Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz”

The more democratic jazz is, the worse it becomes. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.475

As noted in a previous reflection, Adorno’s experience with and understanding of jazz was extremely limited.  Thus it is that this essay is one with which it is far too easy to find fault on so many levels.  At the same time, there is wisdom here, insight that becomes prophetic, along side a dismissal both of the roots of the music as well as American’s foremost composer, Duke Ellington, about whom Adorno insists there is little originality, Ellington’s music already having been tried and found wanting in the “salon” music of Debussy, who Ellington credits as an inspiration.

First, to those things he gets right.  Adorno’s review of jazz is thoroughly social, set against the backdrop of late-capitalism, with its demands for marketing and profit.

No matter what the situation might be for art within the context of an approaching order of things; whether its autonomy and object quality will be retained or not – and economic considerations provide substantial grounds for the assertion that even the ideal society will not be aiming to create pure immediacy – this much is in any case certain: the use value of jazz does not sublate alienation, but intensifies it.  Jazz is a commodity in the strict sense: its suitability for use permeates its production in terms non other than its marketability, in the most most extreme contradiction to the immediacy of its use note mere in addition to but also within the work process itself.  It is subordinate to the laws and also to the arbitrary nature of the market, as well as the distribution of its competition or event its followers.(p.473)

If [the bourgeoisie] has really reserved for itself the privilege of taking pleasure in its own alienation, then, in a situation which is antagonistically very advanced, this pleasure is no longer aided by the pathos of distance, a phenomenon which Nietzsche was still able to discuss in friendly terms. . . . [T]hat which is alienated is endurable to them only as long as it presents itself as unconscious and “ital”: that which is most alienated is what is most familiar.  The function of jazz is thus to be understood as above all one which is relative to the upper class, and its more consequential forms may still be reserved – at least insofar as it is a question of a more intimate reception than merely being delivered up to loudspeakers and the bands in clubs for the masses- for the well-trained upper class, which knows the right dance steps.  To it, jazz represents, somewhat like the evening clothes of the gentleman, the inexorability of the social authority which it itself is, but which is transfigured in jazz into something original and primitive, in “nature”.  With its individual or characteristic stylistic moments, jazz appeals to the “taste” of those whose sovereign freedom of choice is legitimated by their status. (pp.473-474)

In particular the end of the second quote demonstrates a keen insight, one which simultaneously demonstrates an ability to observe our American obsession with “authenticity”, in particular when it comes to musics rooted in the African-American experience.  It shows that demand for “authenticity”, summed up in the demand to understand jazz as a uniquely African-American musical form, show up in the music in its rhythmic and harmonic strangeness that, too often, is credited in a racist way to the primitivism of the African-American. And Adorno is insightful enough to conclude with the epigraph for this post: precisely that balance between simplicity and sophistication, between an artfulness and commonness results in bland mediocrities such as the tune “Valencia”, of which Adorno writes several times (thus its appearance at the top).

He dwells quite a bit on the sensuous, even sexual nature of the music, including noting an early form of lap-dancing in which “taxi girls” bring men to orgasm without intercourse.  This sexual release continues both the alienation from one’s sexuality and the repression of that sexuality while pretending to celebrate a kind of male virility that is echoed, in particular, in the soloist’s art.  The masturbatory quality of individual musical self-expression is well-worn territory, and while it does contain a grain of truth, I do believe Adorno overworks the Freudian angle just a bit.

At the same time, Adorno clearly misunderstands the defiance and rebellion inherent in jazz, a music in which and through which an oppressed race can assert not only its full humanity, but in many ways its aesthetic superiority.  Nowhere more clearly is this demonstrated than in the following:

[T]he specification of the individual in jazz never was and never will be that of a thriving productive power, but always that of a neurotic weakness, just as the basic models of the “excessive” hot subject remain musically completely banal and conventional.  For this reason, perhaps, oppressed peoples could be said to be especially well-prepared for jazz.  To some extent, they demonstrate for the not yet adequately mutilated liberals the mechanism of identification with their own oppression.(p.491)

That this is exactly the opposite of the reality of jazz development, even at the time he wrote this essay (1936) I believe can be put to a couple things.  Adorno was never clear on how race and class intersect in America, and this lack of clarity blinded him to the very real rejection of white bourgeois values inherent in jazz.  Far from furthering alienation, the jazz soloist is asserting through that solo his (and at this point it is largely a male-dominated music) humanity in a situation that denies it.  No where in the music available to Adorno yet ignored than in Louis Armstrong’s recording of King Oliver’s “West End Blues”.  Throughout, Armstrong is not only the clear leader.  He is the master of this musical domain, with that word “master” having so much historical weight that it undermines any pretensions that this music could be anything other than, even at its most celebratory, an angry rejection of the racism that believes this is “primitive” and “natural”.

Yet, Adorno is not finished.  He ends his essay as follows:

At this point, jazz will have split off along the two poles of its origins, while, in the middle, hot music, too soon condemned to classical status, will continue its meager specialized existence.  Once this happens jazz will be beyond redemption. (p.492)

Within a decade of Adorno writing this, both the more popular forms as well as the specialized forms of jazz had exhausted themselves.  What emerged in the years after the Second World War was a form of music that, while exciting, vital, and exorbitant in its complexity, would be as rejected by the masses as Adorno’s own favorites – Schoenberg, Webern, Berg – were rejected by the European masses.  While I wouldn’t say jazz was beyond “redemption”, it certainly ceded its role as the source of American popular music at precisely the point what was “hot” about the hottest swing music distilled away its danceability for a harmonic and melodic sophistication that the practitioners of this new music would insist was the heart of swing.