Goodness gracious time is FLYING. How I am going to not just read but also become an expert on 200+ academic sources for this exam is beyond me. Seven weeks to go…

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Kevin Gaines
(photo credit here)

Today I’m writing about artistic othering in jazz music. My focus is a chapter by Kevin Gaines, W.E.B. Du Bois professor of Africana Studies and History at Cornell University, from the book Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (O’Meally et al 2004). Gaines’ chapter is entitled “Artistic Othering in Black Diaspora Musics: Preliminary Thoughts on Time, Culture, and Politics.” His chapter is sixteen years old yet still relevant.

The purpose of Gaines’ chapter is to explore the relationship between cultural practice and historical consciousness in jazz music. In other words, rhythm and history; the connection between what jazz artists play and the history and memories linked to that playing. By this definition, jazz music is art intended for universal(?) consumption that also acts as political commentary rebelling against systems of racial oppression; an “artistic act of othering.”

The artistic act of othering

The Archive's Poetry Salon, November 2014 | Nathaniel ...
Nathaniel Mackey
(photo credit here)

Coined by literary scholar-poet Nathaniel Mackey, this term transforms “other” from a noun/adjective into a verb – something people do.1 It is a response to social othering. In Mackey’s words, “artistic othering has to do with innovation, invention, and change, upon which cultural health and diversity depend and thrive. Social othering has to do with power, exclusion, and privilege, the centralizing of a norm against which otherness is measured, meted out, marginalized” (Mackey 1992:51). Social othering creates an “us vs. them” mentality while artistic othering says “Okay, groups are marginalized and excluded in mainstream society, let’s highlight their culture and history through artistic endeavors.”

Artistic othering is a response to social othering and disempowerment within the music industry, an antidote to “the oppressive commodification and objectification of African Americans within a U.S. society shaped by institutionalized racism” (Gaines 2004:205). Artistic othering is rebellion; it’s a way for Black artists to express cultural identity through music without adhering to the norms and expectations of a system established by dominant, white culture.

Gaines defines artistic othering in two ways:
1. As an “affirmative othering,” a dialogue that takes places between black artists and audiences and creates a “musically-enacted community.” (208)
2. As a form of othering that provides refuge from the white world for Black artists and audiences, offering creative spaces where white-enacted boundaries can’t reach.

Artistic Othering in Practice

Gaines explores the careers of Black diaspora musicians2 to unpack the idea of artistic othering, demonstrating how Black artists’ music practices “oppose racist attempts to circumscribe black bodies and beings.” (206) A few examples are described below and, as Gaines notes, “the musicians discussed here are just a few of numerous possible examples…they embody the apparent tension between music as universal expression and as historically situated practice that, in its aesthetics and performance, claims and constitutes an autonomous refusal of the dynamics of racial domination.” (206)

1. The Birth of Bebop

What brought about the emergence of bebop in 1940s New York City? My understanding of jazz history allows me to provide a few answers:
-Musicians were tired of the structured arrangements of big band music, designed for swing dancers over individual musical expression.
-After playing swing gigs, musicians met after hours at clubs like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem (where bebop is said to have been born) to hone their individual skills and try things musically that they couldn’t in big bands.
-WWII drafts meant that there were less musicians to play with, leading to smaller combos than the typical swing band needed.

 Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Hill at Minton’s Playhouse, New York, September 1947
(photo credit here)
Dizzy Gillespie on Spotify
Dizzy Gillespie
(photo credit here)

Those are some of the reasons for bebop’s formation, but Gaines encourages a more critical examination. Who were the pioneers of bebop? Although not all, the majority were African Americans: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Max Roach, etc. Why? As we’ll see later in this blog, big bands were some of the more racially inclusive spaces of the 1920s and 1930s (with exceptions, of course), but Black musicians still experienced some exclusion. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman had Black artists in their bands and/or hired them as arrangers, but they were rarely bandleaders (with exceptions), didn’t fully profit from arrangements and compositions they wrote, and often played for all-white audiences (again, with exceptions). Having Black musicians in a band could also complicate a band’s ability to procure gigs. I don’t remember the source, but a book I once read described the experience of an entire swing band sleeping in a bus because the hotel they were staying at wouldn’t allow their African American band member – I think it was Melba Liston? – entry. There are many instances of clubs, hotels, etc. not letting a group enter with a Black band member. For musicians making a living through gigs, what to do? Cancel the gig? Play without that band member? Avoid hiring Black musicians when possible? Gaines also references Dizzy Gillespie, who freelanced as a big band arranger for white bandleaders but was rarely hired. As bandleader Woody Herman confessed, “he would have loved to have hired Gillespie in his band if he weren’t so dark.” (211)

Experiences like this give new perspective to the late night jam sessions of the 1940s that led to bebop’s formation. Jam sessions were spaces of shared cultural values and mutual encouragement where (mostly) Black artists could express themselves musically without adhering to norms and expectations of white-established society. Thus, the birth of bebop is politically charged; it is a form of artistic othering responding to social othering of the time.

Let’s go, Revolution: Jazz poet Langston Hughes ...
Langston Hughes
(photo credit here)

Langston Hughes had his own politically charged explanation of the birth of bebop, shared by his character Jesse B. Simple:

“Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club say, ‘BOP! BOP! . . . BE-BOP! . . . MOP! . . . BOP!’
That Negro hollers, ‘Ooool-ya-koo! Ou-o-o!’
Old cop just keeps on, ‘MOP! MOP! . . . BE-BOP! MOP!’ That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it. . . . That’s why so many white folks don’t dig Bop,” said Simple. “White folks do not get their heads beat just for being white. But me–a cop is liable to grab me almost any time and beat my head–just for being colored.
In some part of this American country as soon as the polices see me, they say, ‘Boy, what are you doing in this neighborhood?’
I say, ‘coming from work, sir.’ . . .
Then I have to go into my whole pedigree because I am a black man in a white neighborhood. And if my answers do not satisfy them, BOP! MOP! . . . BE-BOP! . . . If they do not hit me, they have already hurt my soul. A dark man shall see dark days. Bop comes out of them dark days.”

Langston Hughes, “Bop,” in Abraham Chapman, ed., Black Voices: An Anthology of
Afro-American Literature (New York: New American Library, 1968), pp. 104–5.

2. Space Is The Place

Jazz musician, composer, and bandleader Sun Ra (1914-1993), born Herman Poole Blount (nicknamed “Sonny”) in Birmingham, AL, insisted that he came to Earth by way of Saturn. In his lyrics and in statements throughout his later life, Sun Ra described outer space as a realm of freedom. When asked about his lyrics, Sun Ra replied:

It’s all about space. . . . I didn’t find being black in America a very pleasant experience, but I had to have something, and where was that something? It was being creative. Something that nobody owned but us….Now I [have] a treasure house of music that no one has…..I have music from the creator which is more valuable than anything.

Taken from a 1987 interview with Sun Ra conducted by Phil Schaap, rebroadcast in March 1993 on 89.9 mhz, WKCR-FM, New York.

Sun Ra experienced segregation, racism, and poverty throughout his life, first while growing up in the Jim Crow South and later while living and working in Chicago and Philadelphia. In 1952 he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, claiming that Blount was a slave name. As a black man he was socially othered regularly, and he responded by recording over 100 full-length albums, producing one of the largest discographies in music history, and becoming one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism.

One example of Sun Ra’s artistic othering is his musical collective, The Arkestra (which still exists today). Established in the mid-1950s, The Arkestra features musicians and dancers dressed in elaborate costumes inspired by ancient Egypt and the “Space Age.” In addition to the content of his music, Ra’s costumes allowed him and his band to demonstrate black nationalism visually as a counter-narrative to mainstream American culture.

The Sun Ra Arkestra
(photo credit here)

As stated earlier, despite some exclusion, big bands were valuable spaces for cultural aspiration and freedom for Black musicians. Sun Ra agreed, citing the culture of big bands as “the nearest temporal approximation of the utopian possibilities of outer space” (Gaines 2004: 216). At a time when procuring employment was difficult for Black Americans, big bands simultaneously offered income, expression of cultural heritage, and “collective ideals and aspirations to dignity, organization, and power” (ibid). It is no surprise then, that the Arkestra was formed as and remains a big band rather than a smaller combo. As Gaines writes, “the band was not unlike a church for its members, and Sun Ra was no less than a spiritual leader for his musicians, who lived and rehearsed with total commitment
in a communal situation.” Further, the focus on space is important: “Outer space functioned symbolically as a pastoral refuge from the dangers of urban poverty and alienation facing African American migrants from the South” (ibid).


I’ll end this blog post here because, frankly, I just spent half a day writing it and still need to study other sources. This concept of artistic othering is one that I will keep in mind as I learn about the music of other Black artists. I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that all the music discussed in my last blog post on Shana Redmond’s book are also examples of artistic othering. One question I am left with: Can artistic othering only be accomplished by members of a socially othered group? If a white musician plays politically charged Black jazz music knowing the history and cultural memory that it carries, can that performance also function as artistic othering? I don’t think I need to know the answer for my exam, but just something to think about. Thanks for reading!

1 Mackey credits this noun-to-verb othering concept to Amiri Baraka, who transforms the word “swing” to describe white appropriation of black musical innovation in his book Blues People. He also mentions Zora Neale Hurston who, thirty years earlier, was a pioneering practitioner of “resistant othering” in black vernacular culture.

2 Gaines uses this term because “to call them African American would obscure the broader, black diaspora identities they claimed for themselves” (206). He uses a lowercase b, but as of June 2020 “Black” as an identity is now written with a capital B, recognized by the Associated Press.

  1. This was great. Really liked the pictures too! 🙂

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