Culture Magazine

For the Love of All That Jazz Is, by What Authority Does Houston A. Baker, Jr. Claim John Coltrane for Deconstruction? [A Close Reading]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Yes, in the scheme of things it’s a minor matter, I know. But still.
Back in 2005 PMLA published 18 short pieces in honor of Jacques Derrida, who had died the previous year:
Forum: The Legacy of Jacques Derrida, PMLA 120:2 (Mar. 2005) 464-494.
Houston A. Baker, Jr. contributed one of them. While most of the pieces were about some aspect of Derrida’s thought, Baker’s was more informal. It was a set of anecdotes about how he became acquainted with Derrida’s ideas, one of which was about meeting Derrida.
The first anecdote is set during Baker’s first job, at Yale in 1969:
My new office mate was Joseph Graham, of Yale’s French department. He was cosmopolitan in every way that matters to a young academic male: dress, ambition, gustatory predilection, intellect, foreign language fluency—a vernacular cache that consistently produces genuflection in the United States. Joe was a man of European sophistication. At our first meeting, he held a single, unbroken orange peel before me like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. (466)
That orange peel returns twice more before the end of that paragraph, and some orange or another shows up in five other places in the piece. It’s a motif, or given Baker’s vernacular proclivities, a riff, that helps tie the whole thing together.
It’s an artistic device, and this is more an artistic piece than an intellectual one. As I said, it’s built around anecdotes, a set of narratives. The last anecdote – the climactic one? – is about having dinner with Derrida.
It’s the summer of 1988 and Baker’s giving a seminar at the School for Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth. Derrida visited SCT to present a lecture on Zionism and the Jewish state. Baker and his wife were among the group invited to dine with him.
He was unpretentious, yet scintillating.
He talked softly and brilliantly of Algerian and African matters and shared his own calm realization that Afro-American literary and cultural studies might benefit (enormously) from an agon with Western metaphysics. The coup de grâce arrived, however, when Jacques assured my wife that he deeply admired John Coltrane. He chuckled: “People in France ask me, What does Giant Steps mean? I tell them it is like everything else: ‘It don’t mean a thing!’” Arguably, I want to assert that at that moment he pulled out his pipe (which was not, of course, a pipe) and quietly relaxed into his own joyous cosmopolitan sagacity. (467-68)
There’s a mismatch here. Giant Steps has a fairly specific place in jazz history. Derrida’s answer to the query doesn’t speak to that specificity. If Baker’s piece had ended here, however, I likely would have dropped it. But it didn’t, and I can’t.
Baker decided to double down on Coltrane. The fourth and last section of the piece was entitled “Coda”. The term, as you know, is a musical one, surely no accident in a piece that’s referencing John Coltrane. A coda is the final section of a piece, one that is generally outside the piece’s basic structure.
I note, by way of larger context, that Baker’s is the only one of the eighteen pieces that has subtitles. They are all, after all, short pieces. The others didn’t call for subtitles. Why does Baker’s have them?
I’m surmising that, like the orange peel, it’s a matter of artistic craft. Baker mentions one of his books, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, noting that it “is as antimetaphysically and profoundly indebted to Derrida as anything I have ever written” (467). Well the blues is typically a three-part form. Baker knows that, readers of PMLA know that, heck, everyone knows that, no? The coda is Baker’s fourth section. What about the other tree? Is that formal division an oblique reference to the tree-part form of the blues? Is Baker’s homage to Derrida a blues homage, a performance in the African-American vernacular?
Here’s the first paragraph, of three, in Baker’s coda:
The loss is unspeakable. We are emptied. The last word has been spoken. Denigrations of the amazing openings created by Derrida come from men and women who do not — they really, really do not — appreciate Coltrane, nor do they love the all-inclusive spectral black light of multiplicity or have any capacity to savor bright oranges on a summer day.
What does John Coltrane have to do with deconstruction, what? Does the fact that Derrida likes Coltrane somehow link him to deconstruction. Derrida liked many things. Are we thereby going to link them all to deconstruction? That doesn’t make much sense. And how did oranges get roped into deconstruction? I can half-way imagine constructing an actual argument linking Coltrane to deconstruction, one that makes reference to the technical language of jazz analysis. But oranges!? That’s assertion pure and simple. It’s a power play.
But it’s art, you tell me, art, and so doesn’t have to be logical. I know it’s art. It’s also sloppy. Sloppy art is bad art. Coltrane was not sloppy like this.
Now, back to that riff on Giant Steps. First, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that that passage had occurred in a work of complete fabrication, a piece of fiction. What would I say about it under those conditions?
First, I’d have made the remark that I made above. It’s a mismatch. Poor artistic control.
Giant Steps has a specific place in jazz history, but the reply is not specific. The specificity of Giant Steps is not my observation or opinion; it’s a matter of accepted judgment, as a quick Google query will tell you, and it would have told you that back in 2005 as well. That reply – “I tell them it is like everything else: ‘It don’t mean a thing!’” – could have been a response to just about any jazz tune at all: Struttin’ with some Barbecue, Lester Leaps In, Rhythm a Ning, Four, Fables of Faubus, Blues March, and on and on. Swing is widely believed to be a defining characteristic of jazz. They ALL swing.
What about the emphasis on “mean”? you ask. Maybe the master was implying that, because Giant Steps is a piece of instrumental music, the category of meaning doesn’t apply? I think it’s a bit of a stretch, but, OK. It’s still a generic reply, as the vast majority of jazz tunes are instrumentals.
There is, of course, a bit more going in with that phrase, “It don’t mean a thing.” Back in 1931 Duke Ellington wrote a much-performed song entitled It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. The phrase is surely an allusion to that song. Filling in the rest of the phrase affords the reader a sense of being in the know, of being an insider. But what if the reader is enough of an insider to know that Giant Steps DOES have a special place in jazz history, what’s the reader think then?
Here’s a quick take on Giant Steps. Up until about 1960, the year Giant Steps came out in a recording, jazz improvisation was mostly based on harmonic progressions of the sort common in Western music. Once you’ve played the melody (aka the head) you set it aside and improvise new melodies, ones appropriate to the same harmonic foundation. By the early 1940s the harmonic foundations were becoming more and more complex. Things leveled out for a bit and then, toward the end of the 50s Coltrane ramped up the harmonic complexity again, with Giant Steps as the core example.
And then he more or less dropped harmony-based improvising. Starting in the 60s Coltrane and others began improvising over modes – scales. Some even dropped musical tonality altogether and went “free” or “outside”. That’s when Coltrane really came into his own.
Let’s play it again:
What do you think of Giant Steps?
Great tune, virtuoso chops. But Coltrane really came into his own with A Love Supreme.
That is by no means the only possible reply to the question. It’s not original or particularly insightful. But it IS specific to the question, not generic to jazz in general. If I’d been writing a story in which someone asked a philosopher about Giant Steps, that’s the kind of reply my philosopher would have uttered. 
I didn’t do the writing, however, and it’s not (framed as) a piece of fiction. Houston Baker wrote it and he tells us that it’s a true story.
I don’t quite know what to make of the mismatch under those circumstances. I don’t know how to assign responsibility. Let’s consider one of many possibilities. Perhaps Derrida liked jazz, thought it was important, but wasn’t particularly knowledgeable. He wanted to create a bond with this engaging academic who was so interested in his work. Thus he made up this story using the bits of jazz lore that came most easily to mind. Baker in turn passed it on to us.
Did he do so knowing it was well-meaning nonsense, or was his jazz knowledge as weak as Derrida’s? If the former, why’d he let the master look clueless? Why didn’t he slip behind the claim to historical truth and fabricate a better story on Derrida’s behalf? Who’d even know, and of the handful of people actually in a position to know what Derrida said, who’d care? If, however, Baker was as clueless as this hypothetical Derrida, that makes one wonder how he’s going to connect the blues with Afro-American literature. And why oh why did he have to rope those oranges into the trope? (Rope a trope?)
But what, you counter, what if the master was well-informed and was quite deliberate in his words? What if the master was aiming for a higher meaning?
In that case, I’d say, the master was speaking in a private language. If I might throw an analytic reference into a Continental trope – as Wittgenstein has taught us, private languages don’t mean a thing.
Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wahhh.
* * * * *
And then there is Derrida’s “calm realization that Afro-American literary and cultural studies might benefit (enormously) from an agon with Western metaphysics” (487).
I would think that, since Afro-American literary and cultural studies has its institutional life in American colleges and universities, it has been swimming in Western metaphysics its entire (young) life. What more agony could it want or need?
If you ARE looking for a bit of distance, I’d think that jazz on its own terms has more to offer than deconstruction. Jazz has some African sources, sources thus outside the orbit of Western metaphysics. Deconstruction, in contrast, is a thoroughly Western contraption, though it’s trying to dismantle the trap from within.
So leave.
Now’s the time.

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