Ellison's Invisible Man, with its jazz aesthetic, praise of Louis
Armstrong and inhabitation of the spirit of the blues is widely
regarded as an exemplary jazz novel. Published in 1952 but conceived
in 1945, the novel's composition overlaps with the heroic years
of bebop. Yet in Ellison's many essays about music he reveals a
marked antipathy to the generation of musicians that emerged out
of the dissolution of swing. His recently published correspondence
with his close friend and fellow author Albert Murray confirms his
skepticism of the new sound. Is this merely a question of taste,
or is Ellison's critique grounded in a broader conception of the
history and aesthetics of jazz? The present intervention is concerned
to show how Ellison's aversion to bebop stems from a systematic
understanding of the development and potential of jazz, which is
in turn grounded in an aesthetics and a corollary conception of
history. Because the question underlying that of the title is: On
which aesthetic criteria does Ellison base his judgments, my paper's
question becomes: What is Ellison's conception of a jazz aesthetic?
How does this allow for a critical historiography of jazz? How can
it be thought together with his literary aesthetics and with the
artistry of his much studied, widely taught and broadly influential
novel? Moreover, the pursuit of these questions flushes out, like
the quail the young Ellison hunted, keys to a jazz aesthetic from
the underbrush of cluttered motifs and symbols in Invisible Man.
I therefore supplement my interpretation of Ellison's jazz essays
with readings of selected moments from the novel. As part of my
approach to these questions, I stage a peripheral but heuristically
valuable exchange with another figure who also develops a systematic
aesthetics as well as a reading of jazz, albeit one unrelentingly
negative: T.W. Adorno. I discuss, finally, some consequences of
my rehearsal of Ellison's conception of jazz in order to pose some
questions about the relationship between his aesthetics and his
Swinging the Blues
Ralph Ellison, born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, came of age in the
20s and 30s and had a childhood saturated with the music of Louis
Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the bluesy styles of his native town
and Kansas City. Several of his jazz essays, now anthologized in
the volume Living With Music, paint portraits of his musical background
and of artists from the Southwest like Charlie Christian and Jimmy
Rushing. Ellison notes the importance of this music for swing in
a 1976 interview, recalling the "Southwestern rhythm and that
great freedom within discipline that you first heard in Count Basie's
band" and asserting that "we know that "swing"
was generated in the Southwest" and that "in it the presence
of the blues was more obvious, as were the kinds of improvisation"
(30-31). Ellison's attachment to this music is made clear in the
essays, but the real giant in his musical constellation is, of course,
Louis Armstrong. The centrality of Armstrong for Ellison's thinking
that is so clearly figured in Invisible Man is not, however, often
mentioned in his essays, nor does he devote an article to him. It
is as if the influence is so overwhelming that it should be taken
for granted - and indeed his presence is felt uncannily between
every line. Armstong, famously, was the musician who, as a young
virtuoso in the 20s, established the twelve-bar blues as the basis
for the subsequent phase of jazz. Swing was the jazz that Ellison
learned to love, to which he danced and which inspired his writing:
but the power behind swing was the blues. For Ellison, however,
the blues were much more than simply a musical form: they were an
attitude toward life, an approach to the world that engendered a
philosophy and an aesthetic. All of Ellison's jazz writings circle
around the blues: listing some of his many pithy definitions in
the essays can help situate his understanding of the form:
their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both
the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer
toughness of spirit (118).
blues is an art of ambiguity,
they are a corrective, an attempt
to draw a line upon man's own limitless assertion (47).
blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes alive
in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to
transcend it, not by the consolations of philosophy, but by squeezing
from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism (103).
one sees "
the mysterious potentiality of meaning which
haunts the blues
the meanings which shimmer just beyond the
limits of the lyrics" (47) enacted in Chapter 10 of Invisible
Man, in which the narrator, newly arrived in New York City, meets
the jiving Harlem bluesman Peter Wheatstraw who sings:
She's got feet like a monkey
Legs like a frog - Lawd Lawd!
But when she starts to loving me
I holler Whoooo, God-dog!
Cause I loves my baabay,
Better than I do myself
the invisible man to wonder, after the encounter:
does it mean, I thought. I'd heard it all my life but suddenly the
strangeness of it came through to me. Was it about a woman or about
some strange sphinxlike animal? Certainly his woman, no woman, fitted
that description. And why describe anyone in such contradictory
words? Was it a sphinx? Did old Chaplin-pants, old dusty-butt, love
her or hate her; or was he merely singing?
I strode along,
hearing the cartman's song become a lonesome, broad-toned whistle
now that flowered at the end of each phrase into a tremulous, blue-toned
chord. And in its flutter and swoop I heard the sound of a railroad
train highballing it, lonely across the lonely night (177).
riddle of the sphinx becomes, in the blues, the riddle of riddles,
a cipher for their speculative nature - how they "convey meanings
which touch upon the metaphysical" (47) - which Ellison wants
to recuperate as an African American philosophy for modern times.
While Ellison's attachment to the blues must be viewed within the
framework of his recovery and transfiguration of African American
folk culture and a consequence of a form of cultural nationalism,
he clearly understands them as more than the expression of an ancestral
heritage whose currency is superseded by avant-garde art. Indeed,
the blues become the basis for the modernism of African American
expression. Ellison notes in "Richard Wright's Blues"
that the rural African American communities from which the blues
originated did "not exist in a vacuum, but in the seething
vortex of those tensions generated by the most highly industrialized
of Western nations" (113). Furthermore, like flamenco, the
blues are "an affirmative art, which draws its strengths and
endurance from a willingness to deal with the whole man
a world which is viewed as basically impersonal and violent"
(97). Again in "Richard Wright's Blues," he demonstrates
how the blues "fall short of tragedy only in that they provide
no solution, offer no scapegoat but the self" (118). Ellison
thus sees the blues as arising from a modern experience in which
the individual, unaided by community or religion, is confronted
with an "impersonal and violent" world and, in the face
of utter uncertainty, must choose to act, drawing its strength from
"a willingness to deal with the whole man." This is what
Ellison means when he - creating a contrast to the gospel singing
of Mahalia Jackson - remarks "the secular existentialism of
the blues" (92). The blues are a philosophy for the modern
individual (like European existentialism), and adequate for the
world in which it makes its uncertain way. Ellison, then, in seeing
the blues as the basis for that which makes swing what it is, situates
the modernism of jazz as a consequence of African American experience,
not the inherited style of European innovators. The adequacy of
jazz as an expression of African American experience for the modern
world, as a message to and for humanity, is based in the blues and
its "ontology" from which it derives not only its basic
formal musical structure, but an aesthetic gesture that grounds
a speculative moral and implied political approach to experience
in the world.
Ellison arrived in New York just around the same time that the blues-infused
sounds of the Southwestern jazz musicians hit New York like a twister
and sent the swing scene spinning. Langston Hughes arranged the
aspiring young writer/musician's meeting with Richard Wright in
May, 1937, a year after Ellison left Tuskegee for Harlem. Count
Basie and his Orchestra (combining the Blue Devils and Bennie Moten's
band) played ruling king Chick Webb and his group to a dead heat
at the famous cutting contest at the Savoy on January 16th, 1938.
Ellison, who was still in Dayton, Ohio mourning his mother, (Jackson,
190-97) did not attend this epic showdown: but we can fruitfully
imagine it as the embodiment of what Ellison means in his repeated
invocations of jazz as an "institution" or jazz as "experience"
(LWM, 39). Aside from his appreciation for jazz music as creative
African American art, the significance of the jazz that Ellison
loved and that inspired his writing lay in its lending shape to
a ritual through a specific expressive language. Numerous moments
in the essays provide testimony for Ellison's understanding of jazz
as a communal experience, one made possible, in turn, through the
relationships amongst musicians and between musicians and audience.
Ellison notes that "the delicate balance struck between strong
individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions
was a marvel of social organization" and how the musicians
"lived [an often harsh life] fully, and when they expressed
their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced
the chaos of living to form" (6). Of his lifelong friend and
fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Rushing Ellison claims: "he expressed
a value, an attitude about the world" (44) and when he sang,
the music "achieved that feeling of communion which was the
true meaning of the public jazz dance" (47). Rushing - the
singer who fronted the Basie orchestra with his rafter-shaking bass
voice - embodied the process in which "the blues, the singer,
the band and the dancers formed the vital whole of jazz as an institutional
form, and even today neither part is quite complete without the
rest" (47). Ellison further defines the locus of this vital
whole: "And in the beginning it was in the Negro dance hall
and night club that jazz was most completely a part of a total cultural
expression, and in which it was freest and most satisfying, both
for the musicians and for those in whose lives it played a major
role" (59). Finally, Ellison characterizes performance as a
sort of unity-in-diversity, claiming that "true jazz is an
art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true
jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance)
springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest
a member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition"
Swing, in Ellison's cultural politics, becomes a public and communal
ritual in which the fate of the individual alone in the world can
be counteracted through participation in a cultural event that combines
music and dance in dynamic interaction. Furthermore, it is the one
aspect of American culture that was thoroughly based in, motivated
by and infused with the contribution of African Americans, but that
had proceeded to become the popular music in America. If the blues
individual is a lonely train in the lonely night of the modern world,
it is the communal ritual of jazz as experience that holds the light
of promise for some kind of deliverance through integration. For
Ellison's cultural imagination swing - in keeping with Michelet's
dictum that every age dreams its successor - is like the cultural
dream that would become realized in the next generation's political
struggle for civil rights and integration. Like Peter Wheatstraw's
whistle that "flowered at the end of each phrase into a tremulous,
blue-toned chord," the individual is trained in the sort of
interracial harmony necessary in a multi-ethnic democracy, which
the civil rights movement wanted to purge of its regressive antipluralism.
The integrity of jazz as an institution, the "feeling of communion"
that is provided for in the ritual of the swing dance, is a matter
of political significance that registers the historical effects
of a cultural form. Swing was thus seen by Ellison as a forward-looking
cultural agent in political change, not just the reflection of a
social reality that segregated, discriminated, lynched, deferred
the dream and smashed the spirit. This is due, not in the least
measure, to the creative ingenuity of the jazz musician, whom the
young Ellison regarded as a sort of renaissance man (Jackson, 67).
It is his "strong individual personality" and "fluid
style" that creates through playful competition and individual
assertion a polyphonic unity that is dynamic, expansive, diverse
and inclusive. As a mutually determining and solidifying combination
of the individual and whole, the jazz combo or band was a "marvel
of social organization," and, Ellison implies, a model for
society as well.
The situation of the African American performer, who must also survive
within the cutthroat competition of the entertainment industry and
the racist expectations of white audiences, was also theorized by
Ellison. He praises the creative "masking" by the black
musician (exemplified by Armstrong) that gives every performance
a dual significance and that allows him "to perform effectively
through the magic of his art" (70) and to "express an
affirmative way of life through [his] musical tradition [which]
insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame"
(6). Ellison makes clear the historical resonances of masking with
reference to Duke Ellington:
Ellington remarked "Fate is being kind to me, Fate doesn't
want me to be too famous too young," a quip as mocking of our
double standards, hypocrisies and pretensions as the dancing of
those slaves who, looking through the windows of a plantation manor
house from the yard, imitated the steps so gravely performed by
the masters within and then added to them their own special flair,
burlesquing the white folks and then going on to force the steps
into a choreography uniquely their own. The whites, looking at the
activity in the yard, thought they were being flattered by imitation
and were amused by the incongruity of tattered blacks dancing courtly
steps, while missing completely the fact that before their eyes
a European cultural form was becoming Americanized, undergoing a
metamorphosis through the mocking activity of a people partially
sprung from Africa (84).
for Ellison the black musician presided over an event that was both
negative in the sense of the masked mocking of the "double
standards, hypocrisies and pretensions" of a social order disfigured
through practices of racial distinction and positive as the expression
of an attitude of possibility and transcendence through the ritual
of communion and the exemplary relation of individual and whole
in the jazz combo. Swing's "tremulous blue-toned chord"
was, for Ellison, the modern and historically adequate form of African
The Unbearable Bugginess of Bebop
comments about bebop appear in scattered references throughout his
essays, but the earliest comes near the end of his 1948 "Harlem
is Nowhere," an essay that charts the effects of Harlem's urban
environment on migrants from the south:
Yet even his [the Negro's] art is transformed; the lyrical ritual
elements of folk jazz - that artistic projection of the only real
individuality possible for him in the south, that embodiment of
a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness
and yet did not clash with his neighbors - have given way to the
near-themeless technical virtuosity of bebop, a further triumph
of technology over humanism ("Harlem is Nowhere," CE 325).
is Nowhere" begins as a discussion of the Lafargue Psychiatric
Clinic in Harlem and is an attempt to account for the "complex
forces of America" affecting its patients, Harlemites, who
as "modern" individuals make choices "in the here
and now at the expense of hope, pain and fear" and have along
the way become "confused" (321). Ellison discusses the
psychological situation of the African American individual in Harlem
- "the scene and symbol of the Negro's perpetual alienation
in the land of his birth" - and identifies the "clash
of cultural factors" arising from the "impact between
urban slum conditions and folk sensibilities" as the source
of the "confusion" of the Harlemite. But this clash is
also seen as the means of exceeding and negating it: "For if
Harlem is the scene of the folk-Negro's death agony, it is also
the setting of his transcendence," (322) one facilitated by
the "techniques of survival
the ease of movement within
explosive situations" that the "folk-Negro" has brought
from the "relatively static order" (323) of the South.
It is not that a static order has been simply transplanted to a
different locus, a village in the metropolis, but it is a wrenching
contrast that causes both the confusion engendered by Harlem - variously
described as a "chasm of mazelike passages" (323), a "capricious
reality," a "ghetto maze" (325), "slum-shocked
institutions" (325) - as well as new and inventive strategies
for survival, which amount to a revolution in speech, thought and
artistic production. This is the Harlemite's response to an absurd
"world so fluid and shifting that often within the mind the
real and the unreal merge, and the marvelous beckons from behind
the same sordid reality that denies its existence" (322). The
novel Invisible Man answers that beckoning, presenting the marvelous
with the sordid and remaining true, in the end, despite its surrealistic
effects, to a type of realism by representing the surreal within
the real. Life really is that strange: and to rise to the occasion
requires the development of strange capacities. The confusion of
the Harlemite is, in the end, not only, or not simply, a bad thing.
The new forms of speech and expression created by leaving the South
- with its "semblance of metaphysical wholeness" provided
by religion, its "family structure," its "body of
folklore," and "the sense of being at home in the world
gained from confronting and accepting
the obscene absurdity
of his [the Negro's] predicament" (324), and landing in the
"ghetto maze" (325) of Harlem - correspond to the twin
options of genius and madness. And for Ellison, bebop embodies both.
Langston Hughes's motto to "Montage of Dream Deferred"
(written in the same year as "Harlem is Nowhere" but not
published until 1951) provides his famously trenchant description
of bebop - like it, his brilliant Harlem poem cycle is
marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent
interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner
of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the
riffs, runs, breaks and disc-tortions of the music of a community
in transition (387).
a remarkably parallel gesture, Hughes and his younger friend both
equate the reflection of the changes in the experience of life in
Harlem with the technical changes in bebop. But while Hughes expresses
uninhibited enthusiasm for the new sounds and inhabits their idiom
to create his poetic essay on Harlem, Ellison laments the new music's
installation of "technology over "humanity." This
critique is repeated in different ways throughout the many jazz
essays that Ellison wrote over the subsequent twenty years. The
most sustained discussion of bebop as a movement is in his recollective
essay on Minton's Playhouse, "Golden Age, Time Past" published
in Esquire in 1959. The critical perspective on bebop expressed
in this dense passage reads like a counterpoint to the Hughes quote:
It was itself a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully
formed; its melodic lines underground, secret and taunting; its
riffs jeering - "Salt peanuts! Salt peanuts" - its timbres
flat or shrill, with a minimum of thrilling vibrato. Its rhythms
were out of stride and seemingly arbitrary, its drummers frozen-faced
introverts dedicated to chaos. And in it the steady flow of memory,
desire and defined experience summed up by the traditional jazz
beat and blues mood seemed swept like a great river from its old,
deep bed (55).
revolutionary changes to the basic structure of swing were something
profoundly upsetting to Ellison's entire aesthetics and philosophy.
If swing was a twister from the Midwest, bebop was a tsunami of
sound from Harlem that not only lifted the steamboat of music from
the "steady flow of memory, desire and defined experience"
but that "great river" itself from its bed in modern culture.
Ellison was a longtime resident of Harlem by the time Charlie Parker,
Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others, in revolt against
the commercialized, white-dominated form to which swing had been
reduced, were experimenting at Minton's in the early forties, and
was a regular attendant at the club. But the changes in bebop -
basing the melodic line on chord changes, the paring-down of expressive
flourishes like glissandi and the "thrilling" vibrato
tones, the sheer velocity of the solos - must have sounded harsh
and ascetic yet and the same time empty and gray for Ellison. The
moment of the thrill of anticipation, like the sound of music approaching,
is lost in the leveling-out in bebop of the rhythmic and melodic
tension that made swing swinging, danceable, and expressive in a
blues idiom. Whereas in swing the aesthetic categories of technique
and expression existed in an harmonious and integral whole, in bebop
technique came to dominate expression - or more precisely, technique
becomes expression itself.
Bebop also fundamentally changed the form of jazz as an experience.
Despite later efforts by Gillespie to inspire a dance culture around
bebop, swingers could not find the beat. Dancing in swing allowed
for "the interchange between the orchestra and a moving audience"
making it a "communal experience," but "after bop
entered the picture the dancing went out," (275) because "
people couldn't dance to bop. Very often Dizzy and Bird were so
engrossed with their experiments that they didn't provide enough
music for the supportive rite of dancing" (28). This phrase
not only reaffirms Ellison's understanding of the ritualistic aspect
of dance as part of the institution of jazz, but signals another
moment of Ellison's critique of bop: the elitism of the bebop performer,
who, Ellison believes, "must act exactly the opposite of what
white people might believe" and wants to be "absolutely
free of the obligations of the entertainer" leading him to
"treat the audience with aggressive contempt" (63). Ellison
is dismayed by the bebop musician's presumed belief that "to
be in control, artistically and personally, one must be so cool
as to quench one's own human fire" (63) and contrasts this
with "the exuberant and outgoing lyricism of the older men"
(63). He understands this to be result of the "thrust toward
respectability exhibited by the Negro jazzmen of Parker's generation,"
but goes ballistic when beboppers call his hero Armstrong an "Uncle
Tom," charging that "they confused artistic quality with
questions of personal conduct, a confusion which would ultimately
reduce their own music to the mere matter of race" (69). The
beboppers were caught in a vain attempt to break out of the entertainer's
role, in the process discarding the humorous masking through which
the older musicians expressed a duplicitous genius. This descended
to the level of the "funereal posturing of the Modern Jazz
Quartet" (70) and the "loneliness, self-depreciation and
self-pity" of Parker's playing, from whose "vibratoless
tone" issued "a sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as
though he could never quite make it" (75).
But while Ellison connects the flat sound of bebop to the lack of
exuberance and lyricism in the bebopper, going so far as to suggest
that "many were even of a different physical build," (63)
he also sees bebop and the bebopper as marked by a hyperactivity
that stems from the newer musicians' inability to maintain that
"fluid style" that allowed the earlier jazzman to lend
form to the chaos of life. Ellison's letters to Murray contain references
to the excessive ebullience of beboppers, such as that of a drummer
(Jo Jones), whom Ellison meets and characterizes as "stepping
around like he had springs in his legs and a bunch of frantic jumping
beans in his butt." He continues: " Man, they tell a lot
of wild stories about boppers but this stud is truly apt to take
off like a jet anytime he takes the notion. He probably has to play
his bass with a twenty pound weight on his trap foot." (LWM
237 [Letter to Murray, Oct. 22, 1955]) Here the echoes of "Harlem
is Nowhere" can be heard, which gives the sociological reasons
for a long time now - despite songs like the "Blow Top Blues"
and the eruption of expressions like frantic, buggy, and mad into
Harlem's popular speech, doubtless a word-magic against the states
they name - calm in the face of the unreality of Negro life has
become increasingly difficult" (CE 323)
Lawrence Jackson notes in his excellent new biography of Ellison,
bebop was described as ""frantic" and "hectic"
and "mad" in the argot of 1940s Harlem" (277). In
"Richard Wright's Blues' (an essay written in close temporal
and theoretical proximity to "Harlem is Nowhere") Ellison
all those blasting pressures which
shattered the wholeness of its [the Negro people's] folk consciousness
into a thousand writhing pieces" (105) and how "the movement
his [the Negro's] entire psychosomatic structure"
and that "what is called hysteria is suppressed intellectual
energy expressed physically" (112). For Ellison, there was
something of this hysterical energy, this hectic bugginess of the
migrant to Harlem expressed in bebop, which, translating Ellison's
metaphors, would be a form of music-magic against the frantic state
of mind that the ghetto maze of Harlem engendered and which bebop
named in sound. It registered the fear born from the destruction
of the folk consciousness and the loss of the ability for grace
under pressure, which results both in the stiff reserve and the
frenetic edginess of the bebopper. A similar duality in the music
undermines the expressiveness that swing inherits from the blues
and that accounts for its modernism: while the leveling-out of rhythm
and melody flatten out expression, the velocity, the "conflicting
changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken
rhythms" simultaneously insert an agitated nervousness and
crazed jerkiness. While style and expression exist in a harmoniously
swinging dynamism in music like that of Ellington, the two go separate
and contradictory paths in bebop, a process which, for Ellison,
gets even worse in the next generation of bebop-inspired musicians
in the fifties. This can be seen in this passage from letter to
Murray describing the 1958 Newport Festival:
I finally saw that Chico Hamilton with his mannerisms and that poor,
evil, lost little Miles Davis, who on this occasion sounded like
he just couldn't get it together. Nor did Coltrane help with his
badly executed velocity exercises. These cats have gotten lost,
man. They're trying to get hold to something by fucking up the blues,
but some of them don't even know the difference between a blues
and a spiritual. (LWM 245 [Letter to Murray, 10/28/58])
the power of swing was firmly based in the blues, it is not surprising
that the loss of expressiveness in bebop is due to the bebop musician's
"fucking" them up.
The contrasts Ellison draws between swing and bebop present themselves
clearly after this my rehearsal of his characterizations of the
two forms. Whereas in swing technique is subordinated to the primacy
of an expressiveness achieved through a blues tonality, expansive
color, flourishes etc., bebop subordinates expression to the primacy
of technical virtuosity. In swing, the involvement of the public
through dance makes the jazz performance a participatory and communal
ritual, whereas in bebop the involvement of the public is reduced
to finger snapping, toe tapping and the sycophantic emulation of
modes of fashion and speech. The active dynamism of the interaction
between dancing public and performing musician is replaced by a
one-directional, passive appreciation of the isolated consumer.
The swing performance provided a ritual of communion for the lone
individual facing a harsh world without the binding supportive rites
of religion and community, while bebop merely reflected the egoism
of the competitive individual and the disintegration of community.
While swing, like the blues, promoted values of strength of character
and perseverance, bebop reflected the fragmentation, chaos and sense
of despair of post-war America. The communal nature of the swing
dance, made dynamic by the interaction of participants on the stage
and the dance floor, and the "freedom within discipline"
in the jazz ensemble countered the alienation of the individual
in the modern world and represented a "superior democracy,"
a model of a plurality operating in harmony. In bebop, however,
the relations between the individual and the group are alienated.
Individual expression and improvisation are discrete elements that
taken together do not harmonize into an integral whole. There is
a disjunction between the assertions of the freedom of the individual
and the integrity of the community of musicians and the public,
dancers and listeners alike. Bebop's emphasis on virtuosity undermined
the dynamic unity-in-diversity of swing. While in swing the musician
was able to creatively exist within the constraints of the entertainment
industry through masking and humor and to express himself through
a gesture of openness and tolerance, in bebop the artist is self-obsessed,
funereally serious, disdainful to the audience, and elitist. The
humanistic values that Ellison sees represented most thoroughly
in the jazz band are undermined by the predominance of "technology"
- by which Ellison means not only the emphasis on virtuoso playing,
but more broadly the music's reflection of an advanced stage of
industrial capitalism ruled by technocrats and organized around
the demand for new machines and faster cars. If the blues/jazz musician,
finally, reduced to the "chaos of living to form," with
a "fluid style," the bebop musician deformed the music
with a style that was jerky, nervous, ruptured, broken-up, "dis-integral."
For Ellison this was a breach of trust in a realm that he held sacred.
Aesthetics and Bebop Art
characterization of the progression from swing to bebop, read strongly,
can reveal the outlines of an historical aesthetic that I would
like to illuminate by sounding a brief counterpoint to an aspect
of Theodor Adorno's dialectic of modern music. I will not discuss
(in this paper) Adorno's writings on jazz, which were often grossly
misinformed, in some respects ignorant of cultural contexts and
theoretically arrogant, imposing his conceptual scheme on a presumably
undifferentiated genre with crass insensitivity. Nevertheless, his
philosophy is unique as a comprehensive aesthetic philosophy of
modern art and an understanding of historical development in music.
As such it provides a useful point of comparison for understanding
Ellison; to this end I will briefly summarize an aesthetic movement
that Adorno theorizes in his Philosophy of Modern Music and in his
article the "Aging of the New Music" and bring it into
dialogue with Ellison's thinking. Philosophy of Modern Music is
an exposition of the dialectic of the New Music, that is, the compositions
by Viennese composers Arnold Schoenberg and his students Anton Webern
and Alban Berg that pushed the styles of late romanticism to the
point where the tonal system was superseded. These atonal compositions,
in Adorno's reading, were the pinnacle of modern music: in their
rebellion against the rules of tonality they figure a freedom of
expression that gave voice to a dynamic subjectivity. He develops,
in his version of historical materialism applied to aesthetics,
the concept of musical material, which is not just sound as notes
and chords, but the music-historically determined state of their
meaning or lack of meaning: this is the raw material to which the
composer applies his style, lending it form. Late romanticism had
exhausted the possibilities for expression within the tonal system.
In atonality, the relation between material and form was such that
the greatest freedom of expression was guaranteed - through dissonance,
which was "freed" or released from the constraints of
tonality. However, in the article "Aging of the New Music,"
Adorno carries his thesis further, criticizing the techniques of
musical organization like twelve-tone composition that emerged after
atonality. He laments the replacement of the freely composed work
by a schematic formula and the abandonment, once again, of the expressivity
that had gotten lost from tonality and restored in the atonal compositions.
The new music had, through progression from within the tonal system,
given birth to a new form, carrying through an immanent and necessary
development from one phase of the relation between form and material
to the only possible next phase. (This is analogous, in historical
materialism, to the emergence of one mode of production with its
historically adequate relations of production from within the previous
mode of production, e.g. capitalism out of feudalism). But just
as tonality exhausted its historically possible forms of expression,
so did atonality, forcing the composers to search for new methods
of organizing the musical material. While twelve-tone worked for
a while, it lacked all expressivity, had, in effect, substituted
technique for expression, or even for the work of art itself.
A similar consciousness of the historical development of jazz can
be read in Ellison. The movement from a form in which the expressive
potential was realized with the greatest amount of historical adequacy,
to a form in which expression has become subordinated to technique,
to the mathematically schematic, is present in both. In both a subjective
expressive capacity that creates a mutually liberating relationship
between form and material is replaced by one in which society weighs
too heavily, such that the preponderance of the objective, social
alienation of the subject undermines the balance between composition
and material. And like Adorno who sees the progression from atonality
to twelve-tone as an ineluctable process, Ellison also locates the
origins of the need for something new in the moribund state to which
swing had degenerated under the pressures of the entertainment industry.
This is how he characterizes it in "Golden Age, Times Past":
Part of this [the bebop revolution at Minton's] was arbitrary, a
revolt of the younger against the established stylists; part of
it was inevitable. For jazz had reached a crisis, and new paths
were certain to be searched for and found. An increasing number
of the younger men were formally trained, and the post-Depression
developments in the country had made for quite a break between their
experience and that of the older men (63).
difference in the understanding of the development expressed here
lies in the ambivalent gesture with which Ellison cites the two
and presumably equally valid aspects of the progression from swing
to bebop. While for Adorno the progression from late romanticism
to atonality to twelve-tone is only necessary and unavoidable, Ellison
cites both the objective ineluctability of the creation of the new
form that is due to the "crisis" in swing, as well as
the moment of subjective will and "revolt." Ellison, thus,
by asserting the possibility for this subjective will, is suggesting
an anti-teleological moment in the historical development of new
art forms. It needn't have been so: something besides bebop, for
example, could have replaced swing, a maneuver which allows Ellison
to both hold the beboppers responsible for messing with the jazz
he loved and to hold out the possibility for alternatives. His critiques
of bebop thus combine a sense of the necessity of its historical
origin and trajectory while maintaining the ability for the agency
of the creative artist to chart alternative pathways: I want to
submit this as the mandate that Ellison sees his own art as fulfilling,
as the task by which the young author of Invisible Man felt most
Both Adorno and Ellison were schooled in historical materialist
thinking at a young age, and both present revisions of the orthodox
version. But while Adorno synthesizes a neo-Hegelianism and a perspective
informed by modernist European art with his Marxism, his own aesthetic
theory begins to take on necessitarian, deterministic traits in
its understanding of the dialectic of musical material. Ellison
revises the idea of history in reaction to the Communist movement
of the 1930s. The economistic "diamat" he encountered
in the party, according to which practices of racial distinction
were understood to be superstructural epiphenomena of the material
dialectic, could not account for the consequences of African American
experience for the concept of humanity that Ellison was concerned
to recover. In Invisible Man Ellison performs the breaking-out of
the constraints of a necessitarian conception of historical development.
In the prologue the narrator warns us to beware of those who discuss
a "spiral of history" because they are really preparing
a boomerang (6). The spiral is the image Hegel uses for the idea
of progress that his historical idealism proposed and that Marx
refashioned into historical materialism. But the boomerang is the
more apt image for an African American experience of a history of
betrayals and deceits, giving rise to an attitude of extreme caution
in accepting any models for history. Key moments of the novel -
the grandfather scene (16), the Wheatstraw episode (173-179), the
eviction scene (270-280), the conversation with Jack (291), Brother
Tarp (378), the Tod Clifton affair (Ch. 19), Hambro (503), the riot
(Ch. 25), the dream (569) and finally the Epilogue - are signal
episodes in the developing historical consciousness of the young
protagonist, who leaves the timelessness of the South to a confront
the Brotherhood's idea of history and finally to make his home underneath
a border area in Harlem. Here he composes our story as a way to
make sense of his own history, going underground and writing until
he has "whipped it all" (580). But along the way he softens
the harsh sounds of the music of history and sounds other notes
from the lower frequencies. The novel's inhabitation of ambivalence
is enacted in the end, in which the narrator leaves us with possibilities
but no certainties: "having tried to give pattern to the chaos
which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come
out, I must emerge. And there's still a conflict within me"
(580). The ending of the book neither presents a culmination in
the origins à la Hegel nor mandates a correct political practice
à la Marx. What we are left with is the ambivalence of the
blues, which give shape to chaos but prescribe no solutions.
My exposition of Ellison's relation to jazz has situated his rejection
of bebop within an anti-teleological historical aesthetics that
posits a relationship between technique and material, which can,
in turn, be brought to bear on the novel itself. The question then
presents itself: Does the artistry Ellison practices in Invisible
Man itself correspond to the aesthetic judgments he makes in his
essays and the philosophy upon which they are implicitly based?
My preliminary answer in this limited paper is: not exactly. Despite
the novel's nearly obsessive recycling of the figure of tragicomic
masking; despite its inhabitation of a blues idiom; despite his
narrator's reefer-induced, quasi-mystical descent into the lower
frequencies with Armstrong as his Beatrice; despite the transfigurations
of folk culture that the novel stages; and despite the effusiveness
of imagery and symbolism that hark back to the polyphony of the
New Orleans style, Invisible Man is, in many ways, a bebop novel.
In the fast pace of events "sheerly happening" (Ellison,
1963, 243) throughout the novel one may hear the virtuoso speed
exercises of Parker; in its hallucinatory flights of absurdity it
recalls the intense creativity of soloistic improvisation in the
bebop combo; in the montage of images and events that erupt into
a dissonant lyricism at key points of the novel, e.g. in the eviction
scene or the riot, are echoed "the broken rhythms and impudent
insertions" of bebop; and in the withdrawal from society of
the narrator to his underground den for hibernation, we sense the
reserve and seeming despair of the bebopper. Thus does Ellison practice
that against which he preaches. The author is, after all, always
something of a trickster, and Ellison especially loved that role
for himself. I have been one too, in casting Ellison's rejection
of bebop in monolithic terms. There was something in the new sound
that also moved Ellison and that found its way into his own novel.
His reaction to bebop is, in the end, not just one of dislike, but
one of ambivalence. This is best expressed in the penultimate paragraph
of Invisible Man, which adjoins the quote from the epilogue above:
And there's still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one
half of me says, Open the window and let the foul air out,"
while the other says, "It was good green corn before the harvest."
Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn't have thrown old bad air
out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when
it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air's horn
that counted. Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his
dancing and his diversity, and I'll be up and around with mine (581).
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