I’ve always wanted to start a piece of writing with that one provocation—maybe a bit of creative nonfiction, maybe a would-be short story.
My purposefully dismissive declaration is meant to mark a two-fold resentment. First, not being a musician myself, I privilege jazz’s vocalists over its virtuosic drummers, saxophonists, and trumpeters, and for many jazz purists, that is my initial mistake: I want to hear Louis Armstrong sing more than blow his horn. Nina Simone, Arthur Prysock, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday are towering figures, no doubt, with huge and loyal followings, but the Miles Davises and John Coltranes and Thelonius Monks undeniably define the music’s canonical core, especially for many would-be connoisseurs. And there begins my second complaint.
At its most pretentious, jazz music sometimes gets mobilized (by a few of those aforementioned connoisseurs) to justify pompous brands of social sifting, a snobby elitism that functions as the class-coded policing of authentic African American cultural production. No other music, the claim goes, can hold a candle to its essential (and even existential) distillation of African American angst and aspiration. If the blues demands respect for its straightforward and vernacular profundities, jazz adds a learned and well-heeled dose of proficiency to the mix. And neither one is hip-hop, still occasionally invoked as “the anti-jazz.”
In the not-so-distant past, musician Wynton Marsalis and cultural critic Stanley Crouch were the most vocal proponents of jazz’s qualitative difference from (and superiority over) hip-hop. Crouch, also an avid fan of the blues, has mused publicly about the “retarding effect” of hip-hop, a genre that, according to Crouch, takes relatively little talent and profits from the denigration of black culture. Marsalis has gone on record dismissing hip-hop as little more than “a safari for people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves, men dressing in gold, calling themselves stupid names like Ludacris or 50 Cent, spending money on expensive fluff.”
“Jazz vs. hip-hop” is just one instantiation of a slow-burning intra-racial class warfare played out on the boneless (and, therefore, flexible) back of popular culture, pivoting on the politics of respectability in mixed-raced company. Jazz is one black middle-class response to the threat of racial inauthenticity, its trump-card rejoinder to the equally problematic assumption that urban poverty is singularly constitutive of legitimate African-American subjectivity. And this is true even if the black middle class is deemed unable or unwilling to sustain jazz music, which leads to discussions (at least in Spike Lee joints) about the extent to which jazz has become “white music,” i.e., supported by mostly white audiences.
Hop-hop artists Jazzy Jeff and M1 joined academics Jesse Shipley and Wilfredo Gomez at Haverford College last night to talk about hip-hop’s image, history, and technological innovations. Not only that, they placed their thoughts about hip-hop into conversation with other cultural practices and musical genres (though we didn’t hear that much about jazz).
I only bring this all up because the journal Transforming Anthropology has just published a special-issue on New Orleans that, amongst other things, contextualizes “popular culture” (jazz, hip-hop, and Mardi Gras) with recourse to larger questions about post-Katrina life in that region. (The opening of this post is an excerpt from my own piece in that volume.)
This new issue of TA is worth reading, especially since it includes a moving series of articles on the scholarship of Antonio Lauria. I’m not sure what Lauria knows about hip-hop (or if he shares any of my concerns about how jazz gets deployed in the “class wars”), but his research certainly has had a lasting impact on Caribbean anthropology. And beyond.