Robin Kelly
by Robin D.G. Kelly
Harvard University Press 2012
Jazz, America’s own music, is a happy gift which African Americans have given to the whole world. We can be right proud of our musical present wrapped up in the rhythms of Africa that have now gone around the world, refashioned,and back again.
—-Langston Hughes,quoted in the Chicago Defender,1955

The October 19, 1962 issue of Time magazine ran an unsigned editorial titled “Crow Jim” admonishing a new generation of jazz musicians for embracing black nationalist politics. The essay described a coterie of “angry young men who are passionately involved in the rise of Negro nationalism. Jazz compositions these days bear titles like A Message from Kenya (Art Blakey), Uhuru Afrika (Randy Weston), Africa Speaks, America Answers (Guy Warren), Afro-American Sketches (Oliver Nelson), Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite—-We Insist includes tunes like ‘Tears for Johannesburg’ a lament for the Africans shot down in the Sharpville massacre.”
Most of these artists were not self-identified black nationalists, nor were they all “American Negroes.” One,Guy Warren, was from Ghana,and he was incensed over being thrown in with the lot. In a long unpublished letter to the editor, Warren made a point to distance himself from the other musicians and insisted that his album, Africa Speaks,America Answers,in no way shared the politics or aesthetic sensibilities of the artists included in the article. He took them to task for jumping on the “African Bandwagon” and credited himself with bringing African music to American jazz. He recalled how he had introduced African rhythms when no one was interested. Then “the miracle happened! Africa began to stir from her deep sleep,and to stretch out her strong hands. The Black giant was ready to take her place in world affairs … the flame of freedom began to burn through everything and anything that stood in its way … suddenly AFRICA BECAME THE THING! It became the gimmick in the trade, and every s.o.b. jumped on the wagon TO MAKE MONEY … So Max Roach,Art Blakey,and many other musicians started to play their so-called African music,and to give such aggressive titles to their music.” Warren dismissed all of this music as “racial and prejudicial,” “hollow,” and “meaningless.” And he was unequivical in declaring that “IT IS NOT AFRICAN MUSIC.”
An African drummer committed to fusing jazz and African rhythms,Warren had spent the previous seven years struggling for recognition and fighting to get his unique brand of music heard. By 1962, he found himself competing in an overcrowded field. And yet, there is no denying that Africa had become “THE THING.” It was the age of African independence, the Sharpville Massacre in South Africa, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s unprecedented stand against imperial power,Patrice Lumumba’s tragic assassination, the era of Bandung and the rise of the third world—-events and movements that profoundly shaped the politics and the music of the period. On the other side of the Atlantic, Africa’s descendants were embroiled in their own freedom struggle,from Montgomery to Memphis, Birmingham to Brooklyn. But even as U.S. struggles for racial justice and equality intensified,for many black activists and artists their vision of a liberated future included Africa. African nationalist leaders visited the United States and made pilgrimages to Harlem while African Americans formed liberation support committees and looked to the continent to blaze a more hopeful future for the diaspora.
Consequently, during the era of decolonization we witness an explosion of jazz recordings bearing African themes. Besides those already mentioned, the list includes Buddy Collette, “Tanganyika”; Sonny Rollins, “Airegin” (Nigeria spelled backwards) John Coltrane, “Liberia,” “Dakar,” “Dahomey Dance,” “Tanganyika Strut” and “Africa”; Max Roach,“Man From South Africa,” “All Africa,” and “Garvey’s Ghost”; Horace Parlan,“Home is Africa”; Lee Morgan,“Search for the New Land’and “Mr.Kenyatta”; Cannonball Adderly,“African Waltz,” to name but a few.
Although anti-colonial movements and a nostalgic conception of Africa as a lost homeland inspired musicians to compose paeans to the continent,identification with Africa was hardly universal among black leaders and artists during this period. The force of Cold War anticommunism and the ongoing quest for full citizenship compelled many prominent African Americans to close ranks with U.S. nationalists and distance themselves from Africa and the struggles of colonized people. Whether motivated by a genuine belief in the conceits of the American Empire’s democratizing project or a genuine fear of Cold War repression, a parade of black leaders bent over backward to prove their loyalty and membership in the American “family.” Roi Ottley,Walter White,Adam Clayton Powell,and many others praised the material abundance and liberties African Americans enjoyed and, while acknowledging inequities and the persistence of prejudice, argued that America at its best still offered a beacon of freedom against the tyranny of communism. When Adam Clayton Powell attended the historic meeting of nonaligned nations in Bandung,Indonesia (without support or sanction from his own government) he defended his country against allegations that the persistence of segregation rendered the United States a hypocritical freedom fighter at best. “Second class citizenship is on its way out,” Powell told his critics. “To be a Negro is no longer a stigma.” Powell had personal motives for painting such a rosy picture of race relations. Faced with the blacklisting of his wife, pianist and singer , Hazel Scott,for her alleged communist leanings,he felt compelled to establish his loyalist, anticommunist credentials. But Powell’s defense of the United States as a genuine racial democracy in the making cannot be dismissed as merely a cynical ploy. Powell was part of a chorus of voices promoting the idea of putting black progress on display through State Department—sponsored jazz tours. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Wilbur de Paris, and Louis Armstrong were designated “goodwill ambassadors,” leading racially integrated bands to the world’s “hot spots” in order to showcase American talent and mask racial turmoil at home.
Even black intellectuals and leaders independent of U.S. diplomatic institutions often chose to close ranks with fellow Americans rather than see themselves as a part of what Malcolm X* once called a “tidal wave of color” beating back global white supremacy. Indeed, in 1956 when Martinican critic Aime’ Ce’saire characterized racism in the United States as an extension of colonialism in a speech before the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris,several black Americans in attendance took issue. John A. Davis, a political scientist and founder of the American Society for African Culture (AMSAC) vehemently rejected the analogy, insisting that America itself has a long and distinguished anti-colonial history. James Ivy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) went even further, arguing that “the Negroes in the United States are the most quintessential of Americans,” having more in common with Europe than Africa. Even James Baldwin, a sharp critic of U.S. policy, dismissed the colonial analogy;he too, felt there was something exceptional about being an “American Negro” that resulted from living in a “free” country.
Cold War liberalism, alongside domestic struggles for racial justice and international movements for independence (both national sovereignty and nonalignment), profoundly shaped the political climate in which artists engaged both Africa and America. Most of the African American musicians discussed in this book pushed back against the notion of a unique black American identity,choosing instead to identify with Africa. They also embraced the metaphor of family, but their family was global, universal,and it knew no boundaries of place or race—although it did privilege Africa. For someone like Guy Warren,however,America was exceptional. First it was the heartland of the music he loved dearly,then a territory to conquer and revitalize with his African rhythms,and finally a place of corruption, commercialism, and crass exploitation—a crumbling, bankrupt empire whose black inhabitants proved too ignorant or self-absorbed to embrace the riches of African music and culture.
By exploring the work,conversations, collaborations,and tensions between both African and African American musicians during the era of decolonialization,I examine how modern Africa figured in reshaping jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s, how modern jazz figured in the formation of a modern African identity,and how various musical convergences and crossings shaped the political and cultural landscape on both continents. This book is not about the African roots of jazz,nor does it ask how American jazz musicians supported African liberation or “imagined” Africa. Rather,it is about transnational encounters between musicians,or what the ethnomusicologist Jason Stanyek calls “intercultural collaboration,” and encounters between musicians and particular locations (such as Lagos, Chicago, New York, or Cape Town). In other words,it hopes to explain how encounters with specific places,people, movements, cultures,provided fertile ground for new music and musical practices.
As a nod to the great critic and poet A.B. Spellman,whose Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966) serves as a model for this book,I focus on four artists and the various groups they led during the age of African decolonization (roughly 1954-1963). Two of these artists, pianist Randy Weston and bassist and oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, hail from the United States (or,more precisely,Bedford – Stuyvesant, Brooklyn) drummer Guy Warren is Ghanaian;and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin is South African. Each of these artists was propelled by the upheaval of the 1950s to seek new musical forms, new collaborations, new fusions across time and space. They shared neither a common agenda nor a common culture, though they recognized and often embraced cultural commonalities, “jazz” being one. Nor did they always succeed. On the contrary, they occasionally clashed with fellow artists, or bumped up against prevailing assumptions, the intransigence of the market, an oppressive state that viewed their music as a threat to order,or consumers whose own stereotypes made them incapable of hearing and appreciating the work.
Yet they all shared a vision of jazz as a path to the future,a vehicle for both Africans and African Americans to articulate and realize their own distinctive modernity while critiquing its Western variant. And,from their vantage point,standing at what appeared to be the precipice of freedom for Africa and black America, the continent represented a beacon of modernity blazing a new path for the rest of the world, but one tempered by deeply spiritual, anti-materialist values. Indeed, I suggest that African American musicians were seeking new spiritual and ideological alternatives to what they saw as a declining West that led them to a deeper exploration of African music and culture. Likewise, African musicians who were drawn to jazz as a particular idiomatic expression of black modernity also saw the need to infuse it with the music of their homeland. Echoing the late poet Aime’ Ce’saire, in the atomic age , when colonialism and the Holocaust left the West spiritually wanting,Africa represented both an ancient, pristine past possessing a higher spiritual order and a modernizing force able to maintain its humanity precisely because it presumably would not relinquish the best elements of its traditional values. This sort of Janus-faced modernism is key to understanding the nexus of jazz and Africa in the age of decolonization. As Veit Erlmann warns, we have to resist the easy binary of modernity and tradition, especially when the subject is music. “Modernity and tradition,” he writes, “are not only the two most significant historical fictions here but also the tropes whose role in the Western discourse about itself and the others is reflected and configured in the very grammar of musical performance itself.”
Although some of the artists in this book approached African musics and cultures as a window onto the past, a reclaiming of ancient identity, spirituality, and cultural practices, it was that very window that enabled these artists to hear new sounds, create new modes of music-making and envision a different future. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the musicians and composers included here—Africans and African Americans—mined Africa, as well as Asia and the Middle East, for sources of new ideas for experimental music. They were modernists in search of radically different elements in harmony (the use of modal music),rhythm,and timbre. African music (not just West African but North, South, and East African music) offered richer possibilities for “freeing” the music from the prevailing harmonic and rhythmic constrictions of swing and bebop.
But there were also limits. Artists consistently bumped up against the claims of authenticity. Critics, fans,record producers, even the musicians policed the boundaries between what they believed was “real” (in other words, traditional) African music and ‘real’ jazz. Self-proclaimed experts alike questioned whether African Americans were capable of mastering “traditional” drumming techniques, or if Africans could “swing” or play authentic jazz . Arab music aficionados questioned whether jazz musicians could play an Arabic scale, or maaqam, correctly. The hybrid and global character of the music generated many questions about its authenticity that mingled issues of race, class, and politics. Is homegrown jazz in South Africa authentically “African,” or is it merely an import foisted upon a people by the American Empire? Should we question the authenticity of popular music in West Africa, such as high life, because it draws on so many styles and genres throughout the African diaspora and Europe itself?
Ironically the very conditions that made these fusions possible and commercially viable—a brief commercial boom for all things African in the wake of decolonization—also constrained innovation and experimentation. The work of these artists appeared amid a flurry of recordings and performances of African music and dance, and other seemingly exotic commodities. Just as the British Invasion of the early 1960s profoundly shaped American music and style, the “African invasion” fueled a desire among Americans for the primitive, the unspoiled, the savage, even the sexually charged—images often radically different from the kind of music these artists sought to create.
The first chapter takes up the so-called “African invasion” by charting Guy Warren’s sojourn to America. It examines the swift incorporation of African rhythms in jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s,the group of drummers besides Warren, responsible for bringing African (as opposed to Afro-Cuban) drumming to jazz. At the heart of the matter is a story of authenticity –who can play “African” drums and who cannot. Warren not only combined West African drums and jazz, but composed music dedicated to collapsing the constricted boundaries of genre, style, culture, and nation. Unfortunately, the music industry found Warren’s persona and his music too innovative; he quickly slipped from the critics’ perview and was abandoned by record producers scrambling to find a more “authentic” African drummer.
Chapter 2 follows the musical, political, and spiritual journey of Randy Weston, the pianist-composer whose name is synonymous with bridging jazz and Africa. Weston’s fascination with Africa begins in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a rich Pan-African culture flourished even as Africa writhed under colonial domination. He set out on a personal quest to know the continent’s history and to study the accomplishments of his ancestors in order to counter the prevailing racist, colonialist stereotypes. He made history himself in 1960 when he composed Uhuru Afrika,a four-part suite dedicated to African independence. When he finally set foot on African soil expecting to find the traditional world he had read so much about, he discovered the vibrant, modern city of Lagos, Nigeria, and a group of African musicians deeply immersed in either modern jazz or fusions of music from the diaspora. Weston’s various African sojourns deepened his understanding of its culture,enriched his work as a composer,and sharpened his political commitment to liberatory politics both in the United States and abroad.
One of Weston’s best friends and collaborators was bassist,oudist,and composer Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the subject of Chapter 3. His life and work require that we shift our sights from the West African—U.S. nexus to North Africa and the Middle East and the black Islamic imaginary. A converted Ahmadiyya Muslim who claimed Sudanese ancestry, Abdul-Malik was unique in his efforts to fuse jazz and musics of Egypt,Sudan,Lebanon, Syria,and other parts of the Muslim world to create new music that is at the same time deeply spiritual and ancient, and deeply experimental and modern. The context is critical. On the one hand, we witness a political fascination with North Africa and the Middle East spurred by the Suez Canal crisis and the meteoric rise of Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser. On the other, the United States experienced a national obsession with the music of the Middle East, marketed and sold in the West as exotic and hypersexual, if not pornographic. Abdul-Malik’s experiments were in many ways a foil against the Middle Eastern craze and a celebration of the dignity and power Islam represented for the black world.
In Chapter 4, I examine the life and music of South African vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. Her story takes us to the final frontier in the struggle to overthrow formal white rule in South Africa. A brilliant jazz swinger deeply committed to Africa and to the jazz world, Benjamin has nevertheless experienced a sense of alienation from both. Like Guy Warren, she wasn’t “African” enough for the market or “Western” (American) enough to be considered among the pantheon of great jazz vocalists. And as a woman Benjamin has had to live in the shadow of her more famous husband, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and work in a field where gender bias is commonplace. But the limits imposed by gender and racial essentialism must be understood in the context of Benjamin’s own creative choices and the world that forged her musical and political imagination—namely apartheid South Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The diasporic, trans-Atlantic conversations of these artists were less about recovering an atavistic past than creating new music. Of course, their intentions were not to simply to create new music; they ran much deeper. In a crucial moment when freedom was perhaps the most important word circulating throughout the African diaspora, these black artists sought out each other to find new modes of expression that spoke to what they often understood as a linked struggle. They searched for new methods to express emotion, new avenues for spirituality, new ways to generate solidarity and connection.
Jazz is a music of innovation, experimentation, and new discoveries. It emerges often out of unexpected juxtapositions, even mistakes and miscommunication—what jazz critic A.B. Spellman calls “the Marvelous.” This constant discovery and illumination of the “marvelous” can help us move beyond the academic imperative to impose order—on movements, events, and even cultural and artistic developments. Nearly every musician who has ever talked about “breakthroughs” in their quest for freedom described chance encounters, moments of miscommunication, confusion,and mistakes as central to their process of discovery. In a practise that values not only improvisation but experimentation, this is bound to happen.
Obviously, we need to pay more attention to the way music is made, to how artists speak to one another across culture, language,and idiom. But we also need toi follow the musicians’ example and free ourselves from fixed notions of traditionand authenticity. African musicians did not exist to bring something ancient to African American modernism; rather, they were both creating modern music, drawing on the entire diaspora as well as the world, to do so. Indeed, perhaps with the growth of trans-Atlantic collaborations and dissemination of culture, we can no longer speak so confidently about jazz as an American art form, or render African jazz musicians outside the pale of the music’s history. And we certainly need to go beyond listening to non-American artists for ways they incorporate “their culture” into jazz—whether we’re talking about South African or Israeli jazz musicians. Jazz reveals that, even in the search for tradition, its chains do not always bind us, and the most powerful map of the new world is the imagination.


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