Jazz is enjoying a new wave of popularity. A gig by Kamasi Washington, the last musician named in Gerald Horne’s Jazz and Justice, attracts big crowds, and his recordings make big sales.

‘Gig’ (short for ‘engagement) as in today’s globalised ‘gig economy’ harks back to the working conditions of the 1920’s. This was the ‘Jazz age’ when mostly black musicians were engaged to play for white-only audiences one night at a time in the mob-run bars and clubs like the Plantation and the Cotton Club whose names and decor evoked – for the audience – the glory days of slavery. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club Encore, a well-received self-financed remake of his 1984 film is riding the wave. Very often the musicians were lucky not to get shot, let alone get paid.

Jazz and Justice is a broad, panoramic sweep through the social, economic, and political history which conditioned, and continues to be conditioned by the lives of the mostly American musicians who made and make the music sound.

There’s almost no attempt to invoke that sound, nor to explain how it is made, nor to give an impression of its emotional impact – aside from a single, fearful quote, bizarrely from Pope Pious the XI in 1927, denouncing the “discordant cacophony, arrhythmic howls and wild cries” of the new music. Sounds good, huh?

For an introduction to, or a reminder of how the often sublime moments in the music’s recorded history were created you could do worse than watch Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. Sophie Huber’s film, made to celebrate the label’s 80th anniversary, documents the crucial role played by two German-Jewish immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, in providing the best possible conditions for artistic integrity to blossom. Alongside illuminating clips of historic musical moments, it features interviews with past and present-day Blue Note musicians and some of the hip-hop artists who’ve had unlimited access to the whole of Blue Note’s catalogue, sampling the revered tracks and using them within their own output. http://www.bluenote.com/

Horne’s story, drawing on the musicians’ personal accounts of more than a century of the grimmest day-to-day struggles for control of their lives and their creative process and products, unrolls like the Bayeux tapestry. It is unrelieved, and gruelling, stretching from the civil war to end the rule by slave-owners, through the racist violence of the Ku Klux Klan, brutality from the mobs who controlled the clubs, booking agencies and record companies, to the present day dominance of the entertainment and creative industries by CBS, Sony and the like. Every page is dense with the names of musicians, racketeers, union bosses, politicians, and the circumstances which marked their and our lives.

There are two main threads interwoven with the smallest detail of routinised oppression and the biggest, world-shattering events: the first is the use of racism as a weapon to manage and deepen the exploitation of creative talent; the second is improvisation – both in the struggle for survival and in the music. ‘Dialectically’ says Horne in his introduction ‘the difficult conditions under which this innovative music was produced helped to create conditions for the improvisation that was part of its essence.’

Horne’s wise advice is to listen to the music as you read the book as an aid to digesting ‘the malodorous substance’ that makes up the majority of the meal.

Jazz and Justice, Racism and the Political Economy of the Music, Gerald Horne, Monthly Review Press, 2019

Gerald Horne is an African-American historian who currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston

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