Jazz music, Clark argues, demonstrates how this aesthetic rhetoric of identification can bind people together through their shared experience in a common project. While such shared experience does not demand agreement—indeed, it often has an air of competition—it does align people in practical effort and purpose. Similarly, Clark shows, Burke considered Americans inhabitants of a persistently rhetorical situation, in which each must choose constantly to identify with some and separate from others. Thought-provoking and path-breaking, Clark’s harmonic mashup of music and rhetoric will appeal to scholars across disciplines as diverse as political science, performance studies, musicology, and literary criticism.
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American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along
By Gregory Clark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
For what a Constitution would do primarily is to substantiate an ought (to base a statement as to what should be upon a statement as to what is).
That a prominent British cultural critic from the left finds a good candidate for the meaning of life deep in what is unique in the culture of a United States that leans to the right merits our attention. When people play in a jazz ensemble, writes Terry Eagleton, "the complex harmony they fashion comes not from playing a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member as the basis for the free expression of the others." That's why musicians who play jazz can lose themselves in the project of the group in ways that sometimes carry them, separately and together, well beyond the capacity of their own voices. What is meaningful in that is the "medium of relationship" within which people combine to make this music. "Is jazz, then, the meaning of life?" Eagleton asks. "Not exactly," is his answer. But the "practical, social form of life" jazz demands of those who play it just might be.
The great jazz critic Martin Williams pointed directly toward that when he wrote that "the high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and cooperation required in a jazz ensemble carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them." We can contemplate them, though. And we should, starting from this essential point that the pianist Marcus Roberts has made more than once about jazz: "None of this music is about you by yourself. It's about you with other people."
In New Orleans one late December we ran into Wess Anderson. We were there for an academic conference and Wess, an alto sax player known for his distinctly warm sound, was a guest at a panel on literature about jazz. He was based in New York, playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and we had met him a couple of times at concerts there. But his home was in Baton Rouge, close enough during the holidays to come to New Orleans and talk about jazz. When we greeted him afterward, he suggested that we find him later at a place called Donna's Bar and Grill. Donna's was on the farthest side of the French Quarter from the convention hotel, and the streets we walked to get there, usually noisy and brightly lit, were mostly dark in the aftermath of Christmas. We walked in the chill thirty minutes or so until we found Donna's, looking like a rundown neighborhood bar on North Rampart Street. We hesitated outside but the live music we could hear coming through the door invited us in.
The room was warm, bright, and crowded. It was somebody's birthday, so balloons hung with the white Christmas lights along the walls. The air was thick with cigarettes, hot food, and fragrances worn on a night out. We walked through the door into a line of four horn players weaving improvised lines into a framework maintained by an old man on an upright piano behind them, a kid on a drum kit, and a big guy on a battered string bass alongside. Wess, in his dark New York suit, played his alto next to a small man in overalls and T-shirt playing tenor, and a trumpeter who looked like a college student. A tall man stooped over a trombone on the far end. It looked like a neighborhood pickup band. Wess grinned at us through his mouthpiece as we walked past the band toward foil pans of fried chicken and biscuits, and red beans and rice on the bar. Someone gave us plastic plates to fill and, following a wave from Wess's wife, we settled in at the space she had made at her table, eating and chatting and cheering the music on from one virtuosic surprise to the next, having forgotten that we were the only white people in the room. Enmeshed with the rest in the jazz being made there, we felt only welcome.
This book explores the jazz "form of life" that let us feel welcome that night. It examines the idea that jazz music demands from those who make it as well as those who listen a way of living that, as the student of conflict and communion Kenneth Burke put it in the epigraph that opens this chapter, "substantiates" the seemingly impossible American "ought" that is e pluribus unum. That's what happens when jazz music works. It happens among those who listen, as well as among the musicians themselves; it happens as this music prompts them to interact as the sort of citizens the American Constitution demands people be: strong individuals combined in a common project they must sustain to serve their separate interests and their common purpose both at once. So, however diverse the interests of people who find themselves together, they share the necessary purpose of getting along. And there is more to "getting along" in what is at stake and what it takes than the phrase might lead us to think. To get along, individuals must change in response to each other, must listen as well as speak, and must learn as well as teach. They must revise and adapt. Kenneth Burke went a very long way toward describing how that happens, what can go wrong, and what it can be like when things go right. And what he described is more or less precisely what jazz enacts as this music is made in the kind of exchange of assertion and response that constitutes what Americans are taught to understand as civic interaction. Jazz music and Kenneth Burke never claimed each other as counterparts, as a theory and a practice of the same kind of thing, but they could have. Bring them together in that way, and in the substance and shape of the form of civic life that one models and the other describes, you can see the profound lessons in getting along they provide.
Throughout his life, Burke developed fresh conceptions of rhetoric and art that expand the reach of both by rendering them interdependent in the work that distinct and diverse individuals must do to get along. Explaining that was the focus of all of Burke's writing. Similarly, the music-making project of jazz proceeds from the very civic mandate that Americans' constitution demands, from the predicament people share when together they are charged to become e pluribus unum, the very form of life Burke tried to show us how to manage. To play jazz, musicians must be both distinctly themselves and one with an ensemble, because this music demands both their cooperation and their separate distinction. So sometimes musicians with little in common beyond a tacit agreement to submit for a time to the constraints of this kind of music making find themselves together on a bandstand. And that's enough. They decide on matters of process—tune and chord changes, key and rhythm, order of participation—and then proceed to make music moment by moment from the pooled resources that each one has brought. Like most every other music, a performance of jazz enacts a community, but the community this music enacts is one that demands greater individuality. To make jazz, musicians must change and adapt to each other, making judgments all along about what is and is not good for the music they are making. Watching jazz being made, we learn that e pluribus unum is more complicated than we might have thought. This book is about how jazz and Burke both explore those complications, how the demands of democratic culture prompted Burke to consider art rhetorical, and how jazz is an art form that turns toward lessons of civic life.
Kenneth Burke's statement about constitutions that starts this chapter describes as constitutional any situation that transforms the individuals it would encompass into the citizens it proclaims them to be. More precisely, constitutions prescribe for diverse people the attitudes and the actions that are substance of the identity, at once collective and individual, it would have each of them claim. This project of substantiating of an "ought" is the core element of his "theory of constitutions in general" that informs us that we are each subject to more constitutions than we might think. We live by the laws of our written constitutions, the ones that make their claim upon us explicit. But we also live our lives by other, implicit, constitutions. Both kinds of constitution are made from the same raw material, though: the situation shared by those to be constituted as a community. Burke called that situation the "Constitution-behind-the-Constitution"—or, sometimes, "beneath" it: the given circumstances, mostly unchangeable, that both constrain and enable the sort of order that people can constitute there. One of those circumstances is the place: its physical characteristics as well as the histories that collide there. So the European immigrants who named the place they found "America" developed from what seemed a boundless land both an expansive individualism and a nagging sense of collective mission—for some sacred and for others secular—they felt destined to put to work there. Out of that situation came the aspiration of e pluribus unum, where each element checked and balanced the other, an aspiration they codified in the constitutions that would direct them in ways of life that could realize it. Some of those ways of life are explicitly procedural, legalistic, or documentary. Many more, though, are embedded in shared experience, all but invisible. Jazz is one of those.
To call jazz "constitutional," in Kenneth Burke's sense of that term, is to claim that it shapes people's perceptions, aligns their aspirations, and directs their attitudes and actions. It is also to say that jazz is rhetorical. To say that is to suggest that music, even art, is rhetorical. And to say that will seem odd to anyone who understands the term "rhetoric" to refer to an act of persuasion that proceeds systematically from a stated set of good reasons. That's how we are taught to expect to encounter rhetorical attempts to influence us. We expect them to come at us frankly—as Burke put it, "from without." But Burke put it that way as he was proposing that our most powerful influences may well come to us "from within," at least seemingly so. To explain the opportunities for, and the threats to, getting along that follow from that, he developed a powerful concept of rhetorical aesthetics that he first stated in print in 1924 and then elaborated over the next sixty-five years or so.
Burke is difficult to categorize among American thinkers. Born near the turn of the twentieth century, he came into his own in his and his nation's twenties. And just as he was emerging as an important new voice in literary fiction and poetry, he began turning his published work toward criticism of a particularly rhetorical sort. This shift seems to have been in response to, among other things, the expanding capacity of mass media to influence his compatriots at a time of notable erosion of a sense of unity among Americans. By 1930 Burke was best known as a critic who explored the ways and means of rhetorical effect in his literature and music criticism, locating those arts in civic if not political contexts. This stance was notable at a time when, among writers and musicians at least, the idea that art had practical purposes and effects was unfashionable. During subsequent decades, Burke's civic concerns mounted as a relentless sequence of crises surrounding the Great Depression and World War II left him questioning whether Americans could ever do what their Constitution was calling them to do: pay constant and critical attention to any and every attempt to shape in them attitudes or actions that determined whom they understood themselves to be. To guide his fellow citizens in that project, Burke developed through those years a rich explanation of how a sense of identity is made and changed within communicative interactions of all sorts. This was his revision of conventional concepts of rhetoric that had much to say about how art affects the ways in which people think and act.
Jazz was also born with the American twentieth century. Its antecedent in African American communities was a pervasive, participatory music that people would improvise together on a strong rhythmic foundation. Jazz developed as elements of that music combined with bits and pieces of music from other Americans. It combined African rhythmic patterns, an African American intensity of expression, European instrumentation and convention, and the form of American popular song in a hybrid sound that became immediately recognizable as an expression of this unwieldy national culture. So from its beginning, jazz accommodated a national mandate that by now seems that it should be undeniable: that Americans in all their differences be accepted and respected as full participants in the civic endeavor of living and working together as a people. This music was distinctly American, as well, in the way it was made. Musicians skilled on their instruments, generally acquainted with a jazz sort of sound and fluent in chords and scales, can play good jazz by submitting themselves to what the music requires of them. Agreement on key, sequence, and rhythm is enough for them to begin. From there, they do what it takes to combine their separate voices in a coherent musical statement where separateness can be still heard. And they do so improvisationally, without knowing precisely what that statement, fully realized, will be.
Burke described how that process proceeds when he located aesthetic form not in the work of art itself, but in the experience that an encounter with it provides a person. He explained that an aesthetic artifact takes form in the purposeful sequence of prompts it provides to move that person from one state of mind to another, with "state of mind" understood as integral to one's sense of identity. So aesthetic form works on us like the plot of a story that comes to life for us as we see, hear, or read it. Plot moves us along with it by prompting expectations. If what comes after is what was expected, we remain in a state of mind that is mostly unchanged. But if something unexpected happens, we are surprised, even disturbed, and must choose whether to adapt and change perspective or reject the story altogether. That experience of change, whatever its extent, becomes the story for us. For Burke, a work of art composes a sequence of these experiences. It's like music. Hear a dissonant chord or a harmonic progression that is incomplete; that's what anticipation sounds like, feels like. Burke once shared with a friend in a letter what "exquisite enjoyment" it was "to tantalize oneself with dissonances, and then resolve them" on the piano. That enjoyment was not in the resolution alone, but also in what its anticipation required of him. A mystery novel offers the same sort of enjoyment as it leads us through increments of uncertainty and discomfort to a new comprehension of the whole situation. It is what we learn as we move through it from the changes we make that gives the narrative its substance. It's not the answers at the end we enjoy so much as the changes we make along the way.
Changes are why musicians like to play jazz, and why audiences like to hear it played. Jazz is music of changes—certainly of the chord sequence, which gives direction and structure to a tune, and which musicians call "the changes." But it is also a music made of the changes of plan and expectation that follow from the improvisations it requires of those who play it, changes that provide those who listen with surprise and challenge. The face and posture of one who plays jazz show the stress and the joy of that kind of change, as the smiles shared by those who listen show that satisfaction can follow from an encounter with something new. These are individuals progressing in harmony: something encouraging to witness and to experience. Maybe that's why people are often still smiling after a good jazz performance ends, why strangers speak to each other about the music as they move toward the doors, extending the feeling of this music that has taught them something about getting along.
Constitutions, Explicit and Implied
"Getting along" is one way to describe what Aristotle designed his concept of rhetoric to help people do. In the Athens of his time, agreement was the currency of power shared among a ruling class—agreement that he thought ought to be established through disciplined, deliberative discussion. Aristotle did acknowledge other kinds of influence, though, like the profoundly rhetorical art of theater he described in his Poetics. But when we use the term "rhetoric" we don't often think about that. To most of us, "rhetoric" still means mostly the kind of influence that operates by direct and explicit proposition regarding what someone should believe and do. People who want others to agree with them, who want their cooperation, assumed in Aristotle's time and assume now that accomplishing that involves some sort of persuasive argument.
On his common-sense observation that getting along requires more than agreement alone, Kenneth Burke pronounced Aristotle's conception of rhetoric incomplete. Getting along requires people to find and even feel a connection with each other, to recognize something of themselves in each other. It is a felt sense of being bound together by some sort of commonality that opens us to the influence of others and to change. So Burke proposed a broad conception of rhetoric that includes direct persuasion but encompasses other communicative interaction as well. Change, after all, is what occurs when we communicate with each other. We can't help but come away comprehending things differently than we had, regardless of how small the change or its consequence. What changes is some element of one's sense of self—self in the sense of how one understands things, and with whom one is partnered in comprehending the world. That's what is rhetorical.
Burke's point about rhetoric is that to be persuaded we must be able to identify ourselves with the persuader, to recognize in that identification some commonality of beliefs, values, or purposes. Such recognition binds people together. We can enable that recognition in each other by what Burke called "deliberate design," but there are other ways, indirect and even, as he put it, "unconscious." We encounter those subtler prompts almost constantly and sometimes even seek them out, "earnestly yearn[ing]," as we tend to do, "to identify [ourselves] with one group or another" as compensation for the alienation we feel in the face of very "real differences or divisions." For Americans, doing just that is a matter of civic duty. That "the individual identity is formed by reference to his membership in a group," as Burke put it, is what their Constitution counts on.
Excerpted from Civic Jazz by Gregory Clark. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents7. So What? 6. How Jazz Works 5. What Jazz Does 4. Where Jazz Comes From 3. What Jazz Is 2. A Rhetorical Aesthetic of Jazz 1. Setting Up Foreword by Marcus Roberts Acknowledgments Contents Notes Bibliography Discography Index