The ‘avant-garde’ implies a teleological history—but where Hegelian and Marxist philosophies implied a history that was constituted by the forward march of humanity toward a social or political condition, the avant-garde is defined not by a march toward any specific condition but by the march itself. It is embodied by a formal radicalism—radicalism as a terminal goal—rather than radicalism as an instrumental goal toward some other condition. This situation—common to the avant-garde in general, across all its various instances and representations in various media—implies plenty of contradictory conceptions of history. Contemporary currents in avant-garde jazz make these contradictions unusually conspicuous: in the 21st century, the phrase “avant-garde jazz” feels like an oxymoron.
The ‘avant-garde’ and the modernism it belongs to are as much theoretical frameworks for the organisation of time and history as they are descriptions or prescriptions of the arts. There are trajectories implicit in the time of the avant-garde. When a listener enjoys individual pieces of music, they experience time as a flux of microscopic trajectories—the constant suggestion of time unfolding in the progression of chords and the resolution of tension in melodic lines are examples that make this clear. But the trajectories implicit in the long term historical time of the avant-garde are not felt intuitively. They must be conceptualised.
In the mid-16th century, the slow resolution of tensions between merchants, aristocrats, urban bourgeoisie and rural peasantry produced a new social and economic order: this was the birth of capitalism. The historical period that ensued, the modern period, was for hundreds of years marked by a contradiction in how time was conceptualised. The modernist conception of time as essentially directional and unrepeatable on the large scale of history did not translate to smaller scales. The smaller time of daily routine and of fleeting moments had to be conceptualised as essentially homogeneous—the absolute time of Newton. Time had to be homogenous and absolute so that the mechanism of wage labour, in which time is sold as a commodity, could make sense.
The avant-garde, as the corollary of modernist history, does not position itself as the critical enemy of capitalism. In fact, modernism is constituted instead by the dialectic that is formed when this historical time awareness must confront the commodified time of capital. The final synthesis of this dialectic has yet to transpire. Instead, the homogenous time of capital has simply superseded the qualitative trajectories of historical time: history in the popular imagination is now just the purely quantitative measure and ordering of events along a straight line.
Various political orders have attempted to make sense of this. On the right, Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the final resolution of any dialectical tensions that might challenge the global hegemony of Liberal Capitalism, and called it the “end of history”. On the left, socialist theoreticians like Jean Baudrillard, Franco Berardi, and Mark Fisher, made various criticisms: that the teleological picture of history was always an illusion. That the then-ascendent Neoliberalism produced this shambling monster of capitalism that was perpetually on the brink of collapse, but kept in place anyway by threats of violent regime change. That our directionless history curates in us a poverty of ambition and imagination that renders us, collectively, as subjects of an abstract productive mode, incapable of ideological challenge. If history is understood as a straight line, we can expect the future to be more of the present. Or, according to Marc Augé, the present but more.
One of the most vivid and moving images in Dante’s Inferno is that of the fate of wrathful men. They struggle endlessly in the black mud of the Styx: Dante watches as violent writhing limbs seethe and break the surface of the marsh: fists, feet, heads, and teeth batter without direction or purpose. The avant-garde is a military metaphor: the artists of this class are supposed to be the advanced guard of the arts, pushing forwards over the field of battle to control space. To continue to stretch the metaphor, the various conscious or post-hoc movements might represent platoons. The avant-garde’s vortex of history entails that contemporary platoons, in jazz and any other medium, push their artforms forward along straight lines, into new space. No linear movement seems possible. No one knows where the frontier is. Platoons dissolve into the individual frenzies of lonely men, forcing their bayonets into every corner of the field from every angle in trajectories that rage as the mute vectors of a blind brawl that pulsates even in its cumulative stillness.
Modernism made the unfolding, constantly self-substituting reconciliation of historical time and subjective time the hallmark of its historical embodiment. Musical genre as aesthetic development relies heavily on new techniques of negotiating with time. Music as it is experienced is, of course, as qualitatively rich as any tract of historical time. Hearing music is the most prototypical embodiment of subjective time imaginable: it is the private and spiritual unfolding of the consciousness as it is confronted by the external world of sound as a framework. When composing music, however, time must be treated as a sort of space: an empty medium inside which the organisation of rhythm, pitch and timbre can happen.
The early history of jazz, by which I mean the run from Dixieland jazz in the 1910s up until the mid-1960s with the developments of free jazz, are full of new ways of negotiating this time. It is precisely the very loose sense by which time is understood here that makes these musical developments so fascinating. For instance, to understand the early rhythmic conventions of Dixieland, developing as it did in the Southern USA, we must take the “Black Codes” (laws concerned with the conduct of slaves and black freeman) into account. These codes outright banned the traditional drumming music of continental Africa, which to a large extent led to the historical marginalisation of the sorts of counterpoint and polyrhythm that drove that music. New Orleans became something of a nexus of Afro-Caribbean and African American culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the reintroduction of African drum rhythms from Cuba and Haiti (where no Black Codes ever outlawed them) catalysed a latent creative inflation. It was the specific cultural and historical rushing together of this forgotten current with the African American interpretations of European music (blues and ragtime particularly) that produced the revolutionary marriage of counterpoint, polyrhythm and call-and-response that characterised the early masterpieces by Kid Ory and King Oliver. Jazz could only have happened in Louisiana, and such an insight is impossible without an understanding of time as more than just a line, but as a qualitatively complex history that bundles legality and geography together with the transition of moments, days, and years.
Another example, though this one takes a bit of time to set up: an often underdeveloped aspect of musical theory is the intrinsic temporality that pervades every aspect of its elemental constituents. Yes, time and timing is obviously important to the rhythmic aspect of music. Pitch and timbre, though, are just as informed by temporality—only they are so informed on smaller scales. Pitch is, of course, the organisation of sound according to the frequency of its cyclical periods. Low and high pitches correspond directly to speeds. Timbre is a complex and fascinating package of musical concepts: the sort of “feel” that sound has. Specific timbres are produced by the envelope of a sound: the subtle rises and falls of the amplitude and pitch of whole notes, and the overtone structure: the harmonic makeup of a sound wave, produced by the complex layering of simple high and low frequency sine waves. Rhythm, pitch and timbre then are simply different ways of dividing up the morphology of sound, and they belong to a continuum. Music is the layering of different waves of different speeds. It is the unfolding of pressure as it propagates as a wave over time. It’s time all the way down.
This is all to say that harmonic developments should be considered just as much an innovation in organising time as rhythmic ones, and there is perhaps no greater example of an extraordinary development in harmony than in bebop. Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and many others were able to marry the harmonic conventions of the blues with all the tonal intricacies of two centuries of European classical music in a musical tradition that, even as it embraced its staggering complexity, emphasised the agility and plasticity of a moment-to-moment methodology suited to the arrangement of revolutionary pop structure. That this tradition was developed in so short a time (barely two decades) is an expression of a collective social genius which has no precedent in history that I know of.
I could name more and more examples of the ways in which this early history of jazz represented revolutionary discoveries in how to organise time. Indeed, another tangential thesis for this essay tacitly appears: jazz was never more cutting edge than it was between the 1910s and the 1960s. That is, when it was pop music. The arbitrary delineation of ‘avant-garde jazz’ as jazz that partakes specifically in the advances made by early 20th century European classical music is foolish at best and racist at worst. It is ironic then that within only two decades of rebranding itself as avant-garde, jazz ceased to be anything of the sort. Contemporary practitioners of avant-garde jazz produce documents now which burn with as much passion and intelligence as any that have existed in jazz. The musicians are just as talented, skilled, and hard working as they have ever been. But they work as the lonely individual geniuses that populate the mythology of European art music, and the contemporary listener struggles to find the emotional and intellectual framework for understanding and appreciating their efforts precisely because the avant-garde has no interest in grounding itself in any sort proletarian mass movement, in any sort of coherent aesthetic current. Once the time of avant-garde jazz became a strange anachronistic no-man’s land, the specific pieces of music that constituted it had to be understood according to their relation to the Dantean vortex, for better or for worse.
This is not to say that avant-garde jazz ought to be forgotten or abandoned. In preparation for the writing of this essay I revisited what I think are the two most brilliant documents of avant-garde jazz released after the 1970s, Urban Bushmen (1982) by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and The Peach Orchard (1998) by William Parker & In Order to Survive. They are both stunning, even after I apply this cynical analysis. I think it’s important that they are both live albums: it seems to me that it is the spontaneity of the live setting in which the relation the music bears to the vortex of history is so easily felt. Jazz after free jazz seems almost axiomatically bound to the act of improvisation, but it should be emphasised that the central importance of improvisation to jazz is historically contingent. Without meaning to suggest that this mythology of improvisation is necessarily wrong or unhelpful, it’s important to recognise that, if the conceptual position of improvisation in the makeup of jazz was not as strong as it was by the time of the birth of the avant-garde in the late 50s, jazz would have developed very differently. It depends on a certain musicological turn that prioritised the important player—Louis Armstrong most obviously but Parker, Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane are others—over the composer or band-leader. In her book As Serious As Your Life - Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977, Val Wilmer includes two quotes as epigraphs:
Wilmer chose both of these quotes carefully. We must take what they express seriously, and that first and foremost is an emphasis on the individuality of rhythm. They are surrounded by the rhetorical focus on intention, on an opposition between consensus and expression: an opposition whose mutual exclusivity bourgeois aesthetics takes for granted. For Wilmer, and the majority of subsequent historians and theoreticians of jazz, the contrapuntal group communication of Dixieland and swing is rendered somewhat incidental to jazz as an artform. Where group communication is emphasised, it relies on the production of novel harmonic texture through an awareness of the surrounding ensemble’s movements that is a little bit psychic and a little bit spiritual.
The classical avant-garde of the white Europeans of the early 20th century was driven by the mania of negative freedom: freedom from the constraints of traditional harmony, arrangement, and semiology that appeared in retrospect to be stifling the arts of the final years of the long 19th century. The freedom of free jazz was an entirely different sort than the freedom of the avant-garde classical composers, because freedom for working class black Americans meant something so completely and profoundly different than what freedom meant for the white European bourgeoisie. The freedom of free jazz was, from the beginning, an explicit reference to the freedom of the civil rights movement. It was the freedom for black artists, in the pre-funk era of black music’s struggle for acceptance from white audiences, to scream into their saxophones and desecrate the colonial architecture of the music halls by performing a music that emphasised the revolutionary soul of the freed slave.
The 1960s saw the important legal victories of the Civil Rights Acts, which established black Americans as equal citizens in the eyes of the state. The state, in this case: an endemically white-supremacist Liberal state. The ideology of the Liberal state conceives of a human being as a moral and ontological thing: an individual; and civil rights could be said to pertain to the sphere of civil society; where market relations serve as the foundation for freedom. A “right” in this setting is an abstract state-managed process, rather than a substantive obligation to meet some material need. No right to food, housing, or employment was offered—whether to black Americans nor to the white proletariat they were ostensibly to be subsumed into—but every black American was offered the opportunity to engage as an individual citizen in the machinery of state managed property relations. That is, they were offered the right for their class character to be challenged in bourgeois schools, for their labour to be treated as commensurable with the labour of white workers, and to use their voting rights to choose whether the boots on their necks had red or blue laces.
The struggle for black liberation in the wake of 1968 was largely characterised by a shift in focus brought on by reconciliation with this fact. Historian Aldon D. Morris points out that segregation, while pervasive and oppressive, “facilitated the development of black institutions and the building of close-knit communities” by providing the “constraining yet nurturing environment out of which a complex urban black society developed.” In the early 1970s, the Black Power movement built on the gains won in the previous decade by emulating the communitarian self-sufficiency pioneered by the black churches in the days of Jim Crow. The movement was consciously more socialist, anti-Imperialist, and Pan-Africanist; the Black Panther party championed a popular platform of local solidarity in the form of co-operative endeavours and international solidarity with decolonisation movements in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin-America.
Jazz musicians of the avant-garde were especially influenced by this internationalism, as they broadened their instrumental repertoire. African and Asian instruments increasingly found their way into the more consciously political expression of blackness known as spiritual jazz, which was pioneered in the mid 1960s but properly succeeded in capturing the collective imagination of players and audiences in the 1970s. Formally, though, this is a less profound change than many would like to admit. In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong was recording singles with banjo players replacing drummers, because loud percussive snare drums would ruin recordings made with the primitive early phonograph recorders available in those studios.
The dark and psychedelic works of Miles Davis’ jazz fusion projects in this time—described beautifully by Lucy Frost as “an avant-garde Spaghetti Western soundtrack left to boil and warp under a purple sun”—represent some of the most sublime music of the 20th century, but outside of this output jazz fusion was increasingly dominated by players who were letting soul, funk and disco develop all of their guiding revolutionary principles. In short, they were playing catch-up. Particularly noteworthy here is the work of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, whose mostly white lineup pioneered a collage of black popular music with a special postcolonial Orientalism. It was perhaps most prescient in how it anticipated the hideous new-age world music fusion projects that began to proliferate in the newly Neoliberalised West a decade later. The European free jazz that produced likes of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker tended to be less prone to overtly terrible excursions of this kind, but the music they did make had more in common in the end with the European classical avant-garde than with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie or Jelly Roll Morton. The jazz label is sometimes simply ditched altogether in favour of “free improvisation”, a less historically loaded marker.
The lack of new principles in organising time hurt the vitality of jazz. Funk and disco represented novel song structures, rhythmic devices, and harmonies. The subsequent dance music borne of these genres—styles like electro, house, hip hop and jungle—further developed that rhythm, and especially timbre. The marginalisation of jazz by these styles is contentious and fascinating, and it cannot be explained away by this reductive narrative of history’s individualisation of man. Jazz does continue to be made communally, by ensembles of passionate players. I do not suggest that a sort of cynical individualism has taken over the medium. That said, the extent that ‘avant-garde jazz’ is an oxymoron can be understood by examining the directions that such jazz probes. For half a century now, that direction has not really changed: it probes the personal modes of expression, the expressivity, available to a player that, by the necessity of their medium, must be involved in a group setting. In modern jazz, it goes without saying that the soloists are virtuoso. A sophisticated formal education affords those with access to it the ability to reach any level of technical complexity they are interested in reaching. In the truly stunning late jazz pieces, like Urban Bushmen and The Peach Orchard, the vitality can only be found in the group dynamic, in the harmonic texture of group awareness.
It is exactly in this sense that I mean jazz must be understood in its relation to its historical condition. Kodwo Eshun, in his lecture Narratives of a Near Future, points out that Afrofuturism has trouble conceptualising blackness as something situated in a historical continuum. “Afrofuturism has difficulty understanding what the future will do with blackness… It has problems understanding how to narrate its ongoing transformation”. Afrofuturism did not exist as a coherent aesthetic movement in the 1940s, but the self-conscious ‘black-man-as-genius’ that jazz represented then was already communicating something in the same vein. It is then worth considering the extent that Eshun’s dictum translates to the postmodern writhing of 21st century jazz.
The historically conscious title of Shabaka Hutchings’ 2020 album We Are Sent Here by History suggests that there is something of a current in contemporary jazz which is interested in articulating the trouble Eshun describes. The rather profoundly conservative music Hutchings actually produces communicates the bad news you already know—the same condition of alienation that the present has with its past and future. It reflects a present which, as Mark Fisher puts it, is haunted by a “temporal pathology in which nothing ever dies”. The contemporary landscape of the modern consists of various mechanical reproductions of ancient ghosts, and any change to this landscape looks set to take the form only of changes in the density and multiplicity of these ghosts.
For years I remembered Dante incorrectly: in my memory the furious blind sinners fought from the surface all the way down to the riverbed in a writhing that penetrated deep under the skin. In fact, Virgil is very clear that the thrashing surface is not merely the visible part of a volume of carnage, but the total picture of movement. Below, the men are still—fixed in place by the density of the black mud. The turmoil happens only where it can be seen.
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