Once it was the music of the revolution, now it is the bland sound of big
business. But jazz can still be saved, says saxophonist Gilad Atzmon
Monday November 15, 2004
When bebop was born, it was the voice of black America. Black Americans were calling for freedom, and jazz expressed it better than mere words. Charlie "Bird" Parker played Now's the Time, insisting the moment was right for social change. Charles Mingus composed Fable of Faubus (1959) in response to Orval Faubus's racism as governor of Arkansas. John Coltrane recorded Alabama after four black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing. When Martin Luther King started his campaign for civil rights, the American jazz community, white and black, stood right behind him. Not only was jazz aiming for freedom; the music itself was a real-time exercise in human liberation, as performers reinvented themselves night after night. It was hardly surprising that they became symbols of the black civil rights campaign. Coltrane, whose music was deeply rooted in African culture, became a hero of the civil rights movement in America and around the world.
It didn't take long for America's white elite to realise that jazz endangered their hegemony, and that jazz and America represented opposingideologies. While the American ethos is traditionally presented as a celebration of civil freedom, jazz, as it appeared in the late 1950s, laid bare crucial flaws in the American dream. Not only did it expose the fundamental injustice within the capitalistic system; it also valued beauty far higher than money. This was foreign to the American way of thinking.
After the second world war, jazz became hugely popular in western Europe,and jazz giants such as Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon were treated as major cultural figures. At home, those very legends had to enter jazz clubs via back entrances, because the front ones were for the white clients.
So jazz became the cultural ambassador of the American civil rights movement - a fact that was highly embarrassing for the establishment, already presenting itself as the leader of the "free" and "democratic" world. Since America's main motivation at the time was to convince the world that Coca-Cola was the only way forward, jazz was clearly in the way. It was anti-American. It revealed the relentless and abusive face of hard capitalism.
For the white bourgeoisie, jazz became a problem that had to be addressed. Its political and philosophical message was about to be crushed. The best way to beat a resentful rival is to integrate it into your system - Jazz became the Voice of America. Black Americans became simply Americans, and jazz ceased to be subversive. Itwasn't long before black Americans were found qualified enough to die en masse in Vietnam.
Soon after their alleged "liberation", black Americans lost interest in their own revolutionary music. Jazz was no longer the black American call for freedom, but a white middle-class adventure. It was transformed from a vivid, authentic and socially motivated artform into an academic exercise. In the 1970s, more and more colleges launched jazz courses as if jazz were a form of knowledge, rather than spirit.
The new challenge in jazz was to play as fast as you could. By the late 1970s this challenge was achieved: jazz became a form of meaningless white noise. The melodic sensation had dried out. Swing was turned into endless polyrhythmic exercises. American jazz was about to be declared dead. Not many were kind or patient enough to listen to an endless algorithmic musical exercise.
Jazz became a vanishing marginal music, but then a miracle happened. Decision-makers in the ever-growing record industry defined a fresh challenge for jazz. Rather than play as fast as you could, they suggested, you should sell as much as you could.
We are now at the apex of this commercial phase. Occasionally, we hear thata new-born artist has signed a multi-million-dollar record deal. As long as jazz is in the hands of big business it will never produce acute social criticism. The music industry, like any other industry, is aimed at accumulating money and the best way to achieve this is to maintain the existing world order.
Sadly, jazz isn't a subversive art form any more. It isn't even gymnastically challenging - merely a marginal genre associated with easy listening background music a la Kenny G and Norah Jones. A few first- and second-generation veterans are still with us, playing as well as ever, and promising young talents are queueing to enter the shrinking scene. But neither group is socially engaged.
Jazz is still established enough to occupy the back quarter of the second floor of every multi-storey record shop. It fits nicely into the American-led globalised market philosophy. It provides us with an image of diversity, of an expanding music market rich with sounds and colours. In the shop they will tell you: "You name it, we have it." And they are right - you can now buy Coltrane's revolutionary album A Love Supreme for just £6.99 in almost every music shop. What a bargain, what a great Christmas present! I would argue that our devoted Big Brother has almost won. Jazz's spiritual and political message is almost defeated.
This is where I try to interfere. As a bop player, I refuse to view jazz as a technical adventure. It isn't about the speed with which I move my fingers or the complexity of my rhythmic figures. I insist that jazz is a form not of knowledge but of spirit. Jazz is a world view, an innovative form of resistance. For me, to play jazz is to fight the BBS (Bush, Blair and Sharon) world order, to aim towards liberation while knowing you may never get there, to fight the new American colonialism. To say what I believe in, to campaign for the liberation of my Palestinian and Iraqi brothers. To play jazz is to suggest an alternative reality, to reinvent myself, to be ready to do it till the bitter end.
· Gilad Atzmon plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on Friday. Box office: 0870 401 8181.