Jazz in the Time of the Novel: The Temporal Politics of American Race and Culture

Jazz in the Time of the Novel: The Temporal Politics of American Race and Culture

by Bruce Evan Barnhart

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Jazz in the Time of the Novel argues that a culture’s understanding of the concept of time plays a central role in its economic, social, and aesthetic affairs and that a culture arrives at its conception of time through its artistic practices.
Bruce Barnhart, in Jazz in the Time of the Novel, shows that American culture of the…  See more details below


Jazz in the Time of the Novel argues that a culture’s understanding of the concept of time plays a central role in its economic, social, and aesthetic affairs and that a culture arrives at its conception of time through its artistic practices.
Bruce Barnhart, in Jazz in the Time of the Novel, shows that American culture of the first three decades of the twentieth century was shaped by the kindred rhythms and movements of two particular art forms: jazz and fiction. At the beginning of the twentieth century, widespread changes in America’s social, demographic, and economic norms threatened longstanding faith in a unified and inevitable movement towards a better future. As Barnhart shows both jazz and novels of the period address these temporal uncertainties, inserting themselves into arguments about the proper unfolding of an affirmative American future. Barnhart proposes that these two aesthetic forms can be viewed as co-participants in an ongoing discussion about the way in which the future should be imagined and experienced—a discussion symptomatic of the broader exchanges taking place within the many trajectories comprising early twentieth-century American culture.
This book includes in-depth approaches to numerous examples of jazz and the novel, including performances by James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Ethel Waters, and novels by James Weldon Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Nella Larsen, among others. In addition to the details of specific musical and literary works, Jazz in the Time of the Novel offers careful consideration as to how these works impact their social context.

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Editorial Reviews

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"What makes the book newsworthy is the emphasis on time, timing, the adjustment of a new experience of 'industrial' time that influenced not just labor, but also music, art in general, and left the a notion of life that would never be the same as before industrialization." —Jive Talk

“Bruce Barnhart's Jazz in the Time of the Novel offers insightful readings of literary works by James Weldon Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes, as well as analyses of musical works by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington. Drawing on theoretical models culled from African American studies, western Marxism, sociology, histories of modernism, anthropology, etc., Barnhart lays out a provocative argument about the interdependence of jazz, the novel form, temporality, rhythm, and American modernism.”—Alexander G. Weheliye, author of  Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity.

"Beyond the entirely admirable and necessary work of correcting previous understandings and misunderstandings of the relation between jazz and literature, Barnhart ventures into territory that very few others have even begun to explore by raising the question of a certain tension that must exist when jazz is understood as both episteme and form. He deploys theoretically sophisticated social and historical analysis in order to reopen fundamental ontological questions about jazz, the novel, and time. Barnhart has made a very important contribution to the field of 20th Century American and Afro-American literary and cultural studies. Anyone interested in those fields will have to, and should want to, study his work." —Frederick C. Moten, author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition

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University of Alabama Press
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JAZZ in the Time of the Novel

The Temporal Politics of American Race and Culture



Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1804-8


Jazz and the Novel in the Cultural and Imaginative Landscape

Jazz seeps into words.

—Langston Hughes, "Jazz as Communication"

The also and also of the drummer signifying on the high-hat cymbal, even in the distance (and it is as if it were the also and also of time itself whispering red alert as if in blue italics).

—Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

The story I want to tell takes place in the first three decades of the twentieth century; it is the story of the interaction between two quite different aesthetic forms, jazz and the novel. Although the importance of this interaction has often been acknowledged, it has never been the central guiding concern of an extended critical investigation. Given the simultaneity of the explosive development and dissemination of jazz with the production of a slew of important and innovative American novels, both African American and Anglo-American, the lack of attention given this relationship constitutes a major gap in our understanding of a critical period in American and African American cultural history. It is this gap that my study works to fill by investigating thematic allusions to, and representations of, jazz, as well as the temporal and formal schematics through which two sets of novels from the first three decades of the twentieth century, one African American and one Anglo-American, respond to jazz's form of temporality. A large part of my aim is to push for a less one-sided understanding of the relationship between jazz and the novel. Jazz is no passive object for literary appropriation. It talks back to the novel, often quite forcefully, and part of my goal here is to think about what it says. To this end, two of my chapters are direct analyses of jazz recordings: chapter 3 looks at James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," and chapter 5 looks at Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong's "St. Louis Blues."

While my analysis focuses intensely on jazz and constantly returns to its formal arrangements and performance practices, it is primarily an examination of the way that the novel refracts, redacts, incorporates, and suppresses jazz and its aesthetic and social logic. Social because it quickly and necessarily moves to a consideration of how these forms, the novel and jazz, reflect and participate in the political and social struggles of the time period, conflicts that centered on questions such as the meaning of race, the proper economic organization of society, competing conceptions of the self, healthy modes of social interaction, and the definition and relevance of culture. The novelists (and other intellectuals) of the 1910s and 1920s did not see jazz primarily as a disembodied or detached aesthetic form. For them it was a manifestation of potent psychic, racial and/ or social energies, vital or disreputable eruptions of racial essence, repressed libido, or runaway modernity. As wrongheaded or overly simplistic as these readings of jazz may be, they have the virtue of keeping in sight the fact that form is never neutral, never entirely detached from the social situation out of which it emerges.

In his consideration of the role of improvisation in jazz, Albert Murray posits a definition of art that incorporates this insight regarding form. He writes, "art is the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of the rituals that reenact the primary survival technology; and hence it conveys basic attitudes toward experience of a given people in a given time, place, circumstance, and predicament" ("Improvisation" 111). Defining art as a kind of "equipment for living," Murray's formulation insists that history is always implicit in aesthetic form, and hence that no form travels from one social situation to another without a degree of friction or dissonance. Every form embodies the specific survival rituals of a specific people and will be understood and received differently by people with a different pattern of ritual accommodation to reality. Despite Murray's emphasis elsewhere on the continuities of African American and Anglo-American experience and aesthetics, here he suggests that blacks and whites in twentieth-century America have fairly divergent "attitudes toward experience." African Americans and white Americans of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s might have shared the same time, but they rarely shared the same place and almost never shared the same circumstances. The "primary survival technologies" that jazz and the novel extend, elaborate, and refine are responses to different social situations and thus take radically different shapes. Jazz emerges from densely populated urban African American communities in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century; it is a function of the new opportunities for musicians in the secular recreational spaces created by the confluence of unprecedentedly high levels of demographic and economic fluidity. The novel is the product of eighteenth-century England and the maturation of both capitalism and the self-assurance of a literate middle class. Despite the difference of these two forms' genesis, the complex web of social and economic relations that have always existed between Anglo-Americans and African Americans make it a mistake to imagine that jazz has an absolute correspondence to an African American essence, racial or otherwise, or that the novel has remained unaltered by its transportation into the racially divided landscape of America. This fact makes any productive conception of the relationship between the novel and jazz quite difficult.

This difficulty is constructively addressed by Olly Wilson in his article "Black Music as an Art Form." In his outline of the conceptual approaches that define African American music, Wilson constructs two categories of African American music. These categories are not absolute categories of a pure African American musical tradition and a hybrid African American—European American tradition but, reflecting his observation that "cultural interaction more than cultural isolation has characterized the American experience," are categories based on relative degrees of "interaction and interpenetration" of an African American tradition and a Euro-American tradition (83). The complexity of these interactions is suggested by the fact that the example Wilson gives of "the tradition characterized by a greater interaction and interpenetration of African and Euro-American elements" (89) is a jazz performance, a 1959 recording of the Miles Davis sextet. Following Wilson's model, the categories used to theorize the novels and jazz of the (expanded) Jazz Age will be relative poles of interaction between an African American mode of culture and a European American mode, a dialectical use of categories that doesn't deny the contact and interaction which constituted these categories in the first place.

In "Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture" James Snead asserts that "one may readily classify cultural forms according to whether they tend to admit or cover up the repeating constituents within them" (63). Snead's assertion deftly cuts to the heart of the difference between European-influenced and African-influenced cultural art forms without reifying either culture or the difference(s) between them. His use of repetition as the key distinction between European and black culture is not one that makes a sharp division between a repetitive cyclical form of culture and a progressive, nonrepetitive one. For Snead, repetition is an inevitably present component of all cultures, an unavoidable result of the fact that "culture as a reservoir of inexhaustible novelty is unthinkable" (63). All cultures partake of repetition; the difference is the extent to which a particular culture acknowledges or disavows its dependence on it. This difference manifests itself along "a scale of tendencies from culture to culture," with European culture tending to dress repetition in the masking terms of accumulation and growth and black culture tending to embrace repetition as a goalless circulation of elements in equilibrium. Snead sees jazz as one of the prime manifestations of this attitude toward repetition, whereas the novel, for him, is a genre based on the suppression of repetition and an evasion of "the need for 'repeated descriptions'"(73).

The tremors that resulted from the attempt of jazz and the novel to inhabit roughly the same cultural space spread out in ways that were blind to the borders between disciplinary and conceptual fields. This necessitates an approach that touches on the problematics of a number of fairly diverse fields: music, economics, literature, sociology, and cultural history. Because of this, I rely on the critical formulations of a fairly large array of critics from a number of different fields. This study starts with the juxtaposition of two distinct aesthetic forms, and while my conception of the novel is rooted in the writings of Paul de Man, Theodor Adorno, and Georg Lukács, and my theorization of jazz attempts to build on Samuel A. Floyd Jr.'s transportation of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s work on Signifyin(g) into the realm of music, my approach essentially grows out of a pair of formulations by Albert Murray and James Snead:

Murray: "Art is the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of the rituals that re-enact the primary survival technology; and hence it conveys basic attitudes toward experience of a given people in a given time, place, circumstance and predicament" ("Improvisation" 111).

Snead: African American music contains "an essentially philosophical insight about the shape of time and history" (59–60).

Taken together, these two statements adumbrate the major presupposition of my study: that aesthetic forms enshrine a cultural rhythm, a cognitive and epistemological mode of moving from one situation to another that assigns value to certain intellectual and pragmatic maneuvers while repudiating others. It is this concept that allows a bridge to be made between jazz and the novel, a bridge that, despite the seemingly insuperable differences between the two forms, allows me to imagine them as both rivals and interlocutors. The arena in which they face each other is both the highly fluid cultural and intellectual landscape of early twentieth-century America and, as Snead points out, the realm of temporality. Part of what I am arguing here is a point forcefully made by Eric Porter in What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: that jazz musicians are intellectuals whose status has "seldom been acknowledged," but who play an important role "as arbiters of cultural tastes and cultural politics" (xiv). Porter's focus is on the writings of jazz musicians, but I share with Snead an approach that looks to the music itself as the source of musicians' influence and intellectual contributions. Like the novel, jazz is an intellectual force that critiques existing modes of temporality and argues that its treatment of time is the most productive way of translating the present into the future.

Foregrounding temporality as the link between these two forms allows for an analysis that sees the questions of aesthetic form raised by their juxtaposition as also questions of race, politics, culture, history, and economics. This is because the conception of time at work here, like the one utilized by Snead, is uncompromisingly materialist. Incorporating sociological (Durkheim) and Marxist (Marx, Lukacs, and Adorno) theorizations, the notion of time that I employ is focused through the thinking of Johannes Fabian, an anthropologist who, in his work Time and the Other, asserts that "time belongs to the political economy of relations between individuals, classes and nations," and that "there is a 'Politics of Time'" (xii). For Fabian, time is always political because it governs the envisioning of otherness; the way in which it has traditionally done this in Western society is by imposing an apparently insurmountable conceptual barrier between subject and object, exercising what Fabian refers to as an "epistemological dictatorship" that licenses oppression by creating fixed hierarchical categories such as master and servant, white and black, primitive and civilized, worker and owner. Fabian labels this conceptual operation "allochronism," a denial of the dialectical relationship between subject and object that divests the object of knowledge (whether person, body, art form, culture, race, etc.) of the ability to occupy and act in the same temporal space of the observing subject of knowledge. Fabian's theorization of time is a call for a consideration of "the ideological nature of temporal concepts which inform our theories and our rhetoric" (xii), a call to which my analysis of jazz and the novel in the arena of nascent American consumer culture responds by unfolding the theoretical implications contained in the statement that "a clear conception of allochronism is the prerequisite and frame for a critique of racism" (182).

Fabian's project is primarily an investigation of the way that time is imposed on the other, which suggests a study of race that sees the structure of time as an agent of oppression. This is part of what I am engaged in here, but what is more important for my analysis is the way that Fabian's emphasis on the political aspect of time and his call for dialectical analysis enables a consideration of time as a cultural coefficient, an expression of Murray's "primary survival technology," as well as an imposed structure. Snead's reading of African American musical forms as expositions of alternative models of temporality provides the basis for an approach that not only recognizes the novels and jazz of the Jazz Age as participants and players in the "Politics of Time" but also sees in jazz and jazz-influenced novels a critique of allochronism and its attendant racism that precedes Fabian's call for such a critique. Combining the insights of Snead with those of Fabian opens up to us the truth of jazz's insights into the relationship between subject and object, relationships that subtend systems of subordination as well as systems of philosophical speculation.

This link is one that has best been theorized by Michael Hanchard in his essay "Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora." Hanchard's meditations on race and alternative modernities extend Fabian's analysis of time by positing the existence of "racial time," a time defined by "the inequalities that result from power relations between dominant and subordinate groups" (253). Hanchard moves from the highly abstract level of Fabian's analysis to a concrete analysis of the real temporal constraints imposed on members of the African diaspora in the form of "unequal temporal access to institutions, goods, services, resources, power, and knowledge" (253). This move gives Fabian's theorizations a sharper social point; it also forwards important insights about the nature of racial community and about how the jazz emanating from the African American communities of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s came to contain such crucial insights into the social and temporal structure of American, as well as African American, culture. For Hanchard, the fact that members of African American communities had access to a sense of time distinct from that of mainstream America is not due to any biological racial essence but is a function of their sharing the same subordinate place in society. The tensions and social struggles arising from the interactions between those assigned to this place and those who imposed temporal (and other) restrictions on them, "along with the resentments, anger, and fears associated with their interactions, became the source for collective consciousness and, ultimately, strategies for organized and individuated resistance" (254). Hanchard posits an African American group identity that is not biological but is what he refers to as an "epistemological community," a community whose subordinate position gives it a unique insight into social structures of domination, temporal or otherwise. Recognizing the coercive nature of the relationship to time forced upon them, some members of this epistemological community were gifted with what one might call economic "second-sight." Aware of the necessity of orienting themselves to the form of time enshrined by the governing forces of society, and unwilling to give up the possibility of a noncoercive form of time and order, African Americans developed an extremely sophisticated survival technique, a conceptual strategy that Hanchard refers to as "time appropriation." Hanchard defines time appropriation as "the actual instance of social movement when group members who constitute a collective social formulation decide to intervene in public debate for the purpose of affecting positive change in their overall position and location in society" by attempting to "eradicat[e] the gulf in racial time" (256).

For Hanchard, time appropriation usually accompanies "periods of social upheaval and transformation," such as the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s, and is a sign of the kind of reflective self-conscious modernity that allowed African American artists and intellectuals to "utilize the very mechanisms of their subordination for their liberation" (246). This, I argue, is precisely what jazz does to the mechanisms and machinations of objective clock time; it is also what the influence of jazz enables novelists like James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen to do to both Western developmental time and the form of the novel. This goes a long way toward explaining the powerful charge that jazz had in the 1910s and 1920s, for this was the period when something akin to the kind of temporal regime that African Americans had long been subjected to extended its reach into the lives of all Americans in the form of urbanization, Taylorization, and increased rationalization of the workplace. Both groups are propelled toward an urban, rationalized workplace, but at radically different rates; the Great Migration took under two decades to urbanize the black population to the same extent that it had taken the white population a century to achieve.

Excerpted from JAZZ in the Time of the Novel by BRUCE BARNHART. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bruce Barnhart is the author of articles on race, music, and American literature that have appeared in the journals Callaloo, Novel, African American Review, American Literature, and American Quarterly.

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