For as long as there has been jazz, the left has been having an argument about it. However, a discussion of jazz with Charles Edward Smith in the room is probably worth listening to. Here the pioneering music critic, and one of the first to theorize jazz with full-length works, takes issue with a column of Michael Gold’s in the Daily Worker.
‘Class Content of Jazz Music’ by Charles Edward Smith from the Daily Worker. Vol. 10 No. 253. October 21, 1933.
BECAUSE I believe that the conclusions on jazz music published in Michael Gold’s column recently have not been as clear-cut as possible, I have been permitted to contribute a brief outline on the subject. Jazz is not widely understood, especially insofar as concerns the class relations on which it is based.
In his column Comrade Gold stated that tunes like St. Louis Blues were of the “folk-quality” and continued, “But that’s not jazz; that’s the African nation; and if there were a way to separate African art from American commercialism I’d be glad to say anywhere that I liked African music, because I greatly do.” There is such a way—it is the way of Marxian analysis. It is important, first of all, to emphasize Dale Curran’s remark (published in the Daily Worker) that “Jazz grew out of the Negro reaction to white chauvinism.” This reflects an historically correct analysis: jazz is American and compositions such as St. Louis Blues are American and not of “the African nation.” Comrade Gold has only to perceive that African and American folk music represent different bases of production to see that an African label cannot be slapped onto an American product. A Marxian analysis begins with an examination of class relations.
Jazz has its roots in the oppressive measures of southern plantation owners against the Negro masses. It is specifically a folk music in derivation. The Negro brought his own folk music from Africa. It was this folk music, modified by English folk songs, hymns, and early American tunes, that gave birth to the Negro spirituals,—not the emaciated versions recorded by harmony quartets, but the spirituals as sung in the South, with their African heritage of polyphonous harmonies and complex rhythms. With the passing of the 14th amendment the status of the Negro in the South changes. Instead of a slave in the eyes of the world, he became an enslaved serf and proletarian. (cf. Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States.) What was the music of the serf (sharecropper) and worker? Again, the spirituals. Next the work songs, the first songs in America to have a proletarian content, expressing clearly and with profound sincerity the state of oppression of the American Negro.
From the beginning the music of the American Negro influenced popular music. “Turkey In the Straw” derives from a piece called “Ol’ Jim Crow.” Both in melody and rhythm its source is the folk music of the American Negro. It was only in this century, however, simultaneously with the exploitation of spirituals and work songs, that the term Jazz came into being. Thus it was as recently as 1910-20 that Negro folk music was welded with popular music and—the blues were born!
The blues brought with them from American Negro music not only the musically famous “blue” notes, but also the distinctive word-quality of folk music, as a comparison of spirituals and blues will show. Handy’s Beale St. Blues exhibits very nicely the transition from spirituals and work songs to blues and Jazz. (Few of those who dance to this tune realize that it is an anti-prohibition song.)
Hardly were the blues introduced— by men of diverse racial origins: Handy, Clarence and Spencer Williams, Russel Robinson, Rapollo, Callahan, La Rocca, Biederbecke, etc.— than their spontaneous folk quality became designated in the realm of jazz by the term hot. This applied equally to slow blues and to very fast stomps. It referred not to tempo but to quality. Applied to a composer, singer, instrumentalist or band, it meant that the product turned out was an original and sincere expression as well as being musically competent. Hot distinguished the genuine stuff from that which was corny (meaning phony) or that which was sweet, a term which covers the vast field of popular jazz and which is self-explanatory.
Hot is the music having the folk quality Comrade Gold admires. It is the kind of jazz played in the dance halls of the proletariat (though hot is not always played there, one must admit) as differentiated from the sweet jazz played in Central Park Casino for the edification of debutantes. Hot began with the jug and washboard bands of the South, the hot or ad lib chorus corresponding to the extemporizing of Negro folk singers. White men who played hot—introducing the blues and the ad lib chorus—were chauvinistically termed “white n***s” and were proud of this categorization which classed them with the best folk musicians of the country.
THE hot element in jazz was then, and continues to be an isolated phenomenon. This phenomenon has its basis in the class struggle. Hot jazz aims to be genuinely the folk expression of a people, it has its roots in the denial to the American Negro of “the right of self-determination.” However, it is exclusively Negro music neither in origin nor in expression. To assert this would certainly be to fall into an extremist error.
The reason why hot is isolated from sweet and popular, both in terminology and in fact, is readily apparent. Popular music is wish-fulfillment music, is folk music “from above.” When it seems to give expression to the working class, as in “My Forgotten Man,” it states the case incorrectly, failing to point out the basic class relations involved and not for a moment hinting that the way out is to be concerted mass act on, the solidarity of the working class in strikes, unemployed demonstrations, etc. No. The bourgeois popular song, the popular song “from above”—i.e., from the class of the oppressors— tries to lull to sleep the growing class consciousness of the masses. There is always the deceptive glint of Nira’s wings, bourgeois propaganda in one form or another, brought out to hoodwink the masses and divert them from revolutionary mass struggles.
This is not to Imply that all popular songs have the specific aim of smothering the growing class consciousness of the proletariat. To regard the average song writer of Tin Pan Alley as a conscious propagandist for the machinery of oppression would be nonsensical but, consciously or not, the majority of composers and lyricists who write sweet music are in fact adding immeasurably to the dung-heap of bourgeois propaganda. This is just as true of songs having to do with sex as with songs bearing on the economic plight of the masses. A dialectical consistency runs through the whole range of popular music.
Drugged with the poison of popular music and with the virulent poison of the capitalist propaganda machine, prejudices are imposed upon the masses. In the field of art these prejudices stand in the way of direct and sincere reactions. That which is in reality shallow, cheap and sensational symphonic Jazz, so-called semi-classical music—ls oftentimes mistaken for the real thing, the more so because it plucks insistently at surface emotions.
IT IS essential to acknowledge the impurities brought into hot jazz through popular music. Jazz very seldom claims or can claim to equal the folk music of the African Negro, of the Spanish gypsy, or of the Balinese singers. Only In its best moments, when It Is genuine expression, has it the merit of being folk music, truly expressing the creative and emotional depths of the people. The bourgeois-capitalist world tends to stifle this creativeness. Centuries of class rule have attempted to inculcate in the masses bourgeois prejudices. This is why the revolution must be fought out on every front, cultural as well as economic.
At a program given recently by the Harlem section of the Communist Party, Ruth Elzy sang some rent blues. The reaction of many present was that this was class conscious folk music. A valid feeling! Isn’t this the answer to those who inquire, with some skepticism, if proletarian jazz is really possible? Of course It’s possible.
A DECADE ago jazz was decried as shallow emotionalism, but at least certain elements of the proletariat were dancing to the hot jazz of King Oliver, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Memphis Five, the Wolverines. the Mound City Blue Blowers, etc., and it began to be noised about that Bix Biederbecke, W.C. Handy, Russel Robinson, Joe Venuti, Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Adrian Rollini, Earl Hines, Rapollo, and others had something to offer that was far from being shallow emotionalism. College boys who could afford it collected records of hot—as time went on many hot men turned luke-warm trying to adapt themselves to the “as written” field (which they called the “as rotten”)—records of the Cotton Pickers (gone sweet by now); Red Nichols, Little Ramblers, Jack Teagarden, William Morris, Jelly-roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Louts Armstrong, Chicago Rhythm Kings. Dixie Stampers (with Fletch Henderson, King Oliver, Miff Mole, Original Dixieland Five, etc., etc.). Collectors and musicians frequented the dance halls, and the lesser known hot spots, knowing that hot jazz and hot musicians were usually of proletarian origin.
Even from this brief paper it is possible to see in outline the history of Jazz music, its origins and its subsequent developments. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of bourgeois propaganda, especially as it assumes the form of folk music “from above.” A further point needs emphasis. In the class struggle the means of bourgeois exploitation are not confined to the economic field, but extend to the cultural as well. Bourgeois popular music, sterile in content, attempts to revivify itself with the music of the masses, exploiting hot jazz as it exploited the Negro spirituals and work songs. This explains to a great extent the corruption of hot men, the indubitable fact that all too often they turn luke-warm. That hot Jazz continues to flourish and at least some of those who produce it are beginning to realize its class content is another indication of the growing class consciousness of the masses.
The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.
Access to PDF of full issue: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020097/1933-10-21/ed-1/