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Pro and contra Jazz: Joachim-Ernst Behrendt and Theodor W. Adorno (1953)

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In music that is improvised and not composed, the themes must come from somewhere, after all. The question is: from where? If jazz musicians took them from concert music, Adorno would be the first to protest. And so the jazz musicians take them from pop songs. But lo and behold, here too he protests. At this point, the nature of his dialectic becomes apparent. We see it repeatedly: if jazz music is the expression of freedom, it becomes the “gesture of rebellion;” if it is the expression of fitting in, it becomes “blind obedience;” if it is both, the “sadomasochistic type” is invoked, “who rebels against the father figure while at the same time secretly admiring him. . .“

Adorno, of course, denies the improvisational character of jazz outright. Does he not know that virtually no great jazz musician has played the same solo twice? There are recordings of Louis Armstrong from the twenties or Charlie Parker from the forties which had to be repeated several times in succession on the same day because of some technical problem and all of which were later released as records: we can see there that none of the musicians, in the various, successively recorded improvisations on the same theme, played the same thing even for a single measure. Where, in real jazz, does one find what he calls “carefully rehearsed with machine-like precision?” I would like to hear a single, specific example.

In fact: where are the examples? He accuses the jazz “fanatics” of being “hardly able” to “make their case in precise, technical-musical terms” – but where are these terms in Adorno’s essay? The reference to the “clever adolescents in America” in a passage where one expects clear proof that there is no longer improvisation in jazz: “that is silliness”.

Finally, the reference to the parallelism between jazz and dictatorship is downright Mephistophelian. For the second time in fifteen years, there are people in central Europe who live in constant fear for their lives simply because they like to hear or play jazz, and along comes Adorno and thinks he can turn this into the exact opposite, just because he claims as much? Is his musical “nerve” in such bad shape that he does not hear in every measure of jazz how absolutely this music “inoculates” against any totalitarianism? Has one ever seen a functionary or militarist who is simultaneously a jazz fan? Where does the military’s deeply rooted dislike of jazz come from? It is found not only in Europe. It was already found in the early years of jazz, when America entered the First World War and the then-capital of jazz, New Orleans, was declared a military port of the American navy. In the face of such facts, the observation that “there is a good reason” why the jazz band “is derived from military music” is a cheap trick. The reason why the instruments in a jazz band are derived from those in a marching band is that the Negroes of North America did not see that “white music” had another kind of ensemble. For the bearers of white music have always regarded it as their noblest task to acquaint foreign people with their culture by way of military music.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not supposed to be an homage to jazz. One can be for or against it. It’s just that one should not speak of it as something “there is nothing to understand about . . .” For if that’s the case, why are we talking in the first place?

Joachim-Ernst Berendt

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