Introducing the Frankfurt School

Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz

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In the “ Culture Industry” chapter of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of jazz, “ No Palestrina could have eliminated the unprepared or unresolved dissonance more puristically than the jazz arranger excludes any phrase which does not exactly fit the jargon. If he jazzes up Mozart, he changes the music not only where it is too difficult or serious but also where the melody is merely harmonized differently, indeed, more simply, than is usual today” (Adorno and Horkheimer 101). The essay “ Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz”, examines the conceptual and historical factors surrounding Adorno’s controversial essays on jazz, by comparing and contrasting Adorno’s jazz criticism with representations of jazz in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).


Adorno wrote seven critical essays on jazz during his lifetime from 1930’s to the early 1950’s: three in the thirties, two in the forties, and two in the fifties. According to the author of the essay, “ The portrait was never flattering and was highly idiosyncratic.” In the 1930’s Adorno’s jazz criticism initiated a negative critical moment in “what can be described as his dialectical embrace of Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “ The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” This negative critical moment endures as a polemic against technology throughout Adorno’s subsequent writings on jazz. Scholars have noted that as far back as the thirties, Adorno was outlining his critical project on popular music that was “sensitive to both its reified dimensions and its utopian dimensions”. However, even a partial glance at Adorno’s jazz writings, confirms Adorno’s lasting interest in those “reified dimensions” of jazz, as opposed to the “utopian dimensions”. Scholars have contented that Adorno’s jazz criticism are characterized by a fantastical rigidity and tend to “ flatten out the dynamic contradictions of popular music” (Jay 122). Here, the essay identifies two dominant tendencies that reduce or “flatten out” surface in Adorno scholarship on jazz: “those who criticize Adorno the strongest examine neither all of his essays on jazz nor the historical context of his arguments, and those who sympathize with Adorno ignore the vast amount of research that is at their disposal” (98). In both cases, jazz is read one dimensionally, as a “homogenous collective entity”(98). This approach intentionally obscures or negates the internal dynamics of jazz and renders jazz ahistorical.
From this point, the author of the essay attempts to complicate Adorno’s criticisms of jazz by situating them within “ a social history that considers the internal (dynamic) tensions within the jazz tradition”, that is, comparing Adorno’s jazz criticism with representations of jazz within Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The purpose of such a critical complication is to situate Adorno’s place within the history of jazz criticism and to place emphasis on the importance of a historical grounding to the debate concerning Adorno, jazz, and the “reified dimensions” of popular music.
The first critique the author of the essay has against Adorno’s jazz criticism is his focus on the jazz of the 1930’s-1950’s (including the tradition of swing). By grounding his critique in that specific historical period, “his (Adorno) arguments precede what been called the second half of jazz history” (100). Here the author’s contention is important, by primarily focusing on the first half of jazz history, Adorno ignores the radically different aesthetic and political formations of the post-bop history of jazz.

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