Jazz and the Critical Potential of Heteronomous Expressive Form

Oluwafunmilayo Okiji

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This dissertation shows how the socio-musical interaction involved in jazz work relates to ideas of a progressive, more empathetic and communicative, form of social organisation. Ruling out the possibility of a rehabilitation of genuine human relations under late capitalism, critical theorist Theodor Adorno has argued that an alternative mode of social existence is prefigured in the way musical works of the Austro-German tradition are composed. The study shows that in jazz, the creative tension involved in the desire to make collaborative work while nurturing the particularities of each musician reveals a form of sociality in which human distinction is able to thrive within a collective. In response to both ‘traditionalist’ writers, who cast jazz as a music of individual freedom, and Adorno’s denial of the relevance of the African American experience to his jazz critique, the study presents a case for taking the ‘communal self’ that emerged as a consequence of chattel slavery as the most appropriate perspective from which to consider the music. From this standpoint, rather than the bourgeois concern with individuality and personal sovereignty, we find a desire to be recognised as a human being, and a desire for the recognition of African American alterity. This is shown to be crucial in understanding the concomitance of personal quest and collaboration in jazz. In light of this, the common portrayal of John Coltrane as apolitical and universalist is challenged. The saxophonist is presented as an exemplar of the African American ‘communal self’, for whom the universal and particular are not considered mutually exclusive. In particular, in its embodiment of seemingly contradictory positions – on one hand, fostering human distinction, and on the other, embracing community – jazz is shown to provide an important, though precarious, model of what Adorno calls ‘reconciliation'.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Bowie, Andrew, Supervisor
Award date1 Jul 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015

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