Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Courtney Pine is not necessarily a name that one would associate with the old comrades of the Socialist Workers Party. Jazz may be the sound of surprise, but finding one of our top saxophonists, an OBE and stalwart of BBC Radio 2, performing at a recent gig sponsored by the Socialist Worker newspaper, at Islington's Union Chapel, was unexpected, none the less.

Less of a shock was the fact that Gilad Atzmon, a fellow-saxophonist, was also on the programme for the Cultures of Resistance gig. An Israeli who prefers to be called a Palestinian, Atzmon doesn't shy from the political. "Jazz is a world view, an innovative form of resistance," he says. "For me to play jazz is to fight the BOB - Bush, Olmert and Blair - world order, and to fight US colonialism. It is to campaign for the liberation of my Palestinian and Iraqi brothers."

Not all would take so strong a view. Some, such as Wynton Marsalis, think that jazz limits itself - links itself too much to a specific moment - by having any involvement in politics. Others would point out that jazz has had no option but to concern itself with such matters from the days when Duke Ellington's orchestra played, at the insistence of the Cotton Club, to whites-only audiences. On his first visit to Harlem in 1935, the distinguished critic Leonard Feather made a point of not visiting the club for this very reason.

Race has, naturally, long been a point where jazz and protest meet. Many compositions have revolved around these struggles, from Freddie Hubbard's "The Core", dedicated to the Congress of Racial Equality, to Max Roach's "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite" and Hugh Masekela's electrifying "Stimela", an angry condemnation of the condition of mineworkers in South Africa. Still more obvious are works such as "Whitey on the Moon" by Gil Scott Heron, whom one might count as a spoken-word jazz artist.

The issue of race in jazz is one that continues to preoccupy theorists in America, primarily, now, in discussions over cultural ownership and authenticity. But in terms of being a "form of resistance", as Atzmon puts it, jazz's record stretches far wider. In Communist countries, jazz, being by its very nature ungovernable and unwilling to submit to the artistic dictates of the state, was often viewed with great suspicion. There's a wonderful Stalinist slogan that encapsulates its rebellious attitude: "Today he plays jazz. Tomorrow he betrays his country."

The Nazis banned jazz on the grounds that it was "decadent" music. Far from diminishing its power, however, they just strengthened it. In his book, Swing Under the Nazis, Mike Zwerin quotes the Polish author Leopold Tyrmand, talking 40 years after being subjected to forced labour during the Second World War: "Jazz ... became perhaps the best metaphor for liberty that any culture has ever come up with. It became the quintessential allegory for the pluralism of opportunities, within which anyone who knows how to use an instrument and contribute to a common sound can make a statement about what he believes is beautiful and true."

Jazz doesn't have to be an overt vehicle for views such as Tyrmand's, magnificent though they are. But jazz is, in its essence, the antithesis of regimentation, and is spiritually allied to anyone who rebels against illegitimate authority. It doesn't have to go as far as Atzmon. Neither is it under any obligation to support the SWP. But it should certainly be on the side of bolshiness, as I suspect Courtney Pine would agree.