2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

Eric Hobsbawm and All That Jazz

By Joe Brien

When one thinks of Eric Hobsbawm, which words first spring to mind? Marxism, modernity, magnificence perhaps?… Jazz?! Surely not. 

Well, we all have our pastimes, and this was his.

Under the pseudonym Francis Newton- taken in honour of Billie Holiday’s trumpeter- Hobsbawm penned his thoughts on the genre in the New Statesman and his book, The Jazz Scene. He began in 1956, that famous year of crisis for international communism after the USSR repressed Hungary. Many supporters were driven away from the Communist Party in Britain. Hobsbawm, however, settled for exploring a passion that contemporary Marxists deplored. 

The post-war world saw the communist intelligentsia direct its offensive against America as the primary propagators of global capitalism. It spoke of their popular culture with venom, arguing that its glorification of materialism and sex corrupted minds into capitalist tendencies. 

Jazz, as a sound that found root in the U.S., didn’t stand a chance. A precedent set by the Frankfurt School saw it grouped within a compound of genres that were smeared as washed-up products of big business. They believed that the thirst for profit drove the creation of “popular music” within rigid, proven formats, which resulted in a handsome profit for shareholders but also songs that appealed to little beyond our cheapest desires.

If you’ve ever heard of the four chords of pop, think upon those lines. 

Hobsbawm had no objections to the skeleton of this argument; chapter ten of The Jazz Scene saw him describe the music industry as ‘truly appalling’ for its cyclic adoption and abandonment of genres, which disfigured each sound in the process. Rather, his protest was centred on jazz’s placement as an accomplice of America’s commercialisation project, which he sought to redefine to be seen as its victim. 

Naturally, he chose its history to do this. Hobsbawm took great care in tracing jazz’s origin to its specific role as a form of folk for the African-American working class. This showed its true essence as a sound that encapsulated the lived experiences of those oppressed through both race and class. Not a glossed-up amalgamation of nothing, but music that told tales of wretched love, despair at work, and the trials and tribulations of being a black person in America. 

Hobsbawm detailed how one generation after the next would hear what was made before them and improvise changes to make it better suited to contemporary mood. The spontaneity that this encouraged gave jazz a particular magic as a medium for human expression; he tells that the intensity felt when thinking on the spot amongst others brought forth ideas that one could not conjure alone. 

Thus, jazz listeners were treated to a sound that enveloped them into the histories of African-American people. Hobsbawm predicted that this process politicised its audience in a manner that pulled them towards the left. Not to a revolutionary extent, but to that of non-pertinent resistance. They would form beliefs that conflicted with the current state of affairs and use jazz to vent these without actually challenging the status quo. This meant the genre failed to meet the demands of Marxism, which sought to overturn the existing high culture. Nonetheless, Hobsbawm left no doubt that jazz was on the outside looking in America, much like its creators. Its social rank superseded national origin as a reflection of its identity and, so, jazz warranted a place beside English folk, whose revival many Marxists had vested their hopes. 

However, this fails to explain jazz’s dominance during the swing era of the 1930s and the age in which Hobsbawm was writing, when Bebop had captivated popular attention. How could a genre so deeply rooted in the exploited classes regularly take centre stage in the American music industry?

To this, Hobsbawm emphasised on the context in which jazz had existed: it was inevitable to happen ‘in the environment of modern urban and industrial civilization.’. The quickly dehydrating music industry had to look outside of itself for new material that could be commercialised. Picking up from chapter ten of The Jazz Scene, this forced jazz into the spotlight for a time as a means to keep the cycle alive, in a form that he calls ‘academic etiolation.’ 

In this tone, Hobsbawm describes the reign of Bebop as a ‘revolt[s] directed against the public’- who upheld the culture as its consumers- and against ‘the submergence of the player in standardized floods of commercial noise’- a blunt attack against the mutated strains that were being churned out by big business. Musicians like Miles Davis, therefore, were leaders of an effort to keep jazz where it belonged, at the heart of African-American culture.  

Despite this, Hobsbawm’s defence of jazz is ultimately a pessimistic one. Sure, it is an ally of orthodox Marxism, but it is on the losing side. American commercialisation had consolidated itself at the head of an increasingly globalised world. 

Nevertheless, within these clouds of grief, there is a relentless passion to be found that adores the genre’s fierce presentation of a poor black person’s experience in America. This is what should be remembered from the writings of Francis Newton. He reminded readers that Jazz had a principal role in enabling audiences ‘to become familiar with elements in the black tradition which a purely commercial revolution in taste would simply not.’

And, here, Jazz’s value cannot be disputed.