For years Robin D. G. Kelley has been one of the most well respected scholars of American History, especially within the interdisciplinary circles of American Studies. The publication in 2009 of his wonderful biography of Thelonious Monk helped to propel Kelley’s work to a broad audience outside of the academy, and we’re thrilled to have worked with him on a new book that builds on that study. In the excerpt below, and in the accompanying video, Kelley explains the meditation on modernity that he presents in Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, and how his work helps us to reconsider the origins of jazz itself.
By exploring the work, conversations, collaborations, and tensions between both African and African American musicians during the era of decolonization, I examine how modern Africa figured in reshaping jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s, how modern jazz figured in the formation of a modern African identity, and how various musical convergences and crossings shaped the political and cultural landscape on both continents. This book is not about the African roots of jazz, nor does it ask how American jazz musicians supported African liberation or “imagined” Africa. Rather, it is about transnational encounters between musicians, or what the ethnomusicologist Jason Stanyek calls “intercultural collaboration,” and encounters between musicians and particular locations (such as Lagos, Chicago, New York, or Cape Town). In other words, it hopes to explain how encounters with specific places, people, movements, cultures, provided fertile ground for new music and musical practices.
As a nod to the great critic and poet A. B. Spellman, whose Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966) serves as a model for this book, I focus on four artists and the various groups they led during the age of African decolonization (roughly 1954–1963). Two of these artists, pianist Randy Weston and bassist and oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, hail from the United States (or, more precisely, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn); drummer Guy Warren is Ghanaian; and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin is South African. Each of these artists was propelled by the upheavals of the 1950s to seek new musical forms, new collaborations, new fusions across time and space. They shared neither a common agenda nor a common culture, though they recognized and often embraced cultural commonalities, “jazz” being one. Nor did they always succeed. On the contrary, they occasionally clashed with fellow artists, or bumped up against prevailing assumptions, the intransigence of the market, an oppressive state that viewed their music as a threat to order, or consumers whose own stereotypes made them incapable of hearing and appreciating the work.
Yet they all shared a vision of jazz as a path to the future, a vehicle for both Africans and African Americans to articulate and realize their own distinctive modernity while critiquing its Western variant. And, from their vantage point, standing at what appeared to be the precipice of freedom for Africa and black America, the continent represented a beacon of modernity blazing a new path for the rest of the world, but one tempered by deeply spiritual, antimaterialist values. Indeed, I suggest that African American musicians were seeking new spiritual and ideological alternatives to what they saw as a declining West that led them to a deeper exploration of African music and culture. Likewise, African musicians who were drawn to jazz as a particular idiomatic expression of black modernity also saw the need to infuse it with the music of their homeland. Echoing the late poet Aimé Césaire, in the atomic age, when colonialism and the Holocaust left the West spiritually wanting, Africa represented both an ancient, pristine past possessing a higher spiritual order and a modernizing force able to maintain its humanity precisely because it presumably would not relinquish the best elements of its traditional values. This sort of Janus-faced modernism is key to understanding the nexus of jazz and Africa in the age of decolonization. As Veit Erlmann warns, we have to resist the easy binary of modernity and tradition, especially when the subject is music. “Modernity and tradition,” he writes, “are not only the two most significant historical fictions here but also the tropes whose role in the Western discourse about itself and the others is reflected and configured in the very grammar of musical performance itself.”