Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music by Gerald Horne. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019. $27. Pp 456.
Reviewed by Daniel Rosenberg
August 22, 2019
“Capitalism turns art into product, which is put on the shelf with other products. Here you have something that is really precious, that really mirrors the human experience, it speaks to the human experience, the emotional experience. It should be respected, but it’s not. Once jazz moved from creative music to product, it lost its place, jazz lost its stature, its identity. As soon as capitalism enters the equation, there’s no caring about the artistic properties that jazz as a music makes available. Capitalism tends to bring out the negative side of the human mind.” — Julian Priester, trombonist
Dr. Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, is well-respected for his research in U.S. and world history. In his seventh decade, his scope stands virtually unmatched: seminal works on slavery and the American Revolution; penetrating books on South African apartheid, Brazil, Japan, the Caribbean, and India; biographies of labor organizer Ferdinand Smith, artist Paul Robeson, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, author Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Communist leaders William L. Patterson and Ben Davis. Insofar as his research spans the conflicts of capitalism, he contextually turns his attention to the arts. Given the contexts of flammable entrenched racism in U.S. policy and ideology, jazz too needs Horne’s withering criticism of its impacts on musicians.
Professor Horne acknowledges his debt to such previous authors of American jazz as Frank Kofsky, Amiri Baraka, Sidney Finkelstein, Robin Kelley, and Eric Hobsbawm. He also acknowledges the biographies of pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Among Horne’s wide sources are the recently released tribute by Maxine Gordon to her husband, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and the Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson’s new volume on jazz in Washington D.C. Both critical and supportive readers of his interpretation must acknowledge the character and magnitude of his sources: first of all the oral histories of hundreds of musicians at the National Museum of American History and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. His new book sustains Dr. Horne’s reputation as an indefatigable researcher. He mined the collections of letters of Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Ross Russell (a record producer with leftwing origins), Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, and Willis Conover (the Voice of America’s jazz host). Of special interest is Horne’s use of the Nevada State Gaming Board Records and other primary sources shedding light on organized crime’s impact upon jazz artists.
Each chapter title, taken from a musical composition, album, or concept, denotes a period of jazz from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Horne argues that that history of jazz was marked not only by its evolving styles but by the forms of racial exploitation and discrimination experienced by Black artists and their various ways of struggling against this racism. The first chapter is thus titled “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” exploring the origins of racism in jazz at its New Orleans foundations. A section named “Hot House,” from a composition by pianist Tadd Dameron, examines the development of racism in the music’s economic system into the 1940s. A chapter called “Haitian Fight Song” (a piece authored by the politically aware bassist Charles Mingus) shows the resistance to racism by musicians in the decade that followed, which included establishing their own record labels and fighting intensively for proper recognition and compensation. Pianist Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” heralds Horne’s attention to the civil rights orientation of numerous artists. “Song for Che” by bassist Charlie Haden (strongly identified with the Left) headlines the chapter illustrating radical criticism of the industry’s powers-that-be.
Horne shows that the unreliability of work has been a hallmark of the difficult conditions under which jazz musicians live. Many jazz artists had to make living by means other than their art: saxophonist Ike Quebec (taxi driver), pianist Cecil Taylor (restaurant worker), drummer Roy Haynes (whiskey salesman), trombonist J.J. Johnson (post office) and saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas (post office), trumpeter Jimmy Owens (hospital worker). Numerous musicians, such as Gigi Gryce, C.I. Williams and Vi Redd became teachers, not only out of love for education but also out of necessity.
Horne submits that while U.S. capitalism produces an insecure environment for all artists, the exigencies of racism cut far more profoundly into the work of African American jazz musicians than others. They were denied exposure, radio airplay, and jukebox access, barred from clubs entirely, or if permitted to perform then only under strictly segregated conditions. The policy prevailed well outside the South. Horne points out that the existence of segregated clubs in California prompted union leader Harry Bridges to lead a campaign against them. Working conditions on the road were especially challenging: finding food, accommodations, relief of thirst, and basic comfort entailed a frustrating, often violent-prone search. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell were assaulted, either by audience members or police.
Horne suggests the “candelabra” thesis of jazz evolution and expanse. Sourced in culture-rich New Orleans that had a history of opera as well as popular and music education base, with abundant Cuban, French, Mexican, and African music, jazz migrated along Mississippi River and along train routes to become a national presence. Horne stresses the Cuban contributions to jazz both at the roots and thereafter (as heard in the music of violinist Regina Carter and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Hargrove). He also notes that numerous jazz musicians had Native American cultural roots.
Horne explains how certain cities became virtual training centers for jazz including Memphis, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and others whose vital currents Horne charts thoroughly. He shows how the St. Louis area became a virtual geyser for jazz musicians producing Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Blueitt, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Marvin Horne, Grant Green, C.I. Williams, Jimmy Forrest, Frank Chapman, John Hicks, Ronnie Burrage. Young musicians bid for admission to highly reputed music programs at high schools like Cass Tech in Detroit, DuSable in Chicago. Pittsburgh produced Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson, and Billy Strayhorn.
A major highlight of the book is Horne’s exposure of the role of organizing crime in the history of jazz. Horne explains the centrality or organized crime in various aspects of U.S. entertainment from night clubs to managers, producers, and record companies). Agents, producers, club owners stole wages, diverted royalties, purloined copyrights. Horne cites the cases of singer Betty Carter, pianist Earl Hines, saxophonist Gigi Gryce. Gangsters used violence against musicians. “Birdland,” the club named for Charlie Parker, was run by organized crime figures. Jazz venues exhibited a ubiquity of guns, threats and beatings. Clarinetist Woody Herman suffered gunshot wounds while listening to pianist Earl Hines at a club run by Al Capone. Accordingly, some musicians armed themselves. Las Vegas that emerged as a performance space after World War II spurred the growth of performance opportunities but was entirely under the domination of organized crime. Horne does not shrink from appraising another contradictory event: as previously segregated white and African American locals of the American Federation of Musicians merged, the issues most pertinent to black musicians often became obscured, while the union at the same time advanced demands for better conditions. Organized crime also stood as the chief purveyor of drugs wherever musicians worked. In the capacity of club owners and record executives, gangsters worked upon the time-tested observation that addicts would be easier to manipulate and less likely to challenge unfair conditions. Horne proves the inextricable tie between drug addiction and the political economy of jazz. Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Hank Mobley went to prison. So did saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Woody Herman’s band was filled with heroin addicts. The line of wasted musicians stretches tragically: Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Bobby Timmons, Serge Chaloff, Charlie Parker, Anita O’Day, and on. Horne focuses on three record companies under dubious ownership: Prestige, the “junkies’ label,” paying artists just enough to buy narcotics, thus using drugs as currency; Roulette, controlled by the Genovese criminal enterprise; and Savoy, replete with strong arm tactics.
Violence, threats, and discrimination took a toll on musicians’ health. Pianist Fats Waller drank himself to death. Cheated by record contracts, Gigi Gryce descended into paranoia. Saxophonist Oliver Nelson died of exhaustion. Pilloried by critics (for playing “too fast”) the virtuosic pianist Phineas Newborn retreated into isolation and mental illness. Flutist Hubert Laws recalled that the social pressures of segregation made him physically sick.
Horne returns repeatedly to the abuses faced by female jazz artists. They were taken advantage of by promoters, and were mocked, ridiculed, and harassed by critics and the public. Lena Horne and Billie Holiday drew radical conclusions from such experiences. So did singer Abbey Lincoln, singer-pianist Shirley Horn and singer-saxophonist Vi Redd. Redd performed benefits for Left organizations, including the W.E.B Du Bois Clubs. (Fellow saxophonist John Handy did as well). Witness Redd’s defiant rendition of the lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology”:
I hope you see that all of us need urgently
To stick together on the family tree
Brothers and sisters here on earth
And now before it’s too late
You better dig what its worth
Horne recounts the denial of jobs to Redd, “having to cope with a never-ending flow of words laced liberally with sexual overtones made by bandmates and fans alike.” The pioneering pianist Mary Lou Williams stuck to her advanced harmonies (exemplified by her “Zodiac Suite”) despite pressures to commercialize and capitulate to racist stereotyping.
Many musicians protested segregation and fought for equality. Horne notes a tendency of post-World War II musicians to confront Jim Crow more openly than they had before. However, they had predecessors. Trumpeter Frankie Newton (a Communist), pianist Art Hodes, bandleader Artie Shaw, and singer Billie Holiday opposed segregation and discrimination early on. Such promoters or club owners on the Left as Barney Josephson and Norman Granz refused to segregate venues and performers. The late 40s witnessed a step up in political defiance. Drummer Max Roach, saxophonists Benny Carter and Buddy Collette, pianist Randy Weston, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were among those identifying with Paul Robeson’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’ anti-racist stances. Miles Davis performed at the founding convention of the leftwing Labor Youth League. While some musicians expressed their resistance by turning toward the left, other African American musicians found orthodox Islam appealing. A number, like guitarist Grant Green, later joined the Nation of Islam, which would regular feature jazz performers at weekly events.
In another sign of protest, numerous musicians left the United States in the 1950s and after, continuing a minor theme going back to the 20s. Paris, Tokyo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam beckoned. The roster of musicians leaving included Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Steve Lacy, Myra Taylor and Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Clarke, and Art Farmer. Horne’s research into this realm is extensive. While other capitalist countries have histories of discrimination and inequality, playing crucial roles in subjugating other nations, they were places where African American and other musicians felt more welcome than in their own country. Max Roach said: “Europeans are more cosmopolitan than people here.” In Japan, observed singer Shirley Horn, “They respect the musician.” Saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s residence in Europe taught him that “the government puts a lot of money into the arts.” “We have to go to other nations for our careers,” Lincoln explained. In France, asserted saxophonist James Moody, “People took you for what you were and they…didn’t discriminate against you.”
Frustrated by the violations of composer’s copyright and the wholesale theft of royalties, a number of players endeavored to start their own record companies or otherwise exert control over the music. Among these pioneers were Gigi Gryce, Charles Mingus (who with Roach set up Debut Records) and Charles Tolliver (who started Strata-East Records). Some musicians became openly involved in civil rights actions and organizations. Notable among them were Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Oscar Brown, Jr. Charlie Parker performed at a benefit for Smith Act victim and Harlem hero Ben Davis. He also signed the left-initiated anti-nuke Stockholm Peace Appeal. Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus,” a torrid attack on Arkansas’ segregationist governor; Rollins issued his “Freedom Suite,” Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln the “Freedom Now Suite,” Art Blakey “The Freedom Rider.” Black musicians were not alone in taking political stands. Horne points out that that the white pianist Marian McPartland and white bassist Charlie Haden were outspoken critics of Jim Crow. The case of pianist Dave Brubeck was especially interesting, since he endangered his own successful career by refusing to change the make-up of his racially diverse band and refusing to accept offers to perform in segregated venues.
In the 60s and 70s, jazz artists gave benefit concerts for the imprisoned Angela Davis and Black Panthers. Trumpeters Lee Morgan and Don Cherry publicized their admiration for Davis; Morgan and pianist Herbie Hancock dedicated music to her. Charlie Haden, saxophonist Archie Shepp and Max Roach participated in Communist party festivals in Portugal, Italy, and France.
In conclusion, Horne’s book reveals the connecting tissue of racism, capitalism, and organized crime in the arts. They are three plugs in one socket, three tendons in the same shoulder. Surgically exploring the body of evidence would hold value even in “ordinary” times, since they form a good part of the fabric of the United States. But since that fabric is now on fire, Horne’s book is even more necessary to read and know.