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

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He wants to stay away from my “philosophical and sociological conclusions,” even though statements like the one about jazz being “the most original and potent expression our century has produced” certainly come from the stock of cultural philosophy; in truth, I only wrote my essay to cut the musical ground out from under them. But where I go beyond the musical facts, Berendt plays dumb. I had emphasized what he holds against me as a devastating observation – namely, that in the European dictatorships of both stripes – jazz was proscribed as decadent, and had merely hinted at the anthropological prerequisites that allowed jazz to gain a footing as a mass phenomenon: the sadomasochistic ones. Independent of me, though very analogously, Sargeant wrote that jazz is “a ‘get together’ art for ‘regular fellows.’ In fact it emphasizes their very ‘regularity’ by submerging individual consciousness in a sort of mass self-hypnotism ... In the social dimension of jazz, the individual will submits, and men become not only equal but virtually indistinguishable.“ Berendt, who denies that I have “nerve,” does not sense that all moments of deviation in jazz serve conformism. I fear that in his cluelessness he understood the ritual as little as Parcival, for example, did the one at the end of the first act. Isn’t it romantic?

Since Berendt, when it comes to the Negroes, eventually argues ad hominem, he must allow me to speak for myself and point out to him that I am largely responsible for the most widely discussed American book about an understanding of race prejudice (1). He can believe me when I say that I don’t pride myself on this success, but to protect the Negroes against my white arrogance – that of someone driven out by Hitler, no less – is grotesque. I’d rather try, as much as my weak powers permit, to protect the Negroes against the humiliation they suffer when their expressive capacity is misused as the achievement of eccentric clowns. I know that there are honestly protesting people hungry for freedom among the fans: my essay mentions that what is “excessive, rebellious in jazz . . . is still being felt.” I am happy to count Berendt among those who respond precisely to this. But I think that their longing, perhaps as a result of the abominable level of musical education that prevails in the world, is being redirected into a false originality and guided in an authoritarian manner. Over the last few centuries, music has lost the traits of the services that previously kept it in shackles. Is it to be thrown back upon its heteronomous stage? Are we to accept its mere submissiveness as the bond of collective courtesy? Is it not an insult to the Negroes to psychologically mobilize their past slave existence to make them fit for such services? But that is being done also where people dance to jazz – and in the Savoy in Harlem, there is dancing. Jazz is bad because it enjoys the traces of what was done to the Negroes and against which Berendt rages. I have no prejudice against the Negroes, except that they differ from whites in nothing but color.

Theodor W. Adorno

Source: Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken [Merkur. German Newspaper for European Thought], Nr. 67, 7. Jahrgang, 9. Heft (Stuttgart, 1953), pp. 887-93.

Translation: Thomas Dunlap

(1) T. W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sandord: The Authoritarian Personality (New York, 1950). Published in the series “Studies in Prejudice,” edited by Max Horkheimer and Samuel Flowerman.

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