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This Here an’ Dat Dere

by William Bowles • Wednesday, 17 January, 2007

Cannonball AdderleyOne of my earliest musical influences was the great Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, whose music to this day still makes my hair stand on end. When I was a teenager, I was an avid devourer of Downbeat Magazine where I discovered a company in New York on Broadway somewhere called Music by Mail, where you could buy three albums for $10, which in those days was around £5 (hey, we’ve come full circle, that’s pretty much what ten bucks is worth today!), still a lot for a kid but when you consider a single album could cost more than that, especially the then much sought after Blue Note imports, I leapt at the chance and ordered my first three which were, ‘Them Dirty Blues’ by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Johnny Griffin’s ‘Big Soul Band’ and ‘Little Niles’ by the pianist Randy Weston, all on another legendary label, Riverside.

They say that people who like Jazz also like science fiction and have lefty politics (at least in the UK). Now whether this is true or not I have no idea but it was in my case. Years later, in a not unrelated context, I asked my friend and comrade Patricia why, ever since I was really young, like six or seven, I was fascinated by the Black people my folks knew (most of whom were comrades from the Caribbean, Africa or Asia) who would come by our small flat in Balham and sometimes babysit me.

The ‘oddballs’ circa early 1950s with my dad and mum centre front
The comrades

Patricia pointed out something so obvious that I’d never seen it, namely that what drew me to them was the fact that like them, I was different, even, to some degree, from my family and friends, let alone from the culture I was ‘embedded’ in. So different in fact, that in many ways I couldn’t relate to it except on a very superficial level.

This doesn’t explain however, the emotional and spiritual impact the music of Cannonball had on me, but then jazz is like that especially when distilled down to the pure artistry of Cannonball’s playing. There is no doubt some underlying quantum logic that explains Cannonball’s ability to produce phrasing of such purity, to distil the essence of the music down to eight, sixteen or thirty-two bars. It’s as if somewhere in his brain, there is some kind of process at work that strips out every single redundant note and he does it as he plays. There is simply nothing remotely like it in any other musical form.

On a formal level, jazz relies on tension and release, the dynamic interplay between rythmn and the progression of the notes played, whether it’s the melody or harmonies but like progressive politics or for that matter the ideas explored in the best of science fiction, they all operate ‘outside the box’, pushing the boundaries into areas as yet unexplored which inevitably meets resistance. And there is too, more than a romantic element to all three.

CannonballDoes this mean that lefties are by definition, outsiders, the exception to the rule? Are we forever condemned to be on the periphery of society along with Jazz musicians, science fiction writers and other ‘oddballs’?

I think not, as one generation’s outsiders and their ideas are the next’s orthodoxy even if not seen or accepted as such. Thus the revolutionary ideas of Marx and socialism for example, have been absorbed into the mainstream of thinking even if this is denied by the dominant culture and whether the ruling political class admit it or not, into the thinking and activities of the state and its political class.

The ‘neo-liberals’ for example, represent the desire of the capitalist class to ‘turn back the clock’ to a time before Marx, before socialism became a worldwide movement but in spite of all their efforts to do this they have failed miserably, resorting finally to the only thing they are any good at, the use of brute force and the overwhelming violence that only the state can command. And still, the ideas of Marx and revolutionary socialists not only are they still with us but the have arisen anew, in new locations and in new forms but true to their roots and to their global heritage.

What better proof do we have of how deeply embedded have socialist ideas become than the resurgence of the revolutionary impulse in Latin and Central America? And they have returned refreshed and reinforced by the lessons learned from the 20th century, a process that is by no means complete.

But what possible connection can there be between Cannonball and Revolution? Well actually there are lots of connections. Jazz, like revolution is a journey, one that is constantly evolving, responding to circumstances, absorbing all kinds of influences but without altering its central leit motif (but unfortunately something the left in West have failed miserably to do. We seem to be stuck along with our capitalist masters in trying to recapture the past).

Counterpose the process we on the global left have gone through with that of the capitalists and its protractors, a class that has moved (or tried to) inexorably backwards, forever trying to recapture a time when it was itself a revolutionary force.

We on the other hand at least—and this important, on the front line—even though we have suffered setback after setback, have nevertheless shown resiliency and ingenuity in the face of enormous odds. Constantly regrouping, licking our wounds and incorporating the successes as well as learning from the failures. Thus we do move forward, unevenly it is true and quite often unpredictably as the emergence of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ demonstrates.

Even the Cuban Revolution has survived and amazingly prospered, if somewhat battered and bruised after bearing the brunt of US imperialism for fifty years! And surely the enduring quality of the Cuban Revolution, truly ‘our’ revolution, that is to say, the people of my generation and later, points to the power we have, a power that even the most heavily armed nation the world has ever seen, has not been able to overcome.

The capitalist media, when faced with what was meant to be a spent force, uses a predictable tactic; it tries to identify the revolutionary movements of today with those of the past but it does it by equating today’s movements with the failures of the past. Hence in the UK, it talks of a return of the ‘hard left’ thus conjuring up images from the Britain of the 1970s and 80s. The demon of the Miners’ Strike is exhumed, led, we are told, by people who were bent on ‘destroying the British way of life’ which today is echoed by the ‘alien force’ amongst us, also bent on destroying the ‘British way of life’.

In Latin America, when describing Hugo Chavez, it describes him as a “protegé of Fidel Castro” (Independent, 11/1/07), as if somehow Chavez is no more than a puppet of Castro’s ‘evil designs’. When describing Daniel Ortega’s victory in Nicaragua, it talks about him as a “foe” of the United States, when in fact it’s the US government that is the enemy of the people of Nicaragua. Nicaragua didn’t declare war on the US either covertly or overtly, it was the US that invaded and destroyed the Sandinista Revolution. But note that the US used the excuse of the Sandinistas being a ‘protegé’ of the Soviet Union, just as US support for UNITA in Angola (along with Apartheid South Africa) was justified on the basis of the MPLA being a “proxy” for the Cubans, who were in turn, a “proxy” for the Soviet Union.

Nowhere in the capitalist media will it acknowledge the fact that when faced with the onslaught of international capital and its mercenary armies, countries resist and produce entirely local responses, borne out of the unique conditions that exist, for example in Venezuela or even in Iraq albeit without an apparent left component (though we are so ill-informed by the internal nature of the resistance that who is to say what, if any role the Iraqi left plays?.

Instead, resistance is always the result of some outside force just as it’s ‘al-Qu’eda’ that has fomented the ‘insurgency’ in Iraq for to admit that the revolutionary impulse is something intrinsic to all countries and all situations is to recognise that people can and do think for themselves. Only the rulers are allowed the ‘luxury’ of thinking for themselves

But thinking for yourself is dangerous, it labels you as a rebel if your thinking strays outside what the dominant culture views as acceptable. And as the current situation so ably demonstrates, what is acceptable shrinks with every passing day so that now, even thinking unacceptable thoughts is a punishable offence and will and does land you in jail. The full force of the state is brought to bear on anyone who ‘strays’ into areas that it considers dangerous to the status quo.

What this reveals is a state that is so insecure it has to abandon even the fiction of capitalist democracy. Yet, although the current situation is approaching the extreme, the basic premise still holds true namely being yourself, if it strays from the acceptable, is dangerous regardless, whether it's your sexuality or your musical tastes (look at how society has demonised hip-hop) never mind your politics.

Deviation is of course allowed but only within boundaries set by the dominant culture, especially if they challenge the values that are deemed to maintain the current status quo. Thus discourse for example, about the invasion and occupation of Iraq is confined within strict limits. It’s okay to name Tony Blair as ‘mistaken’ or ‘misguided’ (‘he meant well’ or ‘he acted out of the best of intentions’) but never a liar or worse still, a war criminal.

It should be apparent therefore, that those who challenge the status quo are almost inevitably labelled as ‘oddballs’, for to do so means being cast out of the mainstream of society, condemned to the outer realms, where the ‘non-conformists’ live. To be one’s self is the most difficult thing in the world to achieve and what they fear most, for once achieved it is impossible to destroy except physically.

To some, these may seem blindingly obvious observations to make but how many of us go through life never actually living our own lives but instead living lives dictated by others? Yet let us not be too quick to judge (as many on the left are unfortunately so quick to do) those who for whatever reason, acquiesce and choose the ‘easy’ way, life’s a struggle and we have control over so little of it and often what we do have control over is of little consequence.

But, and it’s a big but, there is no doubt that things are, as they say, coming to a head, the question remains whether in the coming period of chaos we are to remain either no more than onlookers or victims (the ‘winners’ will be few and far between and their winnings will for the most part, be pyrhhic in nature).


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