The relationship among music, politics, and the economy has been an object of intense interest for critical scholars of music from Theodor Adorno onwards. The seemingly wholesale transformation of politics, the economy, and the arts following the so-called neoliberal turn has only made the topic more alluring, and more difficult to account for. Where we once found musicians we now encounter arts-entrepreneurs. Instead of listening to musical genres we now hear brands with musical features. And where we once might have indulged fantasies about (nonexistent) realms of musical transcendence and/or authenticity it is now impossible to deny that any and all musical sounds that reach our ears today must somehow resonate with the capitalist impulse to generate productivity. It is difficult to know how to proceed given this context, especially if we want our work to do more than simply describe or denounce. Dale Chapman’s fascinating book The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture addresses these challenges directly, outlining several critical paths one might pursue through these complexly reconfigured domains.
The book is organized into six paired chapters plus an introduction. Chapman takes David Harvey’s classic treatment of neoliberalism as his point of departure, and the introduction serves as a useful primer on how the historic transformations described by Harvey relate to jazz. Chapters one and two explore the cultural politics of neoclassical jazz (that is, acoustic, swing-based, post-bop-oriented music produced from the late 1960s through to the present) vis-à-vis the discourses of financialization and broader narratives of economic decline and renewal. Chapman shows how, in both instances, neoclassical jazz is marketed and celebrated as a metaphor for successful ways of being under neoliberalism. It is easy to roll our scholarly eyes at the for-profit fetishizing of jazz “risk” on the part of corporate management gurus and TED talkers (including several prominent jazz artists and scholars) described in chapter one, but Chapman’s ultimate point is quite devastating: for everything else it might mean or be, jazz is also and always the perfect musical articulation of neoliberal subjectivity. This is why ideologies regarding the improvising jazz musician’s “willingness to take chances” align so perfectly with “the individual ‘entrepreneurial self’ of the neoliberal imaginary, set loose within the volatile conditions of the free market, [and] ultimately responsible for finding their own way within this shifting terrain” (p. 35). The neoliberal/neoclassical jazz subject, moreover, is not the transcendent economic actor of rational choice theory but one that is constituted by racism, sexism, and, especially, homophobia. This unfortunate fact is demonstrated in Chapman’s discussion of the critical and public response to tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s now canonical appearances in 1970s crisis era New York City, which openly celebrated the masculine virility of the neoclassical jazz artist’s heteronormative black body as some kind of redemptive antidote to homophobic anxieties regarding disco.
Chapters three and four trace the corporate history of Verve Records, which has been one of the most prominent outlets for selling recorded jazz since its founding in 1953. It is a complicated story, and Chapman does a tremendous service simply in telling it—not because we all need to know the details of Verve’s changing position on the corporate flow chart, but because the history of recorded music (and therefore the recent history of music as such) is as much about corporate structures and organization as it is about musical styles and works. For example, many critics and fans interpreted Verve’s late-1990s purging of neoclassical jazz instrumentalists from its roster of recording artists in favor of vocalists, songwriters, and the more stylistically diverse as a short-sighted capitulation to immediate market tendencies. In fact, these cuts were part of a much larger downsizing effort (targeting employees as well as artists) dictated by executive-level management to provide short-term gains for shareholders by demonstrating that the label’s parent corporation was making a serious effort to address its post-merger debt burden.
Chapters five and six examine public-private partnerships and how they have both targeted and mobilized culture in support of urban renewal projects, taking the long, generally disastrous history of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s (SFRA) intervention in that city’s Fillmore district as a case study. Chapter five paints a largely celebratory portrait of a historically vibrant, jazz-centered, urban black community in the Fillmore district following WWII, a community that was effectively destroyed by Robert Moses-style flattening of the supposedly “blighted” urban neighborhood to accommodate increased vehicular traffic and the commercial interests of private developers. Chapter six shows how, decades later, the same SFRA, in partnership with a series of private developers, attempted to atone for its previous sins in the Fillmore district by focusing its new redevelopment efforts on projects it imagined as being more culturally appropriate, in this case a jazz-themed, mixed-use facility featuring a jazz club, a jazz heritage center, a screening room, additional commercial space, and some 80 units of mixed income housing. These efforts ended up being financially ruinous for nearly everyone involved, though less because of the project’s jazz-themed branding and more because of convoluted tax-increment financing arrangements that municipal redevelopment agencies and their private partners must now rely on to secure funding.
With all the wonderful insights it provides into this complex topic, the book also highlights a real and unresolved tension between the seemingly all-encompassing scope of neoliberalism as a political philosophy and set of economic policies, on the one hand, and the narrowness of neoclassical jazz (or any musical genre) as an object of critical analysis, on the other. I see this less as a criticism and more as an invitation to reconsider our assumptions about what music is and does in these contexts. For example, Chapman takes it for granted that “risk” (like previous ideological claims regarding “freedom” and “democracy”) is an actually existing phenomenon that is somehow inherent to jazz as an improvisatory musical practice. Thus statements like this can be found throughout the book: “Musical improvisation, of course, is bound up in the dynamics of risk, as its entire procedural approach, its departure from preordered composition and established musical conventions, entails a risky leap into the aesthetic unknown” (p. 23). From this politically ambiguous point of view, the jazz-boosting management gurus discussed in chapter one aren’t wrong about risk in jazz, they are just wrong (or maybe only gauche) to emphasize its application to profit making in the corporate world. The more important issue, to my mind, is where this fetishized notion of risk in jazz even came from and what is at stake in mobilizing it today, however self-consciously we might do so. Surely the risk of taking a “leap into the aesthetic unknown” is not the same risk involved in navigating a life of endemic precarity, which is the definitive feature of neoliberalism as a lived experience, for jazz musicians and everyone else. Not that Chapman ever truly conflates the two, but the fact that aesthetic metaphors even begin to eclipse the materiality of the neoliberal experience shows that there is still urgent scholarly work to be done on this issue.