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.