Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


Iain Anderson’s This is Our Music

Iain Anderson’s 2007 book, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, successfully examines who decides the value of jazz and its meanings, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.  His book focuses on the increased popularization of jazz and its acknowledgment, or designation, of it as “America’s art form”; the construction of the jazz canon and its aesthetic and cultural ramifications; and how these issues intersect with race, the American nation, and American cultural identity.

The implication of jazz considered “America’s art” in the 1950s are many.  As jazz’s popularity increased in the United States it was appropriated as a positive cultural symbol in the Cold War by the State Department and exported abroad on Willis Conover’s Voice of America radio shows.  As such, jazz became popular around the world and was seen as “uniquely American” (24).  Jazz began to move from the nightclub to more middle and high brow, respectable venues like concert halls and the Newport Jazz Festival.  Movies depicted jazz as art and academics and jazz critics used it to create a national cultural identity and argued that jazz espoused “American political ideals” (38).  Writers linked jazz with American Exceptionalism, but by the early 1960s the view that jazz represented integration and democratic harmony was criticized, as many pointed out that jazz abroad “appeared to many emerging players as dual symbols of their country’s hypocrisy” (48).

The advent of free jazz fundamentally challenged the jazz canon and further complicated the idea of jazz representing American cultural identity.  The debates about free jazz were more often than not grounded in discussions about race in the United States.  Many musicians and writers challenged the notion that jazz, like all art forms, should have universal qualities and should be able to transcend difference.  The debate surrounding free jazz musicians, Anderson argues, “embodied the contradictions inherent in jazz music’s reputation as ‘America’s art form’” (52).  Free jazz shook traditional notions of what was jazz, and in doing so, challenged critics and other gatekeepers of the music.  The colorblind philosophy that underpinned the “art as art” position taken by many, several African American free jazz musicians argued, masked African Americans’ struggles against discrimination. 

Clearly, the linkage of free jazz with African American ideology, aesthetics, and culture challenged the notion of jazz as America’s art form, as many African American musicians argued that free jazz, and jazz in general was the “preserve” of black musicians.  During the 1960s writers such as Amiri Baraka and musician such as Archie Shepp tied free jazz to black nationalism and constructed jazz and blues as a contrary force to bourgeois African Americans who preached assimilation.  Anderson points out that in doing so the “cultural nationalists took free jazz, a travesty of accepted norms of musical discipline, and turned it into a symbol of racial distinction” (119).

Black free jazz musicians had a hard time securing a black audience, who in the 1960s had turned to more popular genres, such as R&B and more traditional jazz sub-genres such as hard bop.  These musicians argued that education was needed to help raise black people and saw themselves as guardians of black culture.  They claimed that part of the reason for their struggles to gain a foothold with the African American audience and public was out of racism and economic discrimination in the jazz industry and the nation as a whole.  Therefore, they looked toward other models to support their music.  These took the forms of collectives of musicians, such as the Jazz Composers Guild and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.  They also looked for alternate sources of funding through private arts foundation and sought positions in academia.  As Anderson points out, the alternate sources of support that black free jazz musicians began to rely on, ironically led to whites becoming custodians of black free jazz.  In these efforts to find private support musicians took advantage of the controversy over jazz’s identity to look for new opportunities.

Anderson concludes by arguing that the goals of mainstream jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, who relegate free jazz outside the jazz canon, could not achieve their success without the work of free jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor and writers like Baraka.  Anderson argues these two camps want the same thing: recognition of jazz as an African American cultural art form, but go about it in different means.  The debates over the jazz canon take place, Anderson concludes, in the context of jazz as “America’s art form” and are echoes of “Cold War exceptionalism” (187).  In these debates arguments about the jazz canon the issues of nation, race, who is an American and what is American are salient.  This is Our Music is well written, nuanced, and engages with the issues that are associated with free jazz and debates about the jazz canon in general.

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