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Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties by Scott Saul

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“The fortunes of hard bop were linked to the fortunes of the civil rights movement, and so the story of one sheds light on the other,” writes Scott Saul in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. Saul wants the history of jazz and jazz culture to tell a larger social history-specifically, the movement from the Eisenhower ’50s into the soul-power ’60s. Rather than delivering a synthetic work that would or could argue this, Saul offers something like a meditation, a loose collection of detailed essays that often pivots on the most superficial connections. His book covers a period beginning with 1955, the year the term “hard bop” is coined, and ending with the death of John Coltrane in 1967, but only considers a handful of people, debates or events. He gamely investigates each individual subject-his interests lead him to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sam Sheppard’s jazz-influenced plays, and the 1960 Newport riots, as a few examples-and tries to place each in a larger context. He just hasn’t found a way to link these things meaningfully.

Then, sometimes, even the smaller points Saul makes don’t hold up. Cartoon socialist theories (the Cold War was only about preserving America’s right to purchase), quixotic critical concerns (as when Saul asks why chord-conscious hard-boppers embraced freedom for themselves but not for their music) and a tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from non sequiturs (the claim that Mingus “shared a vision” with an integrating ’60s pop music scene by his style of notating jazz rhythms) tend to erode Saul’s claims. He is, however, a terrific jazz critic. His graceful extended discussions of individual performances, such as Coltrane’s “Afro-Blue,” deserve their own book.