The racial issue in Adorno's critique of jazz

Francis Picabia


Theodor W. Adorno diagnosed how jazz integrated black people into society through stereotypes and racist representations

On the first day of the year it was published on the website the earth is round, the article “Theodor Adorno and jazz” by Celso Frederico, which dealt with the “Adornian implication” in relation to this music. Unfortunately, the text is full of misunderstandings that echo an extensive myriad of authors who see in Adorno's critique of jazz elements of elitism, prejudice and theoretical dogmatism.[I], as if Adorno had a priori judged that music as something reprehensible from a moral point of view, since he “preferred” the new music of Schoenberg and his disciples.[ii]

However, such positions cannot be sustained if we focus on what Frederico seems to have forgotten to take into account, namely, the type of jazz with which Theodor Adorno came into contact when he wrote his texts on the subject. In this sense, I believe that the way in which the racial issue is formulated within Adorno's analysis of jazz offers us a good counterpoint, even if indirect, to the issues posed by Frederico. That said, I do not propose here a detailed reply, but a different interpretation that takes into account aspects that were ignored there.

In general, we could say that Adorno characterized jazz throughout his writings as the clearest example of a process of colonization of the commodity form in the cultural sphere, as an expression of that fetishism described by Karl Marx. Although it emerged on the fringes of the entertainment industry and among black and poor populations in the United States, jazz was quickly transformed into commercial music par excellence, undergoing profound changes in its musical material and its audience.

Heralded by the cultural industry throughout the 1920s onwards as modern, democratic and stripped-down music, jazz also carried with it, however, a contradiction noticed by Adorno from the beginning, namely, the image of a style at the same time wild and modern, authentic and unprecedented. Although quite different from that music that emerged at the beginning of the century, commercial jazz claimed for itself the symbols of that origin, which had become, in the hands of the major record companies, a kind of idealized romanticization of the past, a fable of its black origin (Negerfabel). Reproduced as authentic and disruptive music because it came from the poorest and therefore “untouched” corners of the country, those elements foreign to the European aesthetic that jazz carried with it were mischaracterized and transformed into fetishes that could be used commercially.

In short, the black origin of this music was confessed at the same time that the elements of that phase of its production were eliminated. At the same time, the social role that jazz occupied among black people was expropriated by the great monopolies of culture, which, in order to impose the seal of success on their music, integrated black people in a prejudiced way.

This phenomenon, which we will call the stereotype-integration dialectic here, was widely noticed by Adorno, although it is left aside by most of the literature. As a contradictory phenomenon, this type of integration of blacks into society – both North American and European – allowed, in an unprecedented way, that an important cultural expression originating from such a group obtained wide repercussions beyond previously established racial barriers, with the rise of black artists, musicians and composers. However, we seek here to emphasize how such integration took place through prejudiced representations that brought with them much of the racist ideology in vogue in those societies, in the same way that it covered up the fact that what was conveyed as jazz had very little relation to its origins.

During the Weimar Republic, the context in which Theodor Adorno wrote his first analyzes of this music, jazz was constituted as a type of commercial music, focused on dance, without many rhythmic, harmonic and melodic innovations. Its entry into the country took place shortly after the end of the First World War, when the first jazz bands, mostly composed of white European musicians, began to perform throughout the country.[iii]. During this period, few American jazz bands set foot on German soil, due to the isolation in which the country found itself in view of the ongoing economic blockades.

Therefore, unlike the rest of Europe, where hot music (the more musically complex jazz) found greater reception, German jazz became increasingly endogenous, making references to its black origin a reproduction of racial stereotypes already present in that European culture[iv]. In addition to limiting themselves to more traditional musical material, without rhythmic outbursts and more attached to a literal reproduction of the score, the musical formation of the German bands was also very dependent on concert music, ragtime, waltzes and the military band.[v]

Even with the gradual improvement of the country's economic condition from the second half of the 1920s onwards and Weimar's enthusiasm for American society, a symbol of progress, the stigmatizing rule in the face of black references in North American jazz continued to trace the physiognomy of that song. German record companies and publishers continued to impose restrictions on the North American phonographic market, which kept a good part of their music alien to styles closer to the tradition of hot music. In this context, government restrictions on the importation, sale and circulation of works by African-American artists were in force, in a clear policy of racial segregation that sought to safeguard the German market from the predominance of black artists. The music accepted and commercialized by the country came in large part from a circuit of New York publishers known as Tin Pan Alley, where the trend of orchestral jazz, white and musically uncomplex, was hegemonic.

Therefore, although German society was enthusiastic about the modernity represented by the USA, there was selectivity in such a posture, since it would remain reticent in relation to the black elements of that culture. When they entered the country, traces of jazz's black origin were necessarily transformed into fetishes and racial stereotypes. It was common for some newspapers at the time, for example, to identify in the black element of jazz a sexual and racial morality harmful to “superior German culture”.[vi]

Thus, the entertainment industry relegated black artists to a secondary role, appealing to exotic images of their behavior through shows and films with actors resorting, for example, to the blackface. It can be seen here that the dilemma was to praise the United States and jazz at the same time in which its black content was fetishized. Blacks were welcome, but only as caricatures.

From this brief historical reconstruction, we understand that Theodor Adorno was facing a cultural scene that had not only emptied jazz of its original musical elements, but also redefined this music in terms of its social physiognomy. In the United States, something similar would happen from the late 1930s onwards, when jazz was transformed into a “national treasure”, occupying the airwaves, ballrooms and Hollywood soundtracks.

When Celso Frederico states, for example, that “since the end of the 1930s, no jazz song has appeared on the list of greatest hits”, he makes a historic mistake – which can be demonstrated by any list of the most listened to artists and songs in the country. throughout the 1930s and 1940s[vii]. On the other hand, in the German scene, with which Adorno was in contact, the transformation of jazz into commercial and successful music occurred a decade earlier, as explained above. However, in both contexts, a stereotypical integration of the black origins of jazz was observed, which were quickly subjected to a romanticization that praised blacks in what they would have as exotic, wild and authentic. According to Adorno, the black elements present at the origin of jazz, which at first “revealed a certain spontaneity”, were gradually accommodated to the system and “were softened with the growing commercialization and with the expansion of the public”.[viii]

In 1927, for example, we have a good example of how this occurred. That year, the city of Frankfurt organized the festival Music in the Life of Nations, with several presentations that had the intention of covering the music of different peoples[ix]. Adorno accompanied several concerts and presentations that were offered throughout the event. Among them, attended the show La Revue Nègre: Black People, directed by dancer Louis Douglas[X]. The performance featured the famous dancer Josephine Baker, in addition to the participation of clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the band Chocolate Kiddies[xi]. The show was accompanied by the narration of a text that offered the audience stories of African “little cannibal women”, represented by dancers dressed in loincloths and nose piercings. In some of the presentations, Baker wore a kind of “banana skirt”, which reinforced the climate of glorifying the primitive and the eccentric as that “noble savage of Rousseau”.

Adorno wrote briefly about what he saw and heard. According to the author, although the show promised to broadly show the public all the diversity of African-American culture, the presentations were quite reductionist, which homogenized any pretense of exposing elements of cultural plurality. The author points to picturesque and eccentric traits contained in the show, which lent themselves to make the presentation more attractive to the general public, in a strategy that invested in the fascination with the exotic that the wild represented. The author goes so far as to cite as elements of this exoticism a “pair of girls full of gold teeth.”[xii]

Although highlighting such picturesque elements that offered entertainment, Adorno notes how the show moved away from stereotypes only in a brief moment, namely, when it addressed the harsh reality of the origins of jazz by showing “the sadness of a poor suburban cabaret”[xiii] and the band that played their dance music on it. However, the author notes that even the “devastating sadness” represented in this scene ended up reproducing the image according to which the poor, through their music and taken by a kind of “immeasurable primitive force”, did not allow themselves to be shaken by anything and they kept moving forward. By reaffirming the image of those who suffer as strong, resilient individuals who “endure anything”, the show integrated black culture into European stages by neutralizing any critical potential. In the author's words, The Revue Nègre offered for reflection “the behavior of an audience fascinated by the supposedly negroid primitive force, which finds it there where it no longer exists at all”[xiv].

Through this critique, Theodor Adorno took another step forward in his understanding of how the black origin of jazz, when transformed into that “fable of origin”, made use of folklore and eccentric images that reduced black culture, its bodies, ideas and music to an index of primitive that would have found a place in modernity. By identifying in the past of a specific and marginalized social group an instance of music's pure legitimacy, jazz glued an “authentically popular” essence to its commercial image.

However, as we saw earlier, the music that circulated under the jazz label in this period could not be further from its origins. Adorno insisted on revealing such a distance, emphasizing that what was left of those origins was tragically restricted at the level of discourse and commercial label. Faced with that scene, Adorno would claim that “what jazz has to do with genuine black music is highly questionable”, and the fact that “many blacks practice it and that the public demands the merchandise of black jazz says little”[xv].

Being reduced to a fetish, Adorno demonstrates how the black element of jazz was expelled from music and gave way to formal elements “completely abstractly pre-formatted by the capitalist demand for their interchangeability”[xvi]. By means of such assertions, the author finally shows how jazz transformed its tradition into a “mercantile article”, which not only belittled the real origins of the style, but also reiterated quite harmful stereotypes about this social group. For him, the commodity form assumed by jazz conveyed an image that distorted the history of struggle and suffering of that people. Taking it as another facet of colonial imperialism[xvii], Adorno points out how the stereotypical integration of blacks into society through jazz was based on the same segregationist and racist bases as those policies that organized the world economy, while at the same time revealing the destructive potential of the cultural industry in dislodging particular cultures from their original contexts – the opposite of Frederico's assertion, according to which “the diverse musics of the world, their diversities and their own characteristics are, thus, solemnly discarded in this restricted and, shall we say, prejudiced interpretation [by Adorno]”.

In reality, what the Frankfurtian does through the analysis of jazz is to notice how such original characteristics are deprived of their meaning when they are integrated by the totalizing system of culture under capitalism. Born as a musical practice of marginalized groups and later raised to the category of commercial music, jazz was handed over to external laws determined by the market, emptying its music of the autonomy it could carry.

In this sense, Frederico rightly comments that “the Adornian implication with jazz has as a backdrop the criticism of its mercantile character. It is from there that jazz is opposed to 'serious' art. If this is an endless end, existing by itself and for itself; jazz, on the other hand, exists for something else, like exchange value”.

The stereotypic-integration dialectic was also evident in the influence that jazz had on German opera, since several composers began to insert in their works not only musical elements related to this musical tradition, but also thematically incorporated symbols and characters that alluded to the U.S. However, what was jazzy about these works often mirrored those same stereotypes about black people.

The jazz opera most illustrative of this was jonny spielt auf (1927) by Ernst Krenek. The work brought several elements that made reference to jazz, however, it is worth focusing here on its title character. In the story, Jonny is an African-American musician who arrives in Germany bringing with him his passion for jazz. Symbol of praise for American culture, the character was already known in Weimar culture. Since the beginning of the century, similar figures of African-American musicians were already circulating in the country, eager to play their new and exotic music in the old continent.[xviii]. Generally speaking, Jonny was described as ignorant, eccentric in his manners and sexually uninhibited.

Although representative of a culture considered modern, Jonny personified the curious look of the white colonizer in front of black bodies, in a mixture of fascination and fear when glimpsing the exotic. For Adorno, this jazz opera represented a moment of weakness in Krenek's work, as the composer would have been engulfed by tendencies to "romanticize the American essence"[xx]. No wonder, years later Jonny would be taken by the Nazis as a symbol of the black and “degenerate” presence in German culture.

Adorno also analyzed how the entertainment industry built around jazz a sexually uninhibited, libertarian and erotically permissive image, to which the public turned in order to fulfill, even if incompletely and unconsciously, their sexual desires. For the author, such elements were explicit in the shows with the exhibition of half-naked dancers, in the advertisements published in magazines, in the sexual content of many of the songs and in the dance styles that were successful.[xx].

Through different means, jazz promised to deliver full and continuous sexual satisfaction to the public, although in reality it was only able to offer immediate and transient sexual release. From this perspective, this music also expressed the classist nature of the mutilated sexuality of the groups that consumed it. Ascetically withdrawn into a morality that condemned the erotic, jazz served the bourgeoisie and the middle classes as an unconscious substitute that gave vent to their entire repressed sexual sphere. From a psychological point of view, “the dance became a means of sexual satisfaction, while respecting the ideal of virginity”.[xxx]

The predominance of the erotic dimension in jazz practice was also related to the sexual fetishization of black bodies, under which the stereotype of promiscuous sexuality hovered. Although sexual disinhibition was reprehensible and viewed abjectly by bourgeois society, it surreptitiously generated fascination and curiosity about the psychological makeup of the public when transposed to black bodies. Consuming a song that enunciated a form of free sexuality, listeners were left to envy it in its interiority. Based on the fascination it proclaimed with regard to the supposedly wild sexuality of blacks, jazz positioned itself as progressive music in terms of customs, while in reality it ended up reproducing the old racial and class domination in the sexual exploitation of such bodies.

Like all other fetishes promoted by jazz, its alleged eccentricity also created a successful strategy quite adapted to the undemanding, infantilized and mutilated subjectivity of the public, which saw in everything that allegedly escaped bourgeois social norms an object worthy of excessive consumption. . For Adorno, the appeal to the eccentric occurred in different spheres.

Psychologically, it was linked to that same desire to fulfill repressed desires, through images and stimuli that became attractive due to their singularity, strangeness and exoticism. In the social dimension, the intense nightlife in revue theaters and balls was rich in offering the public eccentric elements in its sets, costumes, song lyrics and dances, in a caricatured staging of blacks and their practices.

Used for commercial purposes, such strategies aimed to insert an exotic dimension amid the “functional regularity and rhythm of bourgeois life”, giving the eccentric a prominent place that allowed the industry to maximize its profits and please its public. However, another facet of the prejudice constantly reiterated by jazz was at work, in which the other is parodied to the point of becoming the object of laughter and mockery par excellence. In the exercise of its ideologically oriented function, the cultural industry necessarily transformed all novelty into the norm, black origin into a primitivist myth, the community character into collective ecstasy and, finally, musical peculiarities into propagandistic exoticism. In short, jazz took for itself the reflection of a society that started to face the weakness of the individual as a virtue.

Hit hard by the US stock market crash of 1929, the Weimar Republic saw its brief economic prosperity quickly wane,[xxiii] Faced with the drastic consequences of the crisis, that strong American influence on German culture also lost its luster. In a few months, all US foreignism became a constant object of criticism from broad social sectors that denounced the regressive character of such influences. Cultural nationalism directed its denunciation and attack against artistic avant-gardes, expressionism, Hollywood cinema, and, evidently, jazz. Thus, the new hegemonic trend in culture mobilized a “nostalgia for the past” that sought in tradition an “authentic” and Aryan Germanic culture. In the meantime, “the good Viennese waltz returned to occupy the front of the scene”[xxiii].

With the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, jazz began to be included, among many other cultural manifestations, in the jargon of “degenerate art”. Although Frederico claims in a somewhat absurd way that “Adorno supported the measure”, he forgets to say that, for the Frankfurtian, what was understood by “jazz” in the United States never came to exist on German soil, which meant facing the prohibition of style beyond appearances and the prohibitive ideology of the regime. For Adorno, the banning of jazz could not be seen as a direct consequence of the Nazi persecution of a certain “metropolitan degeneration” or of any “rootless exoticism”[xxv] who took over the country; nor should it be seen as a consequence of the dissolution of an “authentic black music”[xxiv] and modern that, as we have already seen, had long since been mischaracterized.

German jazz, in fact, had already conformed to the status quo in such a way that its ban was more about a propaganda speech than a real ban – after all, this music continued to circulate with other labels in the country during the following years. Thus, Adorno claims that the prohibition of jazz was due, above all, to the exhaustion of the style itself, which supplied Nazism with a series of racial stereotypes. Under a new figure, the Negerfabel now she appeared naked as a hate speech and extermination.

In current discussions about jazz, it is recurrent to identify in those musical practices of the black population in the south of the United States at the turn of the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century the birth of a very peculiar aesthetic that traced the bases of syncopation, improvisation, rhythm and a new way of reproducing and performing songs. We seek here to demonstrate that, in principle, Adorno does not contradict this interpretation or call into question the black origin of jazz. In fact, his interest was in pointing out how such elements were appropriated by cultural monopolies, which transformed jazz into the new paradigm of commercial music in the nascent cultural industries. Throughout his critique, Adorno highlighted how the commodification of this “novelty” was made from the dissemination of symbols, practices, discourses and representations that kept the racial prejudice that fell on blacks and marginalized people untouched.

In short, Adorno's critique allows us to understand how jazz's "myth of black origins" ended up serving market interests, thus exerting an alienating and illusory effect that racistly integrated the image of blacks into the European and North American imagination. . This is a good example of what Frederico refers to, but does not go into depth, when he states that Adorno's objective was “to explore the relationships between the internal structure of jazz and its social counterpart, that is, the social contradictions”.

Having said all this, the reader may be wondering about the profound transformations jazz has undergone in recent decades and its sometimes tense, sometimes convergent relationship with the demands of the black community. However, the revolution operated there was such that this is a discussion to be held at another opportunity.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP).



[I] MARTÍN-BARBERO, J.. From the media to the mediations: communication, culture and hegemony. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1987; MESZÁROS, István. The power of ideology. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004; KUEHN, Frank MC Adorno and jazz: a matter of taste, dislike or myopia? In: FREITAS, Verlaine et al (org.). Taste, interpretation and criticism, v.2. Belo Horizonte: Federal University of Minas Gerais, 2015. p.110-122.

[ii] PATRIOT, Rainer. Introduction to the Brazilian Edition. In: BERENDT, Joachim-Ernst; HUESMANN, Günther. the jazz book: From New Orleans to the 2014st Century. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 15. p.21-XNUMX.

[iii] WIPPLINGER, Jonathan O. The Jazz Republic: Music, Race and American Culture in Weimar Germany. Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany. USA, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2017.

[iv] THOMPSON, Mark C. Anti-Music: Jazz and Racial Blackness in German Betwenn the Wars. USA, Albany: State University of New York, 2018.

[v] ROBINSON, J. Bradford. The jazz essays of Theodor Adorno: some thoughts on jazz reception in Weimar Germany. In: Popular Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Vol. 13, No. 1, Jan. 1994.

[vi] DE GRIEVE, Guillaume. jazz on air: the role of radio in the emerging of jazz in the Weimar Republic. In: Project 'Jazz broadcastings in Weimar Germany'. Lovania, Belgium: Ku Leuven Faculteit Lettere, 2019.

[vii] I recommend the site The World's Music Charts, which brings together the main information in this regard. Available in

[viii] ADORNO, Theodor. Timeless fashion – about jazz. In: Prisms: cultural criticism and society. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 2001, p.117.

[ix] MÜLLER-DOOHM, Stefan. Adorno: A Biography. Polity Press: Cambridge, 2005. p.102.

[X] NOWAKOWSKI, Konrad. Jazz in Wien: Die Anfänge biz zur Abreise von Arthur Briggs in May 1926. In: GLANZ, Christian; PERMOSER, Manfred. Anklaenge 2011/2012: Jazz Unlimited. Beiträge zur Jazz-Rezeption in Österreich. Vienna: Mille Tre Verlag, 2012, p.19-157.

[xi] WIPPLINGER, op. cit., p.125.

[xii] ADORNO, Theodor W. Review of August 1927. In: Musical Writings VI: Complete Work, 19. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2014, p.96.

[xiii] ADORNO, op. cit., p.96.

[xiv] Ibid., p.96.

[xv] ADORNO, Theodor W. About jazz. In: Musical Writings IV. Complete Work, v. 17. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2008; P. 91-92.

[xvi] Ibid., p.91.

[xvii] Ibid., p.92.

[xviii] LAREAU, Alan. Johnny's Jazz: From Kabarett to Krenek. In: Org: BUDDS, Michael. Jazz & the Germans: these on the influence of “hot” American idioms on 20th-century German Music. Monographs and bibliographies in American Music, No. 17. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, 2002.

[xx] ADORNO, Theodor W. Ernst Krenek. In: Musical Writings V. Complete Work, 18. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2011a, p.557.

[xx] ADORNO, 2008, op. cit., p.103.

[xxx] Ibid., p.104.

[xxiii] RICHARD, Lionel. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1988; GAY, Peter. The Weimar culture. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1978.

[xxiii] RICHARD, op. cit., p.213.

[xxv] ADORNO, Theodor W. Goodbye to jazz. In: Musical Writings V: Complete Work, 18. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2011b, p.829.

[xxiv] Ibid., p.829.

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