Monday, April 30, 2007

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties
By Scott Saul
Harvard University Press

It is a cliché to call the 1960’s a turbulent decade, but a musical history of the decade certainly includes many chaotic contradictions. At a time when many original American blues artists were largely forgotten at home, the British acts inspired by them were dominating the American charts. In the early 1960’s, jazz still seemed periodically able to crossover into the national consciousness at-large, but as the decade closed, its position was much less secure. It is this period of jazz history that Scott Saul analyzes in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, (somewhat) recently reprinted in tradepaper.

Indeed, there are many contradictions in Freedom Is. Saul identifies the irony that an artist like John Coltrane, who came to personify spiritual transcendence, could be championed by an extremist like Amiri Baraka. Saul quotes Baraka’s rhetoric:

“Baraka saw Coltrane killing off the weaker music of the past: ‘Coltrane’s salvation,’ he wrote, ‘will only come as a murderer, an anarchist, whose anarchy seems so radical because references to the “old music” still remain.’” (p. 229)

Coltrane and Charles Mingus are the two touchstones Saul often returns to throughout the book. He does focus some insightful analysis on the music of both, including one of the more unlikely analogies for Trane’s music:

“Coltrane was an unlikely cousin of Gertrude Stein, who quipped that compositions must be simple, but simple through complication. He built elaborate structures, with the same unstoppable energy that Stein brought to her voluminous writings, out of purposefully rudimentary beginnings.” (p. 256)

Saul’s basic thesis seems to be the sixties were important to jazz and jazz was important to the sixties. Beyond that, Freedom Is reads like a collection of thematically related journal articles lacking cohesive unity. (In fact, I looked for the reprint credits, to no avail.)

It seems like Saul simply looked for a rubric to write on some of his favorite subjects, and at times his omissions are distracting. When discussing the community oriented collectives begun in the sixties, like the AACM, he includes BARTS, the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School which Baraka was associated with. His perfunctory discussion of its demise begs certain questions:

“eventually the police raided the Black Arts building, seized its firearms, and arrested six of those left in the building.” (p. 318)

It is a bias that sees nothing to explain about stock piling firearms in a community arts center that limits the usefulness of Freedom Is to music scholars. His account of the Newport riots should probably be read alongside George Wein’s own account in Myself Among Others, and then divided by two. Freedom Is is at times interestingly idiosyncratic, but ultimately too unfocused to recommend to general audiences.