Listening for Heterophony

Book Review of Fumi Okiji, Jazz As Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018)

A key insight from Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” is what Andrew Benjamin has termed “iterative reworking.” A story is a “plural event,” each retelling both augmentative and constituted by it; the nature of the event is that “it will resist any possible complete self-presentation.” […] The retellings, the “working through,” cannot satisfy all that the story is but rather keeps open the work as a temporally dispersed happening. New versions of the story repeat what has already been given but do so in a way that retains each teller’s own perspectival and material quirks.

(Okiji 2018, 68)

Fumi Okiji’s book Jazz As Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited argues for a type of listening that shifts attention away from the internal logic of the jazz solo to the soloist’s dialogue with other interpretations of the melody—interpretations by other performers and by the same performer in the past. Such a heterophonic listening focuses on how the soloist participates in a tradition while at the same time presenting this tradition through a distinct set of experiences.

As an example of heterophonic listening, Jazz As Critique refers to Jaki Byard’s piano solo on “Fables of Faubus” from The Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy (Cornell 1964). Byard playfully alludes to “Yankee Doodle” (7:32), before transitioning to a blues motive (8:20) followed by a phrase from Chopin’s Funeral March (8:26). Bassist Charles Mingus takes up the blues motive (8:42) while Byard continues to solo in a contrasting modal style. The other musicians, including Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, begin playing the blues motive along with Mingus, eventually convincing Byard to join them. These simultaneous performances of the same melody, with subtle variations added by each performer, are an example of heterophony—though Okiji also refers to a type of heterophony dispersed across time and between generations of musicians.

Okiji quotes Vijay Iyer: “[The] story dwells not just in one solo at a time, but also in a single note, and equally in an entire lifetime of improvisations. In short, the story is revealed not as a simple linear narrative, but also as a fractured, exploded one” (8). Like Iyer, Okiji invites us to attend to the individual note and a lifetime of experiences. Like Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, the jazz soloist tells a familiar story, performing a familiar tune in a way that reflects his or her own musical abilities. The heterophonic listener concentrates on the tension between these two moments: participation in the community and the unique perspective of the individual performer.

Jazz As Critique enacts such a heterophonic listening. Okiji invites the reader to listen along with her as she engages with Theodor Adorno’s essays on jazz alongside texts by Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers, Nahum Chandler, and Saidiya Hartman. Despite the fact that Adorno wrote dismissively of jazz as a tool of the culture industry (more on that below), Okiji takes his philosophy along paths that even he could not foresee. Like Benjamin’s storyteller, Okiji recounts familiar narratives and debates, but does so in a way that illuminates these topics in profound new ways.

The introductory chapter outlines the book’s main claim—that jazz is “capable of contributing a model of praxis that shows a gathering constituted by the play, the wrestling and cooperation, of disparate parts” (6). Elsewhere Okiji refers to this model as an “empathetic mode of sociality,” one in which “the parties involved approach or adapt to each other in a manner that supports the retention of their particularities” (73). In other words, jazz serves as a code of conduct for social interaction that encourages mutual respect for one another’s differences.

This mutual respect for difference provides the groundwork for Okiji’s discussion of black expression and identity. She writes: “Blackness is a mode of existence in which the disjuncture between the reality of one’s everyday living and the ways one is understood by society at large is so pronounced that the former must be considered an impossibility or a lie in order to preserve the latter” (5). Black expression cannot help but communicate this disjuncture between lived experience and society’s oppressive imaginings of blackness. As a critical form of black expression, jazz combats these harmful imaginings and society’s silence vis-à-vis black experience.

Chapter One presents a cogent critique of Adorno’s essays “On Jazz” and “Perennial Fashion—Jazz,” which were published in 1936 and 1953, respectively. For Adorno, jazz is a commodity that by adhering to the laws of the market fails to achieve the critical distance necessary for creative autonomy. Okiji finds fault with Adorno for deliberately failing to take into account black experience in his writings on jazz. Okiji writes: “An African American perspective is not so much written into the periphery of Adorno’s narrative of modernity as placed outside it. It is safe to assume that Adorno considered the black experience wholly inconsequential to the narrative of the modern on which his culture critique rested” (24). Adorno excludes black experience from “bourgeois” subjectivity and his narrative of the demise of the individual in late capitalism.

Chapter Two elaborates on the concept of double consciousness, taking as its basis Nahum Chandler’s interpretation of what W.E.B. Du Bois refers to as the experience of “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (quoted in Okiji 2018, 32). Chapter Three reflects on the ineffability of blackness and the virtue of humility and becoming “susceptible to the music” (65). Chapter Four further develops the connection between the jazz soloist, Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, and heterophony. The Postscript contemplates the “inadequacy and indispensability” of jazz records. While being an invaluable pedagogical tool and an important source for documenting jazz history, jazz records only imperfectly capture the process of jazz performance—what Okiji refers to as the music’s “partiality, the imperfection and incompletion, the idea of a work in progress… [how the] musicians work on and through pieces made up of layer upon layer of prior contributions” (89).

Jazz As Critique ends with an outstanding example of heterophonic listening: the image of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man fulfilling his wish to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong performing “Black and Blue” all at once. In doing so, Okiji reiterates her point how heterophonic listening makes possible a type of empathy in which “a subject can show affinity with others… without the fear of domination or subsumption. There is a yielding by both parties, but an empathetic or even intimate distance foregrounds their relations” (73). A future study by Okiji might explore further types of black musical expression beyond jazz. Jazz As Critique serves as an invaluable resource for thinking about the types of listening and conversations that need to take place in order to confront today’s outstanding racial injustice and inequalities.