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Johannes Völz (Berlin)

Meaningful Freedom and the Freedom of Meaning: Free Jazz and the Political1

Meaningful Freedom and the Freedom of Meaning: Free Jazz and the Political
According to a common belief, jazz has been enthusiastically greeted around the world because it expresses freedom, individualism, and democracy - notions that are allegedly attractive around the world. This essay will voice two reservations about this view. First, the history of the "universal" in jazz is clearly not without its conflicts. In some cases, the music industry emphasized and misconstrued the "universal" in order to hide the musicians’ political objectives. Secondly, the claim that jazz universally expresses a specific set of ideas begs a methodological question: How do we conceptualize signification in music? This essay will argue for a necessary distinction between first and second level signification. Because the connotations of the music are never fixed, endless resignifications can occur. It is this openness to meaning, the article concludes, that explains the worldwide appeal of the music.

To begin with, let me make a distinction between two general levels of discourse on the globalization of jazz. The first one has a syncretic dimension and is concerned with the dissemination of the music around the world. Within this level, we find two sub-levels that are interrelated with each other.

First, American musicians have been playing around the world since the early periods of the development of jazz. Let us remember that Duke Ellington caused a sensation in the music world with his first European tour in 1933 while Armstrong had already played London one year earlier, if to "decidedly mixed response" (Hasse 1993: 170). This trend has increased over the decades resulting in the myth of Europe (and later Japan as well) as the land of plenty for jazz musicians.

The second sub-level is concerned with the influence of American jazz musicians on local musicians around the world. The latter ceased to simply copy the American originators and instead merged jazz characteristics with their own musical ideas. The globalization of jazz from this perspective is a process of worldwide syncretism.

The other dominant level of discourse on the globalization of jazz has to do with the inherent principles of the music. The argument here is that the music making process in jazz reflects a certain set of political and philosophical ideas and that these ideas, in turn, are expressed in the music and can be understood by listening to it. Jazz in this interpretation becomes the classical music of humanism. It is interpreted as a symbol of freedom because the improviser is seen as a "free" artist only vaguely limited by song structure, harmony, etc.; further, it becomes a symbol of individualism which is reflected in Olly Wilson's term of the "heterogeneous sound ideal". This "heterogeneous sound ideal" means to say that everybody is supposed to sound differently which hints at the normative implication that everybody is supposed to be different; and, related to this, jazz in this discourse functions as a symbol of democracy, since all the members of the band equally contribute to the musical result by playing whatever they choose to play within a given structure.

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Here, jazz is often contrasted to European classical music. Drummer Max Roach, for instance, claimed that European music was based on an "imperialist attitude" whereas Louis Armstrong exemplified a "democratic understanding... of collectivity" (Bisswurm 1996: 4-6). The general assumption of this discourse does not seem to be that globalization imperialistically promotes a specific set of so-called "universal" ideas. Rather, the assumed universal appeal of humanist principles makes the music's globalization possible.

At first glance, then, free jazz seems to be the epitome of jazz as the "classical music of globalization". In free jazz, both levels of discourse meet. Historically, the emergence of free jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s coincided with the moment when American jazz musicians started to look for musical sources of inspiration outside the USA. They increasingly included elements from India and other countries and focused even more than they had before on musical concepts as well as instruments from Africa. Further, the advent of free jazz in Europe marked the emancipation of European musicians from the American tradition, although in taking up free jazz, European musicians ironically still clung to an American idiom.

Free jazz, further, can be seen as the sedimentation of the ideological level of the discourse on the globalization of jazz. Most obviously, free jazz musicians radicalized the musical concept of freedom. They freed themselves from any restrictions in the three Western categories of harmony, melody and metre. Besides freedom, they also took the notion of a democratic practice of improvisation to a different level. By reviving the method of collective improvisation first employed by New Orleans musicians, they tried to attain absolute equality of the players' status since now not even a soloist had the power to singularly dictate the direction of the music.

All this makes the view of jazz – and free jazz in particular – as a universally attractive form of expression very plausible. Its democratic, free expression, in this sense, is welcomed warmly around the world because what jazz represents, even expresses, can be regarded as an anthropologically grounded human need.

The musicians of the first period of free jazz seemed to share this affirmative attitude towards the "universal". Archie Shepp, usually the most outspoken black nationalist among free jazz musicians, combined the specific political objectives he tried to express in his music with the universal goal to liberate all people:

[Jazz] is anti-war; it is opposed to Viet Nam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people. That is the nature of jazz. That's not far-fetched. Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people (quoted in Kofsky 1970: 64).

Let me differentiate my use of the term "universal". In regard to statements such as Archie Shepp's, I am pointing to the explicit demand for equal rights on a worldwide level. This might be described as what Charles Taylor calls the "politics of universalism" which relies on the assumption that every citizen has dignity and which calls for equal rights and entitlements of all citizens. However, this does not mean that other political objectives such as the "politics of difference" don't take recourse to universal norms as well. For instance, the "politics of difference" in Taylor's sense rely on the principle that everybody universally has a unique identity (Taylor 1992: 37–38).

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The reason I'm elaborating on this is because the picture of a harmonious relationship between "the universal" in its various meanings and jazz is not quite so spotless. One specific example I want to point out is Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite, which was released in 1958. From a musical perspective, the piece "Freedom Suite" clearly fits in the category of hard bop. Yet, what connects the record Freedom Suite with free jazz is Sonny Rollins' own political intention. That a jazz record had an explicit political message was an uncommon phenomenon at the time. Rollins' political outspokenness became a model for free jazz musicians who later often tied their music to the political ideas of black nationalism. In order to make clear what kind of freedom Rollins had in mind, he wrote his own set of liner notes from which I will quote:

America is deeply rooted in Negro culture... How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity (Rollins 1989: n.p.).

I want to point out two obvious, yet important aspects of Rollins' words. First, we hear in Rollins' comment an assumption of a universal humanity. This is crucial because it shows how, for Rollins, a universal principle forms the basis for his objective which is the second aspect: Rollins is obviously protesting against the prevailing racism in America at the time. In other words, while he assumes freedom as a universal ideal that forms an essential part of "humanity", he has in mind a very specific political objective. The liberation of African Americans is what the Freedom Suite, to him, is about.

To the record company Riverside, Rollins' political commitment, his cry for freedom, was not attractive at all. Riverside pulled the record off the market. Some time later, the company reissued the album under a new name, Shadow Waltz, which is the name of the second-shortest piece of the record. Further, the company decided to censor Rollins' words. It replaced the musician's comments with liner notes written by the label's half-owner Orrin Keepnews (Kofsky 1970: 50). In 1989, Fantasy, the Berkeley-based record company which in the meantime had bought the Riverside catalogue, reissued the album under the original name Freedom Suite on Cd and included both Keepnews' liner notes Rollins' original text. Comparing the two, it becomes clear how Keepnews weakened the specific political implications that Rollins had intended. Keepnews wrote,

["Freedom Suite"] is not a piece about Emmett Till, or Little Rock, or Harlem, or the peculiar local election laws of Georgia or Louisiana, no more than it is about the artistic freedom of jazz. But it is concerned with all such things, as they are observed by this musician and as they react – emotionally and intellectually – upon him.
This suite is, then, in essence a work dedicated to freedom: it is dedication and homage and resentment and impatience and joy – all of which are ways that a man can feel and that this man does feel about something as personal and basic as "freedom"... (Keepnews 1989: n.p.).

Let's look at Keepnews' construction of freedom as "personal and basic". He stresses the same universal norm that Rollins emphasizes, namely, that freedom belongs to humanity. That's why it is "basic". As we have seen, for Rollins, this universal ideal forms the basis of his political objective, namely, equal rights for African Americans. Keepnews misconstrues the same universal norm as a politically paralyzing limit to any objective: Because it is not only "basic" but also "personal", it can't be inter-personal or political. Using this construction, Keepnews pretends that Rollins is not making a political statement.

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Rather, according to Keepnews, Rollins expresses mere feelings about freedom. This improbable reading serves the purpose to evade the specific political issues that are at the core of Rollins' message. Having replaced Rollins' words with his own, it is of little surprise that Keepnews neglects to tell the reader that Rollins ever voiced an explicit opinion on the matter at all.

The significance of Keepnews' strategy is not that universal norms contradict local political objectives. To the contrary, we have seen that Rollins relied on the norm of universal freedom for his objective. Rather, the point is that the record company construed a false antagonism between the universal norm and specific political viewpoints of the artist in order to deflect the attention from Rollins' views. Generalizing this example, the "universal", though not at all a contradiction to the musicians' beliefs originally, became a tool to censor the political implications of jazz during the 50s and 60s, to depoliticize the music, as it were. When speaking of jazz as a "globally attractive cry for freedom", we need to be aware of how, in the history of jazz, the "universal" has been exploited by conservative forces so that it became opposed to the specific political intentions of the musicians.

It might seem that a proper understanding of free jazz would require investigating the relationship between free jazz and the separatist teachings of black nationalism more thoroughly since many black nationalists did not subscribe to universal ideals. And indeed, studying the various constructions of the symbolic meanings of jazz is central to the project of jazz studies. Yet, I would like to point to a basic methodological problem that jazz writers have struggled with, especially in analyzing the political meaning of free jazz. Too often, the assertion of the ties between free jazz and black nationalism or the civil rights movement has led to uncritical conclusions about "the meaning of the music". To give one example, I will quote musicologist Frank Tirro who, in his book Jazz. A History, remarks,

Jazz musicians were among the protestors critically appraising our institutions and demanding, both with their voices and with their instruments, equal rights for all citizens, and, in most cases, a withdrawal of our combat troops from the Far East (Tirro 1993: 371).

To Tirro, jazz musicians were able to demand the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam with their instruments. One indeed wonders if these musicians possessed the skills to simulate the English language on trumpets and saxophones. Put more abstractly, Tirro disregards the distinction between first and second level signification in music. He seems to suggest that the sounds themselves have a specific signified in the realm of language that is essential to those sounds. In other words, the sounds of free jazz, to him, are inherently related to specific political ideas.

I would maintain that music on the level of primary signification remains within the boundaries of music and does not cross the barrier into our verbal language. This, of course, does not mean that free jazz does not have a meaning, or rather various meanings. But such meanings that can be expressed in words are produced on the level of secondary signification or connotation. It is an additional dimension to the dimension of sounds. In other words, primary and secondary signification in music do not equal Barthes' terms of denotation and connotation as language-based significations. Rather, primary signification in music "has to do with the manner in which individual notes relate to one another melodically, harmonically and rhythmically" – something that Richard Middleton calls "the syntactical level of music" (Sheppard and Wicke 1993: 103).

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Secondary signification, then, would equal what Middleton calls the semantic, and this semantic works through connotation. Despite emphasizing this dual structure, it seems crucial to point out that any production of primary signifying chains in music is always already connotated to a certain extent, although these existing connotations do not fully determine possible future connotations.

Reformulating Tirro's statement, then, it would be more precise to say that the sounds of free jazz gained an anti-war connotation (among others) through the process of secondary signification. This difference is crucial because such connotative signifieds remain unstable and resignifications occur constantly. The development of free jazz provides ample evidence.

After the 1960s, in which free jazz as well as more hard bop-related forms of jazz indeed often took on the meaning of political protest, the connotations ascribed to free jazz changed. This development reflects the general entrance of the black struggle into a phase of liberalism and new internationalism in the 1970s. In 1975, Elijah Muhammad's son took over the leadership of the Nation of Islam and radically changed its course by offering membership to whites. In light of this decision, free jazz drummer Milford Graves, who earlier had stressed the cultural nationalist implications of concepts such as "Drum Culture", now embraced a quite different viewpoint: "I don't think we should be calling it 'Black' music. If you look all around the world you don't find any music designated by color" (Wilmer 1992: 24).

A further example of the resignification of free jazz leads us back to the discourse on the global dissemination of the music. For German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, the European free jazz revolution had little to do with the political aims of black free jazz artists in America. Some years ago he explained the connotation the music had for him during the 1960s: "Wir wollten Veränderung. Wir hatten es leid, die Hard Bop und die Blue-Note-Klänge zu hören und nachzuspielen" (Landolt 1998: 70).

To Brötzmann, the sounds of free jazz had gained the meaning of emancipation from the American originators. Ironically, in turning against hard bop, he almost opposed the political intentions of most of the black free jazz musicians of the time. Hard bop had become a symbol of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and thus did not so much figure as the antipode but rather as a precursor to free jazz in its ideological function.

At this point, it becomes clear that the possibility of resignification not only makes it impossible to ascribe a universally stable political meaning to free jazz. We also have to ask whether we can make claims about the inherent, universal appeal of jazz. Such statements do not only concern the production of the music which, with certain reservations, might indeed be described as democratic. They also imply that democratically produced sounds necessarily have a democratic meaning. Again, music takes on such a meaning through the process of secondary signification and I doubt that these connotations are determined by the character of musical production. As I said before, this is not to say that the connotations of jazz are contingent. They are partially determined through discursive and institutional constructions. However, structurally at least, these connotations are not completely fixed.

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The assumption that jazz spread throughout the world because it is globally attractive for its inherent meaning, namely freedom, individualism and democracy, might then have to be turned around. Jazz as a cultural expression is universally attractive precisely for its structural openness to different meanings. The fact that it does not universally express the same political convictions would be grounded in the possibility of endless resignifications of the music's connotations. It is this possibility of resignification, then, that makes jazz such a universally attractive form of expression.



Bisswurm, Roland H.H. (1996): "Max Roach: Ich bin das Schlagzeug, ich bin die Trommel", in: Jazz Podium. (Februar) 4–6.

Landolt, Patrick (1998): "Peter Brötzmann. Genie des Dilettanten", in: Du. (Juli) 70–74.

Hasse, John Edward (1993): Beyond Category. New York.

Keepnews, Orrin (1989): "Liner Notes." Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite . Compact Disk. Riverside, Fantasy.

Kofsky, Frank (1970): Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York.

Rollins, Sonny (1989): "Liner Notes." Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite. Compact Disk. Riverside, Fantasy.

Sheppard, John and Peter Wicke (1997): Music and Cultural Theory. London.

Taylor, Charles (1992): Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton.

Tirro, Frank (1993): Jazz. A History. New York.

Wilmer, Valerie (1992): As Serious As Your Life. John Coltrane and Beyond. London.



1 A previous version of this paper was presented at the 48th annual conference of the DGFA (Wissenschaftliche Jahrestagung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien), June 6, 2001 in Bremen.