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The Challenge of the Changing Same: The Jazz Avant-Garde of the 1960s, the Black Aesthetic and the Black Arts Movement

Jason Robinson

Published: 2005-09-01

This essay focuses on the relationship between writers associated with the Black Arts Movement in the United States and the experimental directions in jazz that occurred during the 1960s, the decade generally associated with the evolution of the Black Arts Movement as well as the rise of the jazz avant-garde. The emergent experimentalism in the music centered on transgressive and innovative uses of improvisation that led to new approaches, sounds and interpretive meanings. While it is necessary to understand that both poetry and music of the 1960s were important sites where hegemonic processes were contested, it is equally important to draw out differences in the strategies of various black artists. Throughout this period, the attitudes, values, and goals of black artists were anything but monolithic. Instead, the interrelated worlds of black literature and musical experimentalism created a dialogic space that encouraged interrogation, innovation and articulation of new artistic ideas. Within this environment, “black music” took on heterotopic meanings; rather than a rigid, collectivized notion of “black identity” in music, the Black Arts Movement and the jazz avant-garde were marked by multiple, sometimes competing, conceptions of artistic identity. In most cases, the musicians stridently resisted any single narrative of racial and socio-aesthetic identity. The essay clarifies the complex critical positions of those involved with the Black Arts Movement and the jazz avant-garde, while challenging the possibility of any one unifying narrative about this improvised, processual music.

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Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it ("Mobilitas Animi" 113).

– George E. Lewis