Jazz-Poetry and Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City


by Sean Bonney

The Pythagorean harmony of the spheres proposed a perfect cosmology, a hierarchy built on scalar realities that justified social conditions on earth, where everybody was in their place, and nobody was able to question the beauty and perfection of these relationships. But for the system to work, for the justifications to hold true, a fictional body was required: the antichthon, or counter-earth. Thus, at the limit, the gravitational power that holds the entire system of hierarchical harmony together is an untruth. But if this untruth is the source from which capital can justify its crimes, it must also be the place from which resistance to those crimes can arise. For Olson, the limit that we are inside of is hell’s mouth. That is, we live in hell, it intersects all of our realities at the precise centre of our consciousness. But revolution, according to Ernst Bloch, is the crossroads where the dead come to meet. Music is the language of the dead, the “scream of dead generations, a poignant elegy for lost centuries” (Lorca).

Hegel: “the orators tell us what we already know”. Well we know that. Adorno picked up on this and amplified it: “people know what they want because they know what other people want . . . . only what they do not first need to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar”. We all know that by now too. The system of harmony contains its own negation, but has also frozen it. That is, we know we live within a criminal harmony, but we also know we are helplessly within it as fixed subjects, or rather as objects of an alien music.

Music as a slicing through of harmonic hierarchies, is that a possibility? Poetic realities as counter-earths that can propose a new stance from which we can see what has previously been kept invisible? Music is the most alienated language of all, and the fact of poetry’s own exclusion from commodity relations (the recent rise of market-driven poetry notwithstanding) does not automatically transform into some kind of non-alienated, impossibly liberated discourse. Just because no-one’s listening to you doesn’t mean you’re automatically telling the truth. But if art – or any discourse that wants to be actually oppositional – does not contain within it some kind of utopian kernel that can potentially blast the already known apart, then we might as well give up and go home. In an account of a 1960s performance by the New York Art Quartet, Amiri Baraka described John Tchicai’s alto solos as a ‘sliding away from the proposed’. Baraka heard the solos as a system of thought pushing away from and through its imposed limits. It refuses the constraints of a conventional harmonic or social system, and instead moves us to a place from which we can offer counterproposals. Well, perhaps it does that.

Elsewhere, again Baraka: “the repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed its insistence past music. It was hatred and frustration, secrecy and despair . . . . That stance spread like fire thru the cabarets and the joints of the black cities, so that the sound itself became a basis for thought, and the innovators searched for uglier modes”.


As an example of a consciously political music that can cut through hierarchical harmonic definitions, I’ll talk about jazz:, and more to the point, what happens when jazz, in a handful of records from the Black Power movement of the mid to late sixties, is combined with language and poetry. Immediately, I want to disassociate that from cliched poetry and jazz combos that produced some of the most stupid music recorded. Even with a good poet such as Kerouac, whose writing was exemplary in finding a literary mirror of what music can do, the music is reduced to an accompaniment, and while supposedly subservient to the words, actually carries them and, essentially, does their work. An exploitative relationship that destroys the music’s own systems of thought, and where the analogies with capitalist division of labour are absolutely clear.

What I want to say could equally be applied to, to give just a few examples, Luigi Nono’s use of political texts, On-U-Sound’s use of samples from news broadcasts and 1980s Tory party speeches, and any number of others. But 60s jazz is the most useful example for at least two reasons. Firstly, much of the free jazz of the 1960s is still a hidden music, and because of that still sounds fresh over forty years after it was recorded. It was a music played as the soundtrack to and expression of a revolution, and because that revolution failed, it has become a Benjaminian monad, a cluster of still unused energies that have the chance of exploding into the present. Secondly, in jazz to a greater extent than other musics, the instruments themselves are explicitely understood to be speaking and thinking. In Nathaniel Mackey’s novels about musicians, the most important conversations are always conducted through musical, not verbal, language. In Blues People, Baraka claims – and he’s probably right – that the origin of this idea was the use of the drum as a system of communication in Africa, one that was so effective it was immediately banned by the white slave-owners, and as such, became symbolic of the necessity of being able to communicate in a way that the slaveowners could not understand. Drawing on Olson’s sense that meaning is communicated through its “stance toward reality”, Baraka points out that what is being communicated is a specific world-view, and further, a world-view to which its enemies are necessarily refused entry. Music, according to Baraka, can thus ultimately become a tool for the secret organisation of oppositions as, I suppose, a dialectical reversal of the systems of alienation that have developed to enable the machinations of power to continue secretively, and on an invisible level.

“The Changing Same”, an important essay from 1966, is where Baraka’s clearest account of this process is laid out: “music makes an image . . . . I mean, there is a world powered by that image . . . . by image, I mean that music (art for that matter, or anything else if analysed) summons and describes where its energies were gotten . . . . An energy is released . . . . a summoning of images . . . . that is, they visit another place . . . . we feel, where is this expression going? Where will it lead to? What does it characterise? What does it make us feel like? What is its image?”. The image is a constellation of the energies of the present situation with its historical development, and as such it brings elements hidden from official reality, elements that are denied and thus from the stance of that official reality non-existent, into public view, and the force of that opens “another place” within that reality, which then implodes as forbidden meanings rush into the enemy citadel, armed to the teeth.

That seems a somewhat ridiculous, idealistic reading. And for the very simple reason that a militant interpretation of the music’s function is only possible if you already have that attitude. Music cannot exist prior to action. For instance, in his liner notes to Coltrane’s Live at Birdland Baraka claims that “if you know how to hear” then the music will make you think a lot of “weird and wonderful things” and “you might even become one of them”. Now I think that’s great, but if you don’t know how to hear, any political efficacy is lost, and while there are plenty of people who you do want to keep out, you still are playing all this stuff to communicate. It is all to easy to strip the political content from the music. So for example, fifty years after the fact, the political content of Coltrane’s “Alabama” is only available if the listener already has the relevant historical references, otherwise its just a particularly fine, even beautiful, example of jazz style. When Columbia records had problems with the politics of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus”, on the Mingus Ah Hum album, they only insisted that he remove the lyrics, not the music itself. Even an album as explicit as Charlie Haden and Carla Bley’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album requires samples of Spanish Civil War songs, among others, to make its political content unambiguous. When Haden was arrested by the Portuguese Secret Police, in 1971, for playing “Song for Che”, it was his dedication of the piece to the revolutionaries in the Portuguese colonies, and the clenched fist salute with which he ended the piece, that the cops had a problem with, not the music itself. They would have been too dumb to even hear the music.

Its unsurprising, then, that in the most militant periods of the 1960s, poetry began to appear with more and more frequency on radical jazz records, and managed to escape the problems of jazz-poetry we mentioned above. The poems, in recordings such as Joseph Jarman’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City”, in Barbara Simmons’ work with Jackie McLean, and in Baraka’s own work with The New York Art Quartet, Sunny Murray and Sun Ra, were able to be incorporated into the sonic field in such a way that they became one equal element in the collective of voices that made up the piece. The music was no longer there as an accompaniment that allowed the poem to sound greater than it actually was, but would respond to the words only inasmuch as the poem would respond to the music. The poem would push the music into clear speech, and the music in its turn would take that speech into places that it wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get to, thus refusing the too easy fixion of meaning that a less equal partnership of music and words would be unable to get beyond.

In “Black Art”, on the 1965 Sunny Murray album Sunny’s Time Now, released in 1965 on Baraka’s own Jihad label, an already strong poem is transformed into a truly evil, claustrophobic apocalypse that still retains power now. The swirling insurrectionary hatred it evokes is not something that can be filed away by the listener as a period piece (the hatred I’m talking about here is not the completely retarded anti-semitism that almost destroys the piece, as with so much of Baraka’s work – unlike other writers on Baraka I’m not going to try and make excuses for that). “Poems are bullshit unless . . . .”, Baraka begins. Bullshit unless they can stop being poems and contribute to the kind of vortex that exists as an element of the revolutionary struggle, as well as a commentary on it. Baraka’s violent, calm delivery brings out what had previously been a merely immanent sense in the horns: what had previously sounded by turns celebratory and mournful in Don Cherry’s trumpet and in particular Albert Ayler’s tenor now become absolutely malevolent. At the same time, Baraka’s voice is pushed to further extremes by Ayler, becoming a force that moves beyond utterance, while still containing direct, clear communication at its centre. When Baraka starts talking about “setting fire and death on whitey’s ass” the instruments dovetail around him like the vicious, metallic ghosts of all of the oppressed in history. It no longer is jazz, or poetry: in fact, its hard really to say what it is, other than something that indeed “slides away from the proposed”, something that, in its ugliness, scratches at the limits of what any artform is able to do.


Bertolt Brecht’s “German Satires” include these lines, that might as well be a manifesto for any political art:

But their Third Reich recalls
The house of Tar, the Assyrian, that mighty fortress
Which, according to the legend, could not be taken by any army, but
When one single, distinct word was spoken inside it
Fell to dust.

The ‘clear, distinct word’ can never be the alienated word of socialist realism, a lame imitation of art and reduction of it to merely illustrative sub-propaganda. Rather, it is the word spoken by an art that has moved beyond itself, whose energies have been liberated from their formal containers and have restored their real power. When word and music are melded, rather than one being the accompaniment to the other, then damage is done to both. The musical note and the word are two extremes of communication: when brought together, the word explodes the note and brings out what was hidden inside it, resulting in an explosive tension which is itself the communicatory material. Meanwhile, the music shatters the voice. The word, in music, is precisely what is not necessary, what does not belong, but as such it is that which can slice through harmonic hierarchy,and reduce it to dust. This ‘distinct word’, because of this, is the irruption into present time of the screams of the oppressed, tearing into the mind of the listener, unambiguously determining a new stance toward reality, a new ground outside of official harmony, from which to act.

I’m aware that I’m talking about an artform that hardly, or doesn’t yet exist. But this ideal, non-existent, fictional music, in the few pockets where it does, actually exist, may become the antichthon of official culture. Just as all the revolts of history have been written out of the official narrative, but are still potentially able to rush into the present, so the pressure brought to bear on music by language, and vice versa, can provoke the realization of an art that reaches beyond itself and slices through official harmony. Thus becoming a real, and direct, communication.

Piece originally published at PORES |

About The Author:

Sean Bonney is a contemporary English poet.