22 November 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (iv-b)—Jean and LeRoi together again


Whereas Jean makes much of
the elements of craft, technique, proven methods which make the artist a worker in a working world,
(p. 406)
LeRoi bends over backward to downplay this part.
as I have said before, Negro music is the result of certain more or less specific ways of thinking about the world. Given this consideration, all talk of technical application is certainly after the fact.
(p. 211)
And earlier,
The trumpets, trombones, and tubas of the brass bands were played with a varying amount of skill, though when a man has learned enough about an instrument to play the music he wants to play, "skill" becomes an arbitrary consideration.
(p. 75)
This last statement especially lays bare the disjuncture, since for Jean skill cannot be arbitrary, and the reason it cannot be arbitrary is because it forms a/the basis upon which a newly-minted work of art, no matter how stylistically esoteric, is never quite as unfamiliar as the plebes' visceral indigestion tells them that it is. Jean's theory is every bit as sociological as LeRoi's, but the two writers appeal to this sociological angle with entirely different agendas in mind.

LeRoi's strongly ambivalent feelings about the inevitable arrival of a certain technically astute Negro music at precisely this stage of broad cultural techno-comprehensibility are revealing; and the revelation is less flattering the more seriously we take Jean's thesis about the métier.
The Negro music that developed in the forties had more than an accidental implication of social upheaval associated with it. To a certain extent, this music resulted from conscious attempts to remove it from the danger of mainstream dilution or even understanding. For one thing, the young musicians began to think of themselves as serious musicians, even artists, and not performers. And that attitude erased immediately the protective and parochial atmosphere of "the folk expression" from jazz. Musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie were all quoted at various times as saying, "I don't care if you listen to my music or not." This attitude certainly must have mystified the speakeasy-Charleston-Cotton-Club set of white Americans, who had identified jazz only with liberation from the social responsibilities of full citizenship. It also mystified many of the hobbyists, who were the self-styled arbiters of what Afro-American music should be. ...
(p. 188)

For the first time critics and commentators on jazz, as well as critics in other fields, attacked a whole mode of Afro-American music (with the understanding that this attack was made on the music as music, and not merely because it was the product of the black American). The point is that because of the lifting of the protective "folk expression" veil
[!!has LRJ not been seeking the entire time to restore a similar veil of the socio-cultural and, if we're being honest, of the racial too?? for protect[ion]? probably not! but protection is the inevitable result! and that is regressive! this passage explains exactly why!]
from a Negro music, the liberal commentators could criticize it as a pure musical expression. And most of them thought it hideous. ...
(p. 189)

It seems to me an even more fantastic kind of sophistry that would permit a white man to give opinions on how he thinks a black man should express himself
[but he JUST SAID these were attacks on music as music?! so this was just cover for white critics to say how they think a black man should express himself?! or is he TAKING IT PERSONALLY after himself implying (literally on the previous page) that it was no longer to be taken personally?!]
musically or any other way, given the context of the liberal social organism, but under the canons of "art criticism," this kind of criticism is obligatory.
[sure, most critics are worthless parasites. duly noted.]
So then, if only by implication, bebop led jazz into the arena of art, one of the most despised terms in the American language. But, as art, or at least, as separated from the vertiginous patronization of the parochial term folk art (which often resulted in the lugubrious quotes with which I prefaced this chapter), the Negro music of the forties had pushed its way into a position of serious (if controversial) regard.
(p. 190)


What seem most in need of emphasis here are the double forms of assimilation or synthesis taking place between black and white American cultures. On one hand, the largely artificial "upward" social move, demanded by the white mainstream of all minorities, and the psychological address to that demand made by the black bourgeoisie, whereby all consideration of local culture is abandoned for the social and psychological security of the "main." On the other hand, the lateral (exchanging) form of synthesis, whereby difference is used to enrich and broaden, and the value of any form lies in its eventual use.
[so if expression is the eventual use, what exactly is the value of that? and wtf has all this socio-cultural-ness got to do with use? if all talk of technical application is certainly after the fact, has the very concept of use not been pre-drained of any meaningful content?]

It is this latter form of synthesis (certainly available and actual, to varying degrees, since the first black man came into America) that became so important after World War II, and even more magnified after the Korean War. The point is that where one form of synthesis, which was actually assimilation, tended to wipe out one culture and make the other even less vital, the other kind of synthesis gave a local form to a general kind of nonconformity that began to exist in American (Western) society after World War II...
(p. 191)

What LeRoi insists upon, really, is not so different from what Jean has said about the modern artist

above all, the notion that any
such as may emerge, may not be
imposed in any way from outside
but instead must
evolv[e] inside the métier itself from the nature of the material worked
As the Gershwins said,
Who could ask for anything more?
But the problem is that,
in LeRoi's account

the nature of the material worked
a social fact

rather than
a material fact

also that
the métier itself
has not been freely chosen by the craftsman

(and, per above, may/could/should (?!) also come with certain ground rules for certain Others to observe in any discussion of it...which is sort of a drag)


the guild has chosen it for them,

(and this is worse)

denied it to them
without possibility of appeal


(this is today the worst
it is everywhere)

insisted that it is their birthright even in absence of any indication of properly artistic inclination or ability such as the analogy to a craft guild (my analogy, not his) would suggest must be defended against dilution.
it was assumed that anybody could sing the blues. If someone had lived in this world into manhood, it was taken for granted that he had been given the content of his verses, and as I pointed out earlier, musical training was not a part of African tradition—music like any art was the result of natural inclination.
(p. 82)
What is unique about jazz is that,
the first jazzmen were from both sides of the fence—from the darker blues tradition and a certain fixed socio-cultural, and most of the time economic, stratum, and also from the "white" Creole tradition and its worship of what were certainly the ideals of a Franco-American middle class.
(p. 139)
as jazz developed after the early twenties in this country, it could only be a music that would reflect the socio-cultural continuum that had developed within Negro America from blackest black to whitest white. The jazz player could come from any part of that socio-cultural spectrum, or at least combine sufficiently the older autonomous blues tradition with the musical traditions of the Creoles or the ragtime orchestras of the North. And thus, jazz could not help but reflect the entire black society.
(pp. 139-140)
Previously and elsewhere, however, the situation was not so flexible.
Such a thing as a middle-class blues singer is almost unheard of. It is, it seems to me, even a contradiction of terms.
(p. 140)

The beauty of jazz, then, its musical and political beauty alike for those so inclined, is to a great extent a function of its class inclusiveness.

Similarly for race as for class, there are
double forms of assimilation or synthesis taking place between black and white American cultures
a certain
lateral (exchanging) form of synthesis, whereby difference is used to enrich and broaden, and the value of any form lies in its eventual use
Most importantly, this
gave a local form to a general kind of nonconformity
This last part especially seems to me like something worth hanging onto. I just want to add that when one's
has been chosen for one
(this time before the fact)

one can only expect to feel precisely the ambivalence at the thought of such syntheses that LeRoi evinces throughout these pages

whereas the occasion ought, ideally, just maybe, to call for a bit more of the equanimity and solid workaday contentment of Jean's artisan.


more pessimistically

perhaps it is merely a choice

alienation from the Others within a fragmented society


alienation from the total unity of one's (ostensibly unified) society


as in the (admittedly obnoxious) parlance of high culture and academia, perhaps a synthesis per se is something that intellectual laborers labor their entire life in order to have a mere chance of achieving. It is an achievement rather than a given. The statement that
Expression issued from life, and was beauty
bespeaks not mere cultural differences but, dare I say, the specter of outright cultural anathema between Jean and LeRoi. Maybe that is the point LeRoi is trying to make, and maybe I am not helping things by trying to extract some larger lesson from it. My point, if there is to be one, is that one of these options looks, to me, now, much more attractive than the other in light of so-called current events.

In any case, LeRoi thinks he knows exactly what the métier of being Black is, and he's so sure he's right about what it is that he is comfortable casting a sizable minority of Black people out of the tribe the minute they so much as have the thought of, say, assimilating to the white mainstream or amassing wealth. This recapitulates in reverse the fallacy of the white arriviste who asks the individual Black person,
What do your people think?
In contrast to the postindustrial musicians' union which no longer requires a tryout, LeRoi plays the overzealous journeyman who would rather the guild died with him than lower its standards. In so doing, he hoists the full weight of all such existential angst as Jean's passage speaks to onto an identity which is narrower and more exclusive than that of the craftsperson. Being a hereditary identity, it is essentially predestined.

No comments: