Jazz on the Left

Sam Pawlett epawlett at uniserve.com
Mon Feb 22 21:16:04 PST 1999

> One current Jazz great who carries on this tradition is the trumpeter
> Dave Douglas. In the liner notes to his album Five, he thanks Noam
> Chomsky, and his first album with the Tiny Bell Trio, Constellations, has
> a song called "Maquiladora." The title of his album Parallel Worlds is
> an allusion to "disparate conditions of people's lives in this country:
> from politicians and corporate leaders to the seemingly invisible
> millions of disenfranchised an underutilized poor. That such disparities
> exist in so rich a country is certainly an anomaly that needs to be
> commented on."

Douglas is great, he comes to town a lot; he's coming next month again and I'll be there. I'd say jazz musicians on the whole are on the left and many like Max Roach have suffered for their politics. There are exceptions like Scientologist Chick Corea. The generations of the 20's to the 60's were very aware of racism and its basis in the capitalist system. How couldn't they be? They lived it. I saw Wayne Shorter a couple of years ago and he spoke of "Newt Gangrene" and "the contract on America". The politics of jazz musicians is in sharp contrast to their colleagues in classical music e.g. Nazi tyrants like Herbie Karajan. There are exceptions here too like Abbado, Pollini, Casals and Kurt Masur. Toscanini, initially a Mussolini supporter, was brutally assaulted by some brown shirts outside of La Scala after he publicly refused to play the fascist national anthem. Casals right to the end of his life chose not to perform in England after Churchill refused to liberate Spain in WW deuce. Leftists in classical music are usually called practitioners of "radical chic." Tom Wolfe coined this term after he snuck into that famous party Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers. Bernstein later accused Wolfe of spying for the FBI. Not doubt there were FBI spys at the party and they got a lot of dirt there to use in their cointelpro slander campaign against Bernstein. Maybe Bernstein was a dandy, but the musicians always gave it their all when he was on the podium. I think "radical chic" ended with the election of Reagan. "Radical chic" today means the opposite ideological number as the folks at The Baffler magazine have so eloquently and convincingly argued. In honor of Max Roach's 75th birthday here's an excerpt from an 1985 interview:

" Cocaine was first introduced into the black community during slavery. The slave owners discovered that cocaine cut the appetite and gave people high energy, so they brought it up from South America to increase the productivity of the African slaves...And when they brought Chinese labourers in to build the Atlantic-Pacific railroad in the 1800's, that's when opium was introduced into the US--again to boost worker's productivity. It was all to do with economics...The artists got involved for different reasons to escape, the use of drugs among artists has been very small compared to their economic uses. Now they're like a disease all over the country. Hard drugs are rampant everywhere--in the business world! ...its part of the attitude of the ruling classes, they use drugs to keep people thinking in the never-never land...See, the illusion is that art is for the sake of art, that it has nothing to do with the rest of the world--art is over here, politics is over there. For me, that's not true. I believe politics is into everything. Art is a very powerful weapon, it can take us out--we all escape into Dallas or into Disco the illusion that life is one big party, and OK, maybe it's necessary to take a break. But if you take people away from the problems facing us--like the Bomb and unemployment and the conservatism that exists today--that just serves the purpose of the ruling class, because it means the mass of people are not involved in any of the decisions that effect them and their lives...The music itself was born of neglect--if you survived. I mean, Charlie Parker, growing up in a racist society, that manifests itself in the music. You didn't have to talk about it, you were aware of what was going on in society--no jobs, no education--this is what jazz is all about. I think jazz speaks to that..you can hear it in their music the way the musicians speak of their socio-political position."

Sam Pawlett

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