Viewing musicians as exploited workers and as beleaguered contractors helps contribute to a better understanding of their art form and art more generally.
“Take ‘be-bop’ — officialdom in Manhattan was objecting to heterosexual dancing across racial lines and, thus, the music morphed from a ‘dancing’ music to a ‘listening’ music.”
Dodging violent attacks by racist and drunken “fans,” resisting pressure from drug-peddling bosses and inhaling smoke for hours in dank clubs comprised the “common plight” of jazz musicians in the early 20th century, says historian Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music. In this interview with Truthout, Horne describes the role of racism in the development of jazz, the gulf between its domestic and international reception; and why creativity, improvisation and technical mastery were a means of survival for its performers.
Anton Woronczuk: Can you imagine a more dangerous profession than being a jazz musician in the United States during the 20th century?
Gerald Horne: Certainly, being a “jazz” musician in the first decades of the 20th century was probably the most dangerous profession in the arts and, along with coal mining, one of the most dangerous jobs of all. Inhaling cigarette smoke in dank clubs, being plied with alcohol and other controlled substances by unscrupulous bosses of clubs and record labels alike, being attacked violently by racist “fans” — all this and worse was part of the common plight of these artists.
Jazz and Justice looks at the history of jazz by understanding musicians as workers. What does this approach reveal about the production of this art form and the experiences of those who made it?
Viewing musicians as exploited workers and as beleaguered contractors, helps — I think — contribute to a better understanding of their art form and art more generally, both of which often are removed from the muck of materialist analysis and, instead, analyzed all too subjectively as a “thing in itself,” disengaged from the mode of production and productive forces more generally. Perhaps this subjectivity is understandable given the angelic and melodious sounds produced by these artists, which can easily lure the unwary into thinking there is something “otherworldly” about the process: this is both true — and false.
Certain musical riffs…were drawn from the “rat-tat-tat” of gunshots, a not infrequent sound heard in the often mob-controlled clubs where artists were compelled to perform…