Negro life.. as created through jazz, is a contradiction between worship of the present, freedom, and joy, and the realization of the futureless future, restraint, and suffering – which the American way of life has bestowed atop the negro. The cry of joy and suffering in jazz, is then based on the ever-present contradiction between freedom and restraint. The feeling of freedom is based on the negro’s view of what life in America should be, while the feeling of restraint is based on the actual inhuman situation in which the negro finds himself.
This statement, which emerges from the midst of Edward Bland’s 1959 film – The Cry of Jazz, flays America to its core. It is the conceptual architecture from which the film grows, and the fact which it attempts to translate – that jazz is an African American art-form, and a direct extension of the social realities inflicted upon that culture. It is a byproduct of the suffering of black America. It’s tragedy – like many of the images captured within the film, is that little has changed in American in more than half a century. Though jazz is no longer the dominant vehicle for the African American cultural voice, the statement’s basic truths hold fast. Substituting the word hip-hop, or any number of other musics or art-forms, snaps it into focus within the present day.
Edward Bland’s great work – clocking in at a just over half an hour, carries a walloping punch. It is among the most important and controversial American films ever made. An early example of independent black film-making, and far from art for art’s sake, The Cry of Jazz is among the first public gestures to jointly condemn white America for gross racial injustices, and its cultural appropriation of jazz. Though the film made a hell of a splash, and is now preserved by the Library of Congress, it seems its message did little good. Both conditions still haunt us today.
Bland’s subjects remain painfully complex. While joining social injustice, bigotry, and music was the film’s primary concern, and its statements are equally true in the present day, it is also important to recognize their immediate contexts, and to address them on their own terms. The Cry of Jazz is an early gesture of radical black nationalism – a movement which came to hold great cultural sway over the coming decades. While the film attempts to draw attention to extreme racial polarities of American life, it is far more ahead of its time than immediately apparent. The forms of political thought orbiting around race, which dominated the late 60’s and 70’s, generally grew out a recognition of the futility in attempting social equality and integration. They often were separatist – seeking to establish internal support and self-determination for African American society, rather than participation and complicity with the country’s daily and economic life – the byproducts of endless rejection and persecution, coupled with the reconciliation of truths behind the Civil Rights movement’s failure to achieve great social change. Though embedded within very problematic views – white people don’t have souls, Bland proposes that people of color are America’s future – an idea which has only been embraced widely in recent years. Granted his statements predate the larger body of the civil rights movement, and thus the sense of disillusionment and frustrating which its failures bred, but there is an important optimism within the anger of the film. Bland saw a possible and beautiful future, far ahead.
The politics of The Cry of Jazz are everything, though certainly not without fault, and when applied to its musical subject, generally more complex than the film allows. When facing the history of jazz, questions of race, authorship, authenticity, and thus cultural appropriation, are more than a century old. There are multiple histories, many of which conflict. The origins of jazz are unquestionably a product of African American life and culture. There is also no question – beginning in its earliest days, that this music was explicitly appropriated by other cultures – be those white Americans, or by an incredibly diverse range of people’s from across the globe. In these cases, intention and the character of discourse become crucial. Shortly after jazz emerged, white American musicians attempted to steal the form for their own gain – to co-opt, and deny its roots. This was repeated in nearly every instance that music evolved, advanced, and changed. It is this reality (and sin) that Bland is directly addressing. In his need to drive home the point, he fails to acknowledge that the history of jazz is not entirely binary – made up of black innovators, and white thieves. When addressing innovation specifically, particularly the large paradigm shifting creative gestures, credit is almost entirely due to black artists – Joplin, Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Monk, Davis, Coltrane, Coleman, etc. With that established, it is equally important to remember that most of these artists saw beyond race – often collaborating, or entering into discourse and healthy competition, with white peers. Jazz was one of the first art-forms to establish a language beyond racial lines. Music trumped all. The musicians and fans of jazz, where among the first to reject the evils of Jim Crow – refusing to let anything stand between them and these sounds.
While much of Bland’s film rings true, its great failure lies within its central idea – his unwillingness to recognize the diverse history of jazz. Once established, each idiom rapidly evolved into a cross-cultural form – realizing culturally unique forms on all corners of the globe. While credit for the origins of each form unquestionably lies with black artists, by linking the authenticity of its creation entirely to African American suffering, Bland denies one of the music’s greatest achievements – the creation of a music which played a great role in the breaking of society’s cultural and racial divisions. Though theft did occur, a music through which so many diverse peoples could freely speak, is worth celebrating on those terms.
History has been kind to The Cry of Jazz. When the film premiered in 1959, audiences and critics on both sides of the fence were extremely divided. Amiri Baraka loved it. Ralph Ellison hated it. When Jonas Mekas organized a viewing and discussion in 1960, the debate became so heated that the police were called. It has been heralded as visionary, and accused of outright racism. To some extent, Bland has cited the rise of cool jazz, and the subsequent death of bebop, as having been a partial motivation for the creation of the film. He saw this shift as a kind of whitewashing of the music – a stripping of its blackness. One can only presume this was a response to the rising popularity of figures like Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, and Stan Getz, rather than a stance against the work of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Miles Davis – those generally credited with its origins. Arguments aside, cool jazz has historically proved to be among the popular of the forms of jazz, and while created by black artists, credit for its inspiration is generally directed toward Bix Beiderbecke – who was white, and Frankie Trumbauer, who was of Native American descent. The idiom might be said to be the seed for greater cross-cultural discourse, flourishing over the coming decades – particularly within the rise of free jazz. Though you can see his point, it is hard to see cool jazz as an entirely whitewashed form. Its presence in history, certainly proves inconvenient for the endurance of Bland’s central ideas.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Cry of Jazz, is its statement of conclusion – that jazz is dead, and that its death is necessary. While this obviously proved to be untrue – 1959 alone offered a great growth in the development of jazz, yielding (among many other seminal albums) Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, the ideas behind Bland’s statement are profound. Because, in his view, the authenticity of jazz is entirely linked to suffering, for African American culture to take its rightful place in sculpting American life, jazz must die with its source. Once again, his optimism shows through.
With that, I leave you with this remarkable, and at times deeply uncomfortable, work of resistance. Well ahead of its time, where ever your beliefs fall, it a profoundly important document – presenting a window into the past as much as the present day, and among the earliest captured moments of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Enjoy.