- Jazz Internationalism: Literary Afro-Modernism and the Cultural Politics of Black Music by John Lowney
Much recent scholarship in global modernism has turned away from explaining the modernist credentials of this or that author from the literary “periphery” and toward explaining the dependence of modernism on the entire world system that produced a periphery in the first place. The idea is that no part can exist without the others; modernism is a function of the whole system of relations. John Lowney adopts a similar approach his latest book, Jazz Internationalism: Literary Afro-Modernism and the Cultural Politics of Black Music. The simplest way to summarize the book is Lowney’s comparatively modest claim that it “reconsiders the significance of jazz for Afro-modernist literature from the New Negro Renaissance through the radical social movements of the 1960s” (4); but en route, he tackles some of the thorniest problems in Afro-modernist and jazz studies today, not least of which is the precise relationship to the “internationalism” that modifies his central topic.
In a wide-ranging Introduction that could itself serve as a useful pedagogical tool, Lowney organizes existing scholarship on Afro-modernist internationalism into three broad groups: the “black Atlantic,” the Marxist, and the diasporic. He claims all three models as an influence on this book, and argues convincingly for their compatibility; ultimately, however, they serve as a foundation for his major claim: that jazz has played a major role in both the modernism and the internationalism under examination, whether as a practical medium of cultural exchange or as a more abstract intellectual and aesthetic model.
Lowney supplements this overview of the field with a close attention to detail in the historicist mode. This is probably most evident in the first chapter, on Claude McKay. Lowney observes that early reviewers of McKay’s novel Home to Harlem scarcely paid any attention to the fact that a major character is a Haitian immigrant—a trend that persists in critical work on McKay to this day. Lowney draws a parallel with the emergence of the U. S. occupation of Haiti as a cause célèbre for African American intellectuals and activists in the New Negro era, followed by its odd departure from the headlines, even as the occupation continued. These two erasures show the difficulty of attending to the complex, international nature of the African diaspora in the modernist era, and Lowney argues that this is precisely the problem that McKay tries to solve. McKay’s “radical black internationalist social vision” (57) restages primitivist conceptions of global African culture as both the “international vanguard” (37) behind modernist movements like Futurism and Impressionism and the antidote to the modern horrors of life in the Western world. Jazz plays a key role for McKay, not only as a form that can cross cultural and linguistic divides, but also as an intellectual model for a “harmonious mode of collectivity” (56), in opposition to its colonial roots.
This is a theme that recurs throughout Lowney’s book, including in the epilogue, which examines the Caribbean/French/American experiences of the characters in Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King. If participation in the jazz world enables these [End Page 337] characters to move to the Parisian metropole, it is the international nature of Afro-modernist culture that helps to make jazz what it is: the Caribbean (and European) influences on both the characters and the music (New Orleans is, after all, something like a Caribbean city, and imbued with French and Latin American musical traditions) are yet another reminder not just that Afro-modernism formed largely in the colonies, but also that modernism in general is contingent on the existence of colonies at all.
Lowney is at his best when he turns his attention to the specific forms of jazz and its literatures. He is a careful close reader with an expert eye for minute technical correspondence between literary and musical forms, whether discussing the “explosive imagery and fragmentary lines” (145) of Bob Kaufman’s Charlie...