“Facing Jazz, Facing Trauma” posits American jazz music as a historical archive of an American history of trauma. By reading texts by Gayl Jones, Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka; music and performances by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday; the life, art and films of Josephine Baker, and the film The Jazz Singer (1927), my goal is to give African American experiences of trauma a place within American trauma studies and to offer jazz as an extensive archive of testimony for witnessing and for study.
Initially, I explore the pivotal historical moment where trauma and jazz converge on a groundbreaking scale, when Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” in 1939. This moment illuminates the fugitive alliance between American blacks and Jews in forming the historical testimony that is jazz. “Strange Fruit,” written by Jewish American Abel Meeropol, and sung by Billie Holiday, evokes the trauma of lynching in an effort to protest the same. In a career that hinges on her ability to convey the result of a traumatic life musically, Holiday nonetheless breaks from an African American coded tradition of music and participates in a Jewish coded tradition of discourse. She allows the lyrics to speak for themselves and protest the crime of lynching for which “Strange Fruit” was controversial and powerful evidence.
I then explore jazz and its connection to trauma, witnessing, and testimony through a literary lens. Juxtaposing larger than life figures with literary counterparts, I focus on vocal jazz where the jazz singer rewrites history from the perspective of the survivors of a legacy of slavery. Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man demonstrate both the trauma of invisibility/inaudibility and the imperative to be acknowledged and heard. Personal and collective traumas are one and the same in these texts. I also analyze a performance of Louis Armstrong to emphasize jazz performance as testimony.
Next, Kafka's “Josefine the Singer or The Mouse People” serves to demonstrate the role of the performer in the representation and creation of a people or nation, while Josephine Baker appears as a concurrent example of the same. The singer (and/or her song) is the voice of the people and the screen upon which they reflect their collective identity. For Kafka, there is no mouse people without Josefine, and her power to create a people transcends even her abilities as a singer. Josephine Baker, too, manages to create a 1920s Paris with a talent that is contested to this day. Her life and art tell a story of survival and triumph that also reveal the history of trauma that made her story possible.
Finally, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer (1927) documents the beginning of the end of a very long tradition of blackface minstrelsy, a tradition which was integral in forming American popular music. Viewing this 1920s conception of “jazz” music as “black” music appropriated by American Jews underscores the complex history and place of jazz music in America's modern period. Although blackface minstrelsy has had its history rewritten repeatedly, it will remain implicated in the trauma of American racism.
Understanding jazz and its musical legacy as an archive of American trauma should serve two purposes. Recognizing it as traumatic testimony will hopefully call attention to the imperative to witness to it as such. It should also emphasize what exactly is at stake in this witnessing. The survivors of trauma, the inheritors of the legacy of slavery, will continue to testify to that ever-evolving trauma. Perhaps, if we strive to listen, to recognize and be witnesses to that testimony, the careful formation of new unbroken subjectivities can finally begin.