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.