Marxism and the jazz revolution

Frank Kofsky, John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s, Pathfinder, 1998. Paperback, 500pp, £15.45.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

FRANK KOFSKY’S Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, first published in 1970, was regarded as a classic of Marxist musicology in some quarters. An uncompromising defence both of the musical innovations associated with saxophonist John Coltrane and of the contemporary radical political movement among African-Americans, Kofsky’s study was translated into several languages and remained in print until being superseded by the book reviewed here.

A considerably expanded version of the 1970 original, John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s was completed by Kofsky shortly before his death in 1998. It is a rather odd production. Instead of rewriting and updating the book, which would have allowed him the opportunity to reassess the views expressed in the earlier study, Kofsky chose to retain large sections of the 1970 text unaltered, while making substantial additions to it. The result is a book which reads as if it were a product of the late 1960s, whereas in fact much of it was written almost three decades later.

It is not as though Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music didn’t require a serious reappraisal. Its central flaw was that it sought to relate developments in jazz directly to the rise of African-American political consciousness, while attributing the central role in these musical developments to John Coltrane, a man who had minimal interest in politics and derived his ideological inspiration primarily from an eclectic Eastern-influenced version of religion.

Kofsky concedes that Coltrane was drawn to what he calls “cosmic mysticism”, yet he insists that the great musician’s philosophical outlook “did overlap to some degree with black nationalism”. However, Kofsky’s 1966 interview with Coltrane, which appeared in the 1970 book and is reprinted here, shows no evidence whatsoever of such an overlap.

Kofsky opened the interview by trying to read political significance into the fact that the saxophonist had been spotted in the audience at one of Malcolm X’s meetings. But this fell a bit flat when Coltrane made it clear that he had only attended the one meeting, and had been motivated by curiosity rather than any ideological sympathies. Pressed by Kofsky about “a relationship between some of Malcolm’s ideas and the music, especially the new music”, Coltrane responded with generalisations about music expressing the entirety of human experience. And when Kofsky suggested that “jazz is particularly closely related to the black community and it’s an expression of what’s happening there”, Coltrane argued rather that the music was an manifestation of individual creativity.

In this new edition, Kofsky attempts to bolster the picture of Coltrane as a politicised individual by adding the transcript of a 1966 radio interview. But it does little to strengthen Kofsky’s case. Asked about the war in Vietnam – an example of US imperialist aggression which would have been denounced as such by anyone influenced by black radicalism – Coltrane replies: “The Vietnamese war? Well, I dislike war – period. So therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it should stop, it should have already been stopped. And any other war. Now as far as the issues behind it, I don’t understand them well enough to tell you how this should be brought about; I only know that it should stop.”

Indeed, so far as Coltrane had any political sympathies at all, these were not with the militant nationalism of Malcolm X but with the Christian pacifism of Martin Luther King. It was to the latter that he dedicated the composition “Reverend King”, one of the only two pieces he ever wrote containing any kind of political reference (the other was “Alabama”, composed in the aftermath of a Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church in Birmingham).

Kofsky had read Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, from which he quotes at length at one point, but his analysis falls into the reductionism which Trotsky’s more sophisticated approach aimed to avoid. Rather than using the theoretical insights of Marxism to uncover the actual interconnections between music and wider society, Kofsky plays into the hands of those who wish to depict Marxists as dogmatists intent on imposing their particular conceptual framework onto reality. Thus Eric Nisenson, in his 1993 biography Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest, compares Kofsky to a character in a Nabokov novel who interprets a poem “completely in his own terms and concerns, totally missing the poet’s very personal true intentions. Not once does Kofsky address the spiritual aspects of Coltrane’s music, a subject that Coltrane discussed repeatedly and that is patent to anyone even vaguely aware of Trane’s artistic philosophy. The reason why the Marxist Kofsky ignored this particular subject is no mystery”.

Another distinctive feature of Kofsky’s method as a jazz critic is that his analysis is largely devoid of actual criticism. His obligation as a Marxist, he seems to have believed, was to mount an unconditional defence of the New Music and to bitterly condemn any fellow critic who reacted to the jazz revolution with anything less than complete enthusiasm.

Mind you, he wasn’t altogether wrong here. Certainly, the reader can empathise with Kofsky’s denunciation of the ignorance and subjectivism demonstrated by writers in the then influential music magazine down beat, who unthinkingly rejected as “anti-jazz” the early-’60s advances by musicians like Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, the multi-instrumentalist who was at that time a member of Coltrane’s group.

Why did the critics respond so harshly to these efforts to extend the boundaries of jazz? No doubt they had a variety of motives. Kofsky quotes trumpeter Bill Dixon to the effect that the critics were confronted by something they didn’t understand and felt that their careers were threatened. Kofsky himself, however, preferred to regard opposition to the New Music as the result of racism – an argument which, while probably true in the case of some down beat contributors, implicitly rules out any negative criticism of the music by non-blacks.

In any case, not all the opponents of the avant-garde were white jazz critics by any means. Coltrane’s former employer Miles Davis, for example, dismissed a recording by pianist Cecil Taylor as “sad shit”, reacted to a performance by Ornette Coleman with the remark that the alto saxophonist was clearly suffering from psychological problems, and as Nisenson points out “expressed disdain for much of Coltrane’s later work”. Composer/bassist Charles Mingus, who gave the young iconoclasts a boost in the early ’60s by including Eric Dolphy in his group, eventually turned against the New Music because of its insistence on a complete rupture with the established jazz tradition. Mingus took to hiring conventional bebop-influenced musicians and recording Duke Ellington compositions and other standards in protest against what he saw as the excesses of the New Wave.

As Lewis Porter recounts in his 1998 study John Coltrane: His Life and Music, even members of Coltrane’s own group were antagonised by the extreme free-form character of his later music. Pianist McCoy Tyner, who had been with Coltrane for over five years, left the group at the end of 1965, to be followed by longtime drummer Elvin Jones, after both become frustrated at the group’s musical direction. They gave almost identical reasons for quitting – that the music had become “a lot of noise” and that they couldn’t hear what anyone else in the group was playing.

The sheer ferocity of improvisations by Coltrane and his new front-line partner, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, together with the absence of a regular rhythmic pulse after Rashied Ali took over the drum stool from Elvin Jones, did not make for easy listening. Audiences, black as well as white, often reacted badly to the music and there are reports of walkouts at the group’s 1966 concerts. Some might say that the music Coltrane was creating at this time should be seen less as an expression of the black community than as a product of the LSD which he regularly took before performing.

By the end of 1960s the New Wave was in decline, and many of its participants subsequently withdrew from music. Kofsky identifies several factors here – in particular the loss of the movement’s leading figure, with Coltrane’s premature death in 1967, and more generally the rightward shift of US society after the 1960s, which did not provide favourable conditions for revolutions, musical or otherwise. But it could also be argued that, by the time Coltrane died, the New Music had reached an impasse stylistically and had alienated the majority of its audience in the pursuit of total improvisational freedom. Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, whom Kofsky rates second only to Coltrane as a hero of the jazz revolution, turned away from free improvisation in the late ’60s and began performing soul-influenced music in a vain attempt to win popular acceptance. When the next (and, it would now seem, the last) stylistic transformation of jazz, the so-called fusion movement, was launched by Miles Davis at the end of that decade, it drew much of its inspiration from “progressive” rock and owed relatively little to Coltrane’s innovations.

For my money, John Coltrane was a genius and almost everything he created bore the mark of greatness. But this does not remove the need for balanced criticism of his work. From the time that he adopted the “sheets of sound” approach in the late 1950s, as a means of overcoming the restrictions of chord-based playing, the intensity of his performances often trod a fine line between hypnotic and monotonous. The tendency became more notable in the early ’60s, when Coltrane progressed from chordal to modal improvisation, and increased still further with the free style of the late period. This is not to argue against experimentation and innovation, but rather to recognise that there was a price to be paid for increased improvisational freedom, in the weakening of formal structures and the potential loss of musical focus. The fact is that sometimes Coltrane’s experiments worked and sometimes they didn’t. It is surely possible for jazz critics, even white ones, to have a view on this, and to make negative judgments on certain aspects of Coltrane’s music, without necessarily demonstrating racist bias against African-American culture.

Although I find much of Frank Kofsky’s book quite irritating to read, there is no question but that he was on the right side, with his hatred of capitalism and his sympathy for the oppressed. Moreover, he was not afraid to put his political principles into practice. In the preface to the book, Kofsky refers to his long battle during the 1970s with his employers at the history faculty of California State University, who tried to deny him tenure on the grounds that he was “unduly pro-black”. Although he eventually won this fight, in retaliation he was removed as a lecturer from the course on the history of African-American music which he himself had been responsible for introducing into the curriculum.

Nor would I deny that Kofsky’s “sociological” approach to music criticism could yield positive results. Chapter 3 of John Coltrane, “The forerunners resist establishment repression, 1958-1963”, is an example of this. One of the best sections of the book, it provides a stirring account of the early challenges to racism by musicians such as Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

But, overall, the crude determinism of Kofsky’s analysis is counter-productive. If this is Marxist music criticism, I am forced to conclude, then I am not a Marxist music critic. A real study of the jazz revolution of the 1960s, of its musical innovations and its place in the broader social and political context of African-American history, remains to be written.

Published in What Next? in 1999