By John Lowney

University of Illinois Press. 227 pages. £21.99. ISBN 978-0-252-08286-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Jazz emerged during the political and social upheaval of world war, communist revolution, Red Scares, and the Black Migration”.

John Lowney, in his interesting introduction to Jazz Internationalism refers to a short story, “The Jazz Baby”, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1922. A young white student, “an accomplished cello player”, returns home for the vacation and horrifies his classical piano-playing mother by producing a “shining, tubular, twisted, bell-mouthed something scaffolded with metal bars and disks”. Worse still, he begins “undulating his body in a negroid manner” and sings a song called “You Gorilla-Man”, which has some slightly risqué lyrics.

Lowney says that the mother’s reaction typifies how many people in America, and other countries, viewed jazz, not only in the 1920s but for many years. It was “musical Bolshevism – a revolt against law and order in music”. And it posed a threat to bourgeois sensibilities: “Jazz is variously identified with the working class, with black culture, with bohemia, and with modernity more generally”. Free verse and futuristic painting were also seen as somehow aligned with jazz.

White reactions to jazz did not correspond with those of black writers like Claude McKay, whose early novel, Home to Harlem, demonstrated how the music had become an integral part of the community. Lowney says that it was “the first novel by a black writer to be specifically identified with jazz”. His analysis of the book is thorough and complex, relating the music to questions of its internationalism, something that he further explores when he considers McKay’s Banjo, the action of which takes place in Marseilles, where blacks from various locations – the Caribbean, Africa, America – have come together to form a band and stay alive.

In Home to Harlem the question of how far jazz can be said to be a black music is discussed. In its origins, at least, the music certainly had its roots in the black experience in America, and before that in Africa. But the American context surely determined that European influences crept in and helped to shape the sounds that people identified as jazz. The problem was in determining just what was jazz. Lowney refers to “aesthetic hybridity”, and it usefully sums up what happened. McKay, after all, was born in Jamaica, so must have heard different musical performances to those he experienced in Harlem. It would be interesting to know at what stage jazz performers and records reached the West Indies. We do know that there was a sizeable Caribbean community in Harlem. But I have a feeling that what was often referred to as “jazz” would most likely have been a wide variety of popular music that conventional thinkers simply couldn’t place in a handy category. This almost certainly would have been true of many whites when faced with something outside their normal range of musical experiences. 

Claude MacKay was alert to the fact that the black contribution to the arts in America, significant though it may have been, was primarily limited to certain categories: “The ruling classes of America are reconciled to the fact that distinctive syncopated music of the American people has a Negro origin and that Negroes excel in singing, dancing, and acting as natural artists. But that is all. It would be sacrilege to the primacy of whites to encourage the artistic aspirations of blacks”. And it must be said that, even within the spheres they could perform in blacks were subject to “ruthless jobbery” on the part of white managers. Black bands were paid less than white ones. The exploitation of black performers, both financially and sexually, is dealt with in Ann Petry’s novel, The Street, where the young female Negro singer is encouraged to “be nice” to the white man who owns the club where she hopes to appear. Another white man offers to give her singing lessons for free “if you and me can get together a coupla nights a week in Harlem”.           

Lowney raises some useful points when he discusses the work of Frank Marshall Davis, a poet, jazz critic, and journalist. Was jazz “an urban form of African American folk life”, and was it a form of “protest music”? Jazz was “commercial” music in many ways, so could it be accurately defined as “folk music” in the manner that the blues were?  Davis’s poetry, which Lowney asserts “replicates the sounds and rhythms of jazz instruments”, could also take on aspects of social criticism, something that caused certain commentators to question its validity: “What made Black Man’s Verse so challenging for reviewers is what made it so original in the 1930s; its dialogue of forms of poetic expression that were considered generically incompatible. Poems that enact jazz performances interact with the more descriptive poems of social realism as well as the more overtly political poems of social criticism”. Lowney’s analysis of what Davis was aiming for (“Jazz has the power to transcend cultural differences”) is stimulating and likely to make the reader search for his poems. I doubt that many people in Britain will have read them.

It might be useful to note that Davis became the subject of FBI attention – he was linked to the Communist Party in Chicago the 1930s and 1940s – and later moved to live in Hawaii, where he was active as a journalist, but overlooked as a poet. It was only in the 1970s that he was, in a sense “rediscovered” by younger black poets.

Davis had not initially been keen on the music that Charlie Parker produced in the 1940s. And it was a fact that, as Lowney puts it, bebop “did not appeal to the African American masses”. Blacks in urban areas usually preferred to listen and dance and drink to the hard-driving rhythm-and-blues that became popular in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Bebop in its purest, unadulterated form might be said to have been an intellectual’s music.

Langston Hughes, a major black writer, did recognise bop as representing a significant shift in both musical and social forms: “In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed – jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop – this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition”.

Hughes, like McKay, had travelled extensively, and was politically inclined towards the Left. He wrote a great deal, both poetry and prose, and in the context of this review one of the short sketches he wrote for newspapers and magazines is relevant. They revolved around Simple, a Harlem character who likes to explain to the narrator what life is really like. In “Bop” Simple points out that the term derives from the sound of a policeman’s club hitting a Negro’s head: “Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says ‘Bop! Bop!...Be-Bop!...Mop!...Bop!’, and Simple goes on to say that’s why so many “white folks don’t dig Bop”. They’re unlikely to be beaten by a policeman just for being white, whereas Simple is just for being black. The clubbing of black musicians by white policemen in New York is illustrated by the experiences of Miles Davis and Bud Powell, among others.

According to Lowney, Bob Kaufman was the most successful poet in adopting Parker’s sound, through ‘broken syntax, flurries of imagery, and conscious rejection of standard narrative.’” Kaufman was associated with the San Francisco Beats, and his poetry suggested “how Parker’s reputation circulated, socially as well as musically, and his elegiac commemorations of Parker are as much inquiries into the racial politics of bebop’s reception as they are tributes to Parker’s influence as a musician”. The jazz musician was seen as “the leader of the rebellion against post-war conformity”.

Kaufman claimed he was born in Louisiana to “a German Jewish father and a black Catholic mother”. The facts, however, seem to suggest that his father was black with some Jewish ancestry and his mother was a schoolteacher from an old New Orleans family. He joined the merchant navy when he was a young man and was an activist in the National Maritime Union, which had, at the time, a predominantly-communist leadership. This involvement was later to rebound on Kaufman, and he was blacklisted when the Cold War got under way and banned from shipping out. It was said that he worked as a communist labour organiser in the South and also as an area director for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party during its doomed 1948 Presidential election campaign. The Communist Party had become involved in the Progressive Party, so with the Cold War underway in 1948 it was easy for Wallace’s opponents to smear him as pro-communist. Kaufman spent some time in New York and eventually moved to San Francisco.

It was in San Francisco that he became identified with the Beats, helping to edit Beatitude and taking part in the readings and other activities in the city in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Lowney makes some very large claims for Kaufman’s poetry – “No poet is more identified with the transformative energy of bebop”, and “No poet is more profoundly associated with the life and legacy of Charlie Parker” are just two examples of his enthusiastic appraisal of his work. I’m not necessarily questioning his judgement when I say they are “large claims”, because I’ve always been an admirer of Kaufman since I first came across his writing around 1960. He wasn’t just a jazz poet, and his “Abomunist Manifesto” was, as Lowney describes it, a “mockery of anti-communist anxiety”. His poems, such as “Hollywood” (“Hollywood I salute you, artistic cancer of the universe), “Teevee People”, and “Bagel Shop Jazz”, can make sharp social comments. Other poems arouse interest with their sometimes near-surrealistic imagery.

The “internationalism” of jazz is evident in Paule Marshall’s novel, The Fisher King, where black American jazz musicians congregate in Paris, a city they generally find more tolerant of their colour and more receptive to their music. Quite a few black jazzman had visited Paris from the 1920s onwards, and a number had settled there on a permanent basis, including Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Bud Powell, and Kenny Clarke. The French were enthusiastic supporters of the music, often in a partisan way, with clashes, verbal and otherwise, between fans of bebop and those who preferred the older forms of the music.

Jazz Internationalism is a fascinating book, and Lowney provides some stimulating explorations of the poems and novels by the writers mentioned. It isn’t a book for jazz listeners who like their heroes to conform to established stereotypes of how jazz musicians should act, and in fact, as the emphasis is on how black writers (there are brief references to white novelists like Ross Russell and Jack Kerouac) have used jazz in their work, it might not appeal to them at all. My own experiences tell me that too many people who claim to appreciate jazz rarely go beyond the musical surface to consider its social and political inferences, and its literary relevance.

The book is thoroughly researched, has extensive notes, and a lengthy bibliography. It is recommended to all those who love both jazz and literature.