Philosophical riffs: jazz ‘n’ existentialism by Jorge Sotirios

Issue 4 excerpt:  Essay

Philosophical riffs: jazz ‘n’ existentialism
Jorge Sotirios

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In this essay by Jorge Sotirios, the relationship between music and philosophy is explored and pits the likes of Sartre, Charlie Parker, Juliette Greco, Goethe and Miles Davis (among others) against some of life’s biggest questions.

The Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis encounter in 1949 seemed an inevitable if not a momentous event. Born out of New York, bebop propelled the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke to rebel against the formulaic music of the Big Bands. Playing in the Charlie Parker Quintet at the Salle Pleyel, Miles Davis’ star would soon eclipse the alto saxophonist and his muted trumpet seemed to better evoke post-war Paris.

Sartre went along to hear, no doubt swayed by gamin Juliette Greco for whom he wrote the charming ‘La Rue des Blancs Manteaux’. Was an unconscious bond forged that evening between thinker and musician? One can speculate. Boris Vian, jazz critic, trumpeter and author of the satirical L’Ecume des Jours, acted as the perfect conduit for the two heavyweights to exchange ideas as well as cigarettes. The yin and yang of cultural encounters can be viewed in neat symmetry:
– Black/White
– Youth/Age
– New World/Old World
–  Intuition/Rationality
– Trumpet/Pen
–  Elegant/Shabby
One was short, the other even shorter. What heroin and coke did for Miles over a lifetime, barbiturates and whiskey did for Sartre. Indeed, even their respective disability individuated them from the crowd: a raspy voice from a botched larynx operation in 1956 became Miles’ trademark; a walled eye since birth was Sartre’s iconic feature, along with his pipe. As their reputations rocketed beyond the cultural stratosphere the two became invested with diabolical qualities by a scandal-driven media. The Prince of Darkness greets the Lord of the Underworld, with the jazz cellar permitting no exit.

Their encounter grips me for various reasons. That a relationship could develop is tantamount to a certain confidence exhibited by the two in pursuing an intellectual art without caring about upsetting fans, critics or the general public. The year 1949 was a transitional period by any standards. Sartre, thinker against bourgeois verities, had refined his anti-racism earlier after travelling to America’s South. ‘In this land of freedom and equality,’ he stated in 1945, ‘there live 13 million untouchables.’ This insight became a stepping stone for his theories of anti-colonialism for the Third World, especially when the Algerian War ramped up its urgency. Through Sartre, Miles Davis immediately understood that white men didn’t necessarily all think alike. Paris, after all, was the perfect city to broaden the mind and highly conducive to Blacks. Richard Wright belonged to a colony of African-American writers that included James Baldwin, Chester Himes and Langston Hughes. Wright claimed he experienced ‘not one iota of racial feeling in France’, as would Ornette Coleman some years later. In a liberated city filled with American GIs, bebop made it across the Atlantic, displacing Swing and Dixieland (suggesting a humiliated Paris was not the avant, but the derriere-garde of the immediate post-war period).

Jorge Sotirios writes about the encounter between chanseuse Juliette Greco and jazz legend Miles Davis in Issue 4.

‘Theirs was a relationship based on gestures and sounds rather than language; a pre-cursor to Brando’s memorable last tango. Incredulously, [Jean Paul] Sartre acted as matchmaker, advising Miles to marry her.’