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   Vol. 67/No. 19           June 9, 2003  
Jazz: Black music, white business
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below are excerpts from Black Music, White Business by Frank Kofsky, one of Pathfinder’s June books of the month. This section is taken from chapter one, “The Political Economy of Jazz Then and Now.” Copyright © 1998 Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.

An inquiry more concerned to reveal than to conceal the fundamental nature of the political economy of jazz would necessarily be compelled to explore such questions as alienation, underemployment, and racist contempt for black music; powerlessness and the qualitatively heightened exploitation of the black artist; the double standard for black versus white art music in the recording industry; ideological mystification in the jazz world; and so on. In the remaining pages of this introduction, I will merely sketch in broad strokes an outline of each of these aspects of the political economy of jazz, reserving a more complete discussion for the chapters that follow.

Alienation. The essence of the political economy of jazz has never been stated with greater succinctness than in saxophonist Archie Shepp’s aphorism, “You own the music and we make it.” Further clarification, should any be needed, comes from the comment of Rex Stewart I quoted earlier: “Where the control is, the money is. Do you see any of us running any record companies, booking agencies, radio stations, music magazines?”

The technical term for this phenomenon, in which the ultimate disposition of the fruits of a person’s labor is in the hands of his employer, is alienation. In the classic 19th-century sense in which the word is still used today, alienation occurs because the employer and not the worker controls both the means of production (factories, machines, tools, and the like) and the products manufactured by human labor through the operation of these means. A jazz artist, of course, does own the tools of his trade, so to speak, but is nonetheless alienated from what he himself has created by the fact that he must depend on those who control the means of distribution—nightclubs, festivals, concerts, radio stations and, above all else, booking agencies and recording companies—in order to bring his music before the public to earn a livelihood from it.

Two consequences flow directly from this situation: (1) the artistry of the jazz musician operates primarily to enrich not its possessor, but those white executives who own and/or manage the means of production and distribution within the political economy of jazz; and (2) the decisions of such owners and managers, particularly those involved in the recording industry, are absolutely crucial in determining both the total amount of employment for black musicians and which specific musicians will be granted access to it….

Even though black musicians themselves do not ordinarily employ the term “alienation,” one should not make the mistake of thinking that they are unaware of the phenomenon. Thus, saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman told author A.B. Spellman that

the problem in this business is that you don’t own your own product. If you record, it’s the record company that owns it; if you play at a club, it’s the nightclub owners who charge people to listen to you, and then they tell you your music is not catching on. Let’s say I’ve made eight albums; if one company owns six of them and the other owns two, then who do you think made the most money from them? Me or the two companies?...

This has been my greatest problem — being shortchanged because I’m a Negro, not because I can’t produce. Here I am being used as a Negro who can play jazz, and all the people I recorded for and worked for act as if they own me and my product. They have been guilty of making me believe I shouldn’t have the profits from my product simply because they own the channels of production [my italics].... They act like I owe them something for letting me express myself with my music, like the artist is supposed to suffer and not to live in clean, comfortablesituations.... The insanity of living in America is that ownership is really strength. It’s who owns who’s strongest in America.... That’s why it’s so hard to lend your music to that kind of existence.

Underemployment, contempt. The second most important fact to bear in mind is that, largely as a consequence of the alienated position of the jazz artist, un- and underemployment are chronic afflictions with which he must live and attempt to work (see chapters 3 and 4 for more on this subject). Which is to say that the persistent denial of a chance to earn a decent living comes about for jazz artists not primarily because of the prevailing conditions, but rather because of the attitudes toward jazz and black music generally of the white executives who control the means of producing and distributing it….

Powerlessness and qualitatively heightened exploitation. It is a truism in labor history that the ability of workers to improve the conditions under which they toil is always least during periods of high unemployment. In jazz, such periods are the rule. As a result, jazz musicians are perennially in the position of having to sell their creativity in a buyers’ market, a state of affairs that, as they and the white executives who profit from their talents both are aware, drastically reduces their power to bargain for the kind of treatment that befits a serious musical artist….

While living in Los Angeles in 1946, saxophonist Charlie Parker, the founding father of bebop, underwent a psychological breakdown, was arrested and then sentenced for six months to Camarillo State Hospital for the mentally ill. As the period of his court-ordered confinement wore on, Parker became increasingly restive and began threatening to attempt escape. To forestall that possibility, Ross Russell, the owner of Dial Records, a company whose raison d’ętre was to record Parker’s music, “dug through the state mental hygiene code and found an alternative: upon recommendation of a board in Sacramento, it was possible for an [out-of-state] inmate to be released into the custody of an approved California resident.”

Accordingly, after arranging for the necessary bureaucratic paper-shuffling, Russell was able to have the saxophonist discharged in his custody. Before Parker was released, however, Russell made certain to obtain, as a quid pro quo, the artist’s signature on a renewal of his exclusive recording contract with Dial. Not that this prevented the executive from complaining subsequently, with considerable disingenuousness, that “this matter” became “the source of later bad feeling, Charlie contending that I ‘wouldn’t let him out until he signed the paper.’ ”  
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