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Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't

Jazz and the Making of the Sixties

How exactly did jazz function in the role of social commentator and political activist in the '60s? Scott Saul, assistant professor of English at the University of California, tackles this overarching question in his first book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't.
By drawing on some of the important jazz works of that decade, such as Max Roach's We Insist, Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme , the writings of Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, A.B. Spellman, Norman Mailer and the emergence of the Beat Generation, Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism, Saul peels away at the romanticism attached to the'60s and explains mainstream America's shift to it.

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't
Saul begins by re-examining the mid-'50s, with the development of hard-bop. At that time Black jazz musicians, such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Charles Mingus, were explicitly reaffirming the music's Black roots in gospel, blues and R&B, almost in a reaction to the cool jazz movement, which was dominated by White jazz artists such as Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan. He also deconstructs the images and meanings of cool, hipster, and beatnik, often referring to Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro," as many White Americans began adopting some of the stereotypical mannerisms and colloquialisms of Black jazz artists. Likewise, he illustrates how jazz helped shape American youth culture, bringing together both Black and White fans at events such as the Newport (R.I.) Jazz Festival, which became an intriguing case study of race-relations in commerce and arts in the affluent community, filled with old money and long-held prejudices.

At its heart, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't focuses on jazz giants bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist John Coltrane who reconfigured their compositional and improvisational aspirations for not only a greater sense of artistic freedom but as a symbolic gesture toward social freedom. Combining his vivid narrative style with an erudite talent for deconstruction music, Saul takes us inside the emotional and intellectual psyche behind such landmark works as Mingus' "Eclipse" -- an otherworldly mediation on interracial romance (originally written for Billie Holiday),"Pithecanthropus Erectus" -- a programmatic extended-piece on the rise and fall of man; and Coltrane's "Liberia" and "Africa" (from his Africa/Brass LP), which echoed the sentiments of the Black nationalism and A Love Supreme, Coltrane's musical signpost for his spiritual reawakening. Saul also traces how the gospel-infused grooves of hard-bop gave way to the explosive sonic fury of free jazz, which was often aligned with the Black Nationalism in its fierce, uncompromising artistic stance.

Capturing the passion and political climate of the '60s and the aspirations of many jazz artists of that decade is no small feat.While Saul is effective at placing the music in its proper socio-political context, the book's loftiness often weighs it down. Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't reads like a grand thesis. His crisp analysis of compositions are insightful, but could prove troublesome to a reader not familiar with musical theory. At times, he places the music in grander schemes of political and mass consumerism warfare, and the book loses its sense of velocity and focus. Overall though, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't is a probing, highly informative examination of jazz during one of America's most heated decades.

John Murph, Staff
Rédigé le Mercredi 14 Avril 2004 à 00:00 | Lu 2203 fois | 0 commentaire(s)

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