Gerald Horne’s Jazz and Justice is an illuminating history of the material conditions of African-American Jazz musicians in its classic decades, finds Martin Hall

Gerald Horne, Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music (Monthly Review Press 2019), 456pp.

As jazz in its post-ragtime form hits one hundred, though of course its birth and age are disputed, Gerald Horne’s history is prescient. Taking the form of a narrative of exploitation, oppression, and the specific form of gangsterism which existed in the USA roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s, the book analyses forensically the material conditions of African-American jazz musicians during this period, with some thought given to the contemporary situation towards the volume’s conclusion.

While the topic is certainly not new, it is the case that there is a gap in the scholarship which this book fills. Horne uses a huge amount of primary and secondary sources and interweaves these mostly oral accounts with an analysis that understands the relationship of oppression to exploitation, as gangster capitalism exploited the structural apartheid of US society during the period in question.

The chapters are loosely chronological and take the reader from the world of Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory through to that of the Marsalis family, with the common thread being New Orleans, often cited as the birthplace of the music. What this comprises is an anatomy of resistance; at every stage, despite Jim Crow, gangsters and extreme violence, jazz developed and bloomed.

Horne takes us through that development via an exhaustive amount of research, with a particular focus on oral histories. This makes sense, given the fact that so much of the history of the music was not documented via primary written stories. However, it does make for a tiring read at times, and there is the sense on occasion that Horne is only just keeping narrative control over the flurry of anecdotal material and assorted mini-histories.

Music and political economy

Horne is to be commended for trying to offer the reader a ‘political economy of the music’. It is debatable whether this entirely succeeds, but it is the case that the material attempts to document the production and distribution of the music (and musicians, frequently) and their relations with the law, government and society. This returns us to the sheer number of oral histories and the difficulty of controlling them while maintaining the focus that Horne offers.

The struggle, difficulties and iniquities of being jazz musicians in the twentieth century took many forms: the constant non-payment or underpayment of musicians; the criminal enterprises that provided the environment in which the music was performed and recorded; the fight to unionise; the theft of arrangement and melodies; all within a culture of attempting to claim jazz was a white invention, pithily represented by the so-called ‘king of jazz’, Paul Whiteman, who was white. Indeed, one of the driving forces behind bebop and the move to an improvisational, small-group format as the main form of the music in the 1940s was to create a form with unusual harmonic devices that the majority of white musicians couldn’t play, in spaces that they wouldn’t attend, such as Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Revolt was at its centre: Horne cites Langston Hughes’ assertion that the word ‘bebop’ came from the 1943 revolt in Harlem, ‘symbolizing in onomatopoeia the sound made by police clubs on Negro heads’ (p.96).

From its inception, jazz was part of the illegal or quasi-legal underworld: bordellos; gambling; protection schemes; and effectively indentured contracts. Jazz entered the public consciousness around the same time as prohibition began with the enactment of the Volstead Act to carry out the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920.i This period also saw the rise of gangsterism fuelled by the sale of illegal alcohol. Many of the well-known figures of that era got involved with jazz in various ways: for example, legendary gambler, bootlegger and gangster Arnold Rothstein co-funded Shuffle Along, a musical which brought pianist Eubie Blake to people’s attention in 1921 (p.56). Others ran speakeasies, clubs and record companies.

Exploitation and racial hierarchies

Horne is not averse to pointing out the specificities of the ethno-religious background of the white entrepreneurs who exploited black musicians; most of them were Italian-American, Irish-American or Jewish. Of course, the reason why the forms of capitalist exploitation that elements of those communities entered into tended to be the semi-legal or illegal ones is itself a product of the doors that were shut by WASP America to white ethnicities considered inferior in this period. The book abounds with stories of appalling contracts, terrible pay, and in general, daylight robbery. This meant that many of the pioneers of the music – Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, and others – ended up working as bell boys, dishwashers, delivery drivers, and so on.

The exploitation suffered by the musicians on occasion drove some towards some very contradictory positions. Horne tells the story of composer and violinist Will Marion Cook demanding a boycott of Louis Armstrong in a speech, due to his ties to ‘the Jews of Hollywood’. Cook had studied in Berlin and had taken on far-right views, an example, as Horne argues, of ‘Negroes whose outlook had been so warped by the United States that they turned to outright fascism’ (p.68). Such can be the effect of living under an oppressive apartheid regime.

Musicians and trade unions

Of particular interest is the struggle to unionise, of course one still being fought by the multiracial working class in the US today, as Amazon’s attempt to prevent workers in Alabama organising illustrates. Horne elucidates in the book’s final paragraph:

‘the overall climate in the United States in the early twenty-first century – a surging white supremacy, an unleashed capitalist class, a weakened labor movement – indicated that despite victories, the path ahead would continue to be rocky indeed’ (p.339).

Right from the start of jazz, musicians attempted to organise collectively to improve wages and working conditions. Not surprisingly, the existing unions were separated on colour lines, reflecting the society in which they existed, with significantly fewer locals for black musicians. In 1943, when Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) contacted James Petrillo, leader of the American Federation of Musicians, 32 out of 673 locals were designated for black musicians, with eight of the remaining 641 admitting African-Americans via a second-class membership. Only New York and Detroit offered full membership (pp.24-5).

As the campaign to end Jim Crow intensified, there was a move towards merging. Unfortunately, as Horne outlines, this tended to mean black locals being swallowed up whole by their larger white counterparts, with an attendant loss of leadership positions and headquarters. This then benefitted separatist organisations like the Nation of Islam and generally weakened the bargaining power of jazz musicians. Overall, this period saw the weakening of unions in the US, which of course affected musicians as much as any other section of the working class (p.25).

Unions could also, through protectionist measures, have a negative effect on the careers of black jazz musicians. For example, the Musicians’ Union in the UK made it difficult for musicians to play there. Moreover, US unions were sometimes mob-run, with officials close to exploitative band leaders, who sometimes were black capitalists and exploiters. Lionel Hampton, the renowned vibraphonist and sometime member of the Benny Goodman Quartet, one of the first integrated bands, was notorious for paying appalling wages to his musicians who found that complaining to the union was no use; Hampton was close to Joe Glaser, who ran Associated Booking Corporation, who, according to flugelhornist, Art Farmer, would then have a word with Petrillo to ensure nothing got done (p.203). As well as making clear that black capitalists were exploiters as well, Horne also outlines the ways in which white musicians and producers like Dave Brubeck and Norman Granz attempted to play their part in the fight against such practices.

Working independently

If they got nowhere with wages, artists often considered developing their own publishing companies to try to get some control over what happened to their compositions. Hard bop saxophonist Gigi Gryce was one of the first of the younger musicians to go down this road when he started Melotone Music in 1955. However, as Horne reports, this was too much for the ‘class – and race-skewed status quo’ (p.178): threats were made, and Gryce became paranoid and frightened for his family, leading him to spend more time in France (as did many musicians), which had more of a congenial atmosphere.

Why were publishing rights such an issue? Because of the long-standing habit of publishers and promoters of insisting their names went on compositions. The most famous example discussed by Horne is Irving Mills’ relationship with Duke Ellington, the greatest composer in jazz. Many of Ellington’s most famous songs – such as ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ – are co-credited to Mills, enriching him, and as Horne points out, his descendants to this day (p.63). These songs are standards that have been recorded on multiple occasions, with royalties paid each time. The experience of this period – and Ellington’s was in no way unique – encouraged Ellington to start Tempo Music, one of the first black-owned publishing companies.

The sheer difficulties of trying to work within the system led some musicians to take more radical stances, both in terms of organising and within their music. Charles Mingus and Max Roach collaborated to form Debut Records in 1952, in another attempt to control their destinies and mitigate the more egregious aspects of the business. Prior to its formation, in an attempt to find out how many records he’d sold Mingus would buy $1000 of his own records, only to notice that this would not appear in his royalties (p.180). Unfortunately, Debut ran into its own problems, specifically with distribution, with one company in Boston refusing to pay for what it had received; the situation led one jazz fan to opine that ‘there is a great deal of interest in Debut Records. The only catch is, of course, that there is no place to buy them’ (p.181). Of course, the struggle to maintain control found voice in some of the most radical records of the modern era, such as Roach’s ‘We Insist!’ and Mingus’s ‘Fables of Faubus’, a protest against Orval Faubus, segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Contemporary questions

One omission from the book is a level of focus on the contemporary era comparable to that given to the 1920s-1960s; yes, that is the genre’s glory years. However, as Thomas Carmichael argues:

‘it is a moment that is entirely caught up with the political economy of the music, particularly, as Horne himself notes, when we consider the vast transformations that digitalization has effected over the last two decades.’

This is strange given Horne’s interest in the relationship of technological leaps to the music within its political economy and in radical politics. It’s certainly the case that jazz musicians in both the US and UK are centring blackness in their compositions in the context of Black Lives Matter. Of course, Horne’s book predates the growth in the movement that came after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but given the rise of musicians like Kamasi Washington and the role of jazz (or jazz-infused) musicians like Terrace Martin and Thundercat in Kendrick Lamarr’s BLM anthem, ‘Alright’, it does feel like an omission.

Furthermore, the post-Coltrane generation of politically and formally radical musicians like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, Sonny Murray and the Art Ensemble of Chicago either get short sections here and there, or in the case of the latter, are completely ignored. The Art Ensemble was formed from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a co-operative formed in 1965 to nurture and push musicians who wanted to create music outside of the limits of the regular business, many of whom had long careers: for example, Lester Bowie; Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. As well as being the cornerstone of these careers, in 1969 the AACM set up a programme to teach music to inner city youths.

Kirk’s formation of the Jazz and People’s Movement (JPM) – specifically the 1970 interruption by Kirk and sixty other musicians of the Merv Griffin Show on CBS (p.22) – is discussed, but it feels like there was more to be said. Shepp’s relationship with the Black Panther Party (BPP) does get a mention; specifically, his time spent with the exiled Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria in 1969 and his embracing of anti-imperialist politics. Similarly, Dexter Gordon going on a picket line with Bobby Seale is also recorded in the same section (p.262). The book is good on the rise of post-war Black Nationalism and its effect on the music, but there’s nothing on the rise of pan-Africanism in the 1960s, and little on musicians embracing Islam.

Of course, not everything can be covered, and Horne does cover a lot. Moreover, he does make a convincing argument for the supremacy of specific forms of exploitation as the driving factor in the genre’s history. The oral histories are fascinating, pervasive and compelling. Importantly, the book serves as a counterpoint to attempts to suggest that the Civil Rights era swept away the racism faced by black jazz musicians.

In addition, the book is a history written by a university professor that avoids the trap of academicising the music. For many years now, the understandable attempt to discuss jazz as a form of African-American classical music, or at least to give it its dues and put it on a par with the European tradition, has also played a part in its relative removal from the listening habits of those who formed it: working-class black Americans. Of course, the post-1968 rise (though its roots are earlier) of forms of cultural criticism that seek to give efficacy to popular culture in all its forms has been a positive development overall; a form of struggle itself against both high-culture snobbery from the right and to a degree mass-culture criticism from the left.ii What Horne gives us is a readable, nuanced and politically sharp account of specific sets of social relations at given periods in the music’s history. He does it with aplomb, in the main, though as suggested above, the sheer wealth of material, and the many sub-narratives, do on occasion work against the book’s main focus.



i Horne begins the book with a discussion of the origins of the music: the competing claims of New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis, Memphis and the state of Mississippi; the first recorded use of the word ‘jazz’ in 1913, and so on. However, it remains the case that the growth of the music coincides with the early 1920s.

ii Somewhat ironically, though certainly knowingly, towards the end of the book (p.337), Horne cites Theodor Adorno, one of the major figures from the Marxist tradition who claimed that jazz was simply a part of the culture industry, which he argued played a role in the continued facilitation of capitalism. What he quotes is Adorno on the individual artist seeking emancipation in an ‘enchained society’. It is doubtful whether Adorno would have considered any of the musicians discussed as artists, though.

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