what went before to stand on and relate to, or mea­sure our efforts at what­ev­er by. In the music, bebop raised up that the main­stream music was dull ster­ile garbage, and what they, the seri­ous musi­cians were doing, was more expres­sive, vital, beau­ti­ful, ener­getic, esthet­ic, moral­ly sound, rep­re­sen­ta­tive, descrip­tive. Bebop was a much more open rebel­lion in the sense that the musi­cians open­ly talked of the square, hope­less, corny rub­bish put forth by the bour­geoisie. They made fun of it, refused to play it except in a mock­ing fash­ion, mak­ing it even more ridicu­lous. They took “pop­u­lar” music (not real­ly pop­u­lar, but imposed by the music boss­es through their absolute con­trol of the media), turned the “heads” or melodies into “bot­toms,” just their essen­tial chords, and blow what they want­ed to, chang­ing the names of the tunes and even get­ting the new tunes copy­right­ed.

The whole fab­ric of Afro-Amer­i­can life raised rebel­lion to a high­er lev­el by the for­ties. The thir­ties was a time of strug­gle. The strug­gle against the nation­al oppres­sion rep­re­sent­ed by the Scotts­boro Boys frame-up was typ­i­cal. The strug­gle then was to try to enact an anti-lynch law; the strug­gle for the vote and edu­ca­tion, etc., would not reach its peak for anoth­er decade, after the war. Dis­crim­i­na­tion and seg­re­ga­tion were ways of life even in the North, and this cou­pled with the basic strug­gle of work­ing peo­ple against the rav­ages of cap­i­tal­ism had made the thir­ties gen­er­al­ly hot. The fight by work­ing peo­ple to build the unions, par­tic­u­lar­ly the CIO, came to a head by the late thir­ties and the black strug­gle was one spear­head of this fight.

One impor­tant aspect of this mil­i­tan­cy that had inten­si­fied in the work­ers’ and black nation­al strug­gle by the end of the thir­ties was the cor­rect line and rev­o­lu­tion­ary work of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty U.S.A. in lead­ing some of those key strug­gles. For instance, the com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al Labor Com­mit­tee took the heav­i­est part of the work to fight against the legal lynch­ing and gov­ern­ment frame-up of the Scotts­boros. It was the CPUSA, again, that led the strug­gle to build the unions, and in so doing brought a high­er uni­ty between black and white work­ers. In the Back Belt, the pit of black oppres­sion because it is an oppressed nation sub­ju­gat­ed by impe­ri­al­ism, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty led the large­ly black Share­crop­pers Union in its bat­tles against the big landown­ers.

As the war came, even though blacks were asked to cool out their protests in the inter­est of nation­al defense (a tac­tic even the CPUSA went along with), the caus­es of the protests did not cease but inten­si­fied. For one thing, as the mass­es of blacks swept up from the South, just as they had done around the time of World War I, con­flicts between blacks and whites inten­si­fied, fed by the racist Amer­i­can sys­tem. Between 1940 and 1943, sev­en­teen blacks are known to have been lynched! (Twombly, Blacks in White Amer­i­ca Since 1865, McK­ay.) The ser­vice tend­ed to show blacks oth­er ways of life and to break down many inhi­bi­tions that were fos­tered by nation­al oppres­sion. Clash­es between black sol­diers and white civil­ian police and mil­i­tary police esca­lat­ed to almost a com­mon­place dur­ing these years. Sec­tors of the bour­geoisie resist­ed the uti­liza­tion of Afro-Amer­i­cans in the fac­to­ries despite the war need. And though the social demo­c­rat A. Philip Ran­dolph “threat­ened” a March on Wash­ing­ton to bring about “fair employ­ment” on June 1, 1941, Roo­sevelt called an exec­u­tive con­fer­ence of the­ses Negro lead­ers, the day they were to lead the march. Then on June 25, 1941, Roo­sevelt issued his exec­u­tive order set­ting up the FEPC, the Fair Employ­ment Prac­tices Com­mit­tee. This meant, on the real side, that the sec­tor of the bour­geoisie in con­trol want­ed to make sure it could get all the cheap labor nec­es­sary for the war effort.

By 1943 the so-called race riots broke out in large North­ern cities, exact­ly as they had in 1919 dur­ing the First World War, and exact­ly as more intense rebel­lions were about to break out in the late six­ties round the peri­od of the Viet­nam War. Detroit, as it was in the six­ties, was the site of intense rebel­lions and black-white clash­es, as was New York City. Detroit is an area with a high con­cen­tra­tion of the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at, and waves of South­ern Black Belt immi­grants enlarge that black sec­tor of the work­ing class hourly.

In 1941 Richard Wright’s Native Son reached Broad­way, and was the most talked about work by a black author. The work not only ques­tioned black nation­al oppres­sion but show the rebel­lion and ill­ness it caused, and indeed the ill­ness of the entire soci­ety. Wright’s work­ers all raised up the deep-going sick­ness of U.S. soci­ety espe­cial­ly in its rela­tion­ship to black peo­ple. Paul Robe­son was also on the scene, onstage, in the con­cert hall and even mak­ing films. Both Robe­son and Wright were left-ori­ent­ed: Wright had even been a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, while Robe­son was always close to the par­ty. Paul Robeson’s ver­sion of Oth­el­lo was the longest run­ning pro­duc­tion of a Shake­speare play on Broad­way.

In both of these men’s work, attacks on black nation­al oppres­sion and par­tic­u­lar­ly on dis­crim­i­na­tion and seg­re­ga­tion were pro­nounced. By the mid-for­ties, when the war was final­ly over, black troops came back hav­ing bled for this coun­try and not want­i­ng to hear any shit about being seg­re­gat­ed, dis­crim­i­nat­ed against, etc. But this hap­pened, on anoth­er lev­el, dur­ing the Kore­an War which fol­lowed and the Viet­nam War which fol­lowed that.

In the stream of protest is the stream of devel­op­ment as well. It is the new com­ing into exis­tence, con­fronting and destroy­ing what does not serve it. It is the con­fronta­tion of oppo­sites which is the very def­i­n­i­tion of devel­op­ment. It is not a straight-ahead, straight-line process it is slow and tor­tur­ous, though in times of rev­o­lu­tion, when the quan­ti­ta­tive buildup has yield­ed to qual­i­ta­tive change there is a rush of rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. “Evo­lu­tion is what turns the cycle, rev­o­lu­tion is what com­pletes it!”

In Afro-Amer­i­can music, the rebel­lion and protest became an actu­al reach­ing back to go for­ward, a reasser­tion of the ele­men­tal and the essen­tial. It was felt in all aspects as the R&B shook off its old­er Tin Pan Alleyisms in the burst of the shouters and the elec­tric­i­ty and took it back to basic rhythm and blues. But out of this basic blues envi­ron­ment, which itself is con­stant­ly chang­ing, the so-called jazz expres­sion also takes its shape. This expres­sion always begins by try­ing to uti­lize the fun­da­men­tal Afro-Amer­i­can musi­cal impulse, blues, and extend it, in all the ways it can: instru­men­tal­ly (Blues was basi­cal­ly a vocal music), tech­ni­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly. The har­mon­ic, melod­ic and of course rhyth­mic inno­va­tions that jazz has made upon the blues impulse has pro­duced some of the most excit­ing music of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry any­where in the world. But this kind of Afro-Amer­i­can music uti­lizes a much broad­er musi­cal palette with which to express itself than does blues. Jazz, so called, calls upon every­thing in the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence it is aware of. It has bor­rowed more wide­ly than blues (it is, in its best aspect, the blues doing the bor­row­ing!). It has made use of and makes use of the music of the white nation­al minor­i­ty in the Black Belt home­land (called coun­try and West­ern), “clas­si­cal,” semi-clas­si­cal, qua­si-clas­si­cal, Latin, the Amer­i­can “pop­u­lar” song – which it prompt­ly trans­formed. Not to men­tion that it has con­tin­u­al­ly gone back far­ther to where the blues came from to the shores of Africa, or when it wants to the Mid­dle and Far East. It is intel­lec­tu­al and inter­na­tion­al­ist (but deeply emo­tion­al and with a nation­al form), a work­ing and oppressed, people’s music; it has nev­er­the­less affect­ed every class in soci­ety!

Jazz is by its nature ambi­tious. It has suc­ceed­ed in being the fullest expres­sion of Amer­i­can life. At its most expres­sive it is exact­ly that, not just an expres­sion of the Afro-American’s life but with its bor­row­ings and wan­der­ings, its pre­ten­sions and strengths of char­ac­ter, it sums up the U.S. in a thou­sand ways. While blues is more specif­i­cal­ly a black music!

John Coltrane returned to Philly from the still seg­re­gat­ed Navy, as the whole of the U.S. armed forces in the Sec­ond World War were seg­re­gat­ed! He had already been exposed to a cer­tain extent to the heav­i­est expres­sion of the music at the time, bebop. But not direct­ly. Peo­ple would say, “What made you become a bop­per?” But the ques­tion does not under­stand that what was called bop had mere­ly summed up musi­cal­ly where every­thing was at, includ­ing we our­selves. It was sim­ply the most direct state­ment of our time, place and con­di­tion. If we were con­scious, to the extent that we were, we would be bop­pers!

Trane came back play­ing the clubs and cock­tail lounges of Philly, main­ly in the R&B groups which became the stan­dard musi­cal envi­ron­ment of Afro-Amer­i­can ghet­toes. The blues sound of the day. He had start­ed this work in the basic funky blues bands just before he went to the Navy. This was the eas­i­est musi­cal work to find, just as it is today in any black com­mu­ni­ty, play­ing the blues in its con­tem­po­rary forms. Trane played with dance bands, vocal groups, small blues com­bos, his entire ear­ly pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence is with the rhythm and blues bands.

By the time the war was over the bop explo­sion was begin­ning to touch every­where. Trane had resumed his stud­ies with the Gra­noff Stu­dios when he got back, but still clar­inet and alto saw most of his atten­tion, even though he did some study­ing of the larg­er tenor sax­o­phone at the stu­dios. What Bird and Diz Trane had heard on records had so impressed Trane that he set out to under­stand what they were doing the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, and at the same time this caused him to do even some deep­er prob­ing into music the­o­ry. The three fun­da­men­tal strug­gles that push his­to­ry for­ward are class strug­gle, the strug­gle for pro­duc­tion and sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment, though, as Mao Tse-tung has point­ed out, among those three, which all are impor­tant, class strug­gle is key. Because final­ly it is class strug­gle that will trans­form the soci­ety polit­i­cal­ly.

The Afro-Amer­i­can peo­ple are, by the very nature of their lives in the U.S., an oppressed nation­al­i­ty, large­ly work­ing-class, and they must wage a fierce class strug­gle to make any progress at all. This is not the­o­ret­i­cal but a day-to-day fact of life. The strug­gle for pro­duc­tion as well is a basic fact of the worker’s life, which class con­sti­tutes the major­i­ty of the Afro-Amer­i­can nation­al­i­ty. And the inno­va­tors of the music, tra­di­tion­al­ly, have been, in the main, from the work­ing class (though the roots of blues go back to a large­ly peas­ant peo­ple, and some con­tri­bu­tions have been made by ele­ments in the low­er pet­ty bour­geoisie.

In look­ing at the prin­ci­pal inno­va­tors of bop, for instance: Bird, from Kansas City (a key area in the thir­ties for the ori­gin of the big blues bands and the shouters, it was where Char­lie Park­er first mas­tered his instru­ment with the Jay McShann Band). Bird’s father was a vaude­vil­lian and Pull­man car chef, his moth­er a domes­tic. Dizzy Gille­spie, was born in Cher­aw, South Car­oli­na, the heart of the Black Belt, his father was a brick­lay­er who had musi­cal instru­ments around because he led a band on the side. Dizzy’s moth­er left Cher­aw in 1935 and came to Philly, and as soon as Diz fin­ished high school he came on up. Almost an iden­ti­cal tale to Trane’s, just a decade before!

In Philly Trane lives and works as an Afro-Amer­i­can work­er. He is in a fac­to­ry job every day, as are his moth­er and cousin. He goes to music school in the evenings, and now he is begin­ning to work play­ing music on an occa­sion­al week­end. This is a dis­tinct change in many ways from the pet­ty bour­geois life of High Point. Fac­to­ry work is exact­ing in its dis­ci­pline. The work­er is there at a par­tic­u­lar time each and every day, he does a cer­tain work, goes through a spe­cif­ic rou­tine, and this is repeat­ed day in, day out. It is one of the rea­sons why the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at is such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class, specif­i­cal­ly, its place in the pro­duc­tion process of cap­i­tal­ism. It is the class that par­tic­i­pates in the most advanced and mod­ern aspect of social pro­duc­tion. It is a class that is grow­ing as mod­ern large-scale indus­try fur­ther and fur­ther devel­ops and forms the basis for mod­ern life; all oth­er class­es are going out of exis­tence as mate­r­i­al con­di­tions for their exis­tence cease to exist. They are either dri­ven into the pro­le­tari­at with the degen­er­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ism like the pet­ty bour­geoisie, the small shop­keep­ers and pro­fes­sion­als, the pet­ty cap­i­tal­ists, and the small farm­ers, or destroyed by rev­o­lu­tion like the bour­geoisie! It is not the meek who will inher­it the earth, but the rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­le­tari­at! If the enraged work­ers but cease pro­duc­ing for cap­i­tal­ism, the entire soci­ety must come to a halt!

At the same time, how­ev­er, Coltrane was mov­ing more clear­ly toward the life of an artist; this was what his prepa­ra­tions were for. The mon­ey that did not go to sus­tain him went for his music stud­ies. The fac­to­ry work, liv­ing and play­ing among the Afro-Amer­i­can work­ing class, pro­vid­ed strong ties with that cul­ture and the depth of that expres­sion, par­tic­u­lar­ly musi­cal­ly. The very method by which Trane con­tin­ued to make his liv­ing, even after leav­ing the fac­to­ry, still con­nect­ed him deep­er to the Afro-Amer­i­can work­ing class through the blues tra­di­tion, through the con­tem­po­rary expres­sion of it. But there was a dual­i­ty in Trane too. He was the grand­son of a pet­ty-bour­geois nation­al­ist preach­er and son of a musi­cal small-busi­ness­man con­nect­ed to back peo­ple inex­tri­ca­bly by the expe­ri­ence of nation­al oppres­sion, yet with a class back­ground that was not that of the Afro-Amer­i­can mass­es.

What made bop strong is that no mat­ter its pre­ten­sions, it was hooked up solid­ly and direct­ly to the Afro-Amer­i­can blues tra­di­tion, and there­fore was large­ly based in the expe­ri­ence and strug­gle of the black sec­tor of the work­ing class – although there were some who took the sur­faces of this new music and drug it off into oth­er class expres­sions, and called it things like (some time lat­er) “pro­gres­sive jazz” and head­ed the music toward the expres­sion of a younger pet­ty bour­geoisie. (They cooled it and “clas­si­cized” it, so to speak.) But it is the con­nec­tion to the expe­ri­ence of the black mass­es that gives Afro-Amer­i­can music its strength, and when it drifts from this it grows weak and express­es, final­ly, not the mass­es, but some oth­er class.

This text first appeared in Select­ed Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York: William Mor­row and Co., 1979), 228-241.

Author of the article

(1934-2014) was a poet, playwright, critic, and revolutionary.