Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jazz Consciousness

Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race and Humanity
By Paul Austerlitz
Wesleyan University Press

Collections tend to be uneven—the good aspect of that being if one selection is the flat, the next entry may show signs of life. Musician and ethnomusicologist Paul Austerlitz collects and rewrites studies of jazz heavily informed by figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon in his ideologically tinged collection Jazz Consciousness, which exemplifies this tendency.

Austerlitz’s general thesis relates to a duality of jazz, as both a connection to America, particularly African Americans, and as a cultural connection to the African Diaspora writ large. His strongest pieces are profiles of Machito and Mario Bauzá and a survey of the development of jazz in Finland. Unfortunately, he starts slowly with liberal doses of racial politics, making arguments like: “While some critics, however, might laud jazz’s aesthetic ‘integration’ as an epitome of ‘American democracy,’ I argue that the inclusiveness of jazz is atypical of dominant trends in the United States.” (p. 20) As evidenced by the quotes on “American Democracy,” Consciousness starts with a high quotient of ideology, but it does get more informative as it progresses.

In telling the history of Bauzá and Machito, Austerlitz tries to explain the aspects of America, in addition to jazz, which attracted Bauzá:

“This philosophy of black self-help, perhaps inspired by Booker T. Washington, was consonant with Bauza’s attraction to the Harlem Renaissance: instead of looking to the white world for solutions, successful African Americans kept their dignity intact and their pocketbooks full by forging black institutions.” (p. 56)

Machito and his Afro-Cubans gained enormous popularity in New York, fusing the jazz Bauzá learned in America with the Afro-Cuban rhythms Machito brought to the band. Long ensconced at the Palladium nightclub, the Machito band enjoyed the cross-fertilization made possible by the understanding reached by local club owners. According to Austerlitz:

“the Palladium and Birdland were situated within blocks of each other. The owners of the two venues had an informal agreement whereby musicians working at either club could enter the other one free of charge. Players could thus keep up on what the others were doing.” (p. 90)

In discussing Machito, Austerlitz makes much of the fact that he never played in his Cuban homeland, offering some explanations, like his baritone, which was not widely heard as a solo voice in Cuba. He fails to mention that the fact that Cuba has been ruled by an oppressive dictator since 1959 (who was quite hostile towards jazz until the 1970’s and Irakere) which would have made a Machito tour there extremely difficult. [Another Cuban note: Austerlitz mistakenly suggests Pauito D’Rivera came to America as part of the Mariel boatlift. (p. 113) Actually he defected in Spain while on tour with Irakere.]

Austerlitz’s strongest piece is a survey of Finnish jazz, probably because he is cognizant of the ironies of the story he tells. Writing on the German model for the first Finnish jazz band, Austerlitz quotes a scholar of Finnish music, who wrote: “while Finland was looking for a German king, the first ‘continental jazz band sounds’ were being played by the German Kings of Jazz.” (p. 125) More staid musical critics became leery of jazz as it gained popularity in the 1920’s. One anti-jazz publication Austerlitz quotes warned of: “over-stimulation of shot nerves, and even nudity.” (p. 131) I’ll bet that really scared the kids off. Jazz would have lean years in Finland, but learning that Finns would eventually settle on the Tango as the consensus alternative to 1960’s rock and roll is reason enough to read Consciousness. Austerlitz explains:

“many agrarian and working-class Finns were ‘now looking for a music which would sound truly Finnish, and somewhat paradoxically . . . adopted the tango. Either you supported the Beatles or the tango.’” (p. 142)

Sometimes Consciousness is fascinating and sometimes it is tedious. It is a decidedly mixed bag, but where else can you hip yourself to the story of the Finnish tango craze?