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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 165-182



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Saxophones and Smothered Rage
Bob Kaufman, Jazz and the Quest for Redemption

Amor Kohli


It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics. . . .

--James Baldwin

Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is this not work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

--W.E.B. Du Bois

Jack Kerouac once mused that Bob Kaufman's life was "written on mirrors with smoke" (Clay n.p.). While much of that smoke emanated from Kaufman's own mouth, his biography has also been somewhat haphazardly pieced together from various legends, hearsay, fading memories and book jacket blurbs. One need only trace the relatively spare (but growing) literary critical treatment of Kaufman and how his accounts of his ancestry have changed to recognize how tenuous the Bob Kaufman narrative is. 1 There has been a burgeoning critical attention to Kaufman in recent years coinciding with the reevaluative projects surrounding the Beat Generation, Black Arts Movement and the African-American left.

This essay enters the Kaufman conversation by taking as its focal point Bob Kaufman's poetic use of black music, primarily jazz. 2 First, I will discuss Bob Kaufman's racialized place in his historical and cultural milieu and then, through detailed readings of several poems, illustrate how that positioning affected the presence of jazz in Kaufman's poetry. Whereas many of his white contemporaries skimmed an ecstatic abandon off the surface of jazz, Kaufman recognized what we [End Page 165] might call a "revolutionary potential" in black music. At its core he located a deep and abiding sense of the sui generis hopes, desires, aspirations and rage of African-Americans. Kaufman rewrites W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness in the African-American context by recognizing a similar conflict in jazz. Jazz thus becomes for Kaufman a metaphor for the African-American experience: it is vitally and irrevocably African and American, while kept from being wholly one or the other--it is not African due to the diasporic ruptures of history; it is not American because of the racialized construction of America. For Kaufman, jazz addresses in its modes the socio-political paradoxes of black life in America and the paradox of the true relation of a black art to a white mainstream while leading the way to a new resolution.

Most readers of Kaufman would probably not dispute the thesis that jazz predominates his poetry. References to jazz crowd his poems, even when they are not explicitly about jazz or jazz personalities. Kaufman has been appreciably associated with jazz musicians ("Mingus loved him") and named his son, Parker, after the legendary saxophonist (Damon, Dark End 34). Much of the recuperative work recently centered around Kaufman rightly seeks to instantiate him in the jazz-poetry-Beat pantheon from which he has been excluded which consists of names such as Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Rexroth. However, in its zeal to present the significantly multi-faceted nature of the Kaufman corpus, this critical perspective often fails to underscore Kaufman's peculiar position as black and Beat. As a black poet in an overwhelmingly white subculture, Kaufman offered a view of jazz that is in danger of being occluded if he gets positioned uncritically in the category "Beat." This is not to say that the majority of criticism completely ignores his blackness, but rather champions Kaufman's potential as deconstructive signifier. If we ascribe too much voluntary racial fluidity to Kaufman, we run the risk of transhistoricizing his work...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 165-182
Launched on MUSE
2002-02-01
Open Access
No
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