Stuart Hall was, throughout his life, and no less in Familiar Stranger, a passionate music fan, attuned to music’s capacity to play a generative role in the history of culture at large. And yet, I’ve often been struck by a funny disconnect between his writing on music in his life and music in the life of the culture at large, whether that is black diasporic culture, British culture, or broadly transatlantic culture. A reading of Familiar Stranger—and Hall’s work in the larger frame—offers a chance to think on an aspect of this disjuncture that should be of interest to future interpreters of Hall in music disciplines and offer some value to the conversation at large. Namely, how to read the discussion of jazz in this “peculiar” memoir, and thereby how to think about the intersection of music—or perhaps slightly more broadly, musical aesthetics, by which I mean music as a source of individual pleasure and experience—history, and cultural studies.
As a bit of background I should say that Stuart Hall features prominently in the cultural studies of popular music—particularly, if not surprisingly, of black popular musics from North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom—and to a degree, though perhaps a bit less prominently, in the ethnomusicology of diaspora—especially, though not exclusively, the African diaspora in the Caribbean—but figures hardly at all in music history as practiced by musicologists, and here I include specifically histories of jazz. Some of his presence is, to be sure, secondhand. Because his thought is a foundational plank in the work of Paul Gilroy, Larry Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie, among others, and because their work is so central to the foundation of the cultural studies of popular music, Hall is often present in spirit in this formation more than through close reading of a particular one of his texts. Still, he is broadly there, and there primarily to support sophisticated, post-essentialist (anti-essentialist and anti-anti-essentialist) readings of race and music in the late modern phase of globalization, on the one hand, and to support readings of the sociopolitical power of the aesthetic in youth culture, on the other.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me to find how music surfaces in Familiar Stranger. To be sure, Familiar Stranger deals extensively with the experiences that led Hall to develop the perspective on diasporic and colonial social formations that inform my discipline, and I think it offers a perspective on how Hall came to speak to “popular art” and “mass art” (his terms); but crucially the musical styles that characterize most of the music scholarship that descends from Hall are present in only the most glancing way in the book. It would appear that Hall’s interest in reggae, punk, new wave, ska, dancehall, soul, and hip-hop was muted, even as they captivated the world around him. He notes in passing the role reggae and Rastafarianism played in Jamaica in the 1960s and ’70s in the process of the island coming to “really think itself a black society” (100) and describes contemporary dancehall and its antecedent musics—reggae, ska, bluebeat, and even mento—as markers of “deliberate slackness” (126). But in no case does he write through particular works or artists, nor does he appear to identify with this music as art in any sense. Instead, the central discussion of music in the book revolves around a reminiscence of his love for jazz, and particularly, his love for Miles Davis (127–32).
I will get to the payoff shortly, namely the consequences of the disjunction between Hall’s own investments in music and the value his work has had in music studies, but I want to do so with a detour through why it’s critical that he is focused on Miles Davis specifically. This is not only true here; it’s actually common, going back at least to The Popular Arts, where, as he later clarified, to the extent he wrote about Billie Holiday, Johnny St. Cyr, and Sydney Bechet, he was doing so under Paddy Whannel’s influence. His real love, then and consistently wherever he mentioned jazz, was modern jazz and its avatar, Miles Davis. And Davis is perfect—enigmatic, stylish, cosmopolitan, masculine self-mythologizer, captain of the cool pose, more symbol than substance. For Hall this music represents the antinomian at every level. It is “the articulation of structure and freedom,” “set free” but “grounded and held in place,” “cerebral” but characterized by “emotional intensity,” notably, able to plumb “almost unbearable emotional depths . . . without yielding an inch to sentimentality” (128–29). Perhaps most tellingly, it is for Hall a stylish, cosmopolitan way into musical blackness—able to sound an identity that many of his slightly younger contemporaries in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Caribbean were finding in reggae or soul and would find in their descendants, dancehall and hip-hop.
And yet, by contrast to reggae, soul, dancehall, dub, and hip-hop, the key thing jazz does for Hall is to stand apart from social critique. It is “from the people,” but not of them (Hall and Whannel 72). It epitomizes what was, in fact, a vexed relationship with the popular. In Familiar Stranger, as elsewhere, Hall is insistent that he does not have the “rigorous sensitivity and ‘good taste’ of the jazz scholar,” and thus does not like it to the exclusion of Motown or various kinds of black (and occasionally white) pop. In his BBC Desert Island Discs interview he made sure to say that his distaste for certain low-brow entertainments was just that, a matter of taste, not a universal judgment on value. And yet, nowhere does he write about any music other than modern jazz with the kind of loving detail and attention to sensuous qualities of sound and its affective potential. And here’s my takeaway from this, which is that for Hall it seems that the aesthetic—the personal experience of art, in this case music, as a source of beauty and pleasure—is really the limit of social critique. As for many of us, where he writes in sociological terms he is happy to describe reggae and hip-hop—the two musics he (and many) most intensely associate with late modern globalization—but only in quite broad terms, as indices of globalizing processes. The aesthetic there is sublimated to the social. These genres represent social processes without really being robust aesthetic objects, at least to Hall, for whom they seem to have been broadly on the side of the fallen category, “mass” art, rather than the more authentic “popular” art. Jazz, by contrast, as the sine qua non of “popular” art, Hall addresses in aesthetic terms, but in so doing separates it to a degree from the sociohistorical processes that consume much of his theorizing.
The question, to me, is whether this is necessarily or only incidentally the case. I ask this because it is a defining problem for academic music studies. Much of the scholarly legacy of music—and literature, art, film, and so on—comes from canonical critical writing of exactly the sort Hall engages in in Familiar Stranger (and in The Popular Arts, for what it’s worth). And yet, the question “is that art good?” is at best unrelated to and routinely at odds with the question “is that art historically or socially significant?” Indeed, the first question, the matter of taste, or as I have described it here, the aesthetic, seems to be the limit for Hall’s cultural studies.
The consequences of such a disjuncture or limit are twofold. First, here is where I think the way Hall’s commitment to popular arts remained fundamentally defined by a kind of bourgeois elitism—despite his protestations to the contrary—and ultimately led him to reject, ironically, a lot of the cultural studies of popular music that took inspiration from his work. In a 2008 interview with Colin McCabe, he said as much. Jazz, for him, was essentially black classical music: “Of course I loved the sophistication of it. I loved its complexity; I loved the fact that it wasn’t easily accessible. . . . Jazz spoke to me within and reverberated emotionally” (18). By contrast, prompted to talk about current cultural studies, Hall says, “I really cannot read another cultural studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos” (29). Second, it may tell us something about the role of individual experience more broadly in relation to the historical force of shifting cultural formations. Miles Davis stands out to Hall as a personal beacon, Bob Marley as the force of a generation. As he said in a BBC Desert Island Discs interview, “When I was about twenty, nineteen or twenty, I’d say Miles Davis put his finger on my soul. The various moods of Miles Davis have matched the evolution of my feeling”; and by contrast, “Bob Marley, this is the sound that saved a lot of second-generation West Indian kids from falling through a hole in the ground, because they didn’t know who they were . . . you know. The British didn’t want them, and suddenly in their transistor sets they heard this voice from a place called Trenchtown, which became universally known throughout the world, an astonishing thing.”
There’s a power to this, of course, and I remain inspired by Hall’s attention to the role music might have in defining the complex racial logics of late modernity; but I also keep looking for ways to better describe the aesthetic as a historical force as such. Hall’s work has not strongly influenced jazz scholarship, perhaps ironically, considering how much the music meant to him. And I think it has not precisely because the way he wrote about it precluded the kinds of arguments for larger significance that scholars in other areas of music scholarship have drawn from his work. This is no less true in Familiar Stranger than in early writing such as The Popular Arts or later interviews where he fleshed out in particular his profound sense of a relationship to the sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet. In a particularly enlightening passage, Hall offers a key to this. He says, “In part because of modern jazz . . . I gradually became aware of a new reservoir of feeling and identification opening up. I felt in touch with the slow burn emergence of a new sort of black consciousness, which might one day enable us Jamaicans to speak our experience. . . in a conscious language of race” (130). The lesson in this for jazz scholarship, as much as for other kinds of music writing, is the lesson of what aesthetic intimacy—the “familiarity” in the book’s title—can do, even in the face of profound otherness—the “stranger.” If music’s capacity for political and historical agency is partly to be found in mobilizing mass action, it is also partly to be found in the process Hall describes feeling in his relationship to modern jazz, a process that is deceptively individual, beginning with a kind of individual affective response and moving outward to something more collective. ■