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This review was written for The Wire - then they found they'd already published a review by another writer. The strapline should have read:
IF YOU CAN'T STAND THE CRITIQUE, GOOD GOLLY GET OFF THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL BUS!!!
Landing On The Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance and Critical Practice
Ajay Heble launched the Guelph Jazz Festival in the 90s, providing a window for many names in new music (including Pauline Oliveros, William Parker, Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas). He's also an academic, though a tribute in the acknowledgements is revealing: Winston Smith's Toronto bookshop Writers and Company "was, until its recent closing, an exciting example of an alternative public sphere, a community-powered space where many of us doing cultural work received our real education" (p. xiv). A familiar tale.
However, it's as assistant professor of literatures and performances that Heble addresses us here. Of course, antagonism between official and unofficial knowledge is as old as the Church. The conflict usually reaches The Wire's pages in jibes at Pop Sociology and Cultural Studies. The paradox is that the favoured reference points - Benjamin, Adorno, Attali, Deleuze - are identical, whilst not a few self-styled "heretics" are themselves in receipt of fat stipends (come to think of it, some of them look pretty episcopal too). To publish with Routledge - to continue the analogy - is like appearing beneath the rubric of the Church Of England: Routledge are the major player in the lucrative academic market, cognisant that universities crave the spice of fashion as much as the meat of science.
Heble negotiates this paradox by opening with a paper he wrote ten years ago. It applied the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to Bebop. Apparently, before Saussure, "words were held to be important precisely because they were thought to represent things in the external world" (p. 39), whereas after Saussure, words only relate to other words. Heble's daft summary certainly says much about the solipsism of post-structuralist theory. Unfortunately, he's been so busy promoting music, he hasn't had time for a coherent philosophical rethink. Instead of dumping structuralism for Valentin Voloshinov's theory of the sign - whose democratic concept of "concrete social utterance" actually suits improvised music - Heble simply adds apologetic "side bars" written by a sadder and wiser self. Following mainstream academic fashion, bad theory gives way to pragmatism ("ethics" and "worldliness"). Now that Derrida's revelation of "the incapacity of language to represent presence" (p. 47) seems less burningly urgent, Bebop is better understood as an expression of black self-confidence after the war. Such retreats are sensible enough, but they make his essay look like a sophomoric exercise that should have been binned.
Having elevated bending-with-the-wind to the plane of auto-critique (and claiming such revision is somehow on a par with Coltrane's subversion of the Broadway ballad, p. 31), Heble muses on modern music. An analysis of three autobiographies - those of Ellington, Holiday and Mingus - succumbs to the patronising dogma that anything and everything done by black media-figures is sacred: it's all about identity being "reinvented to serve the political needs of the moment" (p. 116). Thus the famous "shock" opening of Holiday's (ghosted) autobiography, which states that her parents were 15 and 13 when she was born (when in fact they were 19 and 17), is an example of "improvising a narrative of origins ... the text's loose disregard for matters factual ... may well be suited to serving the needs of subaltern sensibilities" (pp. 108-9). We've entered that rarefied zone where "respecting the Other" turns into double-think.
In seeking to explicate dissonant jazz, Heble uses Theodor Adorno. Since Adorno's aversion to jazz is notorious, this might seem strange. However, no-one who responds to the avantgarde - in other words, who opens up their subjectivity to experiences outside the commercial consensus - can avoid Adorno. This is because Adorno's theory is unburdened by the usual cultural "oughts", and squarely faces the situation of free art in an unfree and unfair society. However, Heble fails to grasp that Adorno analysed the whole of society and its discontents. Blinded by the liberal myth of individual careers as the solution to mass economic injustice, Heble even claims that Ellington's passing for white was "subversive" (p. 115).
In Heble's postmodernist imaginary, "empowering" - a weasel word coined by state professionals to manage dissent - applies to both collective resistance and individual success. Though Wynton Marsalis is dissed, Heble's description of Sun Ra could equally well apply to the stars of corporate-sponsored neo-con bop: "a jubilant choreography of mobility and social momentum" (p. 138). The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Charles Gayle are recommended as examples of Free Jazz resistance to conformity. Actually, a rigorous Adornian analysis - which entails paying attention to the musical substructure - would reveal that, unlike Muhal Abrams and Albert Ayler, the AEC and Gayle are conformist through and through. They do not derive their current status from technical innovation, but from fulfilling a need for "oppositional" exoticism on the part of consumers. A discussion of art and politics which hinges on Gayle's Biblical outbursts against gays cannot attain the subtlety and depth of Adorno's discussion of Wagner, because Heble is dealing with a problem caused by niche marketing - patronising vaunting of an idiot - not the interior construction of the musical object.
Anyone using "a bit of Adorno" will come unstuck: behind Adorno stands the Marxist project of understanding and changing the totality of nature and history, the Frankfurt School's criticism of both Soviet Communism and Liberal Democracy, and a passionate denunciation of both commodity culture and the "art" that claims to be a worthy alternative to it. Adorno's insights are devastating because he saw that "commercial potential" - the rule that everything must be judged by its ability to extract surplus value from labour - is not a reward for good music, but an oppressive principle which also causes war, starvation, pollution and corrupted consciousness. Despite its nods to critical theory, Landing On The Wrong Note is really just the ethically-challenged tabletalk of today's jazz promoter: accepting today's hierarchies of avant celebrity and the strictures of political correctness, deaf to the social import of the dissonance he professes to admire.
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