Toward an ethical aesthetics

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Toward an ethical aesthetics a study of Levinas, mid twentieth-century avant-garde jazz and poetry
Green, Roger Kurt
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xii, 138 leaves : ; 28 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
1900 - 1999 ( fast )
Avant-garde (Aesthetics) -- History -- 20th century ( lcsh )
Art -- Moral and ethical aspects ( lcsh )
Aesthetics ( fast )
Art -- Moral and ethical aspects ( fast )
Avant-garde (Aesthetics) ( fast )
History. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 132-138).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Roger Kurt Green.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
60409630 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L58 2004m G73 ( lcc )

Full Text
Roger Kurt Green
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 2000
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities

2004 by Roger Green
All rights reserved.

This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree has been approved
Jake Adam York
Myra Bookman
Rob Metcalf
Ron Miles

Green, Roger K. (Master of Humanities)
Toward an Ethical Aesthetics: A Study of Levinas, Mid Twentieth Century
Avant-garde Jazz and Poetry
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Jake Adam York
Toward an Ethical Aesthetics describes, through the philosophy of
Emmanuel Levinas, the ethical imagination that animates avant-garde jazz and
New York School poetry. These two arts exhibit a radically subjective turn.
Critics have misunderstood, misrepresented, or ignored the subjective method
because it demands more engagement from audiences. The philosophy, music
and poetry have been marginalized, especially in academic discussions, as a
result. This work seeks to repair previous critical misunderstandings and to point
toward a more ethically aware aesthetic that is implied in the two subject areas.
While the music and poetry are not presented as more ethical ways to
create than others, their place in their respective historical traditions and their
major innovations can be heard as ethical reactions to their traditions. For this
reason, it is important to see avant-garde jazz and New York School poetry as part
of larger traditions as opposed to breaks from those traditions. Because this has
been a particular problem with avant-garde jazz, a large amount of space is given
to jazz history as an increasing movement toward subjective expression. The first
step toward a more ethical aesthetic is for critics to have a more inclusive
approach per Levinas, avant-garde jazz, and New York School poetry with regard
to academic tradition. They cannot continue to be obscured just because they
challenge more objectively determined criteria.
In the end, Toward an Ethical Aesthetics calls for a collapse of fixed roles
among artists and critics. Because the artists approaches are interdisciplinary,
the criticism must be so as well. Each subject area informs the others, but

there is so much restorative work needed for critical approaches to these subjects
that this work can only be a point of departure for more ambitious studies.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Jake Adam York

Thank you to everyone who at one time or another during the process of
writing this took time to discuss my thesis with me. Thank you to my
committee members and teachers: Myra Bookman, Rob Metcalf, Ron Miles,
and especially Jake Adam York, whose interest in my progress and thoughts
has been most encouraging.

HISTORY.................................................... 1
. Levinas, Phenomenology, and the Ethical Relationship.6
Levinasian Framework in the Creative Context.........13
2. APPROACHINGAVANT-GARDE ETHICS........................ 16
Avant-garde Musicians and Form.......................18
Form and Continuity..................................22
Evolution, Community, and Ethics.....................27
Performance Versus Composition.......................32
Performance and Community............................33
The Critic as Hero.................................36
Summing Up Critical Problems.........................43
Post-Sixties Criticism: The Identity Problem.........44
Attempts to Engage the Problems......................46
Connecting to Less Noticed Academic Areas............50
3. SHIFTING THE LOCATION OF FORM.........................54

The Artist Audience Relationship.................66
TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETRY...............................74
The Background Milieu of the New York School.......84
Process and Transport..............................91
The Aesthetic Benefits of the Subjective Turn and its Relation
to Criticism................................. 95
The Role of the Ethically Minded Critic............97
The Role of the Artist........................... 101
Ashberys Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror........102
5. CONCLUSIONS....................................... 110
WORKS CITED................................................. 132

Toward an Ethical Aesthetics is a work in progress that should be read as
an introduction to underlying ethics in the aesthetic of mid-to-late Twentieth-
Century avant-garde art. At best, it can point out an ethical element that
traditional criticism has either ignored or failed to recognize. It is unique in its
attempt to apply Levinass ethical ideas to aesthetics and in a sense make them
practicable in a hermeneutic way. Because Levinas avoids the realm of the said
(concrete explanation and definition), this task is a difficult one. It is important to
point out from the outset that both the language and the methods of explanation
provided are seeking a balance between Levinasian philosophy and avant-garde
jazz and poetry in the late 1950s and early 1960s and to ask that the work not be
viewed as criticism in any traditional sense. While I fully expect that whoever
reads this will be critical of it, lean only humbly ask that judgment be suspended
as long as possible, not in order to avoid accountability but instead so the reader
may get a complete sense of what all three subjects already implicitly ask of their
If there is one common thread linking Levinas, avant-garde jazz, and New
York School poetry, it is that they all implicitly evade traditional criticism. They
challenge existing discourse and are often ignored or seen as iconoclastic for their
refusal to play by the rules of the established game. When I set out to write this
project, I saw a possibility for a new kind of criticism, but it seems to me now that
what I saw is so foreign to the contemporary idea of criticism that I am wary of
even calling it criticism. I cannot provide rules of engagement for works of art.
Instead, I can say that we have not thoroughly explored the process of engaging
creative expression. We construct meaning too quickly, and we neglect the
benefits of lingering and pondering by mistaking these qualities for being idle.
Insofar as the texts that this project studies avoid criticism, they avoid any
construction of meaning that comes too quickly. However, the processual
qualities of the aesthetic works radiate the exigency of response, or as Levinas
would say, the call of the Other. Honest engagements with works of art reveal an
existential transcendence that reveals an underlying ethical relationship. Once we
enter the realm of criticism, we have retreated into the realm of totalized
knowledge where potential is limited.
The challenge is not simply to let things remain in a fluid state, but to
remain engaged with the work, the artist, or the metaphysical realm of Art. To
remain engaged is definitely not to accept a relativism of perspective. Tolerance

does not ignore what it tolerates; it maintains a sort of contact that sustains
difference. The ethical obligation is to a face that is immanently Other, and that is
This work will always feel like it is too much. It is too much; I do not
wish it to be otherwise. It will always fail when it comes to time. In ethics, form
is a necessity that is always a failure. But the ethical relationship itself arises out
of taking form. To be accountable is to take form, to be able to be talked to. But
to take form is also to occupy the would-be space of another. To take form is to
exist in time. This work must eventually take its form.
The struggle with form is yet another reason for the inherent
inconclusiveness in this work. It doesnt want to take form. It often moves on
before there is a complete cadence, and to some extent this is intentional. The
reader inherits the problem of discerning where ambiguity is intentional and
where it is lackadaisical. Ambiguity, when it comes to this kind of subject matter,
and especially Levinas, is inherent and noted by others. For example, in Levinas:
A Guide For the Perplexed, B.C. Hutchens claims:
The reader must settle on a response to Levinass strategy. Although
many commentators insist that hyperbolic language suits Levinass textual
strategy perfectly, they are painfully aware that Levinass strategy is
wittingly self-defeating, that is, it cannot satisfy its own requirements.
Language itself is Levinass essential problem, and yet he must utilize it in
order to express his ideas about this problem. It would be singularly
irresponsible for a thinker to criticize a usage of language yet use language
in precisely that way. Thus, there is something like a linguistic
apologetics at work. One can do nothing but deploy language in order to
criticize language, and even to use language to point out where language
itself is inadequate for the intended criticism. In each case, one can only
strive not to commit the errors one identifies. (5)
The same applies to this work. As a whole, I hope the work provides a good deal
of clarity, but there will be times reading when mental leaps are necessary before
It is my hope that the reader who knows about one area will note affinities
in others and ultimately create meaning for him or herself. If something seems
unclear at first, it is likely that it will be repeated in a different way later in the
work. In this sense, the work is experimental, and it also demands an increased
engagement. If this demand seems self-centered or self-aggrandizing, please
accept my apologies in advance.
The knowledgeable musician may be disappointed to find that I give little
mention to the flurry of debates that surface in the mid-to late-sixties, or that I

spend little time discussing the innovations of many younger musicians. There
are three important reasons for this. First, the elements of the music that have an
affinity with Levinasian ethics are mainly those that deal with formal changes in
the music, not in the issues that arise once traditional form is less present.
Second, the reasons for these changes have been both undocumented and
misunderstood. The critical problem for the rest of the sixties starts at least as
early as Ornette Coleman and probably earlier. Third, in my research I found no
thorough history of the period. There are plenty of articles and chapters of larger
jazz histories on the subject, but most are trying to explain or try to understand
what the musicians were doing. They exist as examples of the critical debate,
which itself is misunderstood. Titles like Wilmers As Serious As Your Life,
Litweilers The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958, Kofskys Black Nationalism
and the Revolution in Music (now re-titled John Coltrane and the Jazz
Revolution) all situate themselves in defense of the artists. Because of them
works like mine do not have to fight for the value of the music, and I am indebted
to them. Still, no thorough scholarly work presents a history of the new music.
Josts Free Jazz provides excellent structural analyses, but little historical
information. Historical information can mostly be found in works like Lewis
Porters Life of John Coltrane and John Szweds Space is the Place: The Lives
and Times of Sun Ra, but obviously the focus of these works is one artists life. It
is indicative of the subjects ethics that most writing about it is dedicated to
particular people and that overarching histories are avoided. Still, the historical
work is needed. Bibliographies like John Grays Fire Music certainly point the
way. To accurately account for the mid-sixties, we simply need to have more
academically compiled-historical information.
It is hoped that this work can provide a step toward that goal by rethinking
the way the developments of avant-garde music have been represented in the past.
Instead of being a history of the subject, this work attempts to locate the general
aesthetic developments of mid-twentieth century artists who exhibit a tendency to
move toward the subjective. Therefore, it points toward aesthetic concerns both
in and outside the jazz community, hoping to raise critical awareness so that more
accurate histories can be written and learned from.
The remainder of this work is as follows: Chapter one gives a more
detailed introduction to the Subject matter. Chapter two gives the historical
background of avant-garde jazz music and the critical problems that have
accompanied the development of the music in its early stages. Chapter three
brings in the aesthetic intentionality of the jazz artist as he or she relates to, and
models the Levinasian ethical perspective in more detail. It connects
philosophical modeling to the formal developments in the music. Chapter four
points to similar methods and aesthetic approaches that parallel avant-garde jazz

music in the late fifties and early sixties and the New York poetry of the time.1 A
short Epilogue provides concluding remarks and the specific benefits the avant-
garde aesthetic described here has for aesthetics in the future.
11 have chosen some poetic contemporaries of the so-called avant-garde jazz
movement in order to compare and clarify how they exhibit ethical and
phenomenological processes as described by Levinas. Poetry was chosen over
other artistic mediums such as painting because its format is textual and simply
easier to convey in this context. I would, however, encourage explorations in that
direction. I have attempted to find poems that exhibit the same ethical and
existential happenings that can be clearly seen in the music. Most affinities are in
the way that both mediums deal with the notion of form, style, and content, as
well as their approach to audience.

Avant-garde jazz from the late fifties and sixties offers an important
example of the creative process because it exhibits uniquely intense relationships
between artist, art, and audience and because it exhibits them in intensified ways.
In particular, the music emphasizes accountability for artistic expression; artists
are always aware of their social interaction with others through musical
conversation. This means that for the performer, musical competence is key, but
also that, because of the improvisational nature of the music, competence must
exceed technical virtuosity. In addition to technical, ability, expressive ability is
also expected. But determining what expressive ability is and how to achieve it is
a mystery because it is different for every individual. Individual expression is the
most sought after quality in jazz music, and it is not surprising that throughout the
first half of the twentieth-century jazz .artists became increasingly subjective.
They explore an interior space of identity in order to better determine the
boundary of exteriority. But this does not mean they became anti-social: instead
they become more social and social in new ways, and this process of socialization
reaches a new pitch in the avant-garde.
Expression is always in the presence of some sort of audience, and it
always already maintains a social function. This is applicable both to speaking to
another person or to performing music. But because of the emphasis on
individual expression in jazz, the jazz artist uniquely provides an aesthetic model
for maneuvering through the tensions surrounding self-determination in a social
environment. This sociality is a condition for the possibility of the art, not a set of
rules for its execution. Both sociality and the world (as environment for that
sociality) situate the Being of artists. But when jazz aesthetics values individual
expression, it assumes the being of each artist as a complete identity no matter
how aware of that identity the artist is. Amid the social setting an emphasis on
the subjective is assumed. But this is a subjectivity that is already aware of two
audiences one physical, the other metaphysical. The physical audience is in the
world, the listener at a concert or the reader of the poem. The metaphysical
audience is less tangible but no less present. In aesthetic expression, Art is a
metaphysical audience.

Aesthetic expression is a mode of being that relates to Art in. a creative
context where Art is the social setting for expression. One cannot escape
performing for some sort of audience. In aesthetic expression Art itself is an
audience who is Other to the artist. But Art is Other to the artist in a unique way
because while it is separate from the artist, the artist also owes part of his or her
identity to Art. In this sense the artist does not contain Art; Art contains the artist.
And so the Otherness of the artists relationship with Art is different than the
psychic otherness of identity.
If I create art for myself, I have already gone through a process of self-
objectification by making myself the reflexive audience of my own expression.
The I itself is (at least) two. The I depends on its relationship with others for
its own existence, but it also depends on the world as stage for its performance.
Arts presence as historical tradition affects the artists environment and therefore
his or her being in an asymmetrical relationship. One does not negate the other.
Arts sociality, insofar as it is made up of the productions of many, makes its
content infinite while the physical being of the artist makes his or her interaction
with Art finite. Because of this, the artists being is always informed by, and
influenced by others in some sort of aesthetic tradition or traditions in non-
quantifiable ways. The existence of aesthetic identities is dependent on a
metaphysical relationship with Art.
Jazz musicians in particular often recognize the artists social relationship
with Art, both with regard to the tradition of the music, passed down from one
generation to the next, as well as in the historical conditions that produce
existential frameworks in the minds of individuals in each generation. Jazz
musicians often situate their own expressive intentions with regard to a tradition,
so they are very aware of the history of the music.
This is distinctly evident in the increasing emphasis on subjective
expression in jazz, which can be seen clearly in the function of the soloist.
Overall, jazz history reveals a music that exhibits an aesthetic seeking to preserve
the expression of the individual amid numerous social factors that can be both
benevolent and hostile to the individual. Since the emergence of Louis
Armstrong in the 1910s, the soloist has been one of the most important features in
the music. Armstrong is highly influenced by the blues tradition and African-
American work songs, both of which focus on individual narratives supported by
a chorus ensemble. Armstrongs innovation is mainly in the shift from the vocal
to the instrumental. The words are no longer the focus of the story; instead, the
quality of the sound becomes the narrative. It is thus fitting that Armstrong also
popularized scat vocals; even if it was an accident, it still fit aesthetically.
But Armstrong also develops out of New Orleans music, which is largely
collectively improvisational. The music combines African American roots music
with marching bands orchestrations, so instruments had functional roles with

respect to the harmonic movement of the piece. It is not surprising that early stars
such as Joe King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, and Sidney Bechet
all played lead instruments insofar as their instruments were the upper register
(harmonically) of their bands. But as the solo became more distinguished as its
own event, Armstrongs cadenza to West End Blues1 for example, the harmonic
function of the other instruments became more fixed and less improvisational.
This is apparent in swing music where more voices become orchestrated on
Because of this, the soloists time for individual, improvisational
expression becomes more crucial and more valued. As in Dizzy Gillespies
relationship with Cab Calloways big band, which was regulated by the amount of
solo spa3ce he was given (Shipton 65). Gillespie also marks a period in the music
when particular solos were assumed to be studied and compared by younger
musicians from recordings and soloists expressive and aesthetic abilities were
debated. .
Ray Brown, for example, recalled that.only a year or two later, as
kids in Pittsburgh, he and his musical friends would learn all Lester
Youngs solos from records as soon as they were released. To be
let into a friends house youd have to whistle the latest solo
through the door. Danny Barker made similar claims for New
Orleans trumpeters in the 1920s, recalling how Lee Collins would
. learn all Louis Armstrongs solos from the famous Hot Fives and
Hot Sevens records as they appeared. The implication from Dizzy
is that he and Shavers mastered the solos that Roy Eldridge had
recorded. (Shipton 29)
Even historically, Coleman Hawkins style is often contextualized with regard to
Lester Youngs.4 Youngs solo marked a shift from an arpeggio driven approach
to a linear approach to improvising, and listeners chose the better player
according to their aesthetic preferences. Essentially, the solo is a musicians
proving ground.
The solo asks musicians to be more cognizant of the ethical situation.
Because communication among musicians in an orchestral setting is mediated by
the score and directed by the conductor, technical ability and musical proficiency
in terms of literacy is necessary. The musicians are responsible to the music but
also to the soloist who is the featured person. Jazz composers and arrangers are
facilitators of each soloists expression. Duke Ellington is famous for his ability
to compose for specific individuals5, so his aesthetic as a bandleader preserves the
expression of the individual. Ultimately the emphasis jazz aesthetics place on the
individual creates an ethically charged environment.

As the economic factors surrounding World War H dismantled most big
bands, smaller groups developed, and the responsibility for each individual to
fulfill his or her function in the group became more important; thus, the virtuosity
of the player became even more of a measuring device. In a small group, mistakes
or lack of ability are more noticeable, and it is each players responsibility to
other musicians to perform well. The ethical responsibility here creates the
demand for virtuosity, but this virtuosity was a blend of technical ability, in terms
of mastery of ones instrument, and the ability to convey clear, expressive, and
unique ideas within the improvisational context. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie
began studying music theory for its own sake, but also because there was no time
for hesitation; speed of mind was essential. This is what Charlie Parker is
especially known for. .
But the ethical relationship is prior to virtuosity. All the progressive
elements of modem jazz reflect a conscious attempt to better the musical
environment for musicians, but technical virtuosity as an objective standard took
precedence over the originally ethical factors that brought out the need for it.
This does not mean that Charlie Parker sat down and devised a way of playing
that was particularly ethical in nature. However, the way in which he played and
influenced others fit a pattern in the music as a larger entity than the artist.
Most bebop and post-bop styles, such as hard-bop, cool, and soul can be
seen as developments in the music that deal with the tension between striving for
technical virtuosity while maintaining the necessary space for others to express
themselves. From this perspective it is by no means accidental that the playing of
Miles Davis became so popular.. Davis and other important figures of the time
such as Thelonious Monk stand out because their compositions and playing were
a balance of space and lyrical intention. Their playing is precise and direct;
everything played is meant and calculated yet simultaneously individual and
unique. As bandleaders they sought similar capabilities among the musicians they
hired. The players Davis surrounded himself with exhibit these qualities as well,
but in unique ways. For example, John Coltrane?s playing during his tenure with
the Davis band (and Monks as well) is largely developmental. Davis gave
Coltrane the space necessary to create his own unique voice. In turn, Coltrane
always seemed to remain aware of the importance of helping younger musicians
develop (Jost 85, Shepp in Sidran xiv). Bill Evans, controversial as he was to
other musicians, is very concerned with space in his playing, and his subtle chord
voicing and his communicative approach to group playing are evidence. All of
these players exhibit a concern for otherness in their playing.
As the fifties came to a close, the idea of enhancing communication while
simultaneously creating more options for the soloist to express him or herself
became even more prevalent, particularly in the way musicians approached form
in music. As with other arts, formal experimentation permeates the style of the

period. Forward-thinking musicians began to see traditional form as a hindrance
to communication and expression. For these musicians, traditional form
obstructed the more important ethical factors in the music.
For most jazz musicians at the end of the fifties, form was an element
derivative of swing era compositions and Tin-Pan Alley pop songs of previous
generations. The ability to play over form was a tacit way of moving through the
ranks and proving ones technical virtuosity, which at an earlier time was more
intimately connected to the ethics of the music. For avant-garde musicians, the
construct of technical development was less important than active communication
among players. The form of the composition as an external factor imposed upon
the creative event delayed the communicative process from musician to musician
and inhibited the free lyricism of the improviser by binding him or her to a
predetermined harmonic structure; therefore, traditional form became expendable
to some musicians who. developed by playing it over and over. Without the
structure, both creative potential of and responsibility among musicians become
intensified, and this can partly explain bebops shift to the free jazz of the
Form is the traditional gauge for determining whether or not a musician is
considered avant-garde. The arrival of Ornette Coleman on the scene in New
York and the written criticism accompanying his arrival often marks a historical
break among jazz historians. But the rift itself is largely overemphasized for two
important reasons. First, many well established musicians, Charles Mingus and
Max Roach for example, were experimenting with form throughout the 1950s and
essentially setting the stage for musicians like Coleman. Second, while Coleman
is generally thought of as the bringer of Free Jazz, it is often understated that
many of his compositions on his early (and perhaps most influential) recordings
rely heavily on composed harmonic form. He bridges the two styles.
For example, take Lonely Woman, from Colemans Shape of Jazz to
Come. The structure of the song is AAB A, which is very derivative of Tin Pan
Alley songs. Harmonically, the song stays in d-minor, particularly with the pedal
tone in Charlie Hadens bass. Colemans solo roughly maintains the structure, if
not in exact bar measurements. This is particularly audible in Don Cherrys
trumpet, which plays the melody from the bridge beneath Coleman. It is
understandable that some musicians might mistake the unevenness of bars to be
an unintentional straying from the songs written structure, yet the communication
between Cherry and Coleman re-entering the melody is undeniably in sync.
Colemans music reveals roots in formal playing both structurally and
harmonically. The playing may be more loose sounding and less precise than
hard bop, but Colemans approach is far from being that of anything goes. The
shift in form itself is developmental though often misunderstood as a break or

What the group gains by loosening its definition of acceptable form is an
increased ability to communicate with each other directly. The bass pedal and
constant rhythm definitely give the melodic voices more freedom from set
harmonic chord changes. Yet wouldnt a single pedaling tone be harmonically
constricting? Not if one considers the modal developments that the Miles Davis
group employed earlier in 1959 on Kind of Blue, which allowed for lengthy
improvisations based on scales rather than chord changes. In this sense, the
Coleman record is not radically different from one of the most popular jazz
records of all time. Nevertheless, historically Colemans music and the .
movement it is said to have inspired is often portrayed as iconoclastic.
The reception to the new developments in the music, however similar they
were to the most popular groups, met with much criticism among more traditional
musicians, critics, and music industry officials. It wasnt long before musicians
were becoming more radical with form than the early Coleman group, and the
experiments are often seen as anti-traditional and violently revolutionary. But this
misunderstanding stems from an inability to see the way that the music exhibits
an ethical relationship, not only from performer to performer, but also from
performer to audience and performer to Art as a social entity. It also ignores the
idea of jazz as an ethical attitude or aesthetic. If we consider the communicative
effects that loosening formal structure in jazz performances enhanced among
individual musicians, it is possible to move beyond misunderstandings that rely
too heavily on a musicians virtuosity and traditional harmonic analyses when
explaining the avant-garde aesthetic.6
Misunderstandings permeate the reception of avant-garde j azz from this
period, and have informed jazz pedagogy in restrictive ways. This is particularly
evident as jazz music has entered the academic structure, where objective and
quantitative standards ignore the primacy and the quality of the ethical
relationship in the music. In order to clarify and dissolve old misunderstandings
about the music, it is necessary to examine the ethical relationship both in the
music of the time and in the musicians attitudes about their music. But to
describe the ethical relationships, we first need a vocabulary, for which I turn to
the ethicist, Emmanuel Levinas.
Levinas. Phenomenology, and the Ethical Relationship
For Emmanuel Levinas, ethics is first or primary philosophy. To
consider ethics as first philosophy is to acknowledge an awareness of ones
responsibility in the face of Otherness before any other philosophical questions

are asked, even questions related to the nature of being. But in order to
acknowledge oneself as responsible, one must sever oneself from all that is Other
to that self. One must create his or her identity as a perspective from which to
start by distinguishing ones self from everything outside that perspective. This is
not a closing of mind, but the recognition of difference. It is only through this
difference that one becomes accountable.
Distinguishing alterity or difference between oneself and others is at a
fundamental level the demarcation of the boundaries of ones identity. Indeed,
the term identity itself implies duality. Insofar as a subject is thinking T, he or
she objectifies both his or her environment or. world and his or her self. So in
order to establish alterity, Levinasian philosophy employs a phenomenological
perspective by using Edmund Husserls phenomenological reduction, which
brackets off the subjects experience of the world in order to describe perceived
reality as a process for distinguishing original reality. As Merleau-Ponty7 says,
phenomenology tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is,
without taking account of its psychological origin and the causal explanations
which the scientist, the historian or the sociologist may be able to provide(vii).
This makes it possible to explore the hazy space that separates self from the
world, or the idea of self (T or me as a pronoun or name I call myself ) from
the self that houses that idea. By doing so, phenomenology reduces the time lag
produced by critical thought by establishing the minds relationship to the world.
It seeks the stimulus as close to the time it occurs as possible.
But phenomenology doesnt make the subject a result of the world in the
traditional empirical sense; instead, it seeks to describe the experience of the
world as a subject, separated by identity, experiences it without saying that the
world only exists in the mind of the subject. From this point of view,
phenomenology puts essences back into existence, and does not expect to arrive
at an understanding of man and the world from any other starting point than that
of their own facticity(vii). Our experience in the world is perceived as
something completely idiosyncratic because we cannot imagine the world apart
from our experience with it.
I am the absolute source, my existence does not stem from my
antecedents, from my physical and social environment; instead it
moves out towards them and sustains them, for I alone bring into
being for myself (and therefore into being in the only sense I can)
that the word can have for me the tradition which I elect to carry
on, or the horizon whose distance from me would be abolished -
since that distance is not one of properties if I were not there to
scan it with my gaze. (Merleau-Ponty ix)

At first this passage appears radically subjective. My existence moves out
towards my environment and sustains it. The subject is entirely responsible as
source and it alone brings into being the tradition which I elect to carry on.
But Merleau-Pontys language indicates a will that takes on responsibility. I do
not do not come to exist by perceiving a world of which I am a part. I exist
already and am entangled with the world; I create while I perceive, and I am
created as I perceive. Temporality is key here in its relation to experience before
reflection, and this is the distinction between the subjectivity of phenomenology
and that of idealism.
Because knowing-consciousness is separated identity, any account of
actual lived experience will always be temporally detached from the process of
experience. Consciousness, in the common sense of the term, can only give a
reflection on experience. This is the problem with idealism, completely detaching
self from the world by relying on consciousness, because such separation denies
the simultaneous nature of the relationship between self and world. Even though
experience and self are in synthesis, knowledge of the experience is always after
the fact.
It is the entangled experience of subject and object that the reduction seeks
to reduce to its bare essence. Phenomenology takes a different approach than that
of traditional idealists and empiricists in order to account for experience as it
happens. Discussing the history of the subject, Merleau-Ponty states,
it is understandable, in view of this, that Husserl, having accused
Kant of adopting a faculty psychologism, should have urged, in
place of a noetic analysis which bases the world on the
synthesizing activity of the subject, his own noematic reflection
which remains within the object and, instead of begetting it, brings
to light its fundamentally unity, (x)
Husserls linking of reflection and object attempts to make up for the temporal lag
that idealist philosophy creates by making consciousness8 of subject original and
by doing so reconstitutes the world as a factor in experience. Yet the intention is
to examine with a scrutinouS eye all the experience we take for granted:
Not because we reject the certainties of common sense and a
natural attitude to thingsthey are, on the contrary, the constant
theme of philosophybut because, being the presupposed basis of
any thought, they are taken for granted, and go unnoticed, and
because in order to arouse them and bring them into view, we have
to suspend for a moment our recognition of them, (xiii)

Situating experience with the world in a light that tries to recognize
codependence of subject and objectas well as the overlapping of fundamental
experiences among subjects of objectsmakes phenomenology a ready-made
point of departure for Levinasian ethical philosophy.
For phenomenologists, the relationship between subject and object is
binding and fundamental to experience. If reflection also exists in the object, it
has some degree of agency. But it is an agency that is other to the subject and
therefore cannot be accounted for by, say, anthropomorphism9. It does, however,
help to think of the object as a living being10, and that is what becomes the focus
of Levinass ethics. The other that is object to my subjectivity, to which I am
bound in a social relationship is always, animate in some sense but not necessarily
human. Objects have their own being, to which I am responsible due to the fact
that my existence depends on my relationship with them. The ethical implications
of a relationship where some sort of agency, however mysterious, inhabits the
Otherness of the objects that exist as other to me help to avoid any tendency
toward the domination of the world by my perception. .
Such an account of Otherness avoids the flaw of instrumental reason,
which neglects to take account not only the value of others, but also the very
existence of Otherness by remaining, like idealists, completely in the mind.
Instrumental reasons flaw is its hyperbolic ability to objectify all otherness as
inanimate material at the subjects disposal. To. give objects a sense of life moves
us closer to Levinass idea of the metaphysical relationship with Otherness. This
Otherness is not a physical distinction such that one might make in his or her
mind between oneself and a tree or chair. As objects of my gaze, these things are
other to me, but as living entities they contain an unknown potential that is
restricted once it exists only in my mind. Though to some this may be ridiculous
to apply to rocks, tables and chairs, the ethics involved when treating another
person this way are unmistakable.
Levinass appeal for the invisible can be seen clearly by viewing the way
he distinguishes himself from other philosophical discourse such as, in the
following case, Marxism.
Demented pretension to the invisible, when the acute experience of
the human in the twentieth century teaches that the thoughts of
men are borne by needs which explain society and history, that
hunger and fear can prevail over every human resistance and every
freedom! There is no question of doubting this human misery, this
dominion the things and the wicked exercise over man, this
animality. But to be a man is to know that this is so. Freedom
consists in knowing that freedom is in peril. But to know or to be
conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of

inhumanity. It is this perpetual postponing of the hour of treason -
infinitesimal difference between man and non-man that implies
the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire of the absolutely other
or nobility, the dimension of metaphysics. (Totality and Infinity
Levinas does not want anything to do with idealism or materialism, which is
probably why he turns to phenomenology for much of his philosophic
Levinas sees in phenomenology a way of describing an atmosphere of
existential commonality (not unity) in which a subjects existence is preserved
and thus indebted to the distinction from Otherness. He is less concerned with
describing what Otherness is than in seeking to preserve a fluid co-existence with
Otherness by describing the nature of the ethical relationship between Sameness
and Otherness. This is because, for him, establishing an understanding of the
relationship with Otherness is of more immediate concern than establishing the
meaning of difference because we are always already in that relationship. This
does not mean he is unconcerned with ontology; it simply means that we already
exist in a relationship of alterity even while discussing the origin of being. This is
the main distinction between Levinass philosophical project and that of Martin
Heidegger, his teacher. But Levinas uses both Heidegger and Husserls thoughts
on phenomenology as a means toward describing the relationship with Otherness.
The relationship with Otherness is a general state of being perceived by
individuals in different ways, but experienced by all. Because of this, the very
description of the ethical relationship has ontological qualities. The
phenomenological reduction offers a temporary model to understand the nature of
perception and how that influences being. It seeks the content of the first person
I by determining its relationship to the world. The existence of the subjective I
reveals both a social relationship and a separation. We perceive our experience as
separate from the existence of the world, so how do we determine the relationship
with that world that is supposedly pre-reflective? Heidegger offers some help
understanding Levinas here. In the introduction to Being and Time, he states:
As a seeking, questioning needs previous guidance from what it
seeks. The meaning of Being must therefore already be available
to us in a certain way. We intimated that we are always already
involved in an understanding of Being. From this grows the
explicit question of the meaning of Being and the tendency toward
its concept. We do not know what Being means. But already
when we ask, What is Being? we stand in an understanding of

the is without being able to determine conceptually what the is
means. (45)
The relationship that Levinas is concerned with can be seen here with the to be
verb, because linguistically, the verb accomplishes a separation that remains a
link. The verb separates the subject from the object while simultaneously
establishing their relationship. As a linguistic possibility, the question itself is
antecedent to a prior relationship.
Linguistically, the subject and object not only determine each other in
opposition but also the necessity of the presence of both for expressing complete
thoughts. But the dichotomy of subject and object remains in die physical. They
are both objects in the world. One exists for the other. One intimates the other.
Heideggers project seeks a hidden knowledge of something the subject is already
a part of. Whatever is found is already apart of the identity that found it.
Levinass project seeks to describe a different relationship, one that is
metaphysical, where the metaphysical Other cannot be contained in the identity of
the Same. The verb to-be in this sense intimates something both outside and
prior to me, not something hidden, but something present. The non-containability
of the metaphysical Other can, however, be similar to social experiences in the
world. Levinas does not discuss the implications of the ethical relationship in
terms of how we should act, but they are there. We can see it if we consider
human potential. The relationship of a subjects potential to an objects potential
is static one exists for the others use. But the relationship of thinking subject to
thinking subject is dynamic. Each form is overflowed by its content and so the
Others true form is always unknowable to the Same.
The nature of the Other is second to the relationship the Same has with it,
and Levinas says we cannot know the Other in situating the relationship. Levinas
argues that the outside, or what is Other, is not measurable and therefore infinite.
His Totality and Infinity is dedicated to the description of the relationship between
the subject and what is outside or other to it: a relationship that is always, for
Levinas, both ethical and metaphysical. For him, knowledge of the other is
always limited to pieces of that other from which the subjective I gains access to
the expression of the other. These pieces of the other are small units of
information relating to what ultimately becomes an idea or conception of
something. As a conception, the information becomes totalized and the Otherness
no longer exists in its original state. In its new, totalized state, Otherness becomes
representation physically other instead of metaphysically Other. The subject
becomes aware of his or her fundamental responsibility to the other, partly
because the individual has created the other in his or her mind.12 But this
awareness of distorted representation already moves far beyond what Levinas is
always more concerned with: the relationship with the Other. The relationship

exists before the actions taken, before the representation of critical thought, and
before knowledge. '
This process often involves a tendency on the part of the subjective I to
take pieces of information for the underlying, immanent presence of otherness.
Because of this, we as subjects constantly exercise a tendency to mistake the
representation or symbol for the represented or symbolized. This mode of dealing
with Otherness is generally forgetful of the large part that intuition and intention
play in assembling meaning and the inevitable leap to assumption no matter how
complete our knowledge may seem. For Levinas, remaining aware of ones
responsibility in the face of the Other is a way of constantly reminding oneself of
the mysterious forces at work in a life always based, to a larger degree than we
would like to admit, on intuition. We must always be aware of our tendency to
separate ourselves from Otherness, even if this is a natural way of being.
Further, awareness of ones responsibility to Otherness is also a way of avoiding
the relativistic notion that all is intuition, subjective and separate, because the
relationship is grounding. Because I alone am responsible for my leap to
assumption about entities other to myself, I am always responsible for the
representations I make of Otherness in order to conceptualize them, and I am held
accountable by their presence outside my being, of which I am unable to contain
in concept because my existence in the world is not perceived as such.
At the same time that I make assumptions about entities other to myself in
order to create my knowledge of them, I realize that I am responsible to them on a
deeper level than my representation of them in my own mind. Because the
demarcation between otherness and myself creates the boundaries of my own
identity, I realize that at a certain level I am responsible for their existence as
much as for my own. Like Levinas* I realize the profundity of Dostoevskys
words from The Brothers Karamazov that inspired Levinas, I am responsible for
everyone and everything and I more than all others (Is It Righteous to Be? 56).13
The burden of responsibility overflows my own capacities, yet I am still
responsible. I am always already responsible to the Other for everything. I know
the Other through my own creation of the Other, yet the entainglement I have with
Otherness exists prior to my own self-awareness.
Describing the relationship of entanglement and the social and moral
implications of it is essentially what Levinass project is about. His probing of
the nature of this relationship has produced thoughts that are meaningful beyond
both the academic realm of philosophy and the institutionalized realm of religion
and spirituality. By using Levinasian philosophy as a framework, it is possible to
view the way avant-garde jazz music displays the struggle of employing the
ethical responsibility of maintaining and preserving the relationship of the subject
to Otherness. However, in order to do this effectively and within the integrity of
Levinasian philosophy, it is necessary to develop a new approach to the way we

study the music. The result of this is a seemingly rapid shift in critical
perspective, one that puts itself into the artists shoes in order to better understand
the nature of the creative context, yet also one that remains conscious of its own
presence. Such a perspective naturally creates some degree of sympathy with the
expressive struggle of the artist. The new approach is therefore intentionally
supportive of the artist, whose role serves a social function.
Levinasian Framework in the Creative Context
In a creative context, the ethical relationship can be modeled in different
ways. For example, in situation, it is obvious that players are responsible
to one another. But the ethical obligation in this context is not only due to the fact
that each musician conceptually represents the being of other musicians. The
group itself is accountable to an audience. For this reason the ethical relationship
cannot be avoided by playing a solo performance. Alterity between audience and
performer is established through the creative act. Music is expression^ and the
process of expressing always already distinguishes the alterity of performer and
world by which the performer is ethically bound. Expression will always occupy
the space that could be anothers, but it also has the potential to suspend the
process of representing otherness and become entangled with it more directly and
honestly. It is helpful to think of two audiences. In addition to the physical
alterity between artist and audience, there is the metaphysical alterity between
either artist or audience and the cultural environment of Art.
Music, and all art, exists prior to the artist as a social entity. The musician
does not exist outside of time or historicity and does not reinvent music each time
he or she makes sound. Definitions of music and art are fluid and change with
time and culture because tight social networks establish their own traditions and
historicity, which in turn affect individuals within those groups. The artist is
socialized in an artistic environment that is particular and informed by a myriad of
influences that are never completely contained within one individual. Yet it is
something more focused than the historical situation or Zeitgeist. The medium
provides a more specific tradition.
Nevertheless, the social nature of artistic categories and genres makes
them metaphysical entities. They embody historicity and tradition, which are
animate and change. As social entities influencing artists, the categories live and
haunt the artist with the environment that has already informed his or her being,
even before he or she is aware of his or her being as an artist. The Art speaks the
artist. Because these influences and traces of tradition are not physical entities but

still living, they are spiritual. To be sure, humans make artistic categories and
traditions, but they do not make the potential of the creative process. Rather, they
live it and it occupies them.
The spiritual nature of artistic categories makes them active participants in
the creative process. Because they are in a sense living entities, they are an
audience to the performer as well. But their infinitude of being overflows the
particular being of an artist. Though simplified as a singular entity, the category
of Art embodies the works of all previous artists; and the individual artist is
accountable to them through the medium of the category or as Art in a general
sense. Because of this, even the lone artist, playing for no physical audience, is
ethically bound by his or her expression.
Artistic categories such as music or poetry are infinite metaphysical
entities similar to the way that Levinas describes Otherness, and the critical
audience is just as bound to these categories as is the artist performing the art.
However, because of the history of misconception and misrepresentation of avant-
garde music by critics and the music industry, damage has been done to the ability
to sense these spiritual entities because the relationship between critic and artist is
unsupportive of an aesthetic with an ethical stance. In order to stop the tendency
to misconceive and grossly reduce artistic expression to rigid totalities, it is
necessary for the critic to see the relationship between the artist and the Art as
Viewing the relationship between artist and Art as metaphysical allows the
critic to break free from damaging aspects embedded in traditional modes of
criticism and take into account the artist as an individual subject. To a certain
extent the relationship between the artist and the critic contains metaphysical
aspects because while they may physically inhabit the same world, they can never
know each other completely. The relationship between artist and critic exhibits a
potential to see an underlying ethical situation, but the otherness of the physical
world should not be confused with the Otherness of the metaphysical relationship.
By concerning ourselves with the ethereal or spiritual aspects of aesthetic
data beyond the physical environment, it is possible to glimpse the creative
process as a fundamental level of the experience of Being. This is a process that
transcends culturally derived categories such as race, culture, or ethnicity, because
Levinass ideas help us to see that our sociality is a condition for the possibility of
experiencing such differentiation. This is not to say that in the context of jazz
music, categories such as race, culture, class, and ethnicity inform the being of
individual artists and must occasionally be spoken to in order to accurately
account for each artists aesthetic expression. Using avant-garde jazz as a
physical example helps to avoid the tendency toward an all-encompassing and
regulatory essentialism that underlies philosophical projects directed toward the
nature of Being because the music, like Levinasian philosophy, emphasizes the

subjective experience as an introduction to human essence. Difference is
necessary as a point of departure.
Far from seeking to nullify differentiation, an awareness of ones
responsibility seeks to preserve difference, individuality, or pluralism. While a
view of music as a metaphysical entity may transcend existing categories humans
employ to categorize each other, an individuals expression is still related to his or
her facticity of being. The violence of totalization through conception is a guilt
we must live with as individuals, but we must respond to our own violent
procedures. The ethical way to proceed here seems to be a preservation of
dialogue and communication, that preserves individual difference rather than
focusing on fundamental experience without regard to social conditions.14 In
order for this to happen between critic and artist, the relationship must be more
explorative than explanatory. Hermeneutics must be grounded by a recognition of
a prior existential relationship that is ethical.

Avant-garde jazz in the 1960s combines musical explorations with
socially progressive value systems.that naturally differ between individuals.
Because of the inability to categorize diverse perspectives at the time, critics often
represented the aesthetic as indicating a rupture in history. But a larger historical
understanding of race is at times precisely what is necessary to understand
particular artists aesthetics. For example, Max Roach and Oscar Brown Juniors
We Insist: Freedom Now Suite (1960) is a direct reaction to racial oppression that
also bridges traditional jazz and the avant-garde. In Triptych: Prayer / Protest /
Peace, vocalist Abbey Lincoln expresses a wide range of emotions to tell a
psychological story of the trauma of recovering from being a slave. At times she
hums melodically; at other times she screams in rage. Accompanied only by
Roach on drums, Lincoln is left to her own devices to tell the story; she uses no
words or text. Because there is no harmony to follow, her improvising is
extemporaneous; the only form she knows is an existential one, and her only
support is Roachs accompaniment. Screaming was pretty much unheard of in
recorded music at the time, and her range of expression challenged critical taste.
The album itself is largely conceptual and this was innovative in Jazz at the time.
With works like Rollinss Freedom Suite preceding Roachs composition, it is
apparent that jazz artists were making explicitly ethically concerned music.15
While the jazz artists of .the late 1950s and early 1960s were not by any
means the first to write political pieces, the period is notable for debates over
the aesthetic value of the musical innovations that sonically challenged traditional
aesthetic notions. As Lincolns screaming attests, sounds once considered
unmusical were now being used as music. Sonically, avant-garde material
challenged traditional criticism because it countered traditional aesthetic
definitions of what is considered good. Critics could no longer use the same
evaluative methods to judge musical accomplishment. Debates continue in jazz
discourse to this day because critics and academics often want to establish
physically objectifiable standards to determine both the value of the music and
whether or not it should be considered in the category of jazz. There have been
far too few attempts to discuss the music in terms of an ethical attitude, and as a
result what could be seen as a natural progression of innovation in the music is
overwritten by representations of iconoclasm, anti-tradition, and revolution.

A false break has been written into jazz history as a result of
communication breakdown between artists and critics. The sixties are
traditionally seen as a period of social unrest and revolution, but this can be traced
to earlier times. While innovations did occur, innovation is something expected
of what I will call the jazz ethic. The attitude informs the aesthetic. The tensions
that gave rise to debate in the mid to late sixties can generally be traced to formal
innovations that occurred earlier in the decade, which are best understood as
transitional innovations, not ruptures.
One innovation of the year 1960 very clearly exemplifies this the
alternate Newport Jazz festival. As John Litweiler explains in The Freedom
Principle: Jazz After 1958,
In 1960 [Charles] Mingus and others, angry at the increasing
trivialization of the annual Newport Jazz Festival, held their
counterfestival in Newport, Rhode Island. That was also the year
of the Newport riots; when the main festival closed down, the only
jazz remaining in resort city was the Newport Rebels festival.
Besides the Mingus and Ornette Coleman groups other major jazz
Rebels included Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, Wilbur Ware, and
Jo Jones. Out of this festival grew the short-lived Jazz Artists
Guild, an early attempt at cooperative effort by jazz musicians.
If there is a revolt, it is a revolt against the industry, not against the jazz tradition.
Many contributors to the festival exemplify the jazz tradition. While Mingus and
Roach were particularly forward thinking in terms of their aesthetic approaches
and compositions, they were already among the throng of jazz elite. With a
conflict of industry interests, critics generally amplified many tensions
surrounding musicians and music some well-founded claims, some not before
examining their own role in the existing tension.
All claims of revolt among avant-garde musicians in the early sixties need
to be reexamined in terms of continuity. This is not in any way to downplay all of
the innovations that were occurring in the music, it is merely to contextualize
innovation in terms of an overarching jazz ethic. Once the artificial historical
break is understood, it is possible to listen to avant-garde jazz as revealing a
uniquely ethical relationship between artist, Art and audience.

Avant-garde Musicians and Form
First, we might ask, what makes a musician a member of the avant-garde?
As Charles Mingus says in the late sixties, If I was avant-garde in 1954, the what
am I now? Modem-modem, new thing-new thing? The new, new thing?(119).
The most discussed stylistic distinction of avant-garde jazz music is the way
musicians approached form, and the most apparent mistake made critics
reception of the music is to see it as formless. Form itself is an element of time,
and like the facticity of ones body, is necessary to being. Therefore, it is
inappropriate to represent a piece of music as being formless; something more
present is at work. The idea of a lack of form or of free form permeates the
historical material and affects the development of younger musicians.16 The way
some musicians approached and dismantled traditional notions of form was
innovative but misunderstood.
To be considered avant-garde in the late fifties and early sixties meant that
in some way or another the musician was experimenting with form. The
experiment could be structural, in the sense that one is no longer playing over
chord changes; or it could be harmonic, in the sense that one may be playing over
chord changes or measured bars, but playing so harmonically ambiguously that
the chords become irrelevant17 or at least subordinate to the phrasing. While
musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane (in
his later years) are often considered founders of avant-garde jazz, they are rooted
in a tradition of musicians experimenting with form throughout the late forties and
fifties. To see the developments of what is historically called the jazz avant-garde
outside this tradition is to ignore the obvious continuity and to make a serious
Discussions of the way the avant-garde dealt with form are merely part of
a general discussion of musical innovations, and too often critics treat these
innovations as a break with tradition, misreading their difference as a difference
of kind. In the late fifties and early sixties the jazz press was filled with debates
about some of the up and coming players. These debates manufactured an
environment of critical tension among the artists as critics tried to assert their
judgment and authority when it came to new musical innovations. It was
customary at the time for critics to write liner notes to records.18 Sometimes
well-known artists would write their own liner notes, but within debates over the
music there is an undercurrent of debate surrounding the idea of payola in the jazz
press and music industry. More important, however, are blatant
misunderstandings of musical innovation, especially as they relate to a jazz
tradition that is more of an ethical attitude than a way or style of playing
(although the two no doubt inform each other).


When jazz critic John Tynan famously referred to a performance of John
Coltrane and Eric Dolphy as being anti-jazz in 1961, it marked the culmination
of months of debate over formal innovations in the music and also set-up a clear
break between the artists and the critic. Moreover, the review reveals that the
existing critical tools for gauging the music were inadequate to enable critics to
understand the new innovations. Coltranes biographer, Lewis Porter,
The November 23 [1961] issue of Down Beat contained a scathing
review from John Tynan who called their music musical nonsense
currently being peddled in the name of jazz and a horrifying
demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend.
Coltrane later told Frank Kofsky that this kind of criticism had
really hurt: Oh, that was terrible. I couldnt believe it, you know,
it just seemed so preposterous. It was so ridiculous, man, thats
what bugs me. It was absolutely ridiculous, because they made it
appear that we didnt know the first thing about music the first
thing! And there we were really trying to push things off. (193)
There is no way to tell how the Coltrane group sounded that particular evening,
but we do know that Coltrane made a live recording with his band his band on
November 2 and 3,1961, later released as Live at the Village Vanguard. The
band had been working at the Village Vanguard for a few weeks, so it is safe to
say that it was this incarnation of the band, with occasional guests, that Tynan was
referring to.
Because the album is now considered a classic, it is hard to see what the
big deal was at the time. The playing is both formal and reveals technical
mastery. There is, at least on the recording, more of Coltranes own material than
of standards, and it is very formal. India is perhaps the most forward-looking
piece in terms of its use of modes and eastern scales, instead of having set chord
changes, the piece relies on a droning G tone in the bass giving the soloists an
expanded space for harmonic experimentation. It no doubt would have sounded
foreign to listeners, especially with Coltrane and Dolphys flurries of notes in odd
sounding modes. But the piece is only a few steps away from Daviss Kind of
Blue, which introduced Coltrane to modal playing a few years prior. David A.
Wild points out in the liner notes that Impressions basically mirrors the
harmonic changes of Daviss So What, so we know Coltrane was very actively
exploring concepts he learned with Davis.
Besides the new material, one thing that may have irked audience
members like Tynan was the length of the pieces. There is a lot of space given to
improvisers. And because Coltrane was performing on both tenor and soprano

saxophone, on some pieces, such as Spiritual, he takes two solos. The droning
bass on India may have seemed especially harmonically static to someone
accustomed to listening to fast bebop changes. In addition to the harmonic
structure, the length of Coltranes pieces would become a growing problem in the
years to come because the convention of jazz clubs was to have forty-minute sets
after which they rotated the audience. They would have multiple shows per night.
With the length of the pieces on the Vanguard album, an audience would get to
hear about three songs.
But the length of the pieces allowed the improvisers to explore sound and
ideas, sometimes very complex ideas. Traditional melodies, popular standards,
things familiar to an audience were not there. On top of that add the timbre of a
soprano saxophone playing compositions that incorporate scales from the far east
and Eric Dolphys unique instrumental voice and one can begin to hear a lot of
new things being presented on stage. Litweiler claims that Dolphy
was almost an added attraction, standing apart from the central
thrust of the music. The other players were organized
magnetically around Coltranes own playing, particularly the
regularity of his accenting on the first beats of measures.
Occasions when Dolphy truly fitted into most elements of the
Coltrane context were exceptions [....] More typical.are
performances, apparently including entire concerts, in which
Dolphy is near the peak of his creativity, to the complete
incomprehension of [drummer Elvin] Jones. (72)
So maybe it was a combination of being confronted with new material, long
improvised exploration, and abstract rhythmic and harmonic ideas, particularly
from Dolphy, mixed with some stage tension, that made the group seem so
Dolphys addition to the Coltrane group was also new, but he was by no
means an inexperienced player. He frequently recorded as a sideman in a wide
range of styles. Lewis Porter discusses distinction between Dolphy and Coltranes
Dolphys approach was quite different from Coltranes. Where
Coltrane, even in his extensions of tonality, went for an earnest
bluesy sound, and would develop a melodic kernel at some length,
Dolphy went for a highly dissonant, sprightly sound he like to
emulate the sounds of bird on his flute and would play more by
stream of consciousness. His melodic lines often change direction
and leap unpredictably. His note choices are difficult to explain

from the point of view of functional tonality for example, he
would arpeggiate a minor chord over over a major one and vice
versa. But he was well aware of music theory and, as he
maintained, he had a consistent way of approaching chords. (192-
Consistent is a key word here because Dolphys sound is extremely recognizable
no matter what type of musical context he was in. His musical presence is like a
suturing of traditional and avant-garde playing and he seems to have had no
trouble in either context.
Perhaps this had something to do with his unique approach to chords. In
one interview he said,
Yes, I think of my playing as tonal. I play notes that would not
; ordinarily be said to be in a given key, but I hear them as proper. I
dont think I leave the chord changes, as the expression goes;
every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece.
(Williams in Litweiler 65)
Coltrane also felt like his playing at this time was tonal. When approached by an
English critic and accused of not following chord changes Coltrane said,
I cant speak for Eric [Dolphy]. I dont know exactly what his
theory is. I am playing on the regular changes, though sometimes I
extend them. I do follow the progressions. The sequences I build
have a definite relationship to the chords. Can you give me a
particular example of something that puzzled you? (Quoted in
Porter 194)
It is clear that the critics at the time were themselves having a hard time
distinguishing between formal playing and free playing, and they were already
attacking musicians for an approach that was still incubating, as if that approach
was wrong to begin with. The elements of free playing were there and existed
openly at least since Ornette Colemans arrival in New York in November of
1959, but the critics couldnt tell the difference in the first place.
While Tynan may have had absolutely no authority to say what he did
about the Coltrane group in print, it is a good exercise to try and figure out
historically what was so different. When one does, one can see a complex
mixture of experimentation, sometimes formal, sometimes tonal, sometimes
textural, that was all happening at the same time. In some ways, it seems that in

addition to his reactions to Coltrane, Tynan is responding to general critical
debate in the jazz press, much of which centered around Ornette Coleman.
Form and Continuity
Historically, Coleman is often given credit for single-handedly inventing
so-called free-jazz. But while Coleman was exceptionally innovative, the idea
of free jazz and free playing was not simply invented by Ornette Coleman
when he showed up at the Five Spot in November of 1959. Free elements had the jazz tradition since its beginnings. Coleman certainly brought
valuable ideas, but they had to develop through the musical community and that is
where the real innovations occur in the way the groups played together. The
jazz histories, however, over-emphasize intellectual property. So the tension is
setup where we dont want do diminish Colemans contributions as an individual
and an innovator here. Though we have to see, if we want to be accurate, his
contributions as being incubated before him, and in a sense outside him in jazz as
a metaphysical entity, and then apply those innovations to the context of the jazz
Traditional jazz criticism and histories gloss over lots of artistic work in
the jazz community by riffing on Ornette Coleman as the sole bringer of free jazz.
And because critics at the time were nostalgic for previous, more containable
musical elements, they overemphasized new developments in the music as
ruptures in the tradition. Innovation and change, which are themselves part of the
larger jazz tradition, now became suspect. This idea of a break continues to this
day and is largely centered on Ornette Colemans arrival in New York in
November of 1959. With a few exceptions,19 jazz critics and historians have not
significantly repaired the damaged relationship between musician and critic that
has its roots in this era.
Valerie Wilmers As Serious As Your Life gives some important
descriptions of the qualities of early avant-garde music in the late 1950s / early
The New Music is, of course, a term of convenience that embraces
many approaches, some of which would appear to have little in
common. Basically, it is used to distinguish a free-thinking
contemporary approach from one that is rooted in bebop [....] As
opposed to the so-called Third Stream, an attempt to blend
European music with bebop of which the chief exponents were

people like John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, the emphasis is on
freedom from the restrictions of harmony and time. This is one of
the reasons why the music has been dubbed free form on
occasion. (24)
If one stops reading here, he or she will walk away with what I consider to be the
most popular conception of the avant-garde, that is, one of innovation and
revolution situated against other subcategories of jazz. But such a conception
imagines a false break from bebop. The lucidity of Wilmers description of the
music is seen as one reads on.
Where, in the past, the improvisation was based on the form and
length of a given statement the theme the new musicians
improvise on a reminiscence of that statement. I try to keep this in
mind what does that melody or that statement remind me of?
said one musician. In a way, its in my mind, but its not played as
such.(This is not to say that the freest improvisation could not
exist inside highly structured forms).
These sentences transform the emphasis of a break in the musicians
consciousness and promote a more natural development instead. The language
used to describe elements of the music also rests in a state of comfortable
ambiguity. Freedom here refers both to a formal musical quality as well as to a
general sentiment that inhabits the performer. It is in this line of thinking that
inform avant-garde musicians perspective, but even they debate the usage of the
term free-jazz. For example, Anthony Braxton claimed in an interview that
Although my music is generally talked of as being somewhat
radical, in fact it has a real traditional base. Its not like the
concept of free jazz which solidified in the sixties, that being
activity that moved toward anarchy or something like that. Ive
never really been interested in anarchy, but rather Ive been
interested in the initiation of alternative languages as means to
connect what I call the metareality implications of world culture.
(Braxton in Enstice and Rubin 51)
Braxtons sidestepping of the free jazz label has much to do with the heated
debates of the mid to late sixties and he uses the term in a narrower sense than
Wilmer. Nevertheless, he sees himself as part of a broader tradition and his
metareality is similar to thinking of jazz as a metaphysical entity.

It is difficult to understand avant-garde musicians from the late sixties
onward without first examining the debates that occur in the late fifties and early
sixties. Wilmers book, like Ben Sidrans oral documentations and many other
attempts to document the perspective of musicians and not critics, is an attempt to
correct critical misrepresentation of avant-garde jazz by supplying information
about, and perspective of, musicians. By viewing some of the critical material
written in reception to the avant-garde innovators at the was created, it will
be apparent why critics like Sidran and Wilmer feel a necessity to take a critical
approach that preserves the being of the artist.
Both with the benefit of hindsight as well as paying attention to
underrepresented artistic perspectives in relation to this stylistic shift, it is
necessary to locate the perceived break of the avant-garde movement not as part
of a general myth that everything in the 1960s was revolutionary, but as a
continuation of a pre-existing ethical attitude in the music. A few historical
examples will help clarify, how the rupture was documented at the time and why
we must reinstate discussions of avant-garde jazz to the jazz tradition without
over-simplifying the issues and concerns at stake in the music. In order to do this
it is necessary to glimpse into the reception to a variety of music being rapidly
produced and labeled in the late fifties and early sixties, and how the music was
Down Beat magazine has perhaps been the most central periodical for the
dissemination of critical views on jazz music. While it is not the only source for
jazz discourse and therefore does not include all opinions and perspectives about
the music in print, it has produced the most successful and widely disseminated
authors on the music, many of whom have since become the biographers of the
most prominent figures in jazz. The fact that many of the major jazz critics have
at one time or another written for Down Beat is especially important so far as the
history of jazz is concerned because these writers have been responsible for
shaping a large part of how the history of jazz is represented. They are the ones
who originally represented the arrival of the style of avant-garde jazz.
Ornette Colemans late 1959 appearance at The Five Spot, in combination
with the entrance of a new decade, gave rise to a lot of discussion concerning the
future of jazz. There is a definite sense in these articles among both artists and
critics that a change is necessary, especially with the onslaught of rock and roll
dominating the recording industrys, and apparently the publics, attention. In the
most blatant terms, the feeling was that jazz needed a hero, a champion, another
Charlie Parker for a new generation of youngsters to idolize and emulate. The
critics were actively looking for someone to carry on the tradition. It is not just
the sonic new-ness that provoked so much comparison between Ornette Coleman

and Charlie Parker, even though that is how it was presented and debated. No one
yet had bothered to examine the similarities through any external musical
analysis, at least, not in print. But the new sound was more apparent. It is clear
that even while Coleman was debated, he was welcomed as a controversial figure.
He gave critics something to write about.
Many of the critics (and some musicians) reacted negatively to the sound
of Coleman. One example of this reaction is George Craters column, Out of My
Head. Despite his January new years resolution to never mention Ornette
Coleman again, Crater makes at least one negative comment about Colemans
music in almost every issue for the rest of the year. For all his dislike of
Coleman, Crater certainly used Colemans music to build his own cranky persona.
Other examples can be seen throughout the year in Leonard Feathers Blindfold
tests. These tests, in which Coleman was often played for the listeners, involved a
listener who listened to and commented on selections of music chosen by Feather
without knowing at the time of the listening who the artist was that was being
listened to. Many listeners gave either negative or unsure reactions when Feather
played them Colemans pieces.
However, when Charles Mingus, probably one of the most qualified
musicians of the time to comment on formal innovations in jazz took a blindfold
test in 1960, Feather did not even play him any Coleman. But Mingus, vocal as
always, decided to comment on Coleman anyway.
Mingus is another musician who bridges the avant-garde but whose
contributions to the avant-garde are not discussed enough. There has been much
discussion about the tensions that Mingus had with the avant-garde, and
particularly with Coleman, but Gene Santoro sums it up best in his biography of
Mingus, Myself When I am Real.
[Coleman] had both gone back to his Texas blues roots and taken a
step beyond bebop. Like Mingus, he accepted atonality and
polytonality. Like the Mingus Workshops, his bands could all solo
simultaneously, without preset chord changes. Harmonic
modulations came from the instrumentalists quick ears and
teamwork, and sheer chance.
It sounded familiar to Mingus too familiar. Blues and
Roots still wasnt out. He wasnt getting credit for something he
started again. Coleman was an instant critics darling, championed
by Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams and Nesuhi Ertegun,
whod signed him to Atlantic.
Mingus was of two minds about the long-haired saxist.

He resented Coleman. He didnt like being upstaged, and
- he thought Coleman was a primitive who didnt fully understand
his own intuitive musical revolt.
But he also recognized the younger mans discipline and
focus. And he liked Coleman. He showed up at the Five-Spot and
played piano with Colemans group a couple of times. But he also
saw Coleman as an original thinker who, like Bird, would spawn a
legion of imitators unable to maintain his vision, slackers looking
for easy hooks to imitate, like Colemans using a plastic alto. (160)
It doesnt really matter which musician was more innovative. Mingus is just
simply one of many musicians whose contributions were critically overlooked,
and as a result Coleman seemed all the more radical.
Mingus, among others, claims that Coleman has not brought anything new
to the music, simply something that has been overlooked and he describes it as
organized disorganization, or playing wrong right(Mingus in Feather 21).
Charles Mingus was himself an early innovator of musical form and ideas of
collective improvisation that the avant-garde community in the sixties began to
work with more exclusively. Some musical examples are Folk Forms F and
Pithecanthropus Erectus. Both pieces experiment with elements of collective
improvisation and Pithecanthropus does so over a partially ambiguous
harmonic form. By relying on blues melodies or motifs, Folk Forms F creates a
blues-textured environment within which the improvisers can interact. As a
member of the established jazz community at the time, Mingus comments are an
authoritative source for seeing a tradition of a pre-existing jazz ethic in Colemans
Charles Minguss orchestra was also an environment that nurtured future
avant-garde players and thus marks a continuity of the jazz aesthetic. Minguss
approach to and sensitivity to the development of individual style was extremely
important to the development of musicians such as Eric Dolphy, who would
become one of the most distinctive voices of the avant-garde. Dolphy was a
member of the Mingus band at the same time he made many innovative
recordings. In addition to this, one cannot forget that Mingus owed much of his
approach to group organization to his time spent in Duke Ellingtons orchestra. It
is important to remember that Dolphy is a direct descendent of the very central
figures of the jazz composing tradition. But it was Mingus, who, despite the fact
that his compositions were criticized by Ornette Coleman in a Blindfold Test
(in Feather), encouraged Dolphy and others to go listen to Coleman and learn to
play like him.
The obvious connection between both Minguss compositions and his
encouragement to young musicians to seek out new voices undermines any view

of the avant-garde as a revolutionary break. Instead of a break, even one
perceived as reactionary to existing conditions, the jazz tradition fostered and
nurtured the development of the avant-garde. The perceived rupture was put
into the history of the music by the critics who received it. The break was
being represented even while it was happening insofar as the critical community
was on the lookout for something new. But the music as a social entity really
had no rupture, nor did the aesthetic from an ethical point of view. Nevertheless,
the way the break was being documented has been repeated over time and
resulted in the marginalizing of avant-garde jazzs contribution to jazz (and
popular) music in general. Emphasizing more of the continuity of aesthetic ideas
within the music as an evolving and changing aesthetic will help to make better
sense of these innovative contributions.
Evolution. Community, and Ethics
Part of what made Coleman and other young players controversial was
their favoring of compositions built on melodic statements instead of on preset
harmonic structures. This was a result of the tradition of overlaying melodic
statements on top of popular song forms, which was the major innovation of
bebop. There is vivid continuity of the process of shifting away from this
compositional method throughout the 1950s, but it is always in the direction of
melodic continuity. The improvising craft of musicians like Sonny Rollins and
Miles Davis is particularly notable.
In the Freedom Suite(1958) Sonny Rollins creates pieces built on the
combination of short melodic structures that are then improvised over. Although
it has harmonic structure, it marks a step away from the traditional use of
compositions based on pre-existing popular standards. There is a definite folk-
like quality to Rollinss motivic improvising in the sense that he will end melodic
statements with very solid cadences or dropping inflections of his line. These
stylistic features can be seen in the playing of Ornette Coleman who in turn
influenced Rollins in the early sixties.
Miles Davis is also famous for his clear lyricism. His lyricism influenced
his compositional technique leading him to move away from the condensed chord
changes of bebop into modal or scalar playing which created more space for
lyrical invention. His Kind of Blue (1959) is clear evidence of the shift to modal
composing in addition to being one of the most popular jazz recordings of all
time.20 While Dayis himself was an early critic of avant-garde players like
Coleman, many of the personnel in his groups, most notably John Coltrane, went

on to be very active in the emerging avant-garde, and his sixties band was made
up of avant-garde cross over musicians like Tony Williams and Ron Carter.
There are some members of the avant-garde who did not develop so
actively in the jazz tradtition. Cecil Taylor, for example, came from an academic
music background and his playing often seemed inscrutable to many musicians
and critics, even though he was present in the New York scene well before
Coleman. When he was critically acknowledged, Taylor received negative
reviews. For example, a Blindfold Test early in the year where Feather played
Cecil Taylors rendition of I Love Paris for pianist Ray Bryant seems to capture
the mood surrounding Taylor at the time. Bryant said, You dont have to play
this all the way through, you can take it off... That must have been Cecil Taylor. I
dont have any comments. No stars(Vol. 27). The reception of Taylor is
interesting because it reveals that he is too radical to be considered for the
position of jazz hero, despite the 1956 release of his first album entitled Jazz
Advance. Compared to the acceptance of Colemans playing, which was
controversial but at least discussed, Taylors rendition of a well-known jazz
standard is completely rejected.
Cecil Taylor had been bn the New York Jazz scene for at least four years
whereas it only took Coleman a few weeks at The Five Spot upon arrival from
L.A. to get national recognition.21 There are obviously more factors at work than
the acceptance of innovative ways of playing.
In some ways; Colemans introduction to the scene was engineered. For
example, members of The Modem Jazz Quartet, who were outstanding members
of the jazz community, introduced Coleman to the New York scene. This was a
result of Colemans enrollment at the Lennox school earlier that year, where
members of the MJQ.were on the faculty. Coleman was also introduced to
Nesuhi Ertegun, who signed him to Atlantic records. Taylor had no such support
netwrok. And while this is understandable enough due to the fact that Taylors
music was much more abrasive to the conventional ear, critics were still not
taking him seriously when he was every bit as innovative as Coleman. Here
selective taste particularly influences historical representation. If critics were
more concerned with understanding innovation than finding a new champion, the
avant-garde innovations would not be so easily passed off as Colemans arrival.
The acceptance of Coleman on the part of accomplished musicians made
Colemans music a force to be reckoned with at the very time the industry was
seeking something new. As Mingus said to Leonard Feather, Colemans music
makes it clear that musicians are going to have to stop copying Bird. Coleman
was, despite any controversy, accepted into the New York Jazz scene early on,
and the critical reception to Coleman reveals an engineered revolution. The
critics wanted something new and sellable22 to write about and breathe

vitality into the music industry they thrived on, which was economically in
But whoever the new champion was, he could not be too radical. One
cannot be sure just how conscious this was at the time, and it is unnecessary to
make the critics out to be conspirators in some evil aesthetic coup. The jazz
media simply reflects their own presence in the aesthetic situation and reveal their
own intentionality, which is informed by agendas different than the musicians.
The less mentioned and critically un-received Cecil Taylor only shows that the
critics were not concerned with aesthetic innovation as it related to creative
expression or evolution, despite the progressive tendencies of Bebop and Hard
Yet it is well documented that the musicians at numerous points in jazz
history are interested in consciously evolving the music. In his biography of
Charlie Parker Carl Woideck asserts that
a construct that was popular in jazz until the late 1960s held that
jazz was constantly improving; that further harmonic, melodic, and
rhythmic sophistication and complexity advanced jazz; that each
new style superseded the previous one, e.g., New Orleans jazz was
made obsolete by the swing style that was then superseded by
modem jazz. The devotees of early jazz styles felt that the music
had classic qualities of simplicity, directness, honesty, and joy that
were lacking in later styles. (137)
The idea that jazz exhibits an evolutionary process is ambiguous on many levels,
but Woidecks statement is clearly more directed toward the technicality of music.
The process of acquiring technique in reference to a musician and his or her
instrument is undeniably evolutionary. But the concept of evolution when applied
to music becomes enormously complex.
Avant-garde musicians often thought of their innovations as being
evolutionary, as Coltranes response to Tynan earlier shows. But their
innovations were not visible in an enhanced virtuosity of technique. While this
doesnt mean they werent concerned with technique, their innovations took a
more subjective than objective turn and as a result their innovations were harder
to calculate. In retrospect,
Ornette Coleman says, ...I realized that if I changed the harmonic
structure while someone else is doing something, they couldnt
stay there, theyd have to change with me. So I would bring that
about myself a lot, knowing where I could take the melody. In
other words, I could create a showcase for the melody and then

show the distance between where I could go and still come directly
back to that melody, instead of trying to show the different
inversions of the same thing. (In Litweiler 43)
Coleman intentionally directed the music toward his own personal statements and
diverted people from playing directed at a pre-existing form. While it was a
subjective move, it was also ethical. The other musicians had to give up the game
of asserting mastery by establishing their ability to play over a pre-given form and
now play in the moment with the other musicians. The musicians engagement
with each other became more direct. This was definitely a different kind of
evolution than Woideck describes with the beboppers. Because it was a more
subjective turn, it became more particular to each individual musicians identity.
While critics at times saw social ideals and ethics embodied in the music
(particularly with race and democracy), they werent equipped for a subjective
turn like Colemans that demanded more engagement on everyones part.
Some critics have seen evolution in the music and aligned the progressive
tendencies with socially progressive political theories. Amiri Baraka, who is an
early advocate of the .avant-garde sees the music as an aesthetic whose standards
and measure are connected irrevocably to the continuous gloss most white
Americans have always made over the Negro life in America (185) and he states
that critics need to
reorganize their thinking so that they begin their concern for these
musicians by trying to understand why each played the way he did,
and in terms of the constantly evolving and re-defined which has
informed the most profound examples of Negro music throughout
its history. (184)
While Baraka sees an evolutionary connection between the music and the African
American community, he is not saying that when jazz evolves, it makes previous
styles of jazz obsolete. Discussing the avant-garde, Baraka states,
The attitudes and emotional philosophy contained in the new
music must be isolated and understood by critics before any
consideration of the worth of the music can legitimately be
broached. Later on, of course, it becomes relatively easy to
characterize the emotional penchants that informed earlier
aesthetic statements. After the fact, is a much simpler way to work
and think. For example, a writer who wrote liner notes for a John
Coltrane record mentioned how difficult it had been for him to

appreciate Coltrane earlier, just as it had been difficult for him to
appreciate Charlie Parker when he first appeared. (183)
The ear of the critic evolves as well, and Barakas criticism comes from the late
An ethical perspective can also inform the idea of evolution in the music
from a more traditional stance than Ornette Coleman. John Coltrane spoke of this
quite often. He told Kofsky that he actively tried to change the music for the
better and said, I feel I want to be a force for good(in Porter 192). Around the
time of Tynans bashing, Coltrane told Kitty Grime,
Change is inevitable in our music things change. A big break
with the dancing tradition of jazz came in the forties with Diz and
Bird. You got broken rhythms, complicated devices. There is so
much beauty still in this music. .
Then, almost ten years later, Miles, whod been with them
at the beginning, swung over to the other side again. You can
dance to most of Miles most popular things like Green Dolphin
Street. Now, in the music of people like Cecil Taylor and Ornette
you have a swing back to broken rhythms again. Its a fact that
everything in life is action and reaction: Things evolve, not
necessarily consciously. But there are certain elements that are
inherent in jazz, and you must be watching for them. If those
elements are there, youll get it. (In Porter 202-203)
Coltrane doesnt particularly describe those elements, but it is possible that at
least one of those elements is an aesthetic attitude. In any case, the inevitability
of change is not something many critics were acknowledging in 1961.
The critical establishment at the end of the fifties was aesthetically
manipulative because it chose to represent its own taste, and in doing so it
discriminated between what it believed was and was not jazz. It is one thing to
unconsciously ignore an artist out of disinterestedness; it is another to deny
commentary outright. Ray Bryant and Leonard Feather both chose to represent
Taylor negatively to the public. But perhaps Feather is more at fault. Everyone is
entitled to his or her opinion, but in conjunction with his approach to Coleman
with Mingus, Feather appears actively to be using his power as a critic to
manipulate his own aesthetics. Feather, of course, is a musician as well, and is
not uninformed in his opinions, but his lack of support is detrimental to artists
careers. Feather and Bryant were, of course, not alone in disregarding Taylor.
And Taylors sound was radically different, more so than a player like Coleman.

Performance Versus Composition
The lack of tolerance given to Cecil Taylor may have also been from the
fact that he was educated in the European classical tradition. The jazz influence
on his style is not as audible as a musician like, say, Dolphy who was able to
develop within the jazz community. Taylors approach is more conceptual than
audible at first. One instantly hears the percussive nature of his playing and the
clusters of notes similar in pitch played simultaneously. But if one considers the
influence of Arnold Schoenbergs development of twelve-tone harmony (which
makes use of all the pitches or notes that Europeans traditionally considered part
of the available musical resources) one can easily see a similar approach to
tonality in Taylors playing.23 One wonders why Taylor is not more often
considered as a contributing factor in the development of Third Stream music and
the experiments of Gunther Schuller and John Lewis, at least stylistically.
Coleman, on the other hand, did contribute to some Third Stream recordings. In
fact, Ornette Coleman produced as much notated music as improvised music in
the 1960s, but he is most often remembered for his formal developments that
contributed to the avant-garde (Litweiler), so even Colemans innovations are
narrowed by the critical gaze.
The lack of attention paid to Colemans work as a composer makes his
situation similar to that of many African American musicians to come out of
Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s (Szwed, Braxton in Locke). Intellectual property
among musicians has always been a problem in representing jazz music because
virtuosity is more objectively apparent than more subtle elements such as
communicative ability. Historically, Coleman is much more discussed as a stylist
than a composer, which is true of many innovators.
Jazz musicians are often regarded more for their virtuosity than for their
compositional contributions, with the obvious exceptions being the major
bandleaders like Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Henderson, Mingus etc. The
compositional aspect of improvising itself is rarely discussed. Style and
composition are not discussed enough in relation to each other. Stylistic elements
are rapidly appropriated within the jazz community, and it is hard to determine
credibility at times. This only further emphasizes the necessity for musicians to
develop their own unique style within an established community.
More attention to the jazz community helps to situate an environment for
creative development that maintains continuity of an aesthetic over time. While
some critics, like Leonard Feather and Gunther Schuller, were very much a part of
this community, in retrospect it is possible to see a tendency among the writers to

feel like they had too much of a hold on what jazz was. Perhaps it was this
tendency that did not allow them to see the creative contributions of individuals
like Cecil Taylor at the time. To see, say, Taylors contributions, it is necessary
to widen ones overall historical perspective of the music and see it as a
continuous aesthetic inhabited by stylistic advancement. It was this aspect of
Taylors music that allowed a musician like Steve Lacy, who in the fifties was
playing in New Orleans style bands, the oldest style of the music, to join Taylors
Performance and Community
Some critical representations of the music at the time did, however, see
ethical aesthetic notions in the way the music was played. Sometimes the music
was linked to democratic social ideals, particularly in relation to race. But this
was problematic as well, because while critics saw the value that the music placed
in the ability for an individual to express him or her self they also gave
themselves too much authority in critically containing the music as such. As a
result, they totalized the music for a time. The differing ideas of community and
its relationship to expression created tension between artists and critics. While
continuing to emphasize continuity of expressive ideas over time, a look at the
jazz community during the 1950s and sixties exemplifies the difference between
the artists approach to community and the critics approach to art in the
The ethics implied by avant-garde musicians aesthetic continuity with the
older jazz community, not just their innovations, shows that the ethics that some
critics saw in the music were different from the ethics in the community. The
older members of the avant-garde clearly situate all innovations of the movement
as being well within the jazz tradition. Artists sentiment or attitudes contribute to
a jazz ethic, which avant-garde musicians according to their historical position
and innovations add to. To recognize the jazz tradition as a set of values is to also
recognize it as a community. More critical emphasis must be placed on the music
and the community as social entities. Figures like Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra,
as well as John Coltrane, are important particularly because they were active in
maintaining that community, even if they did so in entirely different ways.
During the fifties, Sun Ra (then sometimes still known as Herman Blount)
was arranging music for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. While Fletcher
Hendersons big band was considered past its prime in post-bop Chicago, Sun
Ras devotion was absolute. Sun Ra was, like his pianist / composer peer,

Thelonious Monk, part of a jazz generation that was directly influenced by the
earliest innovators. This is most easily heard in the elements of stride piano that
permeates their playing and is reminiscent of ragtime music. As contemporaries
of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, Monk and Sun Ra were not as easily influenced by
their more linear style. Both Thelonious Monk and Sun Ras playing exhibit a
more explicit emphasis on composition and they were a heavy influence on the
avant-garde through both style and composition. Through them it is easy to see
yet another connection of the avant-garde to the lineage of the jazz tradition. But
it is important to see the jazz tradition as a development and passage of certain
values and not only concentrate on the qualities of the physical sound.
Although the overall sound of avant-garde music may be distinguishable
from bebop, bebop is audibly distinguishable from swing. They are both
considered as part of the jazz tradition, so sonic change is acceptable as a
development. If one considers the way a musician like Art Tatum bridged the gap
between Swing and bebop, then it is easy to see that many contributors to the
avant-garde in the sixties were very similar. The way the music itself sounds
often make it distinguishable in terms of periods etc., but severed from tradition,
those values are less meaningful. It undermines the continuity of the tradition to
assume that the innovators were young rebels or that older, more mature players
had little or no contribution to the aesthetic changes. Critics sometimes represent
the shift as a generational gap, which is not the case at all.
Sun Ra had opened his home as a refuge for the development of music
outside of the commercial sphere even before he moved North from Alabama to
Chicago. John F. Szwed has remarkably traced Sun Ras individual efforts at
maintaining a stable community in Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of
Sun Ra. It is not enough to simply say as David G. Such says in Avant-garde
Musicians: Performing Out There that Sun Ras efforts or the efforts of the
AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a later Chicago
group, began as a collective self-help society(84) The notion of organized
community is something particularly notable about the forward-thinking members
of the jazz scene in the mid fifties and sixties, old and young alike.
The clear attempt to organize and insulate a community of artists shows
artistic intentions that are ethically minded. While many individuals among
avant-garde musicians are talented, individual innovators, they owe much of their
expression to a sense of community. When older musicians in particular became
concerned with the commercial industrys affect on the music, they made attempts
to create an environment more conducive to artistic expression.
Sun Ras group, as well as the Charles Mingus and Max Roach duo, each
set the precedent of artist-run record labels in order to release their own material
by their own standards to the public (Litweiler 139). The idea of artistic
independence from the established music industry inspired musicians to setup and

promote their own shows and in some cases to start their own venues in order to
play their music. Mingus and Roach helped organize the Alternative Newport
Festival in 1960. Such ideas would inspire groups in the mid sixties the New
York loft scene in the 1970s.
After moving to New York in 1961 Sun Ra became an active member in
attempts to organize musicians. As a member of the many who performed at the
Bill Dixon coordinated October Revolution in Jazz festival, Sun Ra went on to
be a founding member of the Jazz Composers Guild, an ambitious but
unfortunately short-lived attempt to create an environment that would nurture
musicians rights (138).
Like Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk acted as a mentor to younger musicians,
particularly John Coltrane, in the late 1950s. Monk was a valuable member of the
jazz community both for composition as well as his ability to nurture younger
players. But unlike Sun Ra, Monk did not actively participate in the so-called
avant-garde movement. He, much like Mingus, simply did not see the music as
revolutionary, though he admitted the potential of players such as Coleman
(Kelley / Grouse in Kelley, 4-5). Nevertheless, stylistically Monk was by far one
of the most contributing factors to elements of style that were more prevalent in
avant-garde jazz playing. For example, Cecil Taylors version of Monks
Bemsha Swing on Jazz Advance attests to his appreciation for Monk. John
Coltrane studied with Monk in 1958. And soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who
played in both Monks group as well as Taylors started a group devoted to
playing only Monks music. Lacys collaboration with Don Cherry entitled
Evidence (1961), after Monks composition, clearly shows their fondness for
Monk with four of the six compositions performed being Monk tunes.
In New Monastery: Monk and the Jazz Avant-garde Robin D. G. Kelley
elaborates on the influence Monk had on the younger players. Kelley states: the
emergence of the jazz avant-garde during the early 1960s did indeed change the
field of reception for Monk as well as for other musician / composers (e.g.
Charles Mingus) who only a decade before were considered too far out and
experimental(l). One of Kelley?s most profound insights is the way the
Conservative and Cold War-liberal critics drove a wedge between Monk and the
avant-garde by promoting Monk as a foil against the radicalization of black
musicians(5). Here again, the agenda of the critics undermines the continuity of
. the jazz tradition, even while trying to be democratic, overseeing the fact that
across the board Monk was the most celebrated composer by younger Avant-
garde musicians.25 The critics interpretation of the political climate was
producing effects on the jazz community, and these more objectively social ethics
should not be confused with the ones necessitated by a subjective turn in the
music, which is a major innovation of the avant-garde. Downbeat discourse in
1960 displays the political climate of the Cold War. Over and over again Jazz is

linked to social politics, especially racial integration. While this marks the
beginning of historically paralleling a break in the jazz tradition with political
history, it is particularly notable because the music was critically represented as
being ideologically linked with democracy. The summer articles represent jazz as
a U.S. ambassador of its political ideals to Soviet Russia. Whether the music did
or did not exhibit these values is to be debated. Louis Armstrong, who cancelled
his visit to the Soviet Union, expresses mixed emotions in his memoirs because of
the contradictions involved in representing a supposedly democratic country that
had so many problems granting civil rights to African Americans.
It is important to notice the sudden growth in the community that the
music represented when it became aligned with American ideology. As an
ambassador of American democratic ideals, jazz became the site of numerous
contradictions by representing a nation where white oppression still prevailed.
Many jazz critics were liberal minded when it came to matters such as race, but
the country was not. Because the critics were quick to connect the democratic
aspects of the music to the national community, they unknowingly neglected the
still present racial tensions that affected the lives of the majority of jazz
musicians. The jazz community was established, but it was a minority
community, subversive because it was a minority.
The problem here is that critical representations act with the authority that
they are in line with the artists perspectives when they really turn the artists into
pawns by denying them the agency required for self-actualization. The
perspective relegates artists to its own. While there are overlapping elements of
American democratic ideals in jazz music, the jazz community only represents
this insofar as America accepts the perspectives of the music and musicians, and
this has not historically been great enough to align the two completely.
The Critic as Hero
Because traditional jazz historical analyses operate from a perspective that
totalizes events into facts that can be consumed in the form of knowledge,
representations of jazz often display contempt for any emphasis on subjectivity.
Yet avant-garde jazz emphasized subjectivity more than any other sub-genre of
the music; and therefore, it was in direct contradiction with the traditional critical
perspective, but not with the traditional jazz aesthetic. It is no wonder that the
popular historical representation of any artistic work that holds subjectivity in
high regard (such as avant-garde jazz) poses problems to historians. To them,
artistic works that deal with subjectivity appear unreasonable, irresponsible, self-

gratifying, and historically unimportant in any terms of categorization of species
development. Yet this totalizing perspective in traditional criticism denies artistic
self-actualization, and this in turn affects the cultural contributions of the artistic
Even when critics are supportive of certain types of jazz, they often
oversimplify the subjective personalities involved. The perspective of the
musicians is easily lost in such simplified representations of the musics aesthetic
values. For example, John Litweilers The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958
points to Charles Mingus as an unwilling influence on the avant-garde.
As a harbinger of Free j azz, which Mingus despised, he had
introduced most of his advanced ideas by the end of summer 1957;
as well see, his pianoless 1960 groups with Eric Dolphys
woodwinds would become important to the emerging new music.
But Charles Mingus seems to have had more of a love-hate relationship with the
avant-garde. In his Open Letter to the Avant-garde, which appears to have been
written in the late sixties but not published until 1973, Minguss perspective shifts
throughout. In the letter Mingus discusses trying to get some of the older
members of the jazz establishment to make an avant-garde record. In the second
paragraph he says,
The reason I was saying this was that I wanted to show what would
happen if some musicians who could really play chord changes,
who could really play a tune and not get lost, were to improvise
and play free and everybody do what they want to do to outdo
the avant-garde. (119)
Wouldnt this validate the style? Later he goes on:
My main reason for making this record was as a joke, calling it
Avant-garde by Ellington and Mingus and Diz and Clark Terry.
Clark still wants to do it, although Duke dropped out because he
considers what they call avant-garde today old fashioned music.
And its true. Its old fashioned because its played by beginners,
by people trying to learn how to play, or trying to wonder what to
play to be different. But the press has confused it, so that the
minute a guy gets up at the bandstand and squeaks and hollers on
his horn, then hes a new avant-garde player. [....] I dont think
theyre playing feeling, I think theyre playing anything they want

to play: noise, squeaks and hollers, yells, banging bells, with no
continuity to it, with no recapitulation, with no form.
His joke is more serious than a joke because it adopts another aesthetic
perspective in order to outdo it. Ellingtons perspective is similar to Monks in
that he doesnt feel the avant-garde brings anything new to jazz. When Mingus
begins to speak of particular avant-garde musicians his case loses weight and his
perspective changes. After admitting that he has not heard Pharoah Sanders or
Cecil Taylor, he says,
I think the most unique thing about the avant-garde is the rhythmic
patterns that the guys are making. The people are going by the
rhythms rather than by the musical sounds. I think people are
listening to the beat, mainly. Im not trying to knock avant-garde.
I m just trying to say that it would be beautiful to hear if there
were such a thing as avant-garde the best musicians play it.
Because dont let anyone tell me that Clark Terry or Duke
Ellington cant play avant-garde music, or incoherent if they
wanted to. It would be the most incoherent. It would be the most
Mingus is not knocking the style so much as the musicianship of some of its
players and the medias attention to it. He clearly takes the musical and formal
ideas very seriously.
Mingus seems to have more of a problem with the way the music is being
represented in the media and the lack of attention players like himself are getting.
He says, If I was avant-garde in 1954, then what am I now? Avant-avant-garde?
Modem-modem, new-thing new-thing? The new, new thing? I hope they settle
down and start playing some music again, because theres a good chance that jazz
will come back. Mingus is obviously tired of labeling that detracts from the
actual music. He even calls on critics to take a stand.
we need some real critics that are serious about whats going on
today, who arent afraid to say this guys out of tune, to say he
squeaks up high, he misses notes and not those who write that he
swings his horn up and down in the air and dances and appeals to
the audience, without paying attention to what the guy is really
In addition to calling for an honest critic, Mingus is calling for a critic who is
aware of whats going on musically, and that is a difficult thing to do, especially

with a music that evades traditional critical methods and judgment. When so
much subjectivity comes into play, critics cannot rely on traditional modes of
musical analysis. The most supportive criticism of avant-garde players is usually
in the form of an artist profile, and this makes sense to a certain extent because
when external form disappears, the musician is left only with his or her own
presence. And the lack of ability to discuss the music hinders even well
intentioned criticism.
Historical analyses rarely reach beyond the documentation of a whos
who type of style into larger cultural implications for developments in the music.
One exception is racial discourse, but even here, the application is most often
specifically biographical or autobiographical. And because many critics did not
see the contradictions between criticism, which sought too narrow a vision of the
musics ethics, and the musicians, who sought greater individual expression,
communication broke down. Musicians who were outspoken or angry about
representation, particularly in terms of race, were seen as being reverse racist
and even anti-jazz. -
These debates fill jazz discourse even today, and while individual
experience is valued in jazz discourse in terms of a documentation of injustice and
a lament for the existing conditions, very little time is given to analyzing why
things were the way they were. Instead, the discourse relies on riffs that quote
the same statements musicians made over and over, or the same cultural tropes
that have defined the popular conceptions of the fifties and sixties that exist today.
Further, the problem of misrepresenting the music exists even in the most
extremely liberal white critics of the music, which makes race an even more
problematic subject. Such critics miss the demand for engagement suggested by
avant-garde players more subjective turn by entering to quickly into pre-
established social concerns, which by their very pre-disseminated nature are more
One very problematic example of this is the work of Frank Kofsky.
Kofskys Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music is perhaps the most
extreme example of a well-intentioned attempt to establish some sort of social
justice to the condition of avant-garde artists. However, his extreme Marxist
agenda infiltrates the boundaries of responsible criticism in addition to making
him a controversial figure as well as being a very active agent in over-
representing the music as revolutionary. This is not to say that the Marxist
aspects of his criticism are not valid at any time. But in his allegiance to the
socially progressive Kofsky does damage to historicity of the larger jazz tradition.
He will often make claims that certain types of music such as the popular cool
or west coast jazz of the 1950s are obsolete. Part of this perspective is tied up
with a liberal perspective that saw a much greater degree of success among white
musicians due to racial discrimination in the music industry. But to claim that a

certain type of music is obsolete can prove to be historically damaging. Some
examples will help to clarify the situation.
Kofsky associates West coast jazz with the term Third Stream jazz
and he is very clear about the musics obsolescence. In Black Nationalism and
the Revolution in Music (1970) he states that fully three fourths or more of white
/ West Coast of that era is unlistenable today; I, for one have long since disposed
of my collection(34-35). He is particularly down on the pianist Dave Bmbeck as
a symbol for white middle class values of the 1950s. Like many other critics,
Kofsky sees a schism between the new and old music. He is clearly, safely
aligned with the new style.
Kofsky further exemplifies the problems of categorizing and labeling
different developments in the music we call jazz. Criticism has produced a
popular memory of a schism between avant-garde and traditional j azz. It
would be incorrect to contest the validity of the claim that West Coast jazz was
generally in accordance with white, middle class, conservative values and that the
avant-garde was generally associated with black, socially progressive, liberal
values. This is how it was. But to claim a music as obsolete in cultural value is
irresponsible and unhistorical.
There is a way to approach the music of this time as a whole without
falling into colorblind values that try to ignore the contributions of marginalized
communities or dissecting the music and musicians into groups that indicate
where they exist on a scale of coolness. John Coltrane illustrates this approach
in the following excerpt from an interview with Kofsky.
Kofsky: Do you remember Third Stream Music, what was called
Third Stream music?
Coltrane: Yes.
Kofsky: Did you ever feel, much of an inner urge to play that kind
of music?
Coltrane: No.
Kofsky: Why do you think it didnt catch on with the musicians?
Was there anything about it that suggests why it was never
popular with them?
Coltrane: I think it was an attempt to create something, I think,
more with labels, than with true evolution.
Kofsky: You mean, it didnt evolve naturally out of the desires of
the musicians?
Coltrane: Maybe it did, I cant say that. It was an attempt to do
something, and evolution is about trying too. But theres
something in evolution it just happens when its ready,
but this thing isnt really where it was coming from. What

was it an attempt to blend, to wed two musics? Thats
what it was.
Kofsky: You said, talking about saxophone players, that
there was a common pool that everybody dipped into.
Maybe here, there wasnt enough of that pool for the
musicians to dip into.
Coltrane: Well, I just think it wasnt time. It was an attempt to do
something at a time when it wasnt time for this to happen,
and therefore it wasnt lasting. But there may have been
some things that came out of this that will have been
beneficial in promoting the final change, which is coming.
So nothing is really wasted, although it may appear to fail
or not succeed the way that men may have desired it to.
Kofsky: Even mistakes can be instructive if you try to use them.
The dynamic between musician and critic in the in this excerpt exemplifies much
of what has been discussed so far. With the benefit of hindsight and the
knowledge of what superficial labeling can do to the way we think about music, it
is possible to see a great deal of wisdom in Coltranes words. If we attempt to
approach the musical categories not as boundaries for separate so-called failed
attempts, and instead regard them as belonging to the same pool of ideas from
which all musicians grasp, then there isnt really such a thing as a mistake.
Coltranes presence in the avant-garde is notable because, like so many
others, bridges critical gaps that separate the avant-garde from more traditional
jazz. Coltrane spent developmental time in Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and
Thelonious Monks groups, which connect him to the roots of bebop. In 1959 he
released Giant Steps, which established him as a master of hard-bop in terms of
both technical virtuosity and music theory. In the early sixties he became
enamored with Ornette Colemans musical innovations, even to the point of
borrowing Colemans band and recording the album The Avant-garde in 1960.
And while Coltrane was still playing with form (as was Coleman), Coltrane began
improvising against chords that were further removed from traditional tonality.
He also adopted the stylistic technique of playing two notes simultaneously on his
saxophone, giving a distorted type of sound that critics mistook for being out of
tune. But it was when Coltrane added Eric Dolphy in 1961, who played with
Mingus and participated in Ornette Colemans Free Jazz, that critics were really
Less than a year after the anti-jazz label was applied, Coltrane recorded
an album with none other than Duke Ellington. Mixing experimental recording
dates with more traditional sounding dates confused Coltranes audience, but also
proves his unwillingness to be confined to a label or genre of jazz. Porter points

out that while Bob Thiele, Coltranes producer, wanted to present a more
accessible side of Coltranes music, it was done in complete cooperation with
All of the debates that surround avant-garde jazz stem from the first
experimental period. It seems shocking now to look back and see that the anti-
jazz label was directed at formal music. Perhaps this is one of the most
compelling reasons to distrust blanket criticism against avant-garde or free
playing. Labels are a continuing problem as the criticism tries to relegate the art
into conceptual comers. At the end of the fifties jazz was being categorized by
genre and advertised in the magazines as Cool, Soul, Hard-bop, Third
Stream, and Avant-garde. All these labels had stylistic distinctions. But
overemphasis on style outweighed more overarching aesthetic concerns.
There is simply too much critical misunderstanding from the start, all of which
must be accounted for before being able to truly examine the more radical free
playing that was to emerge in the later half of the sixties.
However, while a late sixties critic like Frank Kofsky is controversial for
his blatant political agendas and his own blanket criticism announcing the death
of earlier styles, his interviews are valuable for, the artists perspective, which
seem to be a reliable source of aesthetic information. For example, in Black
Nationalism and the Revolution in Music Coltrane tells Kofsky regarding musical
labels that
I think its up to the individual musician, call it what you may, for
any reason you may. Myself, I recognize the artist. I recognize an
individual when I see his contribution; and when I know a mans
sound, well, to me thats him, thats this man. Thats the way I
look at it. Labels, I dont bother with. (225)
Seriously considering such a perspective allows us to take a more holistic
approach to some of the later avant-garde musicians, such as Anthony Braxton.
Braxton is an example of a musician who developed out of what was
labeled as Third Stream, and is open about the influence of West coast
saxophonist Paul Desmond (who played in Dave Brubecks group in the 1950s)
on his style, so contrary to critics like Kofsky, both Third Stream music and west
coast jazz are important. Like Ornette Coleman, Braxtons music is sometimes
traditionally notated and sometimes completely improvised (and of course
sometimes mixes the two). He often likens himself to Stockhausen. But because
Braxton is typed as a jazz musician he is not taken seriously in the European
tradition of composers. Thus he and musicians like Coleman have had a hard
time getting their orchestrated pieces performed because jazz musicians are
victims of labeling whether it is within the jazz medium or outside it. Labeling

has effects on artists potential. It is no wonder why Braxton shuns even the free
jazz label.
Summing Up Critical Problems
Labeling records and reifies misrepresentations that are subject to multiple
agendas, which in turn have a damaging effect on the music. Representation is a
memory without a past. It is a construction that feeds experience as it is
constructed, but it is not necessarily constructed out of experience, especially in
historical representations. As such, representation and labeling is most damaging
because it confines the music to its own definition of what the music is. It
presents the music, or the history of the music, or the players of the music as a
totality. Most critics have probably not had the audacity to think that their
conception was the last word in its representation. In fact, at times
representations of the music serve to inspire, more discussion, especially
controversial discussion, because that creates the opportunity for more discussion
and more jobs for writers etc. But when discourse reaches the point of self-
fetishization it is often destructive in its forgetfulness of what it is really about.
Traditionally, the experience of the individual has been celebrated in jazz
discourse. Biographies and autobiographies are vital sources of information
because they possess information that gives some sort of access to the artists
lives. But as time goes on the music has outlived many of its innovators and
when that happens all we have to rely on is representations of what they did. If
they are part of a tradition, as is the case with jazz, we can see the result of past
innovations on newer styles, hi this way their work transcends their facticity as a
human body. As a result, a responsible critical perspective must at least attempt
to maintain an interactive relationship that respects the artists work as it relates to
a jazz aesthetic over time, and it is the ethics of this aesthetic that need more
discussion. Only in this way can we begin to break the tendency to represent a
work as a total entity where its growth is stifled.
Historians make judgmentsactive and passive or tacitwhen they write,
and thus they record their mistakes, which become most visible when we find out
what their histories exclude. Judgments of this sort are particularly visible in Jazz
History because the generative sources of the music and the recorders of history
are often in ideological conflict with each other. Criticism often seeks to
document individual heroism while jazz thrives on contingent relation. Multi-
layered arguments develop out of differing aesthetic tastes and personal agendas
that reflect clashes of race, ethnicity, class, gender, culture etc. Nevertheless, the

fact that such.arguments exist shows that jazz has become a valuable site of
cultural study that both contains and goes beyond any superficial divisions. But
this is not to say that.jazz discourse does not still reflect tensions as a result of
such superficial thinking. It is helpful to briefly touch on the state of jazz
criticism now, and to see the different takes on the avant-garde of the late fifties
and early sixties.
Post-Sixties Criticism: The Identity Problem
Jazz music has gone from holding a position as Americas popular music
in the Swing era to the largely academy-centered music it is today, where it often
carries the title of Americas Classical Music. To some degree, the music has
found in academia a place of refuge from the struggle of existing as commodity in
the market place. Academia became the safe-haven of jazz in a commercial-
driven economy as the music and the musicians began to be considered as art and
artists throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties. But academic preservation of
jazz has also had the effect of relegating the music to the past. The music exists
as history rather than as expressive material. For young musicians this is
problematic because they are confronted with the entire history of the music
before they are encouraged to express themselves. But this is not just a problem
for musicians; the audience suffers as well.
As entertainment, the commentary, not the music, is now the popular
commodity. The multimedia onslaught of the Ken Bums Jazz series exemplifies a
perspective that blends academic research and pop iconography to create a
product that defines what jazz is, or maybe more fittingly what jazz was. It seems
as if the discourse is as concerned with creating a mass-consumable product, as it
is with gathering information .about a subject. Debates such as Friedwalds The
Future of Jazz argue whether or not jazz is dead, which implies (at least on the
part of those speaking for the deceased) that they know exactly what jazz was.
Thus, the result of jazz entering the academy has been a massive objectification
and totalization of the subject. The discourse defines the elements for what is
acceptable in the music, separating it into various styles and categories resulting,
in conjunction with market research, in different types of jazz. Stuart
Nicholson claims:
Increasingly, young musicians are becoming custodians of a music
within carefully prescribed parameters, an inadvertent by-product
of jazz entering academia if you cant define the music, then how

can you teach it? [....] Jazz is gradually being ring-fenced by
educators who see limits to the art form, and a static definition of
the music is emerging, one that looks backward and allows for
little or no future growth.
Academicism is breeding revivalism. Jazz method books,
jazz pattern books, jazz teach-yourself books are all dedicated to a
style of jazz [bebop or hard bop] that reached its apotheosis in the
late 1950s and early 1960s. (In Friedwald et al 205)
What seems to be missing from academic discussion of the music is its existence
as an ethical perspective. While styles may reflect differences, some overarching
essence seems to prevail, keeping these types contained within the larger category
of jazz.
The label jazz itself has proved problematic to artists who feel confined
about the label. For example, Anthony Braxton refers to so-called jazz as
black exotica(in Locke. 85). His musical perspective comes from outside the
current markets system of classification, and he often times feels that he is
classified as a jazz musician only because the recording industry is incapable of
dealing with or seeing a black intellectual as anything but a jazz figure. In the
case of the music industry then, it appears that the industry acts as if it knows
exactly what jazz music is and who should be considered a so-called jazz artist.
Most record companies large enough to deal with more than one category of
music have completely different departments that deal with each type of music.
For a musician like Braxton, the music industry clearly represents a Euro-
centric culture that exists as an ambiguous assimilating entity capable of defining
Otherness (here as race or ethnicity) for regulatory purposes. In Levinasian terms
such regulations are the furthest from any sort of metaphysical, and therefore
ethical, relationship. The power to define Otherness puts the definer into a
position of ambiguous authority for which he or she must become accountable,
because when one defines, one becomes responsible for the creation of the form
and parameters that accompany that definition.
This can easily be viewed in terms of race. The idea of passing as
white, which permeates black American Literature from Dubois27 on is an
existence of invisibility. When one becomes white, one becomes non-present
in a way that excludes one from the parameters of definition. Further, this ability
allows the invisible one to integrate the experience of others as ones own
because, after all, the other is ones own creation. Being invisible means not
having to be accountable. This privilege has been the vantage point of much
j azz j oumalism and j azz history.2

Attempts to Engage the Problems
Because most writing about jazz in general has been done by (mostly)
European Americans about (mostly) African Americans, problems of
misrepresentation in the jazz world, especially concerning the avant-garde often,
stem from the way race is treated. In addition, many historical representations of
jazz have relied on a restricted and pre-existing notions of musical categories and
therefore missed developments that cross these artificial boundaries. Because of
this, the long-term labeling of music segments the art into styles and genres that
often undermine elements of musical continuity and innovation, while
simultaneously regulating musical identity and affecting the development of
individual expression.
Labels are always applied to something pre-existing. But labels go on to
historically affect the musics In some cases an artist may choose to create music
or an artistic identity that coincides within the parameters of labels.29 Along with
the avant-garde label, jazz was commercially divided into numerous genres such
as soul, hard bop, Latin, west coast etc., all of which influenced younger
musicians. And even the jazz musician label becomes a trope.
The idea of labeling here can be applied both to the genre stratification by
writers and the music industry as well as to the tropes that accompany those
meanings codified by those definitions. For example, within mass culture, the
jazz artist is both a trope and an archetype. As a trope, the jazz musician is the
eternal hipster signified by the lifestyle of the jazz musician of the forties and
fifties. The goatee, beret, and homed rimmed glasses of Dizzy Gillespie; Lester
Youngs porkpie hat, and use of language; Miles Davis cool whisper; Charlie
Parker and Billie Hobdays heroine addictions; all of these contribute to the jazz
musician as a cultural trope. The music is often seen as an expression of pure
passion and spontaneity, which undermines its intebectual status in favor of
primitivism. And of course musicians such as Wynton Marsehs have sought to
clean up the sociaby negative aspect of the jazz musician as a trope, such as
abundant drug use, both in order to destroy myths and to raise the status of jazz
music into high society. The image if the jazz musician now becomes the
archetype of the streetwise and humble master of Round Midnight parodied by the
character of Bleeding-Gums Murphy character on the Simpsons. Because of the
social nature of tropes, the particularity of younger musicians identities can
become confused with the constructed image of the jazz musician.
What does it mean to be a jazz musician? Aspiring musicians will always
look up to more accompbshed musicians, but if the being of that musician is
accessed through codified representations of the music, then the aspiring musician

does not get access to the idiosyncratic expressive qualities that make the admired
musicians work valuable according to any sort of jazz ethic unless they have
direct access to him or her. Yet continuity from generation to generation depends
on a continuation of an ethic or aesthetic that remains consistent with earlier
forms of the music, and constant labeling undermines this tradition. The label is
not about to go away; in fact, some may argue that it helps to insulate the
Further, because labeling has historically affected the music and
musicians, the answer to the problems that arise with labeling is not simply to
abolish labeling altogether. Even if this were possible, it would not be retroactive
and such a sweeping attempt would deny the artistic endeavors that play with
these existing notions of genre and categorization.30 It may also be argued that
labeling is necessary for historicizing in terms of say, so-called artistic
movements; nevertheless, there is enormous potential for misinformation and
miscommunication in such methods. The authority of what is said must be put
into question as well as the responsibility for the transmission of valid information
by examining previous historical and critical endeavors with this inquisitiveness
in mind.
Attempts to break this trend of White dominated criticism have
developed a style of writing and representation that favors direct information from
the musicians over social commentary. In some cases, the musicians have chosen
to represent the music themselves, which itself stems from earlier struggles by
avant-garde musicians. But the clash of values between such a perspective and
the traditional jazz-historical perspective creates tension as to what is acceptable
as to how the music should be portrayed.
Such debates are particularly under fire in the academic setting, where
authority is held more accountable than in popular writing. But many jazz
musicians have become a part of the academy, which complicates things more.
There is no clear line of opposition between represented and re-presenter, except
in a historical sense, which is both why historical overview is necessary for
understanding of the subject as well as why avant-garde jazz as an historical
subject is ideal for modeling the ethical nature of the music. To be sure, one
unmistakable result of the labeling and misrepresentation of so-called avant-garde
jazz has been the development of an attitude among musicians that constantly
mistrusts critics and the musical establishment.
Outspoken avant-garde jazz musicians of the era constantly exhibit
tensions that arise from entering the white-dominated representational realm
whether it is academic writing or journalism. Ornette Coleman and Anthony
Braxton have particularly expressed anxieties about outside sources that seek to
contain his sound by defining it. In David, Mojfet, and Ornette, Coleman refers to
an incident where someone compared his music to that of Hungarian composer

Bela Bartok. While Coleman asserts that he personally has no problems with
Bartoks music, he also claims that
Its no relation, thats the only thing that they can figure is in the
same intellectual idiom. People put you in a category because they
say well lets, this is the most way out thing I can think
of so Im going to put you there. It makes me safer. And it may
not be that way at all.
Colemans statements differ from Anthony Braxtons because, for him, the
problem is not necessarily racism (although, one could regard such a critics
argument as ethnocentric). Colemans position is in this case more specific as
well. But both cases exhibit a locating of one persons music and or identity by
an outside source. More important is the fact that in both cases such locating is a
diversion from dealing with the music or the person (as an individual entity).
. While labeling or categorizing music to distinguish qualitative differences
in terms of style or other sonic differences occurs all the time, it is helpful to be
aware of the long-term effects of such categorizations. Young musicians rely on
critics representations of musicians, especially when, due to geographical
location, lack of funds, or simply the death of an artist affect the access the
younger generation has to the older one. For example, after John Coltranes death
in 1967, many young musicians found their connection to the older generation
severed. A division between the older and younger generation of jazz musicians
prevented a continuity of the jazz tradition as an ethic. Other styles such as
fusion came along, but the stylistic branch of the music explored by the avant-
garde in the sixties was halted insofar as the public dissemination of ideas was
concerned. While there were plenty of accomplished avant-garde musicians,
access to widespread distribution and recording has been very limited. Braxtons
brief major label tenure in the 1970s offered some hope, but as he attests, the
record company was not concerned with putting out his more experimental work,
partly because that music undermines the very establishment that supports the
major-label industry. Many musicians have been performing using the techniques
of avant-garde players in the 1960s for almost half a century, but their ethical
aesthetic contributions have yet to be integrated into larger jazz history.
Of course, this is not to say that some critics havent tried to incorporate
the avant-gardes contributions to the music. As Ben Sidrans Black Talk
exemplifies, the perspective that tries to favor artistic intentions often tries to
return to many of the folk values that inspired early jazz. As a result they favor
values of the black community, such as oral passage of history over written.
What is written is always suspect because it implies development within the

oppressors world. But oral history also requires and helps to stabilize the
community. Archie Shepp notes in his forward to the book that it helps to be
thinking about the oral process and just how it functions among
Black musicians. John Coltrane is an excellent case in point. lean
remember as a young man in my twentieswith Pharaoh Sanders,
Rocky Boyd, George Brown (a drummer now living in Paris),
saxophonist Marion Brown (no kin to George) and others
requisitioning the masters time, which he always gave with
infinite grace and aplomb. This, of course, would be something
less than astounding were it not that Mr. Coltranes willingness to
share his wisdom and profound insights with a younger generation
was not exactly the norm among musicians, as is often asserted. In
several instances from my own memory I can assert quite the
. contrary. Not to say the oral tradition had stopped working by the
time I came aroundnot by any means. But the old handkerchief
over the trumpet keys not only served to confuse would-be white
imitators, but also Black ones. There is a firm belief in the music
that (if I may quote Lester Young, second hand) to join the
throng, youve got to make your own song. (xiii-xiv)
The oral tradition helps to retain authenticity and integrity within the community.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons most jazz literature is now in the form of
biographies of artists. But even these are subject to misrepresentation and
misinformation. In any case numerous amounts of tension exist over the
authenticity of any written work about the music, autobiographical or otherwise.
While many of the tensions in jazz discourse exemplify the social tensions
that have permeated the existential facticity of the musicians and critics lives, it
is rarely pointed out that the intersection of value systems involved may be able to
help clarify and ease these tensions. Attempts to recall the African American
roots of jazz and to operate within an African American set of values became very
present in the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s with groups like The Art
Ensemble of Chicago. But misunderstandings of the intentions of Black
Nationalism have obscured the social benefits of taking such a perspective
seriously. Claims such as reverse racism are often encountered in such
arguments. But if one considers the Black Nationalist perspective similar to a
critical perspective that seeks to preserve instead of dissect a piece of art, claims
such as reverse racism become irrelevant.
Along with valuing methods such as the oral passage of information
through a community, the black community and the music it produces is often
concerned with the spiritual or soulful attributes of the music. This means the

black community has, in response to an oppressive white community that
constantly tries to contain the black community through definition* at times
sought preservation through mystification. Such an attitude is clearly expressed
in so-called avant-garde jazz, and it is not merely coincidence that such music
developed alongside social movements concerning the civil rights of minority
groups, particularly African Americans. John F. Szwed shows in Space is the
Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, that alternative historical narratives
permeate the black community, and challenge the traditions of European sciences.
Sun Ra is perhaps the penultimate example of creating and living an existence
that challenged European values in this way.
Because of direct challenges to Euro-centric modes of thought, avant-
garde musicians like Sun Ra, who was older than most of the experimental
musicians, are not easily accepted by the academic version of jazz. As a man who
visited Saturn, Sun Ra and his teaching are often not taken seriously in an
academy based on objectifying music in terms of definitions, not to mention the
challenges it poses to physics. In addition to historical narratives, spiritual
narratives are also re-introduced and re-interpreted in innovative ways in black
musicians such as John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp
and Cecil Taylor. Spirituality in general has traditionally been a subject that
produces a large degree of skepticism in academia, but these musicians were not
concerned with western academia, and it is necessary to account for these
alternative perspectives in order to give an accurate account of the creative
intentions of the musicians and the way misrepresentation denies the ethical
nature of these intentions if we are to see what they have to offer the academy in
return for its ability to preserve.
Connecting To Less Noticed Academic Areas
There is room for accepting the perspectives of avant-garde musicians
among some of the more avant-garde thinkers of the academy.31 There is an
exception to the traditional academys skepticism of spiritual matters in twentieth
century philosophy, but because the music and philosophical discourse have been
separated by discursive boundaries, they havent been able to inform each other.
Twentieth century European philosophers, like Sun Ra and the African
American community, question the academys reliance on the hard sciences and
facts. Developments in phenomenology have sought to understand how the
process of objectifying things works by understanding how people make
distinctions between themselves and the world. Such developments have opened

up new understandings and questions about identity and existence. In particular,
however, Emmanuel Levinass ethical philosophy sees the necessity for the
preservation of multiple perspectives out of ones responsibility for Otherness.
If a way to approach the music can be developed that recognizes otherness
as a voice to which one is responsible for, it will become possible for avant-garde
ideas to enter and inform the academy as more accredited sources of information.
There is enough interpenetration, particularly of aesthetic ideas among jazz
musicians and twentieth-century philosophy not only to recognize kindred spirits,
but to further discourse.
Modeling the position artists and art play within society from and ethical
perspective will allow philosophical arguments like Levinass to become less
obscure without becoming watered-down. At the same time, it will create a
discourse that allows for the ethical and ontological aspects of the jazz aesthetic to
be discussed, not only for historical purposes, but also, and perhaps more
importantly, for the on-going educational purposes of young musicians who
already struggle with the development of their musical identities with little
guidance from the academy. By aligning these philosophies with avant-garde jazz
and the value systems of the black music community and its leaders, it is possible
to develop a more profound understanding of what the music means culturally.
As questions of alterity and otherness and the difference between perspectives
prevail in such a study an ethical approach to the situation is necessary.
An ethical approach to the music and the musicians who created it has
been lacking in previous approaches to jazz music. Critics have had their own
personal ethical agendas for sure, but they usually derive from either a personal
connection to a musician or record label, or else they derive from a writers
personal political opinion. An ethical consideration of the jazz tradition and the
part the avant-garde plays in it needs to be made more historically explicit.
The closest present discourse comes to being ethically concerned has been
the racial struggles among jazz artists. But these studies have sought more to
preserve themselves in the face of oppression than to establish a critical
perspective that is applicable to the music itself. Race consumes the discourse
even while the musicians themselves move beyond racial discourse. To be sure, a
piece like Max Roachs We Insist: Freedom Now is explicitly expressing the
existential perspective of black men and women seeking liberation from social
and artistic oppression over time. As such, it speaks for itself, but it is up to the
critic to listen to what it is saying from a perspective that preserves the state of
being instead of assimilating the message to a perspective that does not
existentially account for difference, responsibility and co-existence. Such a piece
needs to be discussed culturally as part of the jazz tradition without diminishing
its specifically musical contributions.

The overabundance of genre labeling has been one of the biggest problems
with historical representations of avant-garde jazz, but the largest artificial break
is the category of avant-garde jazz itself, because not only is it a stylistic break, it
is aligned with other historical event as well. The development of the category of
avant-garde jazz unsurprisingly parallels larger academic-historical breaks with
relation to twentieth century history. First, there is the artificial period break in
terms of decades, whereby popular analyses assign particular values to the
decades such as the tropes of static 1950s and tumultuous 1960s, which deny the
continuity of thoughts and perspectives that overlap the decades. Second, there is
the alignment of cultural history with political history, here in terms of the cold
war. Third, there is the perceived break in intellectual history in terms of a shift
to postmodernism present across disciplinary discourses. All of these breaks
need to be accounted for in terms of a continuity of time and its relation to
Of course, our ability to determine and critically reflect upon history is
itself a break into a critical perspective that allows for time travel and forgets the
facticity of our own bodies. The musicians of the period did not suddenly come
into existence with the development of the stylistic innovators; rather, those styles
were incubating throughout the earlier parts of their lives. Musicians have
developmental periods and do not come to a performance setting without carrying
influences with them. And no matter how free their playing is, they interact
with music as a medium of expression and as a cultural medium. Avant-garde
playing is no more a-historical than it is anti-jazz.
Music as a cultural medium contains the Being of musicians, and it is
necessary to give the music a life of its own as a social entity and a tradition. Its
being is made up of the musicians who elect themselves to carry on its tradition.
If the music has an aesthetic that goes along with it, which exists as a shaping
factor in the lives of musicians, it can be regarded as a social entity with a fluid
body that changes over time. But in order to represent such a body accurately,
criticism must adopt a fluid approach that accounts for potential innovation and
change over time by avoiding too rigid definitions, without itself becoming
watered down.
Historically, avant-garde jazz criticism, particularly in jazz periodicals,
has struggled to preserve the intention of both the music and the musicians who
make it. Critics make their living from the music and at times sacrifice thoughtful
engagement with the music for telling the reader how it is. They make
judgments and evaluations for which they are unqualified for, sometimes for
opportunistic purposes. Over time, this affects the music and the musicians and
their ability to be in direct contact with each other. It undermines an unspoken
progression in the music toward an ethically enhanced communication. By
employing Levinass ethical ideas to both the relationship between critic and

musician as well as the relationship between musician and music as a social
entity, a more accurate account of the music can be made.

The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas can provide the discursive tools to
formulate an aesthetic model of the social situation of the jazz performance and of
the artist in that situation. Such a model will help critical approaches to the music
be more informed. This chapter will examine affinities between Levinass ethical
philosophy and avant-garde music and try to map an aesthetic framework to help
further discussions that account for the. potential of the music. To begin, it will be
beneficial to briefly touch on basic elements of Levinass work before setting up
the model.
Levinass philosophy is based on the idea that ethics is first philosophy.
Levinasian perspective is primarily concerned with maintaining an awareness of
responsibility to the Other. Developing from phenomenology, Levinasian
perspective is highly adaptable to aesthetic studies. Phenomenology often relates
to studying sequences of events that relate to a line of perception. Most often,
perception is thought to be guided by vision or a gazing attention. It is a tool that
we make use of at will, and it belongs to consciousness.
But because Levinass philosophy is built in some ways on Edmund
Husserls phenomenology, which situates all interplay between subject and object
within consciousness, it is important to be aware of the way Husserl sees
consciousness. Husserls consciousness is not reflective, it is not an awareness
such as critical thought or simply being awake. Consciousness is beyond
perception in some ways because it is aware of more than our senses tell us.
Levinass early essay, The Phenomenological Theory of Being, is clear on this.
Conscious life exists even when it is not an object of reflection.
What is perceived in it [in reflection] is precisely characterized as
not having existence and duration in perception only, but as having
been already there before becoming object of perception. Here,
the existence of consciousness reveals its independence with
respect to internal perception, as opposed to external objects,
whose very existence refers us back to consciousness. It is no
longer a reflection on consciousness that constitutes its existence;
the former is made possible by the latter. (20)

Consciousness embodies the ability or potential to perceive. In this widened
definition of consciousness, experience and intuition become a more fundamental
part of consciousness and perception can be seen as a mode of being rather than
as the essence of being. After Husserl there is not one, there are many ways to be,
but consciousness is the primary way to access these ways of being (25).
Despite the fact that, for Husserl, consciousness is absolute, he is by no
means saying that the world exists only in consciousness. He says both the world
and consciousness exist, but they are perceived in different ways. Consciousness
makes internal and external perception possible. Internal perception is knowable;
external is not. As Levinas says, An abyss separates the adequation of internal
and the non-adequation of external perception(23). Intuition and experiences felt
or intimated are somewhere in this abyss, but they are modes of being that relate
to the unknown. They relate to what is outside or exterior to consciousness.
What is outside of consciousness remains always already intrinsically Other to
It is not surprising, once consciousness is described in this way, that
Levinas describes two kinds of Otherness: the physically other and the
metaphysically Other; Both relate to the identity of a philosophical subjective I,
which Levinas sometimes refers to as the Same to show the alterity between the
subject and the Other. The internal space of the Same is where perception as
adequation is situated in a linear or visual way. Consciousness here allows for the
possibility of identity. The subjective T recognizes its distinct self in relation to
what is outside of it, but all judgment about alterity takes place within internal
perception, which the T basically constructs. When I determine who I am, I
separate myself from what I determine to be other than myself. While this
seems like a conscious self-determination (and indeed psychologists discuss this
as the birth of identity) my psychic existence is also contingent on a separation
from the world that is not a decision I need to will or think.
Psychology3" discusses the separation of identity as the creation of desire,
which usually means a want or lack. At a fundamental level this is not a choice,
but consciousness establishes the ability to have a will that makes choices. My
wants stem from the fact that I am separate from the world, an entity belonging to
the world. Yet I experience the world as if it exists for me, My relationship with
the world consists of psychically cutting myself off from it and then
representationally incorporating what I see, hear, or touch as other through critical
thought. Levinas says that
To be I is, over and beyond any individuation that can be derived
from a system of references, to have identity as ones content. The
I is not a being that always remains the same, but is the being
whose existing consists in identifying itself, in recovering its

identity throughout all that happens to it. [...] The I is identical in
its very alterations. It represents them to itself and thinks them.
(Totality and Infinity 36)
This physical separation makes me, in a sense, co-dependant with the otherness of
the world for my conscious existence; however, it also makes me responsible for
the alterity of what I have separated from myself. But the separation also allows
me to represent myself to me, I can reflect on myself by critically representing
myself to the T that is always temporally at my disposal. Identity is informed by
this difference between I and myself.
In addition to this physical separation, Levinas sees a more immanent
metaphysical separation. This separation is different from the physical because it
is not psychically determined. Levinass argument is that the relationship
between the Same and the metaphysically Other exists before the Same is even
aware of it. Because it informs so many other aspects of our being, the
relationship to metaphysically Other contains the most important philosophical
It-is impossible to say what the metaphysically Other is. To do so only
accomplishes an act on the part of the mind of the Same to finitize the Other,
which is infinite. Levinas describes the relationship of Same to Other as finite to
infinite. The finitude of the Same by its very nature cannot know the infinitude of
the Other. Their relationship is not one of interchangeable opposites.
Further, the Desire created by the alterity between Same and Other is,
according to Levinas, a Desire that is more than lack as opposed to the desire
psychologists often discuss as want or lack with regard to the separation of
identity. The nature of the metaphysical relationship consists of a difference that
always remains difference and never becomes an appropriation of the Other by
the Same. The overflowing Desire that is more than lack is where ethical values
such as goodness are felt. As Levinas says,
It is a generosity nourished by the Desired, and thus a relationship
that is not the disappearance of distance, not a bringing together, or
- to circumscribe more closely the essence of generosity and
goodness a relationship whose positivity comes from remoteness,
from separation, for it nourishes itself, one might say, with its
hunger. This remoteness is radical only if desire is not the
possibility of anticipating the desirable, if it does not think it
beforehand, if it goes toward it aimlessly, that is, as toward an
absolute, unanticipatable alterity, as one goes forth unto death. (34)

In order to move-beyond anticipation, one must move beyond the tendency to
represent alterity to ones self. It is not surprising that Levinas turns toward
phenomenology, which is itself a radical critique of critical thought, for discursive
terms and studies of intentionality in his work.
Husserls description of consciousness helps to clarify what Levinas
means by the metaphysically Other because the widened definition of
consciousness avoids aligning consciousness with the will. It is now possible to
see affinity between Levinasian philosophy and avant-garde jazz mainly in the
possibility that playing without predetermined form moves toward a relationship
beyond consciousness, where the Same and the Other maintain distance but still
communicate. The artist is not a source for creativity; the artist is the conduit and
tool of creativity. The source of creativity is in Art as a metaphysical entity.
If we assert that Jazz, as an artistic category, or even as Art in general, is
an uncontainable metaphysical entity, and the musician relates with it and
maintains his or her identity with regard to it, then we are able to set up a rough
aesthetic model that overlaps Levinasian philosophy. It is not an exact correlation
because some would likely claim that jazz itself is a creation contingent upon
physical alterity. But if we consider the fact that jazz, like language, is a social
environment that is never contained within one individual at one given time, but
rather a fluid entity that both overflows and houses the lives of the musicians, we
begin to notice a way to move beyond the critical problems associated with avant-
garde jazz, both in terms of labeling and aesthetic innovation.
Labeling jazz and artistic categories and relegating them to definitions that
are too narrow exemplifies a nominative and ultimately oppressive relationship
between critic, artist, and Art that denies the expressive potential of musicians.
And while Levinass project is mainly to describe the metaphysical relationship,
the ethical implications are very physical and very practicable,34 at least, in terms
of this project. They are present every time I represent another person to myself
because when I think them, I confine their potential to my conception. Similarly,
when a critic represents an artist in writing, he or she confines their potential.
This does not make the critic malevolent or evil, it is simply one of the ways we
exist in the world. At every instant it is merely a reminder of our responsibility to
otherness. The artist too confines critics, audiences, and other artists to his or her
own conception, and the artist is accountable to them for the otherness he or she
makes them into. Every time the artist takes the stage, he or she is in a state of
expressive assertion that takes up the space of the potentially other; so ultimately,
the expressive performance is a socially charged situation. The artist, Art, critic,
and audience all form an environment capable of enhanced communication
through expressive growth as well as oppressed self-determination.
It is possible to map the social situation as follows. The artist exists in a
metaphysical relationship with Art. The artist moves toward this entity first by

establishing an identity separate from it and then trying to move beyond the
communication gap of consciousness. The critic and audience are witness to this
process. They contain the being of the individual artist while he or she joins the
Being of artists in the realm of Art. They benefit from the relationship of the
known artist to the unknown Art. The artist provides the social link between the
physical being-ness and the metaphysical relationship. The artist carries the
potential to demonstrate a relationship with Art that exhibits a desire that is more
than lack. This does not mean that every artist accomplishes this task. It merely
means that artistic endeavors potentially increase a sociality between humans and
the invisible, as well as between and among human beings. This sociality is
spiritual and intuitive. It is experienced,.not defined.
Avant-garde musicians approach to form exhibits how such an experience
is possible. Seeing the musical performance as experience itself and not relying
on expectation of a certain form or method is one way to realize the true shift of
avant-garde music. This is what is most misunderstood and as a result it is the
stumbling block at which traditional listeners and players find no meaning or
coherence. The problem becomes a breakdown of aesthetic communication. Paul
F. Berliners Thinking In Jazz offers many anecdotal (and anonymous) examples
of tensions between avant-garde musicians and audiences. The following
examples help give a sense of how contentious musicians can be.
A pianist known among his followers as the keeper of the flame
of bebop once arose from a nightclub audience and walked onto
the stage, disrupting the performance of an avant-garde group.
Ladies and gentleman, he passionately addressed the rest of the
audience, what these guys are trying to do here, theyre not ready
to do because they can not even play conventionally. They cant
even play bebop, and Im going to prove that to you. With these
opening remarks, he confronted the band members individually,
demanding that each, in turn, perform I Got Rhythm. When they
failed in their efforts, he turned once again to the audience and said
imploringly, Thats what Im talking about!(TT).
Other confrontations, revealing the overlapping spheres of
social and musical change, spill over into the medium of music
itself. At one club in San Francisco, a trio of African America
musicians, dressed formally in suits and ties, played jazz standards.
After a few pieces, they respectfully invited musicians in the
audience to sit in with them. At once, a young trumpeter obviously
steeped in the citys vast counterculture judging from his large
Afro and the slogans on the buttons adorning his buck-skin jacket
- accepted the trios invitation. Joining the performance, he

alternated his trumpet valves feverishly while blowing into the
instrument with exceptional force, producing cascades of
screaming patems and superimposing them on the trios
accompaniment. Angered and contemptuous, the rhythm section
stopped performing and walked abruptly off the stage. After
several minutes, when the performer showed no signs of abating,
the pianist ran back to his instrument, pounded the keys erratically
and bombastically, and cried out, Cant you hear what you sound
like, brother? This is what you sound like on your horn! Cant you
hear how bad you sound? Seemingly unperturbed, the trumpeter
brought his solo to a close and marched back onto the street, no
doubt seeking other conventional bands to challenge with his free
jazz style. (472)
Such occurrences only increase a lack.of understanding for the different aesthetic
attitudes. But of course, many musicians, over time have combined traditional and
avant-garde approaches to form.
As a musician who crosses both traditional and avant-garde styles of
playing, Steve Lacy offers an historical perspective of the 1960s in relation to his
aesthetic approach today.
Back in the 60s, we played completely (we thought) free: no
harmony, melody, rhythm, or structure just controlled chaos,
automatic writing, action painting. It was very exciting,
revolutionary music; but after one year, the music started to sound
the same, every night. It was no longerfree. Then came the
post-free, where we:started to limit and control, and exploit the
kind of playing we had discovered.
After some years of this, the discarded elements (melody,
harmony, rhythm structure, form) returned to the music, but not
like before: renovated, refreshed, wide open with possibilities. We
called this poly-free, because the freedom might be anywhere, in
a given piece. Also one became free to be not free, if one chose.
Personally, I prefer a music that is both written and
improvised, with a coherent structure and a clear way to play on it,
so the whole thing makes sense, inside and outside, the beginning,
the middle, and the end.
But I have participated in much, completely spontaneous
play, with musicians of styles, all over the world; and this can be
very interesting also, but not necessarily for concert presentation,
more as a kind of research and recreation. However, Monk told

me another thing: Whatever you think cant be done, someone will
come along and do it Ill keep experimenting as long as I can,
just to see where the music will go, and what it will do, and what it
will become. (75)
Lacys comments show that debating over avant-garde and traditional styles of
playing is really unnecessary. While it would be interesting to trace the history of
the developments he speaks of, it is not our concern here. What is more
interesting concerning this study is the way he says, in the 60s, we played
completely (we thought) free. It is unclear exactly what Lacy means here, but if
we combine it with Levinass discussion of identity, we can see a possible
. Consider the idea of the finite Same in relation to the infinite Other.
Because the being of a performance of a particular musician or group of
musicians is always limited to ones finite, physical being, the formality of the
piece is only in question so long as the piece is being improvised. To return to a
piece is always a return to something formal, though not in the traditional sense of
musical form. Avant-garde or free playing therefore, at least in performance
demands a different sort of temporal emphasis than structured playing. True
formlessness can only be the medium as a metaphysical entity. We cannot speak
of the body of jazz as a material thing even in an encyclopedic sense because
more than the materiality of the music. It is an ethical stance which relates to the
finite individual through identity.
The debates Berliner presents illustrate a communication breakdown over
assertions of identity. The content of the body of jazz is the identity of each
musician and so long as musicians contribute to it, it is a work in progress. The
identity of the artist asserts itself against this tradition but within it as well.
Because one .element of jazz is to value individuality, each musician must
approach the body of jazz as a subjective soloist. And in order to move toward
and maintain a relationship with the music he or she must assert him or her self as
an identity.
The content of a unique identity only establishes itself by creating alterity
with what is other to it. No matter how well a player may be at mimicking the
style of older members of the tradition, they only succeed in preserving the music
as an ethical stance by asserting their own voice. The hyperbolic assertion by the
young trumpeter in Berliners anecdote reveals that he knew something about this
necessity, even though intentionally overstepping the good will of others has
nothing to do with the necessity. Not all avant-garde musicians accomplish the
model. The model merely illuminates the possibility of maintaining the ethical

Because jazz musicians come to assert their identity against a
metaphysical entity, and because many musicians realize the importance of being
an individual, the assertion of ones musical identity is most often conscious.
However, Levinass ethics call for anticipating metaphysical desire only if one
does not think it beforehand, if it goes toward it aimlessly(34). Therefore, at
some point there must be a departure, at least from internal perception and
perhaps from consciousness as well.
Avant-garde compositions often metaphorically show such a point of
departure, particularly early avant-garde pieces that are still connected to a formal
compositional jazz tradition. During the transition from playing with traditional
form to the new methods of playing, many jazz composers created pieces that
were intended to be hybrids of the old ways and the new ways of playing.35
Traditionally, jazz had based itself on popular song forms such as twelve or
sixteen bar blues, or thirty-two bar tin-pan-alley pop songs such as Ive Got
Rhythm. Not surprisingly, many of these hybrid compositions look similar to
the heads of traditional songs. But they differ from the traditional forms insofar
as once the form has been played, the improvisation becomes open or free.
Many of these heads are melodic statements that have very little harmonic
structure underneath. Once the head is played, the actual improvisation may or
may not have any resemblance to the written material. In this sense the avant-
garde heads of tunes like Eric Dolphys Out There and Ornette Colemans
Free essentially act as diving boards into the realm of ambiguity.
Many of these heads maneuver through the twelve tones of traditional
western music, and a common characteristic of these two heads is an increase in
the use of chromatic tones. They both employ all twelve tones of the western
harmonic scale and as they move toward an unstructured harmony, where no
clusters of notes are vertically predetermined, they move toward a playing that
uses no specific key or mode. The compositions appear to be laying out the tonal
tools with which the artists will use as a means of expression. It is sort of a way
of saying, this is what we have to work with or possibly, this is what we can
Because of an increase in chromatics, the transition from traditional
formal playing to avant-garde forms often shows a de-centering of tonality. This
is one reason that Thelonious Monks music played such an important role in the
shaping of the new music and he is evidence of a bridging between the avant-
garde and the more established jazz tradition. Monks pieces definitely moved
toward an increased chromaticism, but they retained harmonic structure
throughout the piece. His compositions constantly rely on chromatic passages,
which move through all twelve tones. Straight No Chaser, Round Midnight,
and Evidence, for example, all use twelve tone scales in their heads. Perhaps
this is one of the reasons saxophonist Steve Lacy, who played in Monks band for

a period, of time in the early sixties and is widely regarded as one of the most
important interpreters of Monks music, insists on the necessarily simplistic and
ambiguous chord notation for Monks compositions! 165). The movement from
harmonically oriented composition to free playing is in this respect linear and
evolutionary towards a greater degree of harmonic ambiguity.
Dolphys Out There perhaps best illustrates the transition from
traditional formal playing to avant-garde playing. Within a few months he
recorded two versions of it; however, one was titled Far Cry. The difference
between the versions is in the approach to improvisation. While Out There uses
written material as a head and then discards it for free improvisation, Far Cry
maintains form with the use of chord changes, which can be heard in the piano.
What is interesting about the two is that the free version was recorded a couple
months before the formal version. To some, this may seem a de-evolutionary
move on Dolphys part. It also may be that he was playing it safe concerning the
critics. The Prestige album Out There is a bold statement for any musician, but
particularly for Dolphys debut as a leader. His formal version of the same
melodic material recorded as Far Cry a couple months later situates him as a
more traditional player, especially alongside odes to Charlie Parker.
The move from more avant-garde sounding playing to more contained
playing can also be seen in Charles Minguss work in the summer of 1960, in
which Dolphy was involved as a side musician. Most of the material on the
Mingus Presents Mingus album is documented from the Antibes festival a couple
months prior to the recording date. The live concert, released in the later 1960s as
Mingus at Antibes, clearly shows more adventurous playing. While the album is
almost entirely formal, Folk Forms I, which is a blues, definitely contains
collective improvising, which was used heavily in later avant-garde playing. The
playing at Antibes also may sound more drastic than on Mingus Presents Mingus
because tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin is not present.
Because both Mingus and Dolphy toned things down in later recordings
it is reasonable to assume that they too were wondering what avant-garde formal
innovations had to offer. They are clearly flirting with stylistic innovations. In
any case, both Dolphy and Mingus seem to be very aware of avant-garde playing
early on, and it is not surprising at all that Dolphy would take part in Ornette
Colemans Free Jazz, which became a namesake for the avant-garde movement,
later that year. Dolphys recording of Out There clearly places him as a bridge
between the most extreme of the avant-garde and the most traditional line of jazz
On the recording date that produced Out There, no pianist is present,
and the improvisations follow no predetermined form. The result is an asserted
melodic statement followed by a submersion into a realm of formal ambiguity,
followed up by the traditional restatement of the melody. If we see the statement

of the head as an assertion of identity, consciously directed, followed by
immersion in formlessness only to be eventually stopped by the passage of time,
we can see a striking affinity with Levinass moving aimlessly toward the
metaphysical qualities in the music. The existential situation is itself a model for
selflessness, a giving up for the Other that can only follow the assertion of the
Same. But this must always be done from a fixed point or identity. One must
have something to give up.
When an avant-garde artist moves toward the metaphysically Other that is
the medium of music, but maintains this movement beyond the attention of
consciousness, we are beginning with the subjective intentionality of the artist.
While intention is an outward movement, it does not have to conceptualize in the
form of a gaze. Intention does not have to be only internal perception; it can work
more intuitively. In contrast, sight is the focus of a gaze and it is attention, the
opposite of intention. Most of the time when Levinas discusses intention it is
internal and relates to vision. But he eventually discusses a different
intentionality with the term voluptuosity, which is an intentionality without
vision, discovery does not shed light: what it discovers does not present itself as
signification and illuminates no horizon [...] In this sense voluptuosity is a pure
experience, an experience which does not pass into any concept, which remains
blindly experience(7bta/iYy and Infinity 260). He speaks of something similar
with regard to shame: Shame does not have the structure of consciousness and
clarity. It is oriented in the inverse direction; its subject is exterior to me(84).
Levinas describes a metaphysical kind of awareness, one that is neither
conscious nor objectifying. In Totality and Infinity Levinas says he will
present subjectivity as welcoming the Other, as hospitality; in it the
idea of infinity is consummated. Hence intentionality, where
thought remains an adequation with the object, does not define
consciousness at its fundamental level. (27)
So, the hospitality that Levinas speaks of is a different sort of awareness than
consciousness in the sense of critical thought. This is not the consciousness of the
will. This metaphysical awareness moves toward but does not grasp. Levinas
later says,
In describing the metaphysical relation as disinterested, as
disengaged from all participation, we would be wrong to recognize
in it intentionality, the consciousness of..., simultaneously
proximity and distance. For this Husserlian term evokes the
relation with the object, the posited, the thematic, whereas the

metaphysical relation does not link up a subject with an object.
Metaphysics approaches without touching. Its way is not an
action, but is the social relation. But we maintain that the social
relation is experience preeminently, for it takes place before the
existent that expresses himself, that is, remains in himself. .
The external experience of love, volupuosity and shame intimate the presence of a
relationship with the metaphysically Other: Eros is not accomplished as a subject
which fixes an object; nor as a pro-jection, toward a possible(261). It is a non-
signifying relationship.
The formal situation of the avant-garde musician puts him or her into a
metaphysical relationship with music, or possibly, the jazz tradition. But the artist
proceeds, at first, with intention from a fixed point. In the performance he or she
maintains the possibility of leaving that fixed point and existing for the Other.
In Other words, society with the Other, which marks the end of the
absurd rumbling of the there is, is not constituted as the work of an
I giving meaning. It is necessary to already be for the Other to
exist and not to work only for the phenomenon of meaning,
correlative of the intention of a thought, to arise [....] The fact that
in existing for another I exist otherwise than existing in me is
morality itself. (261)
Even though one proceeds from a fixed point (the subjective), the social
relationship exists before the moment of separation that establishes the identity of
the artist. It is in this sense that the Art speaks the artist. And in a sense to play
without predetermined form is a returning to something prior. But the musician
does not enter the social relationship with Otherness naively. They begin as an
I36 and lose themselves, sometimes whether they intend to or not. When
musicians are able to move beyond willed perception in this way, they often
compare it to spiritual feelings.
The idea of the music speaking the musician is very present in jazz
discourse in terms of spiritual-like feelings some musicians may have during a
particular performance. Berliner notes that
soloists who, during the heat of their own parts conception,
occasionally feel as if their creations come from outside

themselves. The collective aspects of improvisation give a literal
quality to these impressions, perhaps intensifying them by
presenting an ongoing dichotomy between inside and outside
sources of musical ideas, any of which can stimulate individual
players. (392)
While avant-garde musicians arent the keepers of these feelings exclusively, the
discursive terms and the musical innovations that accompany the avant-garde
make such feelings more discussable. For instance, the question of in and out
and what distinguishes the two. In a musical sense the two terms relate similar to
Levinass discussions of totality and infinity. There is something known and
formal about playing in, arid there is something unknown and ambiguous about
playing out. Ultimately, time will give almost all musical compositions form.
It is only in the process of expression that the metaphysical relationship
maintains itself. For music criticism, which traditionally maintains a signifying
relationship, it becomes necessary to speak in terms of an artists expression
without totalizing the artists potential when it comes to discussing avant-garde
jazz. This can be done by focusing more on the process of the performance and
hearing the performance as the social relationship. If criticism focuses more on
the existential aspects of the performance setting, it will see an underlying ethical
The artistic subject exists as a will that remains ambiguous to the critic,
because it is other to the critic. With regard to the metaphysical relationship, the
creative act can be described as a way of being both in interiority / Sameness and
exteriority / Otherness. Levinas says that the separation of the Same is produced
in the form of a psychism. By psychism he means a thought being thought by
the will of the subject. While what is thought is ambiguous or inscrutable to the
outsider, Levinas remarkably describes the process of the thinking.
The psychism constitutes an event in being; it concretizes a
conjuncture of terms which were not first defined by the psychism
and whose abstract formulation harbors a paradox. The original
role of the psychism does not, in fact, consist only in reflecting
being; it is already a way of being, resistance to a totality. (54)
The creative act, which is produced from and by the psychism, performs the
intention of the artist: once ended, the creative act reflects the event of the
psychism and a way of being that resists totalization. The creative action resists
totalization because any attempt by an outsider to perceive totality within the
artists interior is impossible, but also because the psychism divides the subject.
Moreover, the creative act is a performance of the said and it is no longer the

saying. Form, like the psychism, only maintains the impossibility of containing
all of Art in one work.
When Levinas speaks of the will he is speaking of intentionality in the
form of psychism, which takes place as an event (59). It is perception that is
calculated. The psychism (or thought) implies a rupture or distance (166).
Within the individual this rupture of thought is what allows one to reflect upon
and objectify him or her self, and this ability to reflect and objectify is related to
internal perception. Intentionality in this sense is the ability to hold an object at
bay through thought. But in the grander scheme Levinas is concerned with a
more fundamental consciousness, one that is not an adequation with the object
thought, one beyond internal perception. This does not, however, mean that a
consciousness that is aligned with thought objectifying an object is bad, because
all knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is
non-adequation (27).
The intention of internal perception always moves towards a destination of
desire or lack. It moves toward otherness, but its being necessitates proximity and
distance. If one seeks to experience morality, one always begins with intentions.
Eventually, this direction of intentionality always attempts an overcoming of the
will (or thought or psychism) itself which separates identity. Essentially, an
arrival at intentions destination in this case would dissolve the being of intention.
The desired becomes assimilated to the same. This creates a unique situation for
an artist seeking to express his or her own self-identity because the artists
intentions are directed toward closing the gap that allows him or her to objectify
ones self. Theoretically, this closes the rupture that makes self-reflection
possible. The artist seeking to maintain the metaphysical relationship starts from
a point that intentionally attempts to overcome itself.
While this overcoming of itself is a rare (some would say impossible)
experience, in jazz improvising such occurrences are possible. Moreover, in jazz,
such occurrences are specifically sought as a way of integrating with culture.
Critical distance between artist and Art can disappear, at which point the identity
of the artist is completely in the hands of the critic and audience.
The Artist Audience Relationship
It may be said that the arrival of intention at its destination negates the
existential being of the artist. But this contention forgets the relationship between
the artist and audience. The relationship between audience and artist provides
protection from the danger of self-nullification or self-negation on the part of the

improviser. The audience literally brings the artist back like a line tied to a life
preserver. The romantic idea of the impoverished genius blowing his or her
hom in some desolate location37 and possibility of such individuals spontaneously
disintegrating without the critical gaze of the audience shows its absurdity here,
but also its true intention. Because, what makes it romantic outside of a sort of
care that the audience has for that desolate artist? The audience is necessary for
the artist seeking to maintain an ethical relationship with Art.
The claim of the artist who says, I create for myself alone succeeds only
in objectifying him or her self as audience, as if he or she were a graspable entity
in the world. This is an intentionality unconcerned with maintaining the
metaphysical relationship and is an ultimately different situation we are not
concerned with here. If such a hypothetical situation were possible, intention
overcoming itself would negate the self, recreating Lacans baby before the mirror
stage. But such an individual would have to be devoid of the facticity of personal
history, which is the result of human sociality. Because the social situation is
something the artist inhabits and does not contain in its entirety, there is really no
such thing as completely subjective art. The reverse is true as well: completely
objective art is not possible.38
However, critically Speaking, aesthetic judgment often asserts itself
between the relative notions of subjectivity and objectivity and can create conflict
between audience and artist as a result. Much avant-garde art in the mid to late
twentieth century exhibits tensions as a result of what is seen as an overemphasis
of the subjective.39 In Ken Bums Jazz, for example, saxophonist Branford
Marsalis refers to the avant-garde as self-indulgent bullshit. 40 Sometimes
critics feel as though avant-garde musicians abandon the audience. But this kind
of claim is irrelevant in the context of viewing the avant-garde artist as exhibiting
the metaphysical relationship with Art because in that context the critic must see
the musician as moving beyond a subject-object relationship. To see the artist as
exhibiting this relationship is to know that the artist cannot but proceed from the
subjective first because one must assert identity ones unique identity. From the
subjective, the avant-garde musician can move to a state of being where he or she
is both subject and object. The audience and critic make the artist object so long
as they listen. Listening to avant-garde jazz requires a change in traditional
critical perspective.
In order examine the assertion of artistic identity among avant-garde
musicians it is necessary to start from the idea that the artistic work is an
extension of the artist. As Coltrane says, when I know mans sound, well, to me
thats him, thats this man (Kofsky 225). As critics, we must limit the tendency
to approach the artistic work as an object severed from the artist. But this
approach also contains a critical problem because, as Levinas says, to approach
someone from his work is to enter into his interiority as though by burglary(66-

67). According to a Levinasian critical perspective we must view both the work
and the artist who created it as aspects of an entity that resists a totalizing gaze. A
work can live without the artist, but it contains a part of that artist in a filial sort of
One helpful way to approach this problem is to remember that the work is
an expression of the artist, but it is not the sole expression of the artist. It does not
possess the ability to exhibit the entirety of the artists being. Even in an
anthology of an artists work it is impossible to totally grasp the nuances of the
artists life. As such, the being of the artist (or any person) is always already
beyond the possibility of reduction to conception or representation. There may be
visible patterns of similar:traits within the artists work that may give insight into
aspects of the artists life, but that insight is never complete. Viewing or hearing
a work as an extension of an artists being expresses the idea of infinity insofar as
we acknowledge the ambiguity and uncontainable aspect of the creative artist who
is his or her own subject. The being of the artist (or die work as extension of the
artist) will always overflow the reception of the work by the critic or audience.
And while such discussion may seem tautological, it is this infinity that criticism
often forgets or evades while dealing with expression.
It is as if more traditional criticism at one point determined the
impossibility of conceiving the infinitude of art, and as a result chose to operate
from a perspective that denies the existence of infinity altogether. Academic
criticism in the twentieth century has often debated the role of the artists life in
relation to their art. It seems old hat to many that the author is dead. 41 But such
a perspective simply does not work for jazz.
A Levinasian reading of avant-garde jazz attempts to protect the
expressions of others by describing the metaphysical relationship that both
underlies and transcends the physical relationship between subject and object. A
self-aware listening unconfined by traditional modes of analysis allows the
audience to approach the music without assumptions that give pejorative
connotations to labels like subjectivity. Such an audience would use the
subjective expression of the artist as a starting point rather than as a point at
which bafflement and rejection arises. Individual artistic expression does not fit
the preexisting notions of form or genre, nor do strict definitions of form or genre
that seek to define in retrospect take adequate responsibility for the art they seek
to represent. It is necessary for critics to examine the creative process that
exhibits the expressive intentions of the artist as it metaphysically relates to Art.
Because complete knowledge of the artist is impossible, we must at first content
ourselves with a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the intentionality of
expression. Part of the critics role is to preserve through signification, but we
must also keep the transcendent (or the impossible to totalize) nature of the being

of the artist in mind. The continuity of artistic identity within artistic works and
the artists life is essentially thespirit,of the musician.
The idea of spirit works well to convey an overflowing entity, one without
traditional formal boundaries. The body of spirit is not a body. It is presence
without form. Its content is its disposition. Its form is its identity and both
subject and object. This is why the intentionality of the artist as an individual is a
good starting place.
Form is only known through duration. In improvised music the form is
bound to the performance. When avant-garde musicians play free, without
preset changes, their presence becomes the form. Form shifts from being an
objective entity where the audience can mark places and predict what will happen
next to the artist as subject. If the audience conceives of this artist, who is at first
an object for them, as a subject intentionally seeking to overcome itself and
become non-subject and non-object the entire critical situation becomes ethically
charged and fluid. Subjectivity and objectivity are no longer fixed. Art becomes
experience itself, and there is a social of shared sense to art in this Context. It is
communicated through intangibility, through feeling. Because avant-garde jazz
formally sets itself up to potentially be this relationship, it has an ethical nature to
Some early avant-garde artists were explicit in their intentions to relate
ethically with their music. For example/Albert Ayler once said, The music
which we play today will help people to better understand themselves, and to find
interior peace more easily(Litweiler 167). Therefore, the type of listening this
study seeks to develop is not necessarily beyond the cognitive intentions of the
artists whose music and poetry informs this study. But we are also concerned
with artists intentions beyond cognition.
Intention is an outward movement. But it implies a solidified
consciousness as a point of departure. When referring to an artists intentions, his
or her consciousness is always already beyond the grasp of the critic. Even when
a critic is in direct contact with the artist, the being of the artist will always escape
the critics control. For this reason, when dealing with the subject of
intentionality in this study, we are not attempting to read the artists minds.
Instead, intentionality relates to the metaphysical relationship involved in the
creative process. Intention relates to the actions of the improvising musician.
The listener or critic receives the art as produced from the perspective(s) involved
in the creative process. As such, the listener or critic is involved with the
exteriorization of the musicians being via the creative process manifested as the
musical work. As Levinas says,
an object which is first exterior is given that is, is delivered over to
him [or her] who encounters it as though it had been entirely

determined by him. In clarity the exterior being [in.this case the
artist or artistic work] presents itself as the work of the thought that
receives it [that is, the thought of the audience or critic]. (122)
It is the relationship between artist and audience that is primordial here.
However, because we are also viewing the relationship between artist and
audience in a spiritual or metaphysical sense, we are reminded that metaphysics
approaches without touching. Its way is not an action, but is the social relation.
The spirit, or overflow of expression by the artist enhances the metaphysical
aspect of the relationship between artist and audience. Though they both share
physical space, the sociality of their situation establishes the metaphysical
presence. Again, Levinas says, the social relation is experience preeminently,
for it takes place before the existent that expresses himself, that is, remains in
himself(109). Thus the relationship exists prior to any knowing or negotiating
between artist and audience. It is there before we are aware of it. As critics we
must return to this relationship before entering the process of signification.
Because this prior relationship exists it is possible to generalize artistic
intention as intending towards a cultural environment that surrounds and informs
the facticity of both artist and audience. The relationship itself is beyond or prior
to intention itself. My relation to Aylers Ghosts is implied by the creative act
and my relationship to Ayler as listener exists before I hear his music. Even if the
artist did not intend for the work to be shown, as is the case with a writer like
Franz Kafka, my relationship to him through our fundamental human sociality
exists. In many cases the creation and reception of the work may exist as separate
events, but this is not true with jazz, particularly in a live setting. In jazz
improvisation the events of creation and reception happen simultaneously.
The distance between audience and the creation of a work through a
recording (versus a live event) does not change the relationship involved. In such
a case the facticity of the listener may exhibit differences, say, in meaning
ascribed to the work, but the process remains the same. So, for example someone
listening to Albert Aylers Spiritual Unity in 2003 may embody the forty years of
history between the recording and the listening and may attach historical notions
to the cultural happenings that were in the air during the recordings creation.
These historical notions may (and probably will) express a change in meaning
from an early review of the album, but the relationship between artist and
audience still exists prior to the construction of meaning. The listener experiences
the creation as if it were created solely for him or her thirty years earlier. But the
listening also implicates this person as responsible to the artist, despite the fact
that Ayler in human form died in 1969. And here the ethical nature of the
relationship arises out of the listeners awareness of his or her responsibility to the

The point where the intention of the artist meets the receiving audience is
an entanglement of identities that are not static or fixed. As such, the event of
jazz improvisation exhibits a unique opportunity for the exploration of the
exteriors of these identity boundaries. The reduction of time between creation
and reception in a live setting intensifies the interaction and eliminates much of
the normal distance between artist and audience. This may be one reason some
people insist that jazz be experienced as a live event.42 In any case, it is also
possible to see that the audience can be involved in the creative process. The
audience experiences the event as if they are the destination of the artistic
intention and as such, potentially gives meaning to the expression, but it is their
ethical relationship that precedes, and makes the construction of meaning possible.
The presence of the audience in the environment, in a sense, protects
simply by existing. The audience does not necessarily have to be aware of what is
taking place at the time any more than the musicians have to try to nullify their
intention to exemplify the relationship. However, jazz audiences do seem to
notice something taking place in the quality of the music when such occurrences
happen. They benefit from the artists excursions into the realm of culture, which
create a communicative connection. No doubt, there are many religious and or
spiritual associations that can be made to the descriptions made here of the
situation surrounding jazz musician and audience, particularly in a vernacular or
folk sense. The audience witnesses the abandonment of the dwelling and of
consciousness by the artist. As a participant observer, the audience sustains the
But this sort of ethical or spiritual inspiration is not often treated as valid
subject matter for academic discussions of any art, especially jazz. The how-to
methods employed by institutions based on objectfiable standards do not know
how to treat such subject matter. In a way, such methods based on technique or
other arbitrary standards are as shallow as the plethora of best-selling self-help
books. But interestingly enough, self-help books are generally not taken seriously
among academics because they lack substance. And thus we see a recurrence of
the same two-fold problem. First, we rely on metaphors such as tangibility and
substance that relate the intangibly spiritual matters to the corporeal. Second,
our neglect of the spiritual attributes of the metaphor prevents us from
approaching the spiritual qualities of the works we value. So, when someone says
that a self-help book or a piece of art or music lacks substance they are really
saying that the piece lacks the spiritual qualities that make one value the works
one values. But because the spiritual qualities are here defined as substance,
measured by canons and such, the spiritual as subject matter gets denied its
Some academic attempts have been made to study the process of intention
overcoming itself. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyis studies on what he terms Row

are one example of an academic attempt to describe the process of iritentionality
that this project terms spiritual. Like Levinas, Csikszyentmihalyi builds off of
phenomenological discourse, but he also tries to make the concepts clear to a
wider, not necessarily academic, audience. David G. Such sees definite
connections between avant-garde jazz techniques and Csikszentmihalyis work in
Avant-garde Musicians: Performing Out There. Such comes to the conclusion
that By conveying nonmaterialistic values and autonomous action, out jazz
speaks to many social issues that affect us in important ways(160). The
improvising jazz musician ideally seeks to feel and accomplish this flow.
But experienced musicians are aware that all avant-garde music does not
display the achievement of flow (as the overcoming of intention). The artist is not
beyond responsibility to the audience. Such points to an important distinction
made by saxophonist Steve Lacy regarding free playing: To play free in public is
dangerous. Unless its magic, its just research. I still do it; I work with students
that way.... But we dont do that in public(Lacy in Such 21). There is a
virtuosity required to achieve the state of flow described here, but it is not
discussed openly enough in jazz pedagogy. On the other hand, more attention has
been paid to the overcoming of intention in avant-garde jazz than earlier stylistic
periods of jazz, mostly because of the way form appears in avant-garde jazz.
This does not mean that flow or overcoming ones intentions cannot be
achieved in more traditional playing. Saxophonist Anthony Braxton describes
Wame Marsh, a very traditional player, on one recording:
theyre playing a piece called Excerpt, based on Ill Remember
April, and his solo is out its OUT, OUT, OUT! He couldve
been hung for a solo like that! Its so inside the chord changes,
hes really somewhere else. Its like you know the context so well
that yourefree: youre free because you understand the rules to
such a level that you can do anything you want. Thats what
freedom is. You cant be free unless you have a context to be free
in. Existential freedom is not evolutionary, thats what were
seeing now. (Braxton in Lock 102)
Of course, Wame Marsh took place in Lennie Tristanos Intuition, the first
released recording of free playing in 1949. Intuition and Digression both
reveal a collective playing where the musicians are trying to play together without
preset changes. The musicians aesthetic is still very geared toward a more
traditional harmony and the recording is largely experimental. For whatever
reason, the Tristano group mainly stuck to playing standards or compositions
based on standards. But one can see in the other saxophonist of the group, Lee
Konitz, who will play a standard but move through different keys while playing, a

concept that blends avant-garde and traditional playing quite harmoniously. What
Braxton appears to see in the playing of Marsh is his ability to move beyond the
rules and create his own connection to music. Braxton goes on to say Marsh is
looking only for what hes looking for, thats why I like him. Hes
not playing somebody elses music, hes playing his music. He
knows what fascinates him and he does that. Thats what I love.
He was never seduced by the image of the music, he was seduced
by the music.
The affinity Braxton sees with Marsh is in a stance or ethic that both asserts an
identity and then loses itself in the music.
The ethic of the avant-garde movement and its connection to the larger
jazz tradition is partly a recognition of this way-of-being that intends toward a
flow which, at. times, has the potential to temporarily dissolve the boundaries of
interiority resulting in an immersion in Otherness and external perception. Avant-
garde jazz internalizes the attempt to achieve flow, which is inherited from and
intimated by earlier jazz.
It is the experimental nature of the music that insists on the awareness of
the ethical relationship before critical judgment or signification happens.
Experience becomes the focus. But it is not necessarily a naive experience. It is
informed inasmuch as the critic and artist recognize the sequence of the creative
process. Music is not the only medium that displays this. Most artistic mediums
in the second half of the twentieth century can be characterized by the tension that
arises between experimentation and meaning. It is therefore possible for the
aesthetic situation exemplified so well by avant-garde jazz to be applied to other
mediums. In the next chapter we will explore Levinas-informed aesthetics in
relation to poetry.

Aesthetic content that tries to account for subjectivity is characteristic of a
large amount of Twentieth-Century art in general. But because jazz has
traditionally been denied full intellectual status by both the culture at large and the
academy, the unique ways that jazz has approached subjectivity have not been
allowed to inform widespread artistic discourse. Jazz remains mysterious to
outsiders, which encourages its own tendencies toward elitism, and
simultaneously severs its connection with the popular public. In an attempt to
undermine the disciplinary gap between jazz and artistic discourse at large, and to
show how avant-garde jazz perspectives as described in this project can inform
specific other aesthetic analyses, this chapter will explore connections between
avant-garde jazz and some Twentieth-Century poetry that emerged from the same
environment, namely mid-century East Coast, specifically New York City. By
examining some of the parallels between avant-garde jazz and avant-garde poetry
of the same period it is possible to see similarities of content as well as the
methodology of shifting the location of form from objective sources to the
subjective experience of the artist. Combining the disciplines will also help
elucidate the connections to Levinasian ethics.
Poetry, instead of another artistic medium, such as abstract expressionist
painting, is used for specific reasons. First, the textual analysis allows the
procedure to be economical in terms of its use of space. Second, one could much
more easily find existing scholarly work addressing the interpenetration of
aesthetic ideas in a Pollock painting43 and jazz improvisation, or the graphic
mediums influence on poets. For example, poet Mark Doty accounts for the
periods poetic developments in The Forbidden Planet of Character: The
Revolutions of the 1950s.
The Beats sought expansiveness and freedom of form through a
broadening of their principle of inclusion, both in poetics and in
experience, under the tutelage of Whitman and Rimbaud. The
poets centered in New York pursued a course equally divergent
from the mainstream, if different in character. Also advocating
expansiveness and new formal dimensions, the poets who came to

be known as the New York School sought a poetic milieu with
the energy and freshness of the developments in the visual arts
which surrounded them. The schools two most significant
exponents of the 1950s* Frank OHara and John Ashbery, were
both art critics, and OHara was a staff member at the Museum of
Modem Art. (145)
But there was more going on among artists in New York than developments in
visual mediums.
There was some relationship to jazz though we usually hear about it
through the Beats, more so with them than with the New York School. But the
Beats have a complex relationship with jazz. A brief discussion of the Beats
historically documented relationship to jazz will reveal why the seemingly less
likely New York School have a more fundamental similarity to avant-garde jazz.
At first, it seems like Beat writers, with all their social concerns are the
ideal literary companions to avant-garde jazz. But Beat writing can be
problematic because of its approach to identity is on such a grand scale and
because it relies on aesthetic ethics that are tropes. It often looks toward the jazz
musician as an outsider to society, serving as inspiration for the Beats social
critique while romanticizing jazz musicians as model subversives, particularly in
terms of race.44 Beat poetry often relies on deeply held Western norms
concerning the role artists and Art play in society. While there is a lot of jazz
content in beat writing, and even some similarity of method, their relationship to
the objectively social situates them as too wrapped up in existing politics to be
effective in dealing with the necessarily subjective point of departure suggested
by Levinasian ethics.
The tendency toward essentialism in terms of race remains another
problem, even if it is done out of admiration,45 and it often causes the Beats to
oversimplify jazz. But it is essentially a problem of representation. For example,
Jack Kerouac, perhaps the most popular Beat writer, often romanticizes black
existence as a way to shirk off the social expectations and blandness of being of
white working-class descent in On the Road, one of the central books of the beat
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the
lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I
were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was
not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, not enough life, joy,
kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack
where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some
and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were

a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but
what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. (179-180)
From this passage it is easy to see why some may see a cultural convergence
among beat writers and black culture, but it also exhibits the white privilege that
makes Kerouacs longing a uniquely white experience, which is similar to some
jazz critics of the time. Moreover, Kerouacs writing here beautifully (and
humanly) describes a wish to be other that is the very evasion of responsibility.
While it is not a book of poetry per se, On the Roads popularity made it,
and Beat poetry, a part of the very mass culture that it sought to be an escape
from. The revolutionary aspects of the Beats are mainstream culture. The
popular audience that they sought dilutes much of the dissent and cultural
criticism that characterized the Beats. Beat dissent has always been more
concerned with the general public, a notion present in American Literature in
general since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, and like all artists, the
Beats are part of a larger tradition.
Instead of a subjective turn, Beat writers often turn toward an objective
and massively public audience. Ginsberg speaks as witness for the best minds of
my generation in Howl, the companion to On the Road in terms of popularity.
And both Ginsberg and Kerouac maintain a social lineage to Walt Whitman in
terms of poetry as prophecy. They seek immersion with the popular and try to
speak for all and contain all. The poet as prophet situates a voice that speaks both
to and for a populace.
The vocal emphasis of beat readings marks a lucid effort among the beats
to maintain an intimate connection between poet and audience. The apostrophy to
Whitman in Ginsbergs A Supermarket in California places the poets voice as
bridge between audience and tradition. Its concern is for a mass America.
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what
America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you
got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear
on the black waters of Lethe? (136)
Similarly, in On the Road Kerouac receives his first call to become a prophet
from a Whitman-like character.
I was standing on the hot road underneath an arc-lamp with the
summer moths smashing into it when I heard the sound of
footsteps from the darkness beyond, and lo, a tall man with white
flowing hair came clomping by with a pack on his back, and when

he saw me as he passed, he said, Go moan for man, and clomped
on back to his dark. (303)
In a more elaborate passage read aloud stating his reason for being a writer
Kerouac uses the same words as the word of God in On the Road. While crossing
the border from Colorado into Utah he sees in the clouds
a great image of God with fore-finger pointed straight at me
through halos and rolls and gold folds that were like the existence
of the gleaming spear in his right hand, which sayeth, cmon boy
go thou across the ground, go moan for man, go moan, go groan,
go groan alone, go roll your bones, alone. Go thou and be little
beneath my sight. Go thou be my nudist seed in the pod. Go thou
go thou die hence, and of this world report you well and truly.46
(The Beat Generation)
Kerouac is instructed to moan for man, but to do it alone and alienated.
Kerouacs content here reflects the trope of the alienated artist described and can
be linked to the separation Levinas speaks of in terms of the necessity of isolated
identity in order to account for otherness. But Kerouac is speaking for man as an
idea, not the face of the Other. He tries to account for the other by appropriating
the other, but this well-intentioned response actually denies the existence of the
The Beats set the stage for the poet to be an identity responding to a call.
But their (wonderfully) grandiose ethical relationship to their wide audience relies
on pre-existing notions of social responsibility, which though they at times may
overlap, are fundamentally different than the ones Levinasian ethics propose.
However, it is this distinction of a socially obligated self that goes on to
inform avant-garde poetry as it reacts to the Beat movement similar to the way
avant-garde jazz reacts to the bebop, hard bop and cool jazz of the 1950s. Like the
beboppers reliance on form to prove virtuosity, the Beats rely on a traditional
ethical aesthetic construct that makes artists into wild people on the fringes of
society. These artists are chosen and elected to perform their tasks but in a
grand, one to many, instead of one to one way. And in some ways they do exhibit
the possibility of maintaining an ethical aesthetic relationship, but their
fascination with lore often supersedes their account for otherness.
In contrast, the New York School poetry47 that develops from (and reacts
to) the Beats begins to reevaluate the identity of the poet as a person, not a
prophet. Their poetic voice has a more particular history than the social history of
America. After the poet exists as social critic, he or she must move into the

subjective to find something more meaningful and fundamental, but also the
structure and process of creativity.
The New York School poets, whose subjective turn is more akin to the
intellectual goings-on of the avant-garde jazz musicians, display more active
involvement with exteriority, if simply by the fact that they retreat into
themselves more, but also because they think about and thematize such retreats.
Just as the avant-garde musicians owe their situation to the beboppers, the New
York poets owe their position of concerning the role or the identity of the poet to
the beats. Anthony Braxton claims that bebop emphasized the individual, the
solo; and it was existential in the sense that musicians would look for God, for
meaning, on a personal level, in the music(in Lock 65). But Ornette Colemans
free playing actually undermined this type of playing by making the musicians
more responsible to each other than to the form. It was more subjective, but more
communicative too. The New York Poets move toward an in-depth exploration
of identity and reveal entanglement with otherness as a result, not because their
intentions were particularly ethical, but because this is naturally what comes from
exploring identity in this way. Both the musicians and the poets react to then-
respective aesthetic situations by moving radically toward the subjective.
In New York School poetry, there is a hyper-concern for the ephemeral as
it relates to the subject, and that in part distinguishes the New York School from
other poetic groups in the late fifties and early sixties. The concern for ephemera
marks the content of the poetry as ontological in nature, but the emphasis on
process reveals some of the underlying ethics that situate the construction of
meaning as something antecedent to a more fundamental relationship.
At first it seems unlikely that there would be connections to be made
between the elitist poetry of the New York School and the jazz avant-garde of the
late fifties and early sixties.48 The New York School poets are elitist and almost
completely of Anglo descent, but the cultural environment in New York in the
1950s was racially integrated, and the art of the period reveals this amid and
regardless of any tensions. Above all, there is a notable similarity of method
between the New York School and avant-garde musicians: they both move
radically in the direction of the subjective that evades traditional critical analysis.
Beyond that, there is little crossover of aesthetic ethics because the two mediums
draw on different traditions.
Like the jazz avant-garde, New York School poetry reveals some
continuity within the medium. The poets roots are in both the Beats and the
academic tradition. And the New York School poets subjective turn does not by
any means indicate a wish for an exclusive audience, even though they reveal

elitism. They can be elitist and cliquey, and this has given their poetry a
reputation as something that can be written off as self-infatuation while further
obscuring the groups achievements, which is very similar to the way critics
approach avant-garde jazz.
John Simons Partying On Parnassus: The New York School Poets, a
rant against David Lehmans book on the New York School, The Last Avant-
garde, is a typical negative response to the poetry. Simon situates his idea of
what poetry is against the New York School by attacking the poets use of
ephemeral content and ambiguity.
Ambiguity, too, may be a legitimate device, but it should not be
confused with the mainstay of much New York School (henceforth
NYS) stuff: openness to infinite, arbitrary, private readings quot
homines, tot sententiae. That way lies formlessness, dissolution,
anarchy, and; yes, madness, when free association, becoming too
free, hurtles into dementia. (33)
Simons criticism of the New York School Poets is not unique. It makes the same
critical claim that both opponents of avant-garde jazz and opponents of Levinas49
make: namely, that the content almost intentionally avoids meaning. Avoidance
of meaning is indeed a common thread between avant-garde jazz, New York
School poetry, and Levinasian ethics; all three subjects refuse criticism itself.
In addition the poets methods, Simon continues to be appalled at the
poetic content of the New York School because of the challenges the school gives
to more traditional definitions of poetry.
By accepting such scot-free association, anything the NYS poets
tossed off or elucubrated could be proclaimed poetry. That these
poets were closely associated with some painters (mostly of the
NYS of painting) and some composers explains one of their major
fallacies: the bland assumption that the procedures of the other arts
could be readily appropriated by poetry, so that, for instance, the
techniques of Jackson Pollock and John Cage could be applied to
writing poems. (33)
Simon is correct in noticing the widened definition of poetry according to the
New York Schools aesthetic, that such a definition partially explains extreme
growth in prolificacy, and that such a situation where almost any interaction with
the poet, written or verbal, becomes an interaction with poetry. The poets being
has become the medium, or rather, the medium has become their being. John

Cages straddling of the mediums of poetry and music reveal this to be true to
some extent. But this irks Simon.
If critics like Simon fail to see the applicability of aesthetic notions and
problems across disciplinary gaps, they need only look toward jazz critics
reception to the jazz avant-garde in order to see the same arguments he makes
reflected and debated for half a century. Just as critics of John Coltrane and Eric
Dolphy in the early sixties called their music anti-jazz, Simon proclaims, To
like what I consider anti-poetry as much as poetry bespeaks not catholicity but
wishy-washiness, which, to be sure, has been enshrined as a virtue in our
time(33). But what is Simon doing here if not establishing a clear perspective
amidst and from the ambiguous cultural ether he has inherited as a post New York
School critic? Does his perspective not owe its identity to a violent severing from
the influence of the New York School? Taste is one thing; criticism is another.
Simon reveals an additional element, though not a virtue, of our time, which is
the fear of a less objective world than our being allows us to perceive.50
This phobia, paralleled in jazz criticism, models the present social
situation and gives rise to the possibility of recognizing Levinasian ethics, which
seek a situation where the critical audience assists the singularity of each artists
perspective as he or she immerses him or herself within art. as a metaphysical
entity. The new approach must maintain itself as an interpretive act that is aware
of itself as interpretation and not forget the sequence of perspective-derived
events that lead up to the construction of meaning.
The problem of critically over-representing one s aesthetic taste at the
expense of an exploration of artistic intentionality is a severing of communicative
efforts that denies the critics responsibility to Otherness of the artist. While
Simon does state that his purpose is to maintain critical dialogue(33) by
presenting both sides of a debate, this contention also falls into the cycle of a
discourse that fetishizes itself over the material the discourse is purported to be
about. It only becomes more complicated when critics favoring taste over
communicative expression become aligned with the economical forces that
determine the dissemination of aesthetic products.51 Taste is a powerful thing
when it is presented as objective because the values that inhabit it are thrust on the
audience surreptitiously.
Oftentimes, failing to see continuity not only within a medium, but also
across mediums, makes the New York School poets seem excessively exclusive
or inexplicable. Geoff Ward describes the New York School poets in relation to
the Abstract Expressionists as follows.
That relationship was defined by antithesis as much as
continuation. Where Abstract Expressionism denotes an art often
of monumental severity, such as the dark and portentous canvasses

painted by Mark Rothko for the Seagram Building, the poets are
witty, sociable, and bored with alienation and top-heavy symbols.
Ward goes on to note that,
the poets had before them the conspicuously successful example of
the New York painters, whose encouragement and interests may
have been a stimulus, but whose success cast a shadow over the
writers efforts to de-provincialize poetry and reach a wider
public52 than their own coterie. 7
In this context the New York School poets are anything but elitist and anti-social
in terms of wanting an audience.
The connection between audience and the New York poet is most obvious
in terms of subjective content. The New York poets are fascinated with the
ephemeral, prosaic, and spontaneous, but always extemporaneous, improvisation.
They enthrall their audience through an entanglement of identities, sometimes
even blending the role of the poet and the role of the critic. Take, for example,
Kenneth Kochs Fresh Air. The first two lines read, Where are young poets in
America, they are trembling in publishing houses and universities, Above all
they are trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their
spit(Koch in Ward). The first line is both question and answer. It doesnt want
pause or separation. The content is established as a critique of academic poetry,
so the poet becomes the critic. Commas punctuate the endings of each line, even
when a period would be more grammatically appropriate, to maintain prosaic
fluidity. This continues until the fifth line, which ends in an ellipse and reads,
Oh what worms they are! They wish to protect their form... The ellipse marks
a transition into a specific scene on a train, and the grammar becomes more
staccato: Here on the train, one more time, is the Strangler. The poem finishes
descriptively concrete, even though the characters identities are ambiguous, and
at first show little resemblance to the goings on of the first half of the poem.
Formally, this poem is reminiscent of an Italian sonnet with its descriptive
introduction followed by a reflection upon that description. The first half
generally describes the speakers opinion of the state of younger poets in
America, which is not unlike the state of jazz at the end of the twentieth-century,
where younger, or more progressive musicians lament the narrow-mindedness of
cloistered academic programs. Nor is it altogether different from the attitudes of
some avant-garde jazz musicians of the early sixties in relation to the bebop and
hard-bop schools, which was that at a certain point chord substitution,
restructuring harmony, and musical acrobatics through complex changes begins to

fetishize itself. While such techniques are not at all meaningless exercises in
accordance with a jazz tradition that found subversive expression through them,
without the aesthetic to back it up, they become something akin to tracing lines
already drawn.
Younger musicians played the role of critic too. In his liner notes to
Something Else! Ornette Coleman claims,
I think one day the music will be a lot freer. Then the pattern for a
tune, for instance, will be forgotten and the tune itself will be the
pattern, and wont have to be forced into conventional patterns.
(In Litweiler 34)
Similarly assertive and perhaps a little arrogant, Kochs poem is a revolt against
aesthetic stagnation of its own particular medium with regard to form. But
Kochs poem, while being critical, also points toward some unique innovations
employed by New York School poets.
In Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, Geoff Ward says, of
Kochs Fresh Air, Its good; the problem is that it will never be as good the
second time(8). The assumption is that the ephemeral observation leads to too
much surface in terms of meaning; that it can be grasped on a single read and
therefore lacks some immortal quality. But the passage of time reveals the
applicability of Kochs poem to other circumstances. It definitely resonates with
jazzs place in academia at the end of the century. From a cross-disciplinary point
of view, meaning is retained throughout multiple reads as applicability shifts to
different audiences.
Critically, the poem aspires to achieve its title, making space for
something new, while simultaneously asserting lineage. But it places hope in a
future freed from the wish to perfect their form. It wants to move on as the
train is already doing. This wish is fulfilled by the moving floor of the last line,
which indicates not only time, but also the manufactured movement through time
by humans with invention (here as technology).
In the poem, death is violent and ambiguous, as the allegorical Strangler
implies, but the train keeps moving. While it is possible to read the Strangler as
the violent manifestation of the speakers personal frustrations, it is also possible
to see resonance beyond the particular as the poem reflects upon the continuity of
the creative within Art. The poem becomes meaningful as an exploration of
creative identity amid a vast historical environment, and it establishes its newness
with its frustrations. It also establishes its identity by situating itself against the
tradition, which informs discussions of the identity of artworks.
While hes critical of the Kochs poems lasting ability, Wards analysis of
the New York School is insightful to a discussing a piece of arts identity. The

identity of a piece of art is never unrelated to the metaphysical element from
which an expressive perspective severs itself. Ward notices this relationship in
poetry: the violence in the act of self-severance must itself bear testimony to an
underlying familial attachment to at least certain writings from which the poet
claims separation(13). There is a powerful correlation here to Levinass idea of
the trace of a work containing a filial type of lineage to its author. This trace also
connects the author to the audience in a way that maintains the existence of the
author even after death. This is why interpretation is still valuable to Levinas,
even though he evades traditional critical analysis. Engagement with works of art
can itself maintain the ethical relationship.
Wards discovery of lineage and identity in poetry catapults his analysis
into an overview of modem53 poetry since Wordsworth, where he connects the
New York poets to a large tradition of modem poetry.
In a sense we are still inside the questions posed by the first-
generation Romantics, no vanguard art-manifesto this century has
driven such a wedge between its poetry and that of its forbears as
did Lyrical Ballads. Poetic writing since that time can indeed be
viewed as driving a wedge between itself and other kinds of
language. It follows that such linguistic violence would have its
analogues in the image of the poet. (12-13)
But this conception does not just apply to poets, but to artists in general, beyond
any medium.
The artists of the late fifties and early sixties can be situated by the
underlying tendency among artists to want not to be seen as the alienated
individuals western culture perpetually makes of them. The New York poets
sought to make their art resonate more by becoming more particular, favoring the
applicability of the ephemeral, the moment to moment or the everyday. In a sense
they are doing with content what Wordsworth did with form, making use of more
common and, in a sense, universal situations. Wordsworth sought widespread
applicability of his expression through the use of common language. The New
York School elevated their day-to-day social experience to the realm of art in an
attempt to make the experience of art resonate to a wider audience. And of course
this is very similar to the hope of, say, the surrealists that they would reach the
masses through an art of the unconscious.54 The difference is that the artists of
the early sixties sought to eliminate coding and decoding altogether, thus making
art applicable to many. Whether the techniques succeeded or failed, there is a
commonality across the mediums in their search for connection with a wide
audience, not as prophets but as a part of the community.

But because people miss this sort of connection Ward points out, which
was to the core of modem poetry, many see the developments of the New York
School as simply inscrutable and cast it aside, preferring to write about something
easier to understand. Of course, there is quite a lot of poetry between
Wordsworths Lyrical Ballds and the New York School. But if we trace the very
apparent lineage of poetic theory among the New York Poets to the Black
Mountain College, a more recent connection can be made that helps make sense
of the poets methods.
The Background Milieu of the New York School
Formally, poetry often occupies a different space than music. It is
received in its completed form because it is previously written. There is a large
delay between creation and reception, and reception is largely an isolated
experience. For this reason, repetitive readings of poems establish their value in a
classical or canonical sense as they reveal their connection to the immortality of
Art. Considering this common reception of poetry, Wards criticism of Kochs
Fresh Air as being problematic because one gets it the first time makes sense.
Because the New York School poets attempt to capture the.radically ephemeral,
their poetry can seem at first glance as being anti-traditional in the sense that they
intentionally seek out the fleeting. But on closer inspection their methods attempt
to establish the poem as an experienced event. Considering the reception of
poetry, it is helpful to think of poetry not simply as writing, but as song, which
emphasizes its existence as a performance.
As an auditory event, poetry allows more room for improvisation and
direct connection with audience and the distance between performance and
reception becomes significantly less. Poetry as performance was something the
Beats popularized, but people like Charles Olson theorized it before them. By
experiencing the poem as an auditory event, the dependency on a receptive
audience becomes more pronounced. Just as the audience in an avant-garde jazz
setting adds its intention to the performing artist, an audience listening to poetry
provides the same, thus intensifying the creative event itself by making it more
social. Charles Olson and The Black Mountain poets (with whom the New York
poets like Frank OHara were associated) explored aspects of vocalic qualities
and performance in the late forties and early fifties.
Olsons Projective Verse laments the primacy of the written form of
words over the vocal qualities of the syllable, or phoneme. It seems natural that
his essay would provide a basis for the explorations involved in Beat poetry. But

it also seeks to point out the validation for a return to vocalic qualities because of
their originality in relationship to being. Olson sees composition as a bracketing
off of perspective. Olsons term for this is COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as
opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form(239). This leads him to describe
poetry as such:
A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will
have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the
way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem must, at all points,
be. a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.
So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is
the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least
equivalent of the energy which is peculiar to verse and which will
be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader,
because he is a third term, will take away? (240)
Olson has already begun to locate the responsibility of the expression of the
poetic medium in the individual poet distinct from the medium. The poet is a
conduit for the creative. He goes on to say that
CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes
absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form,
in any given poem, is the only exclusively possible extension of
content under hand.)
And the way to accomplish this is to locate the form of the poem within the poets
achieve the speed required by Olson is to locate form in the poet.
And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all
points, in any given poem always, always one perception must
So there we are, fast, theres the dogma. And its excuse,
its usableness, in practice. Which gets us, it ought to get us, inside
the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made. (240-
The existence of artistic accuracy of expression aligned with speed and constancy.
But this speed and constancy of expression ultimately leads to the disintegration

of the artistic subject. The methodology implies intention overcoming itself and
ultimately, transcendence: The medium and the artist become one and the
individuality of the artist is extinguished. Later poets seem to pick up directly on
Olsons trajectory.
With the Beats, poetry became live performance, further emphasizing
speed of production and speed of delivery. The poem was a performance. The
exigency of the moment saturates the art of the 1950s, and the spiritualism of the
times reflects this as well, which can also be traced to Black Mountain College.
In the winter of 1950-51 D. T. Suzukis lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia
University sparked widespread artistic interest in Zen Buddhism, which places
considerable emphasis on the now(MacAdams 149). Most importantly was his
influence on composer John Cage. Also teaching at Black Mountain College in
the early fifties, Cages interest in Zen led him to a general interest in eastern
philosophy, which greatly affected his aesthetics. He arranged one theater
performance at Black Mountain as follows:
Nobody wore costumes; everybody played themselves. Cage had
an idea of what each performer had decided to do. He never made
specific assignments because he didnt want to be a traditional
western composer, someone who tells other people what to do.
He used I Ching coin tosses to determine when each person would
perform, and how long they would do it. He was trying, he later
explained, to find a way to let sounds be themselves rather than
vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human
sentiments. (MacAdams 164)
Thus, the loss of inner and outer, subject-object, was one aspiration of the
aesthetic that sought to make the very being of the artist as an individual the site
of artistic transendence. The result then is a loss of self. But the loss of self is in
the Buddhist religion a response to the call of the Other in terms of ending
suffering. The vocation of the poet in this sense is expression as acceptance of
social responsibility, which both the Beats and the New York poets expressed,
though in different ways.
Outside of Buddhism, however, the audience keeps the artist from losing
his or her self. The New York School explored expression as the way of being,
where performance and performativity are the same. By making themselves the
form, they became more personally involved.55 But it is this more subjective turn
that allows the New York poets to integrate themselves with culture at large by
employing virtually the same aesthetic methods as avant-garde jazz musicians;
namely, making ones self the form of expression. This process demands more

engagement from the audience, which traditional critics were unwilling to give
because they saw the innovations as being anti-traditional.
However, the shift in location of form, from external to the being of the
artist, marks a development from earlier modernism, but not a breach or rupture in
values. Instead, there is actually a resurgence of modernist values where aesthetic
tropes such as alienation become intensified, thus causing the artists to seek social
integration with more urgency. Formal experimentation was not only being
discussed by fringe poets such as Charles Olson; even well established poets saw
a need for something new; This tension, often discussed as the modem / post-
modern shift, can be localized within the poetic medium and seen in some of
William Carlos Williams criticism.
Williams and Olson establish themselves as poets and critics, but they still
try to separate their theory from their practice, which is something the New York
Poets overcame. But very much like older members of the jazz tradition in
relation to the avant-garde, older poets saw the necessity to break from earlier
In his 1954 essay, On Measure Statement for Cid Comian, William
Carlos Williams exhibits an aesthetic awareness of developments with regard to
form, but does not yet see the shift in location of form from an external entity
imposed on the poet by culture to an internal expression of self and identity as an
entity within a social world. On Measure laments the sense of a loss of measure
in modem verse, but seeks to find a new, more relative kind of measure.
Williams says, We have no measure by which to guide ourselves except a purely
intuitive one which we feel but do not name(337). As a result of this conclusion
Williams considers previous poetic forms to be archaic:
We get sonnets, etc., but no one alive today, or half alive, seems to
see anything incongruous in that. They cannot see that poems
cannot any longer be made following a Euclidean measure,
beautiful as this may seem. (337)
His answer is to seek a relatively stable foot, not a rigid one(340). This allows
Williams to localize his content in an individual subject and move about that
subject in a nonlinear fashion.
This more relative approach can be seen throughout Paterson, in
which the stanzas establish ideas like paragraphs but relate to each other more as
pieces of a collage, allowing the narrative voice to ramble. On a more local level,
line separation moves back and forth from a cadence-like line or statement ending
in a caesura to interrupted rhythmic patterns causing a line to spill over into the
next: To make a start, / out of particulars / and make them general, rolling / up
the sum, by defective means / Sniffing the trees, / just another dog among dogs.

What / else is there? And to do?(3). Line breaks establish meaning here. The
broken anapest of rolling up makes a rising meter into a falling meter
(rolling as a trochee), which interrupts the semantic structure by contradicting
its meaning. Rolling continues beyond the line, suspending closure until the
next line. Similar suspense occurs between the What else is there? break. But
here the suspended thought is intensified by the lack of closure instead of
interrupted, making room for that what to be supplied by an exterior entity.
However, these are all examples of relativism derived from free verse, which was
nothing new in poetry during Williams day. It is unclear what Williams was
getting at until book five of Patterson in 1958.
Book five of Patterson extensively makes use of Williams triple foot,
which was developed through his search for his relatively stable foot. While
this may not be the first appearance of the technique in Williams poetry, it is
certainly the most extensive use of it, especially in relation to the previous four
books of Patterson, which he had been working on since at least the 1940s. The
technique subdivides a line into three different feet, each of which may contain its
own number of syllables. The spatial separation of the feet creates self-contained
musical structures in the midst of the larger narrative voice and disrupts
traditional metrical analyses (scanning), but it also creates a balanced line that
reads similar to a haiku. In one sense each foot acts as its own musical measure
with different subdivisions or poly-rhythmic structures depending on the number
of syllables. But because a continuously present narrative connects the measures,
one specific meter does not necessarily unify these measures. Instead, they are
connected by the content of the epic narrative. The ultimate result here is similar
to the modal innovations used by the Miles Davis group in the late 1950s and
Ornette Colemans sense of tonality in the early 1960s.
The Miles Davis quintet used harmonic structures where one chord was
drawn out over multiple measures in contrast to the rapid chord changes of bebop
music. The result was that the music had much more space for lyrical invention,
which Davis himself was already famous for. The constancy of one harmony
dismantled the tendency of musicians to phrase their improvisations according to
chord changes and arpeggios and caused them to employ modes or scales based
on the chord. This made common bar-line metric divisions such as 4/4-time less
rigid because musicians could phrase according to their ears and their breath and
not be obligated to orient their phrasing around formal chord structures. In Free
Jazz, lost points out that modal playing led to enhanced expressive space.
With vertical chordal movement reduced to a minimum, there was
room for freedom in a horizontal direction, for the abolition of
functional harmony made a schematic division into eight, twelve or
sixteen bar patterns unnecessary. (19)