Jazz As Critique
Adorno and Black Expression Revisited
Fumi Okiji





Charles Mingus’s bandstand tirades are well documented.1 Met with audiences that were often inattentive to subtleties of the music, against whose “clanking glasses” and incessant chatter the “beautiful,” “soft,” and “silent” parts had no chance, Mingus took to smashing his bass, bullwhipping audience members, and orchestrating lengthy drum solos in protest.2 He offered the suggestion that, money aside, the jazz musician would find greater satisfaction “playing in parks and simple places.”3 A street corner, or a friend of a friend’s front room, maybe—venues not equipped to appropriate or monetize sociomusical relations; useless spots, in political, economic, and ideological terms. Squats, where the music could take root for a while, ingratiate itself to its listeners, become ingrained in the “household of the inhuman,” where it could stay put, and where it could lead astray—take you away from home.4 These are the places Mingus liked to play.

Mingus shows us—in fact, he embodies—the paradox of hypervisibility and mis- or nonrecognition. He exposes his audience as blind to black America and deaf to its music. The audience’s ears are “clogged-up,” keeping them from the “truths” that the music could tell—revelations, not only concerning black worldlessness but also exposing the contradictions that sustain the unfreedom of their own lives. On what was described as “one of those hellish, noise-filled nights,” Mingus tells those who will listen:

You haven’t been told before that you’re phonies. You’re here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular, the word jazz, and you like to associate yourself with this sort of thing. But it doesn’t make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around. You’re dilettantes of style. A blind man can go to an exhibition of Picasso and Kline and not even see their works. And comment behind dark glasses, Wow! They’re the swingingest painters ever, crazy! Well, so can you. You’ve got your dark glasses and clogged-up ears.

. . .

And the pitiful thing is that there are a few that do want to listen. And some of the musicians . . . we want to hear each other, what we have to say tonight, because we’ve learned the language. Some of us know it too well. Some of us know it only mechanically. But by listening to others who play it spiritually, soulfully, we can learn to speak a little less technically. . . . [Jazz] is another language, so much more wide in range and vivid, and warm and full and expressive of thoughts you are seldom able to convey.5

The scolding is a rude intrusion into the somnambulance of consumer culture nightlife.6 Mingus is challenging the audience to listen to, and speak of, the music in ways appropriate to it. He demands that the patrons see how ridiculous the situation is, comparing it to that of “an artist of rhetoric, with thinking faculties, performing for an audience devoid of concern for communication.”7 Mingus tells his audience of a gathering of musicians; he invites them to participate in the conversations that are being had and perhaps to learn to retell the stories they have heard. The reprimand turns out to be proselytization. This evangelistic strain in Mingus was by no means exceptional within the black-consciousness movements of the 1960s. Pianist and poet Cecil Taylor reports that he was “searching for a truth beyond the money principle—a truth that will make people treat each other like human beings.” He continues: “America needs what the Negro has for survival.” Likewise, saxophonist Archie Shepp shared the belief that “the Negro people . . . are the only hope of saving America, the political or the cultural America.”8 And, despite often being presented as a respite from this politically charged scene, John Coltrane’s contribution, while not as strident, is crucial to this chorus proposing a universal black ethics.9

What I find most interesting about attempts to position Coltrane as apolitical and “universalist rather than . . . black nationalist” is that we are confronted with a regulative understanding of black political praxis and concern. This understanding refutes the idea that black protest is of relevance beyond its cordoned-off area of racial particularity.10 Moreover, this is often accompanied by the implication that the music is held back because of its fidelity to black/African comportment, that it is redeemed (in part) by Eurocentric universalism, exemplified by Coltrane’s music and conduct. In light of the discussions that have preoccupied this book, it is telling that Coltrane’s embrace of the many and varied—his extreme “play” with musical material, his wish to play all the possibilities at once, his use of extramusical creative resources and commitment to sociomusical congregation—were considered contrary to African American concerns.11 Coltrane was steadfast in his belief that black music could effect a change of consciousness within society at large, claiming as his community the “whole face of the globe”—“What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all.”12 Black American “protest,” which might, much of the time, be better understood as ethical intervention, is often characterized as exclusionary but, in fact, points toward a universal—albeit a black one.

Notwithstanding Mingus’s frustration, it is fair to say that even through the “hellish” chatter of supper clubs, we hear the band. The commercial impositions of the club may make the music what it is not, but they also fail to access all that the music is. The audience will not listen “spiritually, soulfully”; it will not give itself over to what the ensemble wants to say, so the music slips away. Jazz is always poised to take leave of a situation in which its “language” cannot be heard or will not be listened to. The music retreats into ineffability, continually arriving at “a place named No-Such-Place.”13 The music is an intramural mobile squat—here, but elsewhere, too. Dwelling in mobility. It is always of “imminent departure” and “post-expectant” arrival.14 The ensemble is “never done / saying goodbye / once begun.” Mingus has what he desires, and he wants to share with us all.15

In an extended dialogue about the possibility and particularities of black social life, Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, and Frank Wilderson offer a collective reflection of ground-shaking consequence. Social death—or as Moten prefers, political death—is the state into which the modern black is born: without protection by the law—in fact, in receipt of gratuitous violence from it; subjected to the sabotage of any sense of originary home (which in the context of open hostility means the denial of any sense of home at all); in receipt of incessant reminders of one’s human worthlessness, on the one hand, and one’s commodity value, on the other. Black life recedes from view behind this infrastructure of social or political refusal, inhabiting “a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions.”16 Equality advocates tend to operate on the assumption that the antagonism between black life and antiblackness is a conflict between two unequal but mutually recognized players, comparable to the struggles against wage exploitation and gender and sexual discrimination. Minoritarian struggles are staged within the general social field, where, for each, there is a precarious path to (begrudgingly) extended liberties. According to Wilderson and Sexton, it is not only that there is no path to the comparable horizon for blackness but that the world is structurally dependent on there not being such a path and horizon. This is a fundamental difference between blackness and those (would-be) allies. At bottom, the problem of black life is not to do with social or economic disenfranchisement; it is not only due to unequal distribution of power and resource, but, more fundamentally, it is a consequence of a profound lack of relationality between itself and the world. As Wilderson tells it, “For the Black, freedom is an ontological, rather than experiential, question. There is no philosophically credible way to attach an experiential, a contingent, rider onto the notion of freedom when one considers the Black—such as freedom from gender or economic oppression, the kind of contingent riders rightfully placed on the non-Black when thinking freedom. Rather, the riders that one could place on Black freedom would be hyperbolic—though no less true—and ultimately untenable: freedom from the world, freedom from Humanity, freedom from everyone (including one’s Black self).”17

In this book’s introduction I touched on the idea that black folk cannot authentically appear in society at large. What we see of them is carnival mirror physiognomy—instantly recognizable, familiar and useful to the world, but disfigured beyond black self-recognition. Suffering and joy are disfigured in order to conform to sanctioned configurations—pornography and minstrelsy are but two centers of such engineering. The fact of black nonrelationality and, indeed, any possible extraterrestrial black life, is veiled by these mutilations. And in case I have not stated the point plainly enough, let me drive home the fact that—echoing Adorno’s chastisement of jazz fans who “clamor for ‘black jazz’ as a sort of brand-name,” who put purchase on “the skin of the black man . . . as much as a coloristic effect,” much like they might “the silver of the saxophone”—the modeling of authorized, world-appropriate “human” life for black bodies is a profitable, forever-in-demand pursuit and one that tends to the safekeeping of the hegemon.18 That which cannot be absorbed into ideologies of humanist aspiration and virtue can be used as (doctored) evidence to justify the interdiction on black life. Indeed, as far as this narrow conception of the human/world can see, these grotesque masks are black sociality. Sexton corrects this misunderstanding, writing, “Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.”19 And this black beyond is unthinkable for the world.

The details of variance among Moten, Sexton, and Wilderson—concerning, for instance, the redemption offered or treachery committed by black expressive work; whether black death is social or political; and differences in theoretical genealogy—should not obscure their overwhelming accord.20 All alert us to the fact that a world structured by the maxim “above all, don’t be black” cannot but help sanction the violence against that life.21 It is an inevitable consequence of a regulative drive that seeks to collapse black living into normative categories, conceptual straitjackets, as those living such lives look on, cognizant of this imaging but powerless to affect it. Crucially, for the argument being advanced in this chapter, there is agreement between Moten and Sexton, in an eschatologically utopian moment. Sexton offers, “The most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world,” to which Moten assents, with matching vigor: “blackness bears or is the potential to end the world.”22 Moten’s particular project, “49.99% critique and 50.01% celebration,” involves what might be understood as outer-space exploration. It is a reconnaissance mission charting possible ways to approach the unthinkable—that is to say, ways to know blackness or simply ways to blackness. It is a performance of appropriate conduct toward blackness, demonstration of the disposition needed to bring about cessation of the “socioecological disaster” of modernity.23 With long-time collaborator Stefano Harney, Moten tells us that resistance, a recurring “refusal of standing,” can only be participated in “if you wish to insert yourself . . . into black worldlessness. Our homelessness. Our selflessness. None of which are or can be ours.”24 They reveal blackness as a state that can be taken on by anyone willing to relinquish claims on the world.25 Indeed, for Moten blackness is but one name for critical, disjunctive living: “This openness, this dissonance, this residual informality, this refusal to coalesce, this differential resistance to enclosure, this sounded animateriality, this breaking vessel and broken flesh is poetry, one of whose other names, but not just one name among others, is blackness.”26 In echoing Nahum Chandler’s “generalizing” and “radicalizing” of Du Bois’s double consciousness to modern subject formation, the black universality of Moten’s ethics puts him in the company of Coltrane, Taylor, Baldwin, and Mingus. “Coltrane was a cosmic hobo,” Moten tells us, “so even if I could be something other than a cosmic hobo, I think what I’m gonna do is embrace homelessness for the possibilities that it bears, hard as that is, hard as they are.”27


1. The second half of this chapter’s title is taken from the eighteenth aphorism in Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (Verso: London, 2005), 38. It is the passage that contains what is perhaps the book’s most famous sentence: “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (39).

2. Diane Dorr-Dorynek, “Mingus . . . ,” in The Jazz Word, ed. Dom Cerulli, Burt Korall, and Mort L. Nasatir (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 17; Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 167; Mario Dunkel, Aesthetics of Resistance: Charles Mingus and the Civil Rights Movement (Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2012).

3. Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011), 334.

4. This is adapted from “household of humanity.” Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (London: Fontana, 1992), 100.

5. Mingus quoted in Dorr-Dorynek, “Mingus . . . ,” 16–18.

6. Ibid., 16. Within his improvised monologues Mingus presents insightful portrayals that call to mind Adorno’s “regressive listener.”

7. Mingus quoted in ibid., 18. This echoes the plea made by John Coltrane to critics: “Get all the understanding for what you’re speaking of that you can get.” John Coltrane quoted in Leonard L. Brown, “In His Own Words: Coltrane’s Responses to Critics,” in John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, ed. Leonard L. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

8. Cecil Taylor quoted in Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 200; Archie Shepp, “An Artist Speaks Bluntly,” Downbeat, Dec. 16, 1965, 42. This idea of bringing people to an understanding of blackness frames Shepp’s rejection of the bourgeois ideal of autonomy within a discourse that is broader than the “black anger” narrative. It also calls to mind Amiri Baraka’s “New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.” Amiri Baraka, Black Music: Essays by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) (New York: Akashic, 2010), 201.

9. See, e.g., Leonard L. Brown, ed., John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

10. Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? 197. Eric Porter is not alone in his interpretation of Coltrane’s “universalist” approach to music as being an affront to “those who wished to limit the meaning and function of this music to an African American context.” Mark Gridley argues similarly, and his research on the perceptions of anger appears to be motivated, to some extent, by a desire to cordon off an area free of social and political (read black) context. Mark Gridley, “Misconceptions of Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement,” College Music Symposium 47 (2007): 139–55. Aram Sinnreich also makes a virtue of Coltrane’s supposed apoliticism, writing, “Ironically, Coltrane’s self-oriented meditations succeeded where Mingus’s exhortative bluster had failed. Coltrane’s music, despite or because of its complete absence of explicit political messaging, became a touchstone for the new black consciousness, in America and around the world.” Aram Sinnreich, “All That Jazz Was: Remembering the Mainstream Avant-Garde,” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005): 568–69. The more essentialist elements of black nationalism have been well documented. Studies by Porter (What Is This Thing Called Jazz?), Ronald M. Radano (New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993]), and George Lewis (A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008]) are all excellent. As Porter has shown, musicians such as drummer Milford Graves, who is linked to The Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School set up by Baraka, did call for organized, collective action through a program of “intellectual, cultural, and economic self-reliance” (199).

11. “I’m trying so many things at one time. . . . I haven’t sorted them out.” “Interview with John Coltrane by Carl-Eric Lindgren,” Stockholm, March 21, 1960, YouTube video, 1:06, posted March 19, 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdBQbu5ADhw.

12. John Coltrane quoted in Brown, “In His Own Words,” 17; and John Coltrane quoted in “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Critics,” Downbeat, Dec. 4, 1962. There is a similar tone of black/jazz moral responsibility in Martin Luther King’s address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival: “Jazz is exported to the world. For in the specific struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man.” Martin Luther King Jr., “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival,” JazzTimes, Jan. 21, 2008, https://jazztimes.com/news/dr-martin-luther-king-Jr-s-address-to-the-1964-berlin-jazz-festival/.

13. Nathaniel Mackey, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 24,” in Whatsaid Serif (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998), 43.

14. Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem (New York: New Directions, 2006), 5; Nathaniel Mackey, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate (New York: New Directions, 2010). The formulation/phrase “post-expectant” is much used by Mackey.

15. Mackey, “Andoumboulouous Brush,” in Splay Anthem, 6.

16. Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Although Sexton often models the conversation as one between Moten and Wilderson, it is most usefully followed through the following essays: Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50, no. 2 (2008): 177–218; Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions 5 (2011): www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/jaredsexton.php; Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013): 737–80. These essays present a very focused strand of dialogue within a wider debate.

17. Wilderson, Red, White & Black, 24. Also: “I am arguing that whereas alienation is an essential grammar underpinning Human relationality, it is an important but ultimately inessential grammar when one attempts to think the structural interdiction against Black recognition and incorporation. In other words, alienation is a grammar underwriting all manner of relationality, whether narcissistic (egoic, empty speech) or liberated (full speech). But it is not a grammar that underwrites, much less explains, the absence of relationality” (ibid., 73).

18. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz,” trans. Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse 12, no. 1 (1989–90): 52, 53.

19. Sexton, “Social Life of Social Death,” par. 24. Listen to Sexton during the Q&A session at the end of his lecture “People-of-Color-Blindness” at the University of California, Berkeley. He recounts a gig at which Sonny Rollins’s microphone had stopped working. The organizers or technicians came onto the stage to fix the problem but were berated by the drummer, who made it clear that what was important was that the band members could hear each other. Jared Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: A Lecture by Jared Sexton,” YouTube video, 54:06, posted by UC Berkeley Events, Oct. 27, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNVMI3oiDaI.

20. Moten’s inclination toward “life and optimism over death and pessimism,” his desire that the contributions he makes weigh in at “49.99% critique and 50.01% celebration,” flags him as suspect within the framework of the Afro-pessimism project. Any appeal to consolatory expressive solace falls short of the required vigilance toward complicity. Leaning on the redemptive qualities of black expression as a way to soften the harsh reality of societal impotence only assists the “diffusion of terror”—black life being dispossessed even of its own enjoyment. The phrase “diffusion of terror” is from Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): “By defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle. What concerns me here is the diffusion of terror and the violence perpetrated under the rubric of pleasure, paternalism, and property” (4). See also Saidiya V. Hartman, “The Position of the Unthought,” interview by Frank B. Wilderson III, Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183–201.

21. See Lewis R. Gordon, Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997): “Now, recall my point about the two dominant principles of racist ideology: (1) be white, but above all, (2) don’t be black. We can call the first the principle of white supremacy; and we can call the second the principle of black inferiority” (63).

22. Jared Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” Lateral 1 (2012), par. 17, https://circuitdebater.wikispaces.com/file/view/ante-anti-blackness-+afterthoughts.pdf;Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness,” 739.

23. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Poetry,” Evening Will Come, no. 55 (2015): sec. 1, par. 1, www.thevolta.org/ewc55-fmoten-p1.html.

24. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Michael Brown,” boundary 2 42, no. 4 (2015): 83.

25. See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 154. See also Fred Moten’s “consent not to be a single being,” a short reflection published on the Poetry Foundation’s website that gives a little more background and definitional depth to this recurring Motenian theme. It speaks to my discussions in Chapter 1 concerning blackness as emblematic of the unavailability and unviability of individualism in this late modern. Fred Moten, “To Consent Not to Be a Single Being,” www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/02/to-consent-not-to-be-a-single-being.

26. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Poetry,” sec. 2, par. 1.

27. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 140.