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  Capitalism and Jazz  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

       November 2004:

       It is only in a free market economy that jazz can fully flourish.  In Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), the division of labor is held accounted for the economic, social and cultural prosperity that started during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.  Instead of being well rounded, individuals are encouraged by the capitalist mode of production to specialize in one task or sub-field.  This relates to jazz, for example, since record executives and producers from Verve used to tell Elvin Jones to go into the studio and “do his thing”.  Instead of playing every style of drumming from Kenny Clarke on forward, people were just interested in hearing Elvin’s specific sound (the patented triplet approach which he became famous for in Coltrane’s band).  This means that instrumentalists are encouraged to learn a certain style from a specific phase in jazz: today there are cats that play Dixieland and cats that play bebop.  You certainly don’t hear someone playing everything from ragtime to free jazz.  Each musician has there own field and that makes jazz better as a whole (a musician who masters only one certain style is better than a musician who just satisfactory plays many different styles, since there are plenty of fish in the sea who can specialize in every period that exists).  This is how capitalism’s division of labor carries over to artistic endeavors such as jazz.

       In Das Kapital (1867), Karl Marx writes about class based socioeconomic inequality that exists from the capitalist mode of production, distribution and consumption. It is this exact inequality that created the work songs of the African-American South, which are the foundation of jazz music.  The urbanization brought about by the Industrialization of the West contributed to wide spread poverty.  It was in these urban ghettos where jazz was being created by the likes of W.C. Handy (St. Louis Blues) and Charlie Parker (Kansas City Blues). These impoverished individuals were writing music history.  In fact, the only reason why Handy wrote the St. Louis Blues composition was because he was stranded by the Missouri River at sunrise with no money to get home.  If he would have had the money to get home, that musical piece would have never been written.  It was the social stratification of American capitalism that was responsible for the unique cultural statement of jazz.  Leroi Jones a.k.a. Amiri Baraka wrote in Dutchman that Charlie Parker was “mad” and ‘if he hadn’t had a saxophone to play he would go out and kill the first white people he saw’.  It was the poverty brought on by capital that had economically and socially segregated his people -- this was the contributing factor in his angst.  Fortunately he had enough money to put a saxophone in his hands instead of harming other individuals…he cried about the inequality and unjust treatment in his K.C. Blues.  He was just following in the footsteps of what other blacks had done in America's modern history, like Sidney Bichet in New Orleans earlier in the twentieth century. 

       Classical social theorist Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that we live an ascetic life since we work so hard to make excess money.  Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk lived a monastic life as well, only so he could produce excess art.  This production function carries over from the economy to the arts.  French social theorist Emile Durkheim wrote about The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and how economics relate to culture in modernity.  Jazz was indeed a creation of the capitalist spirit.  This art form is the result of the dynamic wealth creation model that the American economic system was founded upon.  We have the laissez faire system and the invisible hand to thank for all the hot jazz of yesterday and today.