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Abstractionist AestheticsArtistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture$
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Phillip Brian Harper

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781479865437

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479865437.001.0001

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Historical Cadence and the Nitty-Gritty Effect

Historical Cadence and the Nitty-Gritty Effect

(p.69) 2 Historical Cadence and the Nitty-Gritty Effect
Abstractionist Aesthetics

Phillip Brian Harper

NYU Press

Chapter two reevaluates the conventional wisdom that African American culture wholly repudiates abstraction, noting the paradoxical fact that music, which is generally considered the most abstract—because the least representational—of all the arts, is also typically understood as optimally telegraphing African American historical experience. Reviewing exemplary jazz performances by such practitioners as Joseph “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Cecil Taylor, the chapter resolves this evident contradiction by demonstrating that the “blackness” of any musical instance derives not from its sonic elements as such (which might indeed manifest as wholly nonreferential), but rather from those elements’ incorporation in an African American historical narrative. By thus positing narrative as per se the antithesis of abstraction and as the principal means by which racial significance is registered and codified, the chapter suggests that the disruption of narrative must constitute a prime mode of abstractionist critique in African American culture.

Keywords:   Billie Holiday, Cecil Taylor, jazz, Joseph “King” Oliver, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, abstraction, narrative

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