Riffs on being both in and out

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't
May 13, 2005

"Freedom" is the word that haunts jazz: the source of its presumed emancipation from Western classical music; the starting point and/or destination of its occasional annexation by political interests; the crux of a persistent misunderstanding about what jazz is.

In Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't - the title comes indirectly from the perverse call-and-response sermon in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - Scott Saul explores the profound ambiguities of jazz's liberationist claims in the context of late 1950s and early 1960s American society.

Though primarily a literary critic, Saul's understanding of modern jazz is sophisticated enough to allow him to base his main argument on just two musicians, saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist and composer Charles Mingus.

This is a telling and effective decision. It is paradoxical that Coltrane, intensely spiritual, single-minded and inward, and not the turbulent and eclectic Mingus, should have become the figurehead of contemporary jazz.

Though Coltrane was on occasion directly inspired by events - such as the killing of black children in a firebombed church - it was Mingus who wrote agit-prop music, who claimed separatist status for jazz as either the folk music or the classical music of black Americans and who based his style on a shifting constellation of sources.

Saul nails the irony well. Coltrane the mystical individualist was a safer icon for white liberal jazz fans than Mingus the fiery collectivist. By the same token, when jazz musicians were recruited as Cold War cultural ambassadors, the construction placed on their "freedom" and that of their music was individualistic and market-driven, a counter to the undifferentiated mass-psychology of the Soviet command economies. As artists who "made up their music as they went along" and minstrels with no political axe to grind, jazz players were the embodiment of unrestricted choice, and thus of the American way.

It may be persuasive logic; it is also unhistorical nonsense. Saul understands how profoundly conflicted our attitude to jazz is. There is a huge variance between jazz musicians' practice and the market definitions imposed by white critics and audiences. For all its extreme virtuosity - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie - the bebop of the 1940s was a new way for black musicians to work together, a carefully elaborated code that signalled autonomy from white critical norms and an alternative to alienating "freedom". Bop sought to be both utopian and fatalistic, ethnically particular and universal, virtuosic and popular. Its players valued their independence but celebrated their craft solidarity as well.

"Soul" in jazz was a return to the unfallen purity and unity of spirit hinted at in Garden of Music , the mural by short-lived artist Bob Thompson that is reproduced on the book's cover.

Unfortunately, unlike Thompson's deceptively artless palette, most white images of black life were no more tonally sophisticated than a photographic negative, like the pamphlet cover of Norman Mailer's notorious The White Negro , in which he portrayed the hipster as a race-denying existential sociopath. This squared with a prevailing view of bebop as pathological. In his ghostwritten "autobiography" Really the Blues , clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow describes his attempt to live that life for real, dealing drugs and even passing for black.

Saul's case hinges on a central pair of contradictions. While jazz and some elements of "the jazz life" were adopted as paradigmatic of the American way of life, exponents of jazz were culturally disenfranchised at home.

Their cosmopolitan success was premised on a radical individualism that few desired and most found alienating, even if it was the key to economic and creative survival. It is an argument that has its dramatic realisation in James Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues .

Saul has written a wise and trenchant study of a complex period in American culture. Heavy on detail and accurate musical analysis, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't is a welcome antidote to the absurdist dialectics of writers such as Frank Kofsky, who co-opted Coltrane to the black nationalist cause, and to those who promote or condemn jazz modernism without understanding its wider context.

Unusually, it is a book about the sociology of music that lets the music breathe as well. Readers familiar with Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Max Roach's deceptively complex We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite will return to the music with fresh understanding.

Those who have not previously encountered these classic records and who think vaguely of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme as the iconic moment in 1960s jazz will find their listening as well as their thinking subtly but emphatically shifted.

Brian Morton is co-author of The Penguin Guide to Jazz.

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties

Author - Scott Saul
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 394
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 674 01148 1

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