Taking on a sprawling and elusive notion like jazz is an ambitious enterprise. Jason Borge limits his perspective in this book mostly to representations of jazz by Latin American music critics and in film. Framing the book is the question of the reception of jazz in Latin America, specifically Brazil, Argentina and Cuba, and the politics of reception as refracted through issues of nationalism, race, and imperialism. As such, for readers who are acquainted with the many musicians and styles that populate the book, this is an informative and thorough account of the fortunes of jazz from the moments of its appearance to a waning “afterlife” (ch. 5) of the 1980s and ’90s. Each of the countries merits a chapter, and it is instructive for comparative purposes to trace the trajectory of jazz as it entered different social and political contexts. Most salient seems to be the question of race, and the ways that various critics navigate the ascribed “blackness” of jazz within their respective national conversations.
In Argentina, Borge argues that the powerful and prevailing ideology of whiteness made it difficult for non-whites to enter the musical canon as it was written by critics of the 1930s and ‘40s. But that didn’t mean that there was no jazz, or that there were no non-white Argentines playing it. It only meant that critics were blind to their participation in the increasingly worldwide phenomenon.
In Brazil, anxiety about what Borge identifies as Americanization shaped critical and audience responses to jazz. Moreover, it was through cinema rather than records that a widespread apprehension of the genre took place. In film, most jazz musicians were white. While Brazil did not suffer from the same kind of erasure of the role of people of African descent in the national imaginary (though that did not exempt Brazilians from their own particular forms of racism), somehow jazz was again more aligned with whiteness than might otherwise have been the case. Toward the 1960s, when bossa nova and jazz might be understood as related and intertwined, the relationship continued, paradoxically, to be a fraught one, at least in the eyes of critics.
In Cuba, jazz and Cuban genres such as mambo were very closely related because of frequent in-person exchanges as musicians circulated between Havana, Miami, and New York. Cuba’s geographical proximity and a long history of what historian Louis A. Pérez has referred to as “ties of singular intimacy” (1990) in political and cultural realms meant that the musicking on both sides of the Florida straits grew up alongside one another and became entangled. Yet both American and Cuban critics, the argument goes, were too invested in keeping jazz distinct from Latin jazz, and the discursive effect was that both failed to recognize the inextricable histories of the two genres.
Throughout, the author works to read and interpret his sources on their terms and without anachronistically reading twenty-first-century perspectives into mid-twentieth-century-cultural production. For the most part, he successfully exposes the contours of nationalist thought and aspirations to modernity, as well as understandings of race and gender that seem appropriate to the contexts in question. In some cases, however, the intention to interpret sources generously results in somewhat tone-deaf assertions about clearly racist tropes. The drawings of Miguel Covarrubias, for example, are described as “capturing the jaunty, playful spirit of Harlem clubs.”(28) Yet they appear almost shockingly to rely on and amplify visual cues that signaled blackness with exaggerated features and primitivist lines. Perhaps, to 1930s’ viewers, these images did indeed seem “lithe and modern” (28), but perhaps it would also be helpful to point out that they no longer appear as such, and instead look more like they are partaking of the kinds of visual regimes that we understand to be constitutive of the structural racisms that pervade the Americas.
This is a paradoxical history, a history as much about what did not happen as what did. For the most part, it is the sustained focus on what the critics said, with additional attention to the ways that jazz appeared in film that leads Borge to his conclusions. This may be more useful for readers familiar with the musicians, films and performances to which the book refers. It may be less useful to those looking for an approach informed more by sound studies, especially in some recent iterations that attend to performance, the racialization or gendered nature of acousmatic music, infrastructure and technology. Similarly, a view that lingered more on the shifting venues and forms in which jazz was proffered and consumed by distinct audiences might also have yielded alternative, or additional, claims. The study of music in Latin America is a robust field, and this book is an instructive contribution.