Tag Archive for Really the Blues

Bernard Wolfe On Avant-Garde Jazz

bernard wolfe limbo coverBernard who? Bernard Wolfe is the co-writer of Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir Really the Blues (referenced in Ka-ching’s discussion of the reactionary false binaries of jazz/classical and improvisation/”rote performance”), but that is just one of Wolfe’s several claims to what is now mostly out-of-print fame. In addition to having briefly been secretary to Trotsky in Mexico—talk about heavy left-wing credentials!—Wolfe was a novelist of some repute whose legacy includes the acclaimed Limbo, an intriguingly overwrought Freudian sci-fi phantasmagoria set—maybe a century too early, it will likely seem to a contemporary reader—in a post-World War III 1990. The war, you see, in this wildly over-the-top riff on the Cold War and the arms race, was so devastating, a young men’s mass movement developed in which guys would voluntarily have all their limbs amputated as an assurance of future peace, some replacing their losses with atomic-powered super-prosthetics (that are of course eventually used for war), and others, the really sincere ones, choosing, quite incredibly, to lie limbless as helpless adult babies. Never mind the Byzantine plot, however; I’m not looking to sort out Wolfe’s vision of future shock here but rather to note his anticipation of free jazz, perhaps in the manner of Ed Bland, made all the more piquant by Wolfe’s implicit rejection of his colleague (or client) Mezzrow’s moldy figism.

In one of his frequent flights of philosophical fancy in Limbo, Wolfe muses, on behalf of his protagonist, on the nature of time, music, and the conformity of contemporary life: “Music, the art whose medium was time itself, often expressed the pathos of this dictatorship by time, through moods of resignation (metronomic regularity) or revolt (syncopation).” This smacks of the standard jazzocratic assault on classical music, the dictatorship of the conductortariat and so on, straight out of Really the Blues and countless other such screeds, and Wolfe goes on to tie it into puritanical notions of “lofty spirit” and “lowly flesh,” adding, “Calvin had begun to preach his metronomic morality only when Geneva had become a city of watchmakers,” but then he makes what strikes me as an abrupt U-turn:

Wasn’t jazz, too, part of this time-saddled picture? In its syncopated play with time, what was jazz but a toying with the idea of disrupting schedule and smashing the metronome—a toying, a nihilistic charade, but never the complete breakthrough? The trumpets and clarinets kept promising to desert the thumping four-four rhythm section and fly off anarchically into timeless, chaotic, unmetronomic space: that was the thrill in improvisation. But the promise was never fulfilled . . . Jazz, with its abrupt orgasmic spasms and its split-second frenzies, was nothing but emotional verticality transmuted into sound, and what seemed like joy in it was really anguish. The soloist made a pretense of evading the clock-ridden musical community in a brief blast of willful subjectivity—then sank back again into the harmonic and rhythmic traps of the community.
[. . .] And so: skyscraper equates with jazz equates with mountain equates with metronome equates with metronomic instincts: Eros punching the time clock.

Limbo was published in 1952, but Wolfe is projecting a world some four decades hence—a world that for some reason had not developed a music sans time clock, though if it had, as it in fact did in the “real” world not long after Wolfe was fashioning his dystopia, Eros would have been love-punching its way to the complete breakthrough of emotional horizontality that he was apparently seeking in sound. (If Wolfe, who died in 1985, ever wrote anything about free jazz, I have yet to come across it.)

As for that Trotsky tie-in, it yielded what may be Wolfe’s greatest novel, The Great Prince Died, a fictionalized account of Trotsky’s last days (Wolfe had left Mexico before the ax fell on his boss). “Anyone who wants a quiet life should not have been born in the twentieth century,” said Trotsky, and though he apparently wasn’t referring to music, the quote has been used to great effect in a study of Jazz Age New York City that probably even Mezz Mezzrow could get behind.