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Coleman Hawkins and David Murray, and the idea of the progressive musician November 28, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Jazz, Music Industry.

Here’s a rewrite on the notion of progress in jazz:

My starting point in exploring David Murray’s thirty-year career is to adapt some of the key questions and ideas used by Scott DeVeaux to analyse Coleman Hawkins’ relationship to the bebop musicians of the 1940s. Deriving this idea of a ‘disciplinary matrix’ from Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) analysis of paradigm shifts in science, DeVeaux’s exemplary historiography sees bebop as a paradigm shift in jazz, which he analyses through an examination of ‘the sum total of practices, values and commitments that define jazz as a profession’ (44). Thus change in jazz becomes more than the introduction of new forms of music, and instead a transformation of the cultural practices and political economy that produce this new music. He calls upon the widely noted view that the jazz world in which bebop was created was in crisis, but challenges us to see past the notion that the new music was simply the product of original and brilliant musicians taking advantage of that crisis.

The extension of this approach to the 1970s New York new music scene is a relatively straightforward proposition. Similarly, the neo-traditional movement of the 1980s and 90s represents a further important paradigm shift. Each is characterized by significantly different cultural practices, which attempted to solve a crisis in the wider jazz world. Most importantly, though, the adoption of a methodology akin to that of DeVeaux – namely, studying a single musician through the concrete practicalities of a jazz career – allows a fundamental research question to be addressed:

What did it mean for a young African-American man to pursue the career of professional jazz musician in the last decades of the twentieth century? In particular, what did it mean for him to be progressive? (paraphrasing DeVeaux, 45).

There are, immediately, some intriguing parallels between Hawkins and Murray. Hawkins set the standard for the tenor saxophone, and showed how it could be used for virtuoso performance, while Murray explored its outer limits, regularly playing beyond the instrument’s conventional range. They both escaped what they saw as a restricted jazz scene in New York to live in Paris and other northern European cities, playing with a diverse range of musicians and absorbing musical ideas from outside jazz. They both played a pivotal role in constituting a new sense of jazz improvisation and group interaction.
These similarities in the two musicians’ careers, though, should not suggest to us that each operated within the same sense of progressivism, or that there is only one notion of progress available for understanding the professional life of a jazz musician. On the contrary, the sense that these two musicians worked in quite different disciplinary matrices of jazz musicianship is underpinned by the way each related to ideas of progress.
This is apparent in the most intriguing connection between Hawkins and Murray: their respective recordings of ‘Body and Soul’. Unlike Murray, Hawkins achieved both critical and popular success, and his 1939 recording of this standard was simultaneously a commercially lucrative release, highly played on jukeboxes in black neighbourhoods, and a mainstay white jazz aficionados’ record collections (DeVeaux 1997: 98 – 110). It has become one of the most analysed of jazz recordings, and for DeVeaux the performance is an example of innovation and increasing musical sophistication in jazz improvisation as well as ‘a way of playing that privileges the virtuoso over the composer’ (104). Murray certainly seemed to assign Hawkins and his ‘Body and Soul’ recording an important place in jazz history; it was the first standard he recorded when he produced a solo rendition in 1978, and it became his most recorded composition (six times in my sample) when he returned to it in 1983, and produced four versions of it in the early 1990s .
However, each musician, and each performance, is positioned to jazz and popular music in significantly different ways. While Hawkins’ recording relates to the composition’s status as a well-known popular song and a standard of the jam session repertoire of improvising musicians, Murray’s recordings relate directly to Hawkins’ rendition, and latterly to his own earlier versions. As such, the activities of each musician suggest very different notions of progress. If Hawkins’ performance privileges virtuosity as a progressive ideal within the disciplinary matrix of bebop, Murray’s has to be understood both in the context of the Hawkins’ ‘statement’ and the different notions of progress which developed within jazz from the late 1960s.

Three repertoires of progress
It is, in fact, possible to draw out three distinct notions of ‘progress’ that are relevant to this discussion of David Murray’s career. For clarity I will call these the European avant-garde model; the African-American progress model; and the African-American classical model.
The first, built out of a particular European modernism, transforms the belief that the future will be better than the past, and that innovation is a virtue, to embrace the notion of radical change (Berman 1982). Jon Parish (1997) has suggested a second African American take on the notion of progress through a comparison with Euro-American uses of jazz in American post-war popular culture. He traces an ahistorical individualism in the adoration of jazz musicians by white progressives which contrasts starkly with the historically-inflected communal experience articulated by black writers. In particular, he notes the white writers’ preoccupation with the soloist in jazz, and an interpretation of improvisation as a universal experimental technique, deploying spontaneity and freedom (79-117).
I should also note that the European avant-garde model had a contradictory relationship with black culture, celebrating its vibrancy and yet constructing black bodies and practices as ‘primitive’. Indeed, Sieglinde Lemke (1998) has gone as far as arguing that modernism and primitivism constituted each other. The degree of confusion about the place of jazz in European models of art and entertainment can be seen in the way that black performers – including Armstrong and Ellington – were presented through a dominant discourse of ‘primitivism’. They were most often featured in Britain as novelty music hall acts (Parsonage 2005), at the same time that fans like Spike Hughes used ideas of the cultural genius to celebrate Ellington’s ‘hot’ jazz performances, and denigrate his role in the Cotton Club’s entertainment, and the band’s ‘turn’ at the London Palladium (1933a/R1993; 1933b/R1993).
Houston Baker, in his exploration of African-American artistic production in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, has likewise contrasted a European modernism, which rejects ‘outmoded forms’, with a black American modernism, which has the: ‘necessary task of employing … extant forms in ways that move clearly up, masterfully and resoundingly away from slavery’ (1987: 101). Alain Locke certainly saw jazz as ‘the characteristic musical speech of the modern age’ (1936: 90) and Ellington certainly personified Locke’s ‘New Negro’ (Locke 1925; Floyd 1990) with his progressive cultural agenda, interest in black history and urban culture, and dislike for labels like ‘jazz’ that restricted his work (Tucker 1990). However, whilst there was a strand which celebrated jazz and blues, most Harlem Renaissance intellectuals utilized a third model based in European models of progress and classicism (Vincent 1995: 145 to 172). More importantly for my analysis here, such classical models of cultural development are also apparent in the positions of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two of the key intellectuals of jazz as an African-American art form, and both centrally influential on the formation of the neo-traditional movement in jazz in the 1980s.
Ellison asserts that jazz musicians draw upon particular African-American sensibilities to remake individual and community traditions into multiple new possibilities, and his ideas have been adapted by Craig Werner to argue that there is a ‘jazz impulse’ running through the whole history of popular music (Ellison 1972; Werner 1999). If Ellison shares any of DeVeaux’s sense of bebop as a paradigm shift, he does not see it necessarily as an example of progress (see Ellison 1959 / 2001). As is apparent in Ellison’s exchange of letters with Albert Murray (2000), his idea of remaking the past is rooted in European concepts of classical culture. Albert Murray’s own work similarly tries to construct a lineage within jazz history as the continuity of black American experience (Murray 1976).
Of course, Albert Murray’s work has been identified as a direct influence on Stanley Crouch, and through Crouch on Wynton Marsalis. Their ideas have been central to the repertory movement in jazz, which seeks to recreate ‘classic’ jazz forms in live events (Martin 2002: 360-5). Murray’s emphasis on the blues as the blood flow of jazz, and the more widespread notion that jazz is America’s classical music, has most often been taken as an imperative to preserve jazz as a musical product in the cultural spaces of the elite arts. This extrapolation is surprising, given that Murray’s nuanced analysis deals extensively with the practices and political economy of the unfolding of African-American culture and entertainment over a century.
DeVeaux locates Hawkins’ sense of progress in the rhetoric of African-American leaders like Booker T Washington about individual self-improvement and communal collaboration (45), and Steven Elworth has suggested that bop was an opportunity for ‘black musicians to seize their discourse from the white-dominated culture industry and to create something less likely to be appropriated’ (Elworth 1995: 59). Yet the dominant story of bop resides in the cult of jazz genius and was produced by white ‘hipster’ fans, however sophisticated the confluence of ideas about race, ethnicity, commerce, art and culture which they drew upon were (Ross 1989).

In the end Ellington, Hawkins and Murray all faced the same challenge: how to explore practices of change in economic circumstances not of your own making. For Ellington, the Cotton Club and the Palladium, and for Hawkins, the white-owned small Manhattan jazz club and independent record company, were the only spaces available to make a living. These were largely opportunities made available by individuals from European and Euro-American cultures, and they involved being judged by critics from similar backgrounds, who deployed the cultural resources available to them. It is noticeable that, up until the 1950s, most white critics used ideas of continuity and change from classical European culture to understand jazz history (see, for instance, Blesh 1946; Finkelstein 1948; Ulanov 1952; Stearns 1956). Together with Ellison’s and Murray’s work, such investigations have all involved an attempt to create a ‘totalising’ history which ‘inserts events into a grand explanatory system and linear process, celebrates great moments and individuals and seeks to document a point of origin’ (Sarup 1993: 59).

I would argue that these same totalising histories are apparent in the interpretation of free jazz in the 1960s. Frank Koftsky (1970), for instance, offers an analysis of late 1960s players that mirrors many of the characteristics of the white progressive bebop fans studied by Parish. Jacques Attali’s analysis is far more theorized, and combines a critique of what he sees as the tyranny of the political economy of repetition with the proposal that the ‘organized and often consensual theft of black American music’ provoked ‘the emergence of free jazz, a profound attempt to win creative autonomy, to effect a cultural-economic reappropriation of music by the people for whom it had meaning’ (Attali 1985: 138). However, using selective examples he goes on to conflate the musical experiments of the 1960s avant-garde with the musicians who came to form the New York new music scene in the 1970s, and defines free jazz as ‘a meeting of black popular music and a more abstract theoretical explorations of European music, [which] eliminated the distinction between popular music and learned music, broke down the repetitive hierarchy’ (140).

Gary Giddins, a white American critic more attuned to the generation of musicians with whom Murray first worked, has suggested that ‘the 1960s avant-garde, in clearing the slate of preconceived notions, paradoxically opened jazz to a more generous involvement with its past’ (2007). And, as Lorenzo Thomas (1995) shows, the Black Arts Movement practitioners who followed expressed their desires for economic and aesthetic independence through an exploration of black vernacular cultural forms of all sorts, and an antagonism to the way that white liberal criticism dominated interpretations of jazz in particular.

When Murray performed in the US and Europe from the 1970s onwards, then, he was participating in a paradigm shift in what constituted jazz, and yet these changes were set in the context of discursive practices which constituted earlier paradigm shifts. In the narrative of the neo-traditionalists, the musicians of this period neglect the values that make up what Martin Williams (1970) termed the ‘jazz tradition’. As I will show, this period was in fact characterized by a deep engagement with the idea of an African-American tradition, both as a basis on which to build progressivism in jazz, and also as a means to resolve tensions between European and African-American ideas of progress.

We can consider jazz history, then, to have two dimensions: a synchronic one that focuses on the interaction between a set of African American-derived and a set of European-derived senses of progress at a particular moment; and a diachronic one that focuses on the meaningful interaction between the socio-musical practices in operation at different times. This allows us to embrace both the immediate practices of Murray’s milieu, but also the way that these practices relate to a past of, and future for, jazz and the critical commentary which frames the interpretation of Murray’s music and career. As I will show, this critical commentary has tended to fetishize certain aspects of Murray’s performance, seeing them narrowly as articulations of creative and political freedom, and ignoring alternative notions of progress used by the musicians themselves.



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