Jazz as a cultural archive
by Jim Merod
To read the last pages of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is to enter into the pathos and healing thoughtfulness of Beethoven’s late quartets. Far different than the repeated counterpoint of its favored fugal format, Said’s text moves from the adagio of a graceful stroll through waiting geographies to the finale of a full allegro reinforcement of the traveler’s calm and domiciled reflection. His reader, of course, moves with him, and, as Paul Bove and Joe Buttigieg point out in their October 1992 interview with Said, the concept and the sense of ”generosity” seem to create a strongly willed rhythmic undercurrent. The tone that emerges in the concluding chapter of Culture and Imperialism, ”Freedom from Domination in the Future,” is a sad, yet resolute, assertion of what is possible-or what should be both possible and necessary for literary intellectuals and for critics, theorists, and university scholars concerned with the civilizing power of intellectual work.
I hesitate to call that tone tragic joy, although something like a turn to a life’s final self-reflection is at stake in these pages. I want to stress the useful term that Bove and Buttigieg bring forward from Said’s text. It is a term that has haunted other texts he has given us, but here it takes on a self- boundary 2 22:2, 1995. Copyright @ 1995by Duke .university Press. CCC 0190-3659/95/$1.50. conscious partnership with one of Said’s literary enables, Eric Auerbach.
Only through an attitude that finds ”the entire world is as a foreign place,” Said reminds us (quoting Hugo of St. Victor from the twelfth century), ”can a historian, for example, begin to grasp human experience and its writ- ten records in all their diversity and particularity.”(1) The term that pressures these late pages is the notion of ”human experience” – at once variable but truly primary in the deepest calculations of the intellect’s coming to grasp with the weight of it all.
And the weight of it all is what Culture and Imperialism beseeches us to comprehend, each experience, each intellect, each cultural archive positioned differently, yet intimately foreign, in the merging of claims to historical or interpretive priority. I am moved by Said’s reflections precisely for their attempt to offer common ground to intractably competing viewpoints.
As a familiar reader of the world of African American classical music, that storehouse of vast energy and wisdom called jazz, I invoke Said’s recent text as an example of the spirit of accommodation to heterogeneity at the core of the jazz enterprise. In figuring or refiguring U.S. nationalists, one must think about the relationship of this essentially African American art to an essentially Euro-American institutionalized culture. The habit of capital to consolidate, franchise, and enclose culture has a variety of formations across the twentieth century, perhaps none of them as overtly mendacious as the habit of begrudgingly accepting jazz and its many styles of lyrical celebration, even as a double assimilation (or repression) of its energy went forward. On one hand, in the 1950s, the U.S. State Department packaged numerous international tours of jazz artists who were presented as ”ambassadors” of U.S. goodwill in the post-World War II environment. On the other hand, jazz has never been given commercial or media support as the voice of pan-racial intelligence (or of black pride, or modernistic turbulence. or any other sustained embodiment of cultural excitement). Its official place in North American culture has never escaped its salty origins and experimental intensity. its partial acceptance as a high art form marginal- ized its performance as both esoteric and an object of takeover by those who gained financial benefits borrowing from, and diluting, black musical accomplishments. One of the contradictions of American social and cultural identity can be located right here: in the acceptance and assimilation of nonwhite performers who redefine the possibilities of weekend pleasure and musical reality. That acceptance, of course, is marked quite literally by millions of individual struggles for dignity and personal freedom. But the prevailing experience that crosses and re crosses the emergence of jazz as a cultural archive is the experience of containment. The music itself has been sequestered by carefully invoked blue laws that restricted it to segregated parts of cities, by requirements for cabaret cards, by the racism of white musicians’ unions, and (until recently) by nearly perpetual neglect in the highest academies of the empire. All this added to the containment of an art form that is celebrated as America’s finest contribution to world culture: a containment by journalistic rubrics that define jazz as a form of entertainment without history, a containment by television media that relegate jazz to late-night events. In fact, the irregularity of jazz on television gives away the longstanding institutional neglect of the art form. Buy Book
Jim Merod enables, with his provocative questions and instinctual love for jazz, the musician to tell the story. Being able to hear the musician tell his and her anecdotes at length is comparable to hearing them jam. Jazz is notorious not only as the sublime and most definitive art form of the 20th century but also for all the stories that go along with it. Merod captures the magical by-product of this musical art form–the bard, the art of storytelling. Along with the Cannon of great jazz story-telling comes photos. Almost as important as the story, the jazz photo has been a pivotal player on the scene ever since Roy DeCarava and Jeanloup Sieff. Michael Oletta’s photos are deep and soulful. In them we see the jazz musician who has perfected his art and the photographer who’s mastered his craft. Most of his shots are as improbable as the music. When you look at them your immediate question is “how the hell did he get that picture?” This series of interviews and photos is a must read. It moves fast and takes you into a magical and very real world. Enjoy.