Stevphen Shukaitis hears the continuing resonance of Joe McPhee’s Nation Time, his 1971 free jazz album rooted in the US black cultural nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s, and McPhee's later interest in the ideas of management theorist Edward de Bono
Recently I was struck by an advertisement on the London Underground. “Find your work-life groove,” it proclaimed. It pictured a man sitting back and relaxing in a spacious airplane seat, holding a saxophone, accompanied by some books and a whisky. But what does being able to play saxophone on an airplane have to do with negotiating the demands and stresses of daily life? And why would an airline company, striving to promote an image of luxury and abundance, use an image of a musician?
To paraphrase the Artist Placement Group, context is half the work in this advertisement: a constellation of assumptions and associations attached to the figure of the artist as a creative self-organising and self-actualising worker, the artist as an entrepreneur of the self who has left behind restraints like employment and found another path to personal fulfilment through his or her craft. In this advertisement we can see the shift from the insurgent 1960s and 70s free jazz demands for Nation Time to today’s channelling of those energies into calls for management time.
This advertisement reminds me of loft living and the process where integrated work and living spaces emerged in former industrial spaces in lower Manhattan in the 1960s, providing the template for aspirational middle class lifestyles modelled on the figure of the artist. It is the shift from when “four artists in a mansion” and Fluxus housing cooperatives could achieve some freedom in their situation, into advertising copy for estate agents. The cool factor of an artistic lifestyle acted as a convenient proxy for the gentrification of the area, with artists enhancing its image. The ad also relies on tropes developed since the 60s in political theory, philosophy and sociology. These used the figure of the jazz musician and improvised performance (the two often conflated) as a model for a particular kind of self-actualising labour: the worker who will labour ceaselessly, motivated not by monetary reward but the intrinsic joy of the task. Working for the love of it.
Over the past 50 years jazz and improvised music have come to mean wildly different things to many people. These interpretations include jazz being understood as an organisational form to be used in political action or broader social changes, to being used in management theory as a metaphor for organising without institutional, top-down structures. Coming out of the political ferments of the late 60s, sociologists like Alfred Willener stressed a more politically inflected understanding of jazz. In a more managerial vein, one finds people like Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi and John Kao connecting notions of musical jamming to entrepreneurial activity – or managing without the constraints of formal structures. The apparent spontaneity and freedom found in improvisation is what management theory desires to put to work, harnessing self-motivating energies and capacities within a networked and flexible neoliberal economy.
This is all part of a broader process of the development of a “new spirit of capitalism” where formerly challenging social and artistic endeavours become integrated into the workings of the economy and management as a new business jargon. It’s what the Situationists would call recuperation.
So, standing here on the Underground platform, I’m left to wonder how we got here. How did we move from a time where jazz and improvisation could be invoked and employed by someone like Joe McPhee as part of a call, paraphrasing Amiri Baraka, for nation time, to a situation where airlines employ the image of the musician as part of an invocation of management time?
Joe McPhee’s 1971 Nation Time is a rarely acknowledged free jazz masterpiece. While it has gotten more attention recently, such as in pieces by McPhee himself in The Wire (issue 358, The Inner Sleeve) and was recently reissued in an expanded edition with previously unreleased material by Corbett Vs Dempsey, in histories and discussions it is more often than not overlooked or, at best, relegated to a footnote. In 2012 The Guardian included it in its list of 101 strangest records on Spotify, describing it as a “grinning punk cousin to Miles Davis’s brutal and brilliant Bitches Brew”. The recording brings together a number of influences, mixing the energy and explosive force of rock and proto punk with free jazz virtuosity. It starts with a call and response pattern borrowed from Baraka –“What time is it? Nation Time” – before moving through a core of a four note, 24 bar pattern, which then mutates into a maelstrom, before reforming itself, calming, and building again to a crescendo.
The album came out of a black cultural nationalist movement in the arts that McPhee channelled in his tribute to Baraka. But perhaps this fusion of improvisation, jazz and the civil rights movement was not simply a matter of accidental historical conjuncture, but about something more profound in the nature of improvisatory music itself. Nation Time could show how improvised music might prefigure broader forms of collectivity. When McPhee calls out “What time is it?” the revolutionary potential is not found in his declaration, but rather in the response it solicits from the audience, how it moves them. This idea of music as social organisation has a long history. Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble and George Lipsitz outline this in their book The Fierce Urgency Of Now, looking at the links between music and wider struggles for change (reviewed in The Wire 358), arguing that musical improvisation is not just an approach to artistic creation but also a foundation for politics – for mutual recognition and rights through shared dialogue and performance.
There’s a large number of intermediary steps between the explosive refrain provided by Nation Time and the creation of a new organised political or social form. But what seems most relevant is how these particular moments enable new forms of interaction to take place. The artistic performance prefigures a broader shift in the political realm, developing out of the apparently unstructured and spontaneous freedom of improvisation.
Many of the critiques made against the Occupy movement were also previously made against black power, feminism, ecology and others. The complaint is the same: the movement was doomed to failure because it lacked the proper organisational forms. Where are your sound bite sized demands? Or leaders acknowledged by mass media? This makes the proposition of improvisation as a basis for politics all the more interesting. When posed with the question of whether the Harlem Renaissance movement failed due to lack of institutions, Ralph Ellison famously responded “[w]e do have institutions. We have the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and we have jazz.” In one sentence Ellison encapsulates how jazz could play the same role as recognised legal and juridical forms. The success of all of the above relies on their adaptability rather than their continuity. Here, improvisation and jazz become part of the black fantastic, the surreal and always renewing.
Following on this train of thought I decided to speak with Joe McPhee, particularly as many years have passed since Nation Time was recorded. McPhee performs at London’s Cafe Oto regularly, in various groups, including The Brötzmann Tentet, Decoy, Universal Indians, or on the particular night I meet him, one longrunning project called Survival Unit III (with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang). I asked McPhee about Nation Time and his understanding of the relationship between improvisation, collectivity and politics. McPhee told me that Nation Time remains connected to the politics of its time, to the ferments of black power and civil rights of the 60s and 70s. This can also be heard clearly in his first album Underground Railroad from 1969. But while these links between art making and politics are evident in McPhee’s early recordings, he more or less moved away from that in the late 70s and 80s, venturing into more abstract territories and spiritual themes.
Most intriguing was how McPhee disagreed with the idea that improvised music could provide a basis for the political. While McPhee agreed that improvisation could provide a way to explore the forming of a community, for him this is different than providing a basis for politics – in his interpretation, our relationship with music is highly individualised. Because of this variation improvised music cannot form a basis for politics. McPhee’s argument echoes a tradition that is wary of attempts to form a politics around an aesthetic.
During our interview McPhee mentioned that a key influence for him as he moved away from more overtly political themes was the work of physician, psychologist, writer and management consultant Edward de Bono, whose ideas have been widely used within management and organisation theory. This was especially the case in McPhee’s development of “po music” in the early 80s. Po music was McPhee’s way of translating de Bono’s writing, most famously known for his development of the idea of lateral thinking, into musical form: as a positive, possible, poetic hypothesis. The concept of lateral thinking has become a popular way of understanding indirect and creative decision making processes, forming the basis for so-called out of the box thinking.
For McPhee, de Bono’s ideas helped him rethink his approach to music and make an apparently unnecessary detour to somewhere new: “When you’re making this detour you’re going to make a whole other bunch of discoveries along the way, which will perhaps influence you and change your original ideas about where you wanted to be. And that’s what I wanted, that’s PO. The PO is a language indicator to show that it’s provocation. Don’t take things to be what they seem to be. I used that to say, well, if I’m playing something that seems to be jazz (whatever that is) maybe by going in some other directions with other collaborations, I can discover something else. New instruments, new ways of approaching the music, new ways of listening. So that by the time I get to this destination I’m a different person, and the music’s different.”
McPhee used de Bono’s work to get lost again in the unfamiliar, but to find something new through that. In this intersection between free jazz and management theory something unusual happens. Rather than McPhee’s music being possessed by a “new spirit of capitalism”, the circuit goes the other way. A performer adapts concepts developed by organisational theory and applies them in a lateral and open-ended fashion to their own work.
As McPhee suggests, the relationship between music and politics in improvisation can vary widely. To get a sense of the variety of interpretation, even just staying with other players of The Brötzmann Tentet, compare McPhee’s understanding of this relationship to how Peter Brötzmann has suggested that free jazz emerging in Germany in the 1960s was more intense and abrasive compared with the UK because it was necessary to respond to the legacies of fascism and its horrors. Compare this with Ken Vandermark’s theorisation of his own work borrowing ideas from Guy Debord, Chris Marker and experimental film. Or contrast it with John Gruntfest’s mixing of zen Buddhism and Communism using large ensembles for improvisation. More broadly, compare it to Sun Ra’s combination of mysticism, theosophy and futurism with the imagery of escape from the realities of this world into a better existence in outer space. Or the extended elaboration of this relationship developed by Cornelius Cardew and Eddie Prévost. In this sense it seems unsatisfactory to declare that improvised music could have an inherent politics to it, or that our relationship with the political can only be worked out at the individual level.
Back on the train platform, where does this all leave us? Does this exploration into possible relationships between improvisation, jazz and politics give us any clearer sense of this absurd billboard? It does seem that this figure of the musician contains a grain of truth. Improvisation arguably does help develop how musicians (as well as people more generally) relate to each other, to be adaptive and develop their music outside of formal structures. These aspects are celebrated both by the political and the managerial readings.
The difficulty in our work-life groove image is that lack of context. The musician pictured is not part of any ongoing collaboration, but resides in a context of individualised potential – the figure of the entrepreneur. This advert does not call out for a music that could be made together by a group of people. Instead it celebrates spaces in which financially successful individuals can enjoy greater comfort and space if they manage to adapt themselves to the demands of capitalism.
And this is precisely how the promised freedom offered to the creative worker ends up as a model of labour discipline for others. Today we are not offered the ability to be flexible and adaptable with our live-work time, it is a demand placed on us whether we like it or not. To appreciate this requires cutting through the ideological celebrations of how images of improvisation and jazz are used. Music is never just a model for labour, it is labour itself.
The improvising artist gets used for their idealised ability to make something out of nothing, apparently spontaneously. But this is inaccurate on the most basic level. Musical creation is not an isolated moment but part of a broader context. Finding a live-work balance in any meaningful sense does not ignore this broader and messier context, but emerges out of it. Improvised music comes out of years of rehearsal, preparation to find new ways to experiment with sounds and materials, to welcome the unexpected. In this sense the new does not come out of nowhere, but rather emerges from all the preparation, as well as the social relations, that make it possible. And this is precisely what is left out of the image.
McPhee’s recalling of Baraka and his invocation of nation time as it reverberates through the decades is even more relevant today. The problem is that attempts to work out a relationship between art making, labour and politics have been forced into a highly individualised model where the artist as entrepreneur is called upon to develop their practice in a largely illusory situation, one where winning the game entails being able to stretch out your legs, alone. To re-invoke the call for nation time is to ask once again what makes possible the forming and reforming of community now.