Ae4. Adorno's critique of jazz
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Why Adorno's critique is relevant to philosophy of jazz
- 3 Introduction to Adorno's aesthetics
- 4 Adorno's aesthetics and how it relates to jazz?
- 5 Assessment of Adorno's critique of jazz
- 6 Overall assessment of Adorno's critique of jazz
- 7 NOTES
Why Adorno's critique is relevant to philosophy of jazz
Adorno has disparaging things to say about jazz. How come? What is it about jazz that Adorno finds so problematic and why?
For a defense of Adorno's critique of jazz see "Th. W. Adorno Defended against His Critics, and Admirers: A Defense of the Critique of Jazz," Michael J. Thompson, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 41, No. 1 (June, 2010), pp. 37-49. Published by: Croatian Musicological Society. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27822862
List of hostile comments by Adorno concerning jazz with replies
- ☞ (A1) “Jazz is not what it "is": Its aesthetic articulation is sparing and can be understood at a glance.”
- ☞ Reply to (A1): Under anyone's reasonable assessment of the claim that jazz has a sparing aesthetic articulation, whatever Adorno intended to mean with his use of the word "sparing," this is false.
- Dictionary.com supplies these meanings for "sparing" when used as an adjective: 1. economical (often followed by in or of), 2. lenient or merciful, 3. scanty; limited. Merriam Webster Dictionary supplies this definition of "sparing" as an adjective: not using or giving a lot of something.
- On any of these readings of "sparing" there is the clear implication of being limited and minimally small. There is probably hardly anything involving the aesthetics properties of anything that can be understood at a glance. Jazz undoubtedly has complex non-sparing aesthetic considerations whether we are talking about performing jazz and its aesthetic properties, or if the aesthetic properties are attributed to jazz as a genre of music. Its aesthetics are complicated and complex and these aesthetic features can certainly not be understood quickly, easily, and with no arguments at a glance.
- Adorno himself seems to agree with the forgoing when he writes that jazz is in need of an analysis: “For the purpose of providing a crude orientation, one could concede that it (jazz) is that type of dance music—whether it be used in an unmediated or slightly stylized form—that has existed since the war and is distinguished from what preceded it by its decidedly modern character, a quality which itself, however, is sorely in need of analysis.” If its aesthetic considerations could be understood at a glance, how much analysis would there need to be of jazz's modernity? If 'modernity' is part of an aesthetic articulation and it needs analysis, then it cannot be understood at a glance. Is there anything valuable that can be completely understood at a glance? It is highly doubtful and shows the strength of the rhetorical devices Adorno tries to get away with in this essay "On Jazz."
Introduction to Adorno's aesthetics
Theodor Adorno Biography
Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) was a German philosopher, sociologist, and composer known for his critical theory of society and someone known for his disparaging remarks about jazz.
➢ What was it about jazz that Adorno objected to? Why does he say what he does about jazz? To what extent do his objections hold true of jazz, or are his analyses off the mark and why or why not?
Adorno's aesthetics and how it relates to jazz?
Assessment of Adorno's critique of jazz
First sentence. Introduction.
What is correct about Adorno's assessment of jazz
What is incorrect about Adorno's assessment of jazz
How does Adorno misunderstand jazz?
Adorno was writing about modern music and jazz from the mid 1920's through the 1960's. He even lived in California for several years before returning to Germany so one would think that he should have had ample exposure to real live jazz. Even the radio is playing a lot of representative jazz selections in the 1930's and 1940's.
Nevertheless, it would still appear that much of what Adorno claims about jazz as a music and genre are way off base. Wikipedia: Theodor Adorno reports that Adorno's musicological orientation regarding what he had to say about jazz would seem to come from all of the axes Adorno wished to grind consistent with his critique of commodifying culture that he perceived jazz music to be guilty of promoting.
“Adorno's reputation as a musicologist has been in steady decline since his death. His sweeping criticisms of jazz and championing of the Second Viennese School in opposition to Stravinsky have caused him to fall out of favor. The distinguished American scholar Richard Taruskin declared Adorno to be "preposterously over-rated." The eminent pianist and critic Charles Rosen saw Adorno's book The Philosophy of New Music as "largely a fraudulent presentation, a work of polemic that pretends to be an objective study." Even a fellow Marxist such as the historian and jazz critic Eric Hobsbawm saw Adorno's writings as containing "some of the stupidest pages ever written about jazz". The British philosopher Roger Scruton saw Adorno as producing "reams of turgid nonsense devoted to showing that the American people are just as alienated as Marxism requires them to be, and that their cheerful life-affirming music is a ‘fetishized’ commodity, expressive of their deep spiritual enslavement to the capitalist machine."” (bold not in original)
What brings these critics to such strong views regarding Adorno's apparent over reach when it came to assessing jazz as a genre or style of music?
Adorno appears to have developed his musicological analysis of what he thought was jazz based on music he heard primarily in Germany that was not of the form of true American jazz.
“Theodor Adomo's writings on jazz remain at best a puzzle, and to many an acute embarrassment. To jazz historians they merely contain 'some of the stupidest pages ever written about jazz' (Hobsbawm 1993, p. 300) and are generally dismissed without further comment. . . . True, if read for their insights into jazz history in the narrow sense of the term, his writings have little to offer today, unless we are willing to believe that the rhythmic achievements of New Orleans Jazz were already present in far more sophisticated form in the music of Brahms, or that Armstrong's instrumental timbre was derived from the lead violinists of the central European cafe concert. . . . Our first step must be to remove two misconceptions associated with Adorno's use of the term 'jazz': first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American. Neither was the case. Because of the peculiar manner in which American popular music was introduced into Weimar Germany, Adomo could not have known that when he took up his pen to polemicise against jazz he was writing about a specifically German brand of music. Adorno's jazz writings, although post-dating the Weimar Republic, must be read within the context of Weimar Germany's commercial music scene as a whole, a context largely forgotten today and, due to the predations of recent history, extremely difficult to reconstruct. (bold not in original)
Some of the vitriol that Adorno liked to spew about jazz lies apparent in his remarks in this essay,
List of what Adorno got wrong about jazz
It is a really long list because, generally speaking, Adorno did not understand or appreciate true jazz from 1925 through 1950. The later it gets in the actual history of jazz the more Adorno's claims about jazz are blatantly false. If anything, even when he might have known better, Adorno never rescinded most of these positions nor took them back. If anything, he tended to double down on a mistakenly confused position about modern jazz. First is presented a list of Adorno's claims about jazz followed by quotational evidence that shows Adorno actually held these positions. Next, reasons and evidence are given to explain why each of these Adorno claims are mistaken about actual jazz.
- (Ad1) Jazz is a simple music.
- (Ad2) Jazz suppresses individual expression and creativity.
- (Ad3) Jazz music supports fascism.
- (Ad4) Jazz music was not primarily developed by African Americans and people of color.
- (Ad5) All of the significant musical features found in jazz were already anticipated and usually explored in a vastly superior way in earlier musical genres.
- (Ad6) There is not much musical differences between "sweet" jazz and "hot swinging" jazz.
- (Ad7) Jazz is a commercial music and supports the commodification of culture.
- (Ad8) Jazz improvisation has extremely restricted limits regarding creativity of musical and individual expression.
- (Ad9) Jazz .
Overall assessment of Adorno's critique of jazz
APPENDIX: "Jazz," Theodor W. Adorno, Encyclopedia of the Arts, ed. D. Runes and H. Shrikel, New York, 1942, pp. 511-513. Original German in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. XVIII, 1984, pp. 70-73
Jazz. A style of dance music, played by a smaller or larger ensemble, the band, which began in the U. S. A. at the time of World War I and has since spread over the whole world. This style is primarily one of performance. It referred originally to improvisatory circumscriptions, particularly rhythmical ones, of pre-given, generally rather simple compositions. These improvisations were done either by individual players or by the whole ensemble. In commercial practice, improvisation has more and more disappeared. It has been replaced by the jazz arrangement, by the sometimes very sophisticated adaptation of the basic tunes by specialists, either as stock arrangements for general use or as special arrangements for particular bands. The basic materials of these arrangements, however, are, with few exceptions, either older established hit tunes or the current ones of the day, “plugged” and exploited by a small group of publishers. Very often, these tunes as such have very little to do with jazz style proper. They may be treated in many different ways. An exception is only the so-called “rhythm numbers” which are from the very beginning conceived in terms of jazz performance.
The most obvious characteristic of jazz is the prevalence of the syncope which may be expanded in such a way that the syncopations form a kind of new symmetry or “pseudo-measures” among themselves. Even the simplest cake-walk rhythm may be interpreted in terms of pseudo-measures; i.e., 3/16 4- 3/16 -|- 2/16, within a 2/4 measure. What distinguishes jazz, however, are not these syncopations as such,—which are the equivalent of the element of rhythmical improvisation—but rather their relation to the ground beats which throughout the piece are rigidly maintained in a machine-like manner against the syncopated improvisations. These ground beats are either actually marked (in the bass drum part and by pizzicati in the double bass part) or they are implicitly understood and observed. The idea of jazz as well as its understanding are bound up with the simultaneous appearance of something inexorably regular and of something that breaks away from this regularity—in a stumbling manner, as it were—only to ever come back to safe rhythmical ground again. One might say that jazz subjects the performer as well as the listener to an incessant test: how far his musical consciousness is capable of snapping with the fingers at the norm without ever abandoning it seriously. This double character is peculiar to jazz in all its elements. Even the sound which “vocalizes” the instruments, making the mechanical musical elements subjectively vibrate without ever breaking the command of these elements, manifests the same intention.
Historically, the jazz style was engendered partly by the folk music of American Negroes (spirituals and blues), partly by syncopated American ditties which can be traced back to the earlier part of the 19th century. Since Winthrop Sargeant published his careful and learned book, Hot and Hybrid, the Negro origins of jazz are clarified and identified in all technical details. At the same time, however, this book repudiated the belief in the primitive spontaneity of present-day jazz.
With regard to the final establishment of the style, the introduction of step dance, defining the ground beats in terms of marching, must have been of the utmost importance. The organization of the jazz band is akin to that of the military band. The sentimental features of jazz expression are derived from salon music; its particular harmonic stimuli coming from musical impressionism. The idea of jazz in a somewhat broader sense, is most intimately related to that of the eccentric clown and the American slapstick and film comedy. All the latter aspects of jazz, however, have so far been much less stressed by musicology than the folk art aspects. Yet, as far as the basic structure of melody, harmony, and metrics is concerned, jazz stands absolutely on the level of traditional dance music which it has embellished but has not essentially changed. Its innovations belong mainly to the sphere of rhythmical and instrumental tricks. In particular, the instrumental techniques of the clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, and percussion instruments are indebted to jazz.
All the musical essentials of jazz could already be found in ragtime, before World War I. Ragtime, however, was primarily limited to the piano. The first jazz fad was brought about by the appearance of the first jazz bands. At that time also, the name “jazz” was introduced. Since then the basic idea and the rules of the game have settled. Hence, it is difficult to speak of a “history” of jazz in the proper sense.
The changes it undergoes are comparable rather to those which fashions in clothes undergo. They are engendered chiefly by the desire to stimulate consumption of what remains ever the same by constantly changing its mode of occurrence; each such change being rigorously stylized and made as obligatory as possible.
With the increasing technological and economic concentration of the popular music industry and the standardization of its products, the stylistic changes of jazz often terminate in mere manipulations for advertising purposes.
As far as there are any genuine developmental tendencies within jazz, they are bound up with this very tendency, towards concentration and standardization, and with the desire to escape this tendency. The practices of the radio and recording industries have smoothed jazz more and more, have tamed its “shocking” features which never went very far anyway. Today, jazz practice tends towards two extremes. On the one hand, all its “corners” are being blunted, all its “rawness” is being sacrificed to a round, mellow, often over-sweetened sound. On the other hand, there is a trend to expand syncopation and rhythmical somersaults into a smart, virtuoso trick system that combines rhythmical sophistication and harmlessness. The advertising slogans “sweet” and “swing” refer to these two extremes. In practice, the difference is often much smaller than one would expect. Swing was first a counter-tendency against standardization and "smoothing" and originated with the best bands aiming at a bolder and more spontaneous style of performance. It was seized, however, at once by business.
Since Debussy the influence of jazz upon the art music of both continents has been considerable. It cannot be disputed that many “serious” composers tried to escape their isolation and get in touch with the public by experimenting with the highly successful and technically stimulating new kind of dance music. Even within autonomous production there is almost no composer who did not somehow react to the impulse of jazz. This is not only due to the so-called mood of the time and the supposed up-to-dateness of jazz but also to purely musical reasons. In serious music the emancipation from tonality and its intrinsic symmetries, and especially the emancipation from the accent upon the down-beat, met the idea of jazz half-way. Mention may be made of Milhaud (Le Boeuf sur le Toil), Hindemith (Kammermusik op, 24, No. 1 ; Suite 1922), Krentk (Jonny spielt auf), and Kurt Weill (whose Dreigroschenoper was played from the beginning in jazz arrangements). The most important results of the process between art music and jazz, however, are probably Stravinsky's "Ragtime and Piano Rag Music"; and above all, his "Histoire du Soldat," in the latter, the whole technique of jazz, particularly that of percussion, is put into the service of a genuine intention of composing which reveals, as it were, the hidden meaning of jazz itself. — T.W.A. (Theodor W. Adorno) (bold and bold italic not in original)
- "On Jazz," Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse Vol. 12, No. 1, A Special issue on Music (Fall-Winter 1989-90), p. 47, bold and bold italic not in original.
- "On Jazz," Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse Vol. 12, No. 1, A Special issue on Music (Fall-Winter 1989-90), p. 45, bold and bold italic not in original.
- Wikipedia: Theodor Adorno,"Music," sixth paragraph.
- "The Jazz Essays of Theodor Adorno: Some Thoughts on Jazz Reception in Weimar Germany," J. Bradford Robinson, Popular Music, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 1-25. Published by Cambridge University Press.