- Civic Jazz by Gregory Clark
Civic Jazz asks us to expand our understanding of what it means to say that jazz is an American art form. While Clark is clearly a fan, with an intimate knowledge of jazz, its culture, and community, this book offers more than anecdote and description, which is so common in jazz studies. Rather, this well-crafted book extends and offers a theoretical basis to the idea, put forward by Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and most recently Barak Obama when speaking at the 2016 International Jazz Day Concert, that jazz expresses the American spirit. Clark finds his theoretical armature in Kenneth Burke’s blurring of the boundary between rhetoric and poetic. As Clark argues, Burke’s works articulate a rhetorical theory of aesthetics that is centered on the dispositional effects of form. Furthermore, and precisely because form is not restricted to the language arts, Burke’s rhetorical aesthetics are singularly appropriate to a study of the civic role of jazz.
Clark models his book on a jazz performance. The book offers neither a linear argument nor a dialectical movement from antitheses to synthesis. Rather, Clark weaves an account where theory, the rhetoric of jazz advocacy, and jazz performances themselves resonate harmoniously. Jazz becomes a representative anecdote for unpacking the details of Burke’s political aesthetics, even while this developing theory provides a means to understand jazz’s aesthetic workings and civic significance.
In “Setting Up,” his first and introductory chapter, Clark advances the thesis/theme that jazz calls forth an identity and a form of living that manifest e pluribus unum. He introduces Burke’s work, its cultural critique of America, and its call for a redemptive art of living. Aligning Burke with critics ranging from Walt Whitman to British literary theorist Terry Eagleton, Clark explains how Burke looked at America and how when he saw division, [End Page 119] turned to rhetoric and its capacity to overcome it by fostering identification through form. Clark then takes up the difficult task of extending rhetorical theory and criticism to jazz as a historically situated and significant art form and looks to jazz writers and musicians who describe such rhetorical processes in their music. Clark establishes his bona fides by citing broadly: he revisits Aristotle’s and Suzanne Langer’s reflections on music, gestures toward Ingrid Monson’s recent jazz musicology, and takes up the African American reflections on jazz of Ralph Ellison and Wynton Marsalis. These provide the means for him to develop the idea that jazz is constitutional and that its workings can be explained in terms of the rhetoric of form.
Each chapter returns to, explores, and augments this initial theme, much as each chorus of a well-crafted jazz solo extends and develops those musical ideas that have preceded it and just as Burke notoriously returned, revised, and augmented own his prior efforts. In his second chapter, “A Rhetorical Aesthetic of Jazz,” Clark doubles down on Burke. While Burke never wrote on jazz, Clark finds in his work the means to capture jazz’s civic function. Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives describes the aesthetic experience of identification as “swinging along with the form” (58). In Clark’s account, this link to jazz is more than fortuitous. Jazz was known as “swing” during its commercial heyday as America’s main popular dance music, a reference to its pulsing, danceable rhythm and its contagious attitude, intensity, and energy. Furthermore, Burke was a young man during the “jazz age,” and was aware of African American musical styles, having favorably reviewed both a 1928 concert by the African American Jubilee Hall Singers and the 1933 African American Broadway musical Run, Little Chillun! Burke also corresponded regularly with African American intellectuals, notably Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man and Albert Murray, Ellison’s friend and author of both Stompin’ the Blues and The Omni-Americans, canonical texts on jazz and race in America.
Clark considers “swinging along” to be an apt term to describe the activity of both musicians and audiences, who are guided by...