Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society revisited

Revisiting my experiences of the 1970s (the '70s being the key to all mysteries) through the prism of the 1990s and thereafter prompted my attempt at an analytical approach that would explain the historical need, appeal, and limitations of the mysticism endemic to the most advanced black jazz musicians of the 1960s, an approach that would differ from the orientation of the burgeoning scholarship surrounding them. A few scholars of these musicians (e.g. of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton) appreciated my endeavors, which aimed at something different from their own invaluable work. Historically, it has been necessary first to vindicate and document black cultural achievements and place them into the mainstream of intellectual life. This is an ongoing process. Yet Americans cannot follow Europeans in simply preserving cultural artifacts as museum pieces that never change while time, society, and sensibility move on, either in positive or negative directions (or both simultaneously). (The Wynton Marsalis gambit of excising the avant-garde from legitimate jazz tradition was reflected in Ken Burns' falsification of the history of jazz in the '60s and '70s, which speaks volumes about the nature of popular culture and class stratification today.) But also, the more we think about what has changed, what we lost that we couldn't save, and what we have outgrown, once the task of vindication has been accomplished, we have to evaluate where we're at now, in the process of blindly feeling our way into the future.

Recent musings about Sun Ra have diverted my attention to an old project of mine:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians (2002, 2004)

I have noted that one of the most striking things about some of these avant-garde jazz composers/musicians is the individualism that characterizes their construction of belief systems or esoteric/mystical conceptions. Coltrane graduated from traditional Christianity in North Carolina to eclecticism in Philadelphia, studying everything, professing tolerance of a multiplicity of paths, while developing no original system of thought. Sun Ra concocted out of his sources an Afrocentric cosmo-mythology combining an interest in ancient Egypt with interplanetary travel. Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama, so it is understandable why only taking up residence on the planet Saturn could get him far enough away from the South. Anthony Braxton comes out of Chicago, constructing an original esoteric system more mathematical and abstract. There must be a way of analyzing this historical trajectory in a fashion different from both uncritical boosterism and from an overall historically and sociologically impoverished atheist/humanist movement.

I concluded the ruminations collected herein with two generalizations—the moral of the story, if you will (pardon the fancy language):
(a) Oppositional mystical/metaphysical positions are anticipations of developments to come, formulated at a time and staking out a territory before they can be concretely realized in society and developed in theoretical form. In Hegelian fashion, that which is needed but cannot become concrete must live as abstraction.

(b) When the historical moment is due for the sublation of mystical/metaphysical abstractions into scientific/cultural form, and this fails to happen, then a regression takes place, and the dark side of mysticism—intimately connected with fascism—comes out into the light, the concealed weaknesses of a cultural strategy become manifest, and the cultural strategy goes bankrupt.

"Bankrupt" is the key word for today. Neither a return to the 1950s, perpetuation of navel-gazing avant-garde noodle-doodle, nor indulgence in the pole-dancing bullshit many of you take for music today, will do. But there is something missing in thought as well as in culture, and for that neither nostalgia nor presentism will do. Our work of mourning involves living in a state of tension between present and past, and figuring out how to survive a future that is rapidly being stolen from us.

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