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

In the fall of 1953, the cultural philosopher and music theorist Theodor W. Adorno, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1938 and had returned to Frankfurt to join the Institute for Social Research in 1949, engaged in a controversial public exchange with music journalist Joachim-Ernst Berendt over the merits of jazz. Berendt saw American jazz as the most original musical achievement of the twentieth century and emphasized the demanding nature of its complex, improvisation-based structures. Adorno, on the other hand, tended to see jazz as a form of modern pop and accused it of being conventional and conformist. The two also disagreed on the nature of jazz’s relationship to totalitarianism. Berendt believed that jazz represented a critique of totalitarianism, pointing to the persecution of jazz fans under the Nazi regime and in East Germany, whereas Adorno’s argued that jazz promoted a kind of mass enthusiasm similar to that found in totalitarian systems.

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Pro and contra JAZZ

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Jazz has always been music by the few for the few, while pop music probably has the largest audience of anything today. Adorno says that jazz is a thing “where there is nothing to understand but rules.” Well, at least this much should be understood – that one should know what one is talking about if one says jazz. As for the rules, they exist in every art and especially in every musical style. If they did not exist in jazz, Adorno would be the first to accuse it of a “lack of order.” There is a reason why the civilized languages have the same word for making music and playing: jouer, play, spielen . . .

The keyword of Adorno’s criticism is found in line seven of his article, where he speaks of the “the most simple melodic, harmonic, metric, and formal structure” of jazz.

Let us begin with the harmonic structure. In the modern styles of jazz it corresponds to that of the symphonic music of a Stravinsky or Hindemith. The relationship among the chords in these jazz styles is explained by the same laws that Hindemith drew up in his “Craft of Composition.” In both, the simultaneously normal and diminished third – in symphonic music as the “neutral third,” in jazz as “blue notes” – and the diminished fifth – in Hindemith as tritonus, in jazz as “flatted fifth” – play the same crucial role. The harmony characterized in this way is among the most complicated harmonic systems known to the history of music. The effect of the wrong-note-blaring clarinet (7 pages later) is then resolved by itself: in authentic, good jazz there is not a single note that could not be fully explained by either the old functional-harmonic or by Hindemith’s system.

As for the “most simple metric structure,” which Adorno addresses again and again with words like “stubborn” and “syncopation trick,” the most complicated rhythmicists of twentieth-century concert music have paid tribute to jazz precisely because of the virtuosity with which five or six or even more different rhythms are repeatedly overlaid in it. This kind of layering of various rhythms is largely unknown in Europe’s great symphonic music. It exists at most in the music of Africa and a few East Asian and Indonesian musical cultures, which are conceived from the standpoint of rhythm.

Jazz layers rhythm with the same virtuosity with which melodies were layered in Baroque or harmonies in the late Romantic period. Fritz Ursinger has said of these layerings: “What makes jazz into the rhythmically most fascinating contemporary music is the artistic combination – nothing short of brilliant – of constraint and freedom.“ Since Adorno has no explanation for this combination, he falls back on analytical psychology and the “sadomasochistic type.” We have better witnesses to what is real and what is sadomasochistic in the Negroes’ struggle for freedom and in their music: Faulkner on the side of the whites, Langston Hughes on the side of the Negroes. Has white civilization reached the point where a people whom the whites raised as servants, slaves, and serfs, and very deliberately kept at this social level, must then be accused of having a predisposition to the development of sadomasochistic types because of their “readiness to blind obedience”? Anyone who has ever had a black servant or has lived in a Negro family knows the difference between helpful service and “blind obedience.”

Summing up, what remains, then, of Adorno’s claim that jazz has “the simplest metrical structure”? There was already an era in which the tempo change was the very sin against the spirit of music: the Baroque. It has never occurred to me with any of Bach’s works that “the prohibition against altering the basic meter in a living manner as the piece progresses” constrained music-making. Adorno is applying the criteria of Romantic music to jazz. You cannot do this any more than you can apply the criteria of pop music to it. What you constantly find here are such confusions of criteria.

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