Jazz and the Class Struggle

The Fillmore District in San Francisco was at one time known as “the Harlem of the West Coast.” Its Black population was the base for a vibrant jazz scene that was at the vanguard of a revolutionary culture. Jazz was the product of ancient currents of African music, filtered over centuries through the unique conditions of the Southern US’s plantation economy in which all surface-level traces of the slaves’ autonomy was eliminated and replaced by the dominant White capitalists’ cultural mode. African drums, languages, clothes, language, and symbolism were taken from them and replaced with Anglo counterparts. Despite being coerced to adopt them, African slaves manipulated the Anglo cultural forms to further their own content, inherently (due to their totally proletarian class status and African epistemological roots that were quite opposed to the bourgeois intellectual method) revolutionary.

An analysis of jazz (far beyond the capabilities of this author or the scope of this post) can reveal one of the more accessible examples of dialectics in our history, for it assumed a form that was quite different from its content; jazz’s formalism is always pregnant with improvisation. Jazz was the first Black musical form that European Americans fully participated in, and along with the synthesis of European and African musical styles, came a social synthesis that was a cultural powder keg fueling one of the most militant eras of class struggle in history – the Great Depression and WWII. Black Power, Jazz, and Communism grew up together.

Today, jazz is largely a distorted and fetishized commodity for rich people (white and black) to  consume in a manner so as to say “society is in harmony and despite my put-together and classy airs, I am in sync with the salt of the earth folks whose daily struggle gives them – ahem, I mean us – so much soul.” The disconnect between jazz’s racial and class origins and its current status can be seen in one Bay Area institution called Yoshi’s. This author has had the privilege of winning pairs of tickets to the best jazz venue in the Bay several times (hint: listen to KPFA’s music hour on weekday AMs) and been dazzled by the luxury of the place. Both Yoshi’s locations (Oakland and SF) are centerpieces of redevelopment projects that have been pretty hostile to the local proletarian populations.

The most recent example of Yoshi’s bourgeois character is its lack of sympathy for a workers’ struggle at the Hotel Frank in San Francisco, where Yoshi’s sends its out of town performers – even when it means crossing a picket line.

Of course, jazz is not dead. There are quite a few genuine jam sessions throughout the Bay with participation from musicians who struggle daily to pay bills as workers with day jobs or unemployed. There is one brilliant flautist in Oakland who can be found playing at BART stations and has a Marxist analysis as sharp as anyone’s. Advance the Struggle ourselves even have the honor having a talented jazz pianist in our ranks. And of course, jazz has spurred a whole lineage of musical forms that have taken turns at the forefront of revolutionary upsurges in the US and around the world, from rock n roll to hip-hop.

Just as jazz is not dead, it goes without saying that neither is class struggle. The ILWU local 10 is at its militant best once again, as it fights legal persecution for taking workplace action in solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin on April 4th.  This SFBayview article is a great collection of info on the April 4th action and their employers’ lawsuit.  Come through tonight to an emergency organizing meeting to defend local 10!  Here’s the meeting info:

Local 10 located near Fisherman’s Wharf at 400 North Point St., corner of Mason, Thursday, April 14, at 7 p.m., in the Henry Schmidt Room.

Lastly, we would like to take this opportunity to promote a show and talk on Friday night called “Jazz and Black Power” at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley this Saturday 8-10pm:

This Saturday from 8:00pm to 10:30pm, La Pena (3105 Shattuck Berkeley) will host a night of Jazz and the Black Power Movement. Come and listen to 5 member band Jazz group Luv U Down and commentary by ex Black Panther political activist Gerald Smith on Jazz’s connection to the Black Power movement. General tickets are $12 and student tickets are $10.

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6 responses to “Jazz and the Class Struggle

  1. The part on Yoshi’s makes my think of passages from the chapter “The ‘Jazz Club’: An Adventure in Cockroach Capitalism” in Frank Kofsky’s book Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music published by Pathfinder in 1970. There he quotes saxophonist Archie Shepp on the surplus value club owners drain out of the musicians working there. Shepp said nightclubs are: “Crude stables where black men are run until they bleed, or else are sack up outright for Lepage’s glue.” (145)

    Kofsky also discusses the commodification of the music in the club setting and the conditions of musicians at famous clubs like the Village Vanguard in NYC (which charged $40 for a 45 min. set by Jim Hall back in the late 1990s) where musicians had no green room to chill between sets, got drinks deducted from their performance’s wages, had their art as an adjunct the the sale of whiskey as Pharoah Sanders laments. Kofsky also gets further into the political economy of the jazz club.

    You see from this a backlash and self-organization of jazz musicians against the economic and creative control club owners put on musicians to play only 45 minute sets, so that the owners can bring in another new audience with a two drink minimum. Some of the new or free jazz musicians like Shepp, Pharoah and others had solos lasting over 45 minutes. So musicians and groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago (the Art Ensemble of Chicago being its most famous group) sought their own spaces to perform in their communities away from the “cockroach capitalism” of the jazz club to expand jazz music boundaries and deepening its connection to its African roots through style, rhythm, and instrumentation, and groove. La Pena is a legacy of move to bring jazz and other musics out of its fetishized form in the jazz club back to communities of working place and people of color where jazz, blues, gospel, etc. are largely rooted.

  2. ‎”jazz’s formalism is always pregnant with improvisation” – I would actually argue the opposite, that is, Jazz is an inherently improvisatory medium which gives rise to new forms (which often ossify and become marketable/commodifiable). This would have ramifications for its use in dialectical metaphor: Struggle/communization is an improvisatory method which approaches blocks as it meets them and gives rise to forms of organization. Not the opposite. Communization as Free Jazz, unbeholden to any parameters

  3. ACJ, I kind of disagree.

    If you read biographies and histories of folks like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, or John Coltrane you’ll find that their jazz chops are not “inherently” improvisational, but that their improvisations grow out of a rich and developed understanding of chord progressions, harmonies and patterns such at pentatonics.

    Improvisation is not communization, is is the outgrowth of disciplined development that is then pushed to the limits and challenged by interactions with other developed players. Communist revolution is likewise the contradictory development of disciplined formations which are humble and learn from the struggles and organizations which surround them in order to further develop communist interventions which grow the improvisational resistance emerging all around.

  4. Counter-vanguard

    Your vignette is in need of more context. Before the Fillmore was ever known as “the Harlem of the West Coast” it was home to thousands of Japanese immigrants. The racist and militarist Executive Order 9066 created the conditions for the growth of the community you celebrate in this post.

    In the words of poet Maya Angelou, “In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore district, or Western Addition, experienced a visible revolution… The Yakamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy’s Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira’s Hardware metamorphosed into La Salon de Beaute, owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became a permanent home away from home for the newly arrived southern Blacks… The Japanese area became San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months.”

  5. Awhile back I was also reading Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and was surprised when reading in chapter 27 about how the African-Americans who were brought to San Francisco during World War II to work in the shipyards were being funneled into neighborhoods like the formerly Japanese-American Western Addition and Fillmore, turning it into an instant Harlem West, while the residents of Japanese descent were being shipped off to be imprisoned. Clearly their fate was a continuation of the anti-Asian legacy of Denis Kearney and the San Francisco International Workingman Association’s anti-Chinese pogroms sparked during the Great Upheaval Railroad Strike of 1877. Here’s what Angelou says upon moving into the Western Addition (which was later largely destroyed by being razed in an urban renewal project):
    ___________________________________________________________

    “A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy of even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later in sharecropper’s cabins. But the sensations of common relationship were missing.” (pp. 209-210)
    ___________________________________________________________

    What is the process that helps one discover “sensations of common relationship”? Understanding history? Is a revolution movement the process of reconnecting us with those missing sensations? Or is it forging new bonds, based on common relationships?

  6. CORRECTION: Denis Kearney’s racist organization was the Workingman’s Party, a California-based group founded in 1877 — not to be confused with the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (1876-1878) which was modeled on the Marxist-influenced International Workingmen’s Association (also called the First International), which existed 1864–1876.

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