Improvised Music – an Act of Racial Liberation? Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

Improvised Music – an Act of Racial Liberation?

September 4, 20208-11 minutes read

Written by:

Marithé Van der Aa

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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It seems an unavoidable and rather obvious truth that, in the collective imagination and discourse surrounding it, (free) jazz improvisation culturally served as a vehicle for racial justice in the US. We need only to open a jazz history book to observe this universally acknowledged narrative: Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz tells me that free jazz practitioners ‘advocated much more than freedom from harmonic structures or compositional forms’1 and Amiri Baraka says that free jazz is ‘significant of more radical changes’, before asserting that black music ‘is always radical in the context of formal American culture’2. ‘Jazz is a Black Power!’ African American poet Ted Joans’ declared during the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969, while saxophonist Archie Shepp improvised freely beside him3. But to what extent can improvised music liberate, and what power exactly does it hold today?

Following the anti-racist protests that have been held in cities throughout the world over the past months, this discussion feels both timely and necessary. But before proceeding, it is important for me to make some things clear. First, I acknowledge that I speak from a lack of lived experience when it comes to racism. I am not black, and have only witnessed racism from a third perspective. I cannot speak of anti-black racism on behalf of black people, and realise that most of my claims here remain speculative at best. Second, it seems of some relevance to say that this is not, however timely it may be, a direct commentary on or contribution to the current BLM movement or protests. Elsewhere, I have written about the affinities between jazz, particularly within its improvisatory context, and black existentialism, of which I hope this article will be a useful extension. I say this for the simple reason that I do not want to deflect from the very real urgency of addressing racial injustice and police brutality with concrete action. I do, however, believe that intellectual work is crucial in the pursuit of dismantling racism, both on an individual and structural level, and improvised jazz remains worth considering within that context.
To improvise means both to assert one’s own subjectivity, to make its existence known, as well as to demand the presence of another subjectivity (that of the listener).

Freedom Music?

The notion of (freely) improvised jazz as a music of freedom is a complex one. An obvious approach would be to claim that the essence of jazz improvisation is freedom, since improvising jazz musicians have the freedom to determine more aspects of the music they play as they are playing it, than say, a classical musician might have. But this approach is simplistic, and ignores both the fact that improvisation has been (and is) a common practice in many musical settings across the world, as well as the fact that there are also extramusical factors at play here.

Culturally, jazz has always existed as what musicologist Scott DeVeaux has previously described as an ‘oppositional discourse’ on at least two levels: as music of an ethnic minority, and as music traditionally resisting commercialism4. The latter is a complicated statement to make; there certainly are many commercial forms of jazz, and jazz has largely thrived and gained popularity within systems of mass market distribution (though in which terms it may have thrived otherwise we cannot know). Despite this, there seems to be an overarching sentiment throughout much of jazz – and particularly free jazz – discourse, that artistic integrity and commercialism are in binary opposition, and that much of a music’s value is attributed to its loyalty towards the former. In addition to this, jazz has long grappled for a sense of identity; its continuous history of assimilation, from its early stages of development to its more modern manifestations, has made it so that it resists classification in a way that few other musical styles do, and has contributed to the widely spread platitude that jazz is a music in which ‘change’ is ‘the only constant’5. To me, this can only be a good thing in the pursuit of self-determination, or what we may otherwise call ‘positive liberty’6, but more on that later.
Cecil Taylor at Moers Jazz Festival 2008; photo: Andy Newcombe, Wikimedia Commons
Cecil Taylor at Moers Jazz Festival 2008; photo: Andy Newcombe, Wikimedia Commons
Improvisation is, of course, a large part of this discussion. It is no coincidence that jazz has become the paradigm of musical improvisation for many Western listeners, but what is key here is what improvisation signifies, rather than any inherent essence it may have, musical or otherwise. Musical improvisation is a slippery concept, and its definition has led many writers (myself included) into feverish soapbox sermons. Soapbox aside, a loose definition may prove useful for us, so for now, let us assume that musical improvisation can be explained as the spontaneous determination of certain elements of a musical performance, as one is performing it.

The extent to which spontaneity can be freedom is debatable. For those who have read Adorno’s scathing (and equally amusing) attacks on jazz, the Marxist argument of a musical false consciousness might come to mind: the improvising musician is given the illusion of freedom, but nonetheless forced to resort to the use of predetermined ‘commodities’ or, in this case, musical materials. A lick or cliché could be one such material, but even the use of extended techniques and atonality in ‘free’ improvisation could be at risk of a false consciousness attack. This argument strips away any romantic fantasy we may have of a pure musical ‘liberation’ through improvisation, and instead forces improvisation to be seen merely as an act of navigation within a pre-established framework or structure. It becomes clear that we should not look for any liberating qualities in the act of jazz improvisation itself. Its meaning–or perhaps, more appropriately, its meaningfulness–should instead be sought in its discursive power, and its cultural implications.

Virtual Subjectivity

Jazz improvisers often talk of ‘jazz language’, or of the fact that jazz has a long history of incorporating speech-like instrumental (and vocal) techniques. In a way, it is not surprising that we perceive and describe music in terms of distinctively human attributes. Music, as a temporally unfolding art form, often closely mimics human speech patterns and expression through movement, gestures, and inflections. To the extent that it has a more intimate relationship with temporality–the improviser determines more aspects of the music, as they are in the process of playing it– musical improvisation does indeed seem to bear a closer resemblance to natural human expression than composed music does.

In 1998, psychologists Roger Watt and Roisin Ash developed the theory of a ‘virtual musical persona’7. They conducted a series of experiments at the University of Stirling, in which subjects listened to a piece of music, and were subsequently asked to choose between two adjectives to describe the music. Watt and Ash found that the highest amount of inter-subject consensus could be found when the adjectives used were those generally applied to humans or human behaviour. They agreed more when adjectives such as ‘female’ and ‘male’, or ‘joyful and ‘sad’ were given, than when they had to choose between ‘dry’ and ‘moist’ or ‘prickly’ and ‘smooth’. From this, Watt and Ash concluded that music is psychologically responded to as if it were a person disclosing something. They suggested that music creates a ‘virtual person’ or virtual consciousness.
I Am a Man Mural, Memphis, TN, USA; photo: Joshua J. Cotten, Unsplash
I Am a Man Mural, Memphis, TN, USA; photo: Joshua J. Cotten, Unsplash
This concept of a ‘virtual person’ may be useful in understanding the psychological implications of musical improvisation as well. The focus of jazz improvisation in particular has always been the embodied, live performance. And it is likely that this embodied quality of (live) jazz improvisation prompts many listeners to engage in what musicologist David Ake calls ‘musical anthropomorphising’, which happens when a listener ascribes human qualities to music8. Listeners then frequently ascribe those same qualities to the improvising musician. In other words, the listener – when listening to jazz improvisation – tends to equate this virtual subjectivity with the performer’s subjectivity.

When Cecil Taylor plays a restless improvisation, it may be tempting to believe that Cecil himself is restless at that time, or even that Taylor has a restless disposition. But it is entirely plausible that Taylor may have been completely calm when playing it. I must, then, conclude that it is I who creates Taylor’s restlessness for myself; I simultaneously create and perceive the virtual subjectivity within his performance. In order to create this virtual subjectivity, however, I also rely on Taylor’s temporally bound improvisation. Without it, I could not attribute his subjectivity to it. In turn, Taylor’s improvisation relies on his own actual subjectivity, and on his own (musical) actions in the unfolding present; if Taylor had not touched his piano, or if he had decided to play in a rather different way, there would either be no virtual subjectivity created, or the virtual subjectivity might have taken on a very different form.

It follows that the improvisation’s virtual subjectivity relies on the existence and action of at least two separate subjectivities–the listener and the musician(s). Its creation, we might say, is distributed between listener and musician.

Black Consciousness

In order for listeners to perceive an improvisation as the (virtual) expression or extension of the musician’s subjectivity or consciousness, they must first recognise the musician’s consciousness. Similarly, in order for the musician’s improvisation to become an aesthetic object, the musician requires the listener’s consciousness to perceive it. John Coltrane once said that he wished he could walk up to his music for the first time, as if he had never heard it before: ‘Being so inescapably a part of it, I’ll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that’s too bad.’ We are confronted with a reciprocal necessity for subjective recognition. And it is precisely here that the improvisation’s power lies: (free) jazz improvisation, when performed by a black musician, demands the recognition of a consciousness that has routinely been denied throughout history.

In his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon explains how black people are continuously stripped of their personhood, and reduced to a ‘fixed concept’ of blackness. This essentialisation and objectification of black people is apparent throughout the entire history of jazz: in the 40s, for example, several critics neatly disguised their racism (and noble savage clichés) as a love for jazz, dismissing the new music as undanceable, or as corrupted by (white?) intellectualism. Fanon speaks of how bebop challenged racist notions of an essentialised blackness. His words still ring true today:

‘For them jazz could only be the broken, desperate yearning of an old “N-”, five whiskeys under his belt, bemoaning his own misfortune and the racism of whites. As soon as he understands himself and apprehends the world differently, as soon as he elicits a glimmer of hope and forces the racist world to retreat, it is obvious he will blow his horn to his heart’s content and his husky voice will ring out loud and clear (...) it is not unrealistic to think that in fifty years or so the type of jazz lament hiccuped by a poor, miserable “N-” will be defended by only those whites believing in a frozen image of a certain type of relationship and a certain form of negritude.’ 9

It is no coincidence that (free) jazz, originally a black art form, developed in such a way that music improvisation played (and plays) a central role to its identity. To improvise means both to assert one’s own subjectivity, to make its existence known, as well as to demand the presence of another subjectivity (that of the listener). On the other hand, the listener – in so far as they experience improvisation as a meaningful expression of subjectivity – must recognise and acknowledge the presence of the improviser’s subjectivity, and can not engage in the essentialisation or objectification of the improviser. It is worth addressing that the implications for a black audience are quite different from those for a white, or non-black audience: in recognising the consciousness of the black improvising musician, a black listener must simultaneously recognise their own and is, in so doing, able to reclaim it. A white listener, on the other hand, in disclosing their consciousness as a subjective listener, must simultaneously recognise that of the black improvising musician, and is thus presented an opportunity to dismantle racism on a personal level.

In Conclusion

While (free) jazz improvisation does hold power within this distributed virtual subjectivity between listener and improviser, it is important to remember that this remains a subjective power. It can only be an imagination or assumption of the Other’s consciousness, and therefore cannot make black liberation an ‘absolute truth’. What it can do, is create a space in which a consciousness that has been consistently denied can assert itself and make itself subjectively recognised by the other.

It is devastating that there is still an urgent necessity for the mere recognition of black consciousness today. More still, the appropriation of black art such as free jazz presents a very real threat; although this art can and should be shared specifically with white musicians, it should not be drowned out by them—some may argue that this has already happened with free jazz. The (re-)institutionalising of white consciousness as default subjectivity should be avoided at all costs, as should the loss of distinctly black art.

1. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 310.
2. LeRoi Jones, a.k.a. Amiri Baraka, Blues People (William Morrow and Company, 1963), p. 235
3. Archie Shepp, Live at the Pan-African Festival (BYG Records, 1971), LP
4.Scott DeVeaux, ‘Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography’, Black American Literature Forum, vol. 25, no. 3 (1991), pp. 538 - 539
5. Nat Hentoff, Jazz Is, (W.H. Allen & Co., 1978), p. 8
6. The capacity to engage in self-determination, free from external and (perhaps more importantly) internal constraints, is one of the two concepts of freedom we can find in Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty.
Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (Clarendon Press, 1959)
7. Roger Watt and Roisin Ash, A Psychological Investigation of Meaning in Music, Musicae Scientiae, vol. 2, iss. 1 (1998), pp. 33-53
8. David Ake, Jazz Matters: Sound, Place and Time since Bebop (University of California Press, 2010), p. 18
9. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (Grove Press, 1961/2004), p. 176

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN
About the Author

Marithé Van der Aa

Marithé Van der Aa is a jazz vocalist and musicologist based in London, originally from Flanders, Belgium. She studied musicology at the University of Oxford after completing her Bachelor's degree in jazz at the University of Arts Berlin, and has worked on a variety of BBC Radio 3 programmes as an assistant producer. Her main interests include musical consciousness, the aesthetics of improvisation, and musical identity.

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