After years as a guitarist, editor and activist, I began writing about jazz in 1999. Since then my taste in music has grown steadily more radical, my politics the reverse. I believe this is largely a coincidence, though I still wonder if something lies behind it. As a Nader-for-President volunteer in the mid ’90s I was invested primarily in the bebop and postbop tradition, commonly grouped under the heading “mainstream jazz.” Today that is still my home, although I’ve come to understand and love sounds that are far more extreme, that even some jazz players wouldn’t consider music. In part, I hear this work as refreshingly apart from the hypercapitalist, commoditized, fluff-obsessed world around it. And yet even as a staunch liberal and social democrat, I’m increasingly turned off by what Ian McEwan has called the ”cloying self-regard“ of today’s antiwar street-protest left, the very place on the political spectrum where adventurous, experimental musicians and fans tend to gather.
Daniel Fischlin of the University of Guelph has written of “sound as dissident practice, commentary, critique.” His colleague Ajay Heble, writing in support of the jazz avant-garde, has suggested that “the ‘return to the tonic’ structure of diatonic music [i.e., mainstream jazz] is … an ideological convention, a way of reinforcing the status quo.” But artists’ intentions are too varied, the experience of listening too subjective, for Heble’s paradigm to be airtight. And much of modern jazz falls between the poles of consonance and dissonance, “inside” and “outside.” As Heble admits, “… the connections between dissonant musics and oppositional politics are not always readily sustainable.”
I do take seriously Robin Balliger’s claim that “music and representations of music are contextualized activities that have social and political meaning.” But this shouldn’t close off the idea of music as a sphere unto itself. I have to laugh when Fischlin conjures “a nightmare world in which sound is pure and essential, divorced from its social and political contexts, meaningful in its abstract and metaphysical potential but irrelevant in what it has to say to the here and now of daily life.” Of all the actual nightmares transpiring on the planet, Fischlin’s scenario seems rather mild, even attractive.
In fact, social systems that demand art be “relevant” are precisely the ones that have ushered in nightmares. Cornelius Cardew, the British classical composer (1936-1981), denounced his mentors and flushed his talent in order to spread the gospel of Mao Zedong: “There is no such thing as Art for Art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” Even if one agrees, it’s quite a leap to conclude, as Mao and Cardew did, that the vanguard party has the right and the duty to declare war on individual expression.