The ‘New Thing’ as Polemic: Aesthetics as Identity, 1965–1967

Music critic and later comic book-writer Harvey Pekar, writing in Down Beat’s second issue of 1966, urges readers to resist the surging “cult of personality” emergent in debates on the “new thing” in jazz criticism. These self-appointed spokesmen for the avant-garde movement, Pekar warns, have a difficult time explaining what it is all about, substituting metaphysics, social politics, and “emotion-laden adjectives” for clear and precise analyses. Pekar’s counsel, I argue, lays bare experimental improvised music’s fraught epistemological terrain in the mid-1960s. The perceived ambiguity of the music’s intent and meaning encouraged the new thing’s strongest detractors to discredit it, along with the critics who endorsed it, as promoting an aesthetics of identity politics. In this paper, I explore the contours of this argument as presented in mid-60s criticism, but also outline how other writers, like Amiri Baraka, framed the new music’s intensity and opacity as a polemical project aimed at white bourgeois liberalism and the jazz industry’s oligopoly.
            Agency and ownership, on the part of both music creators and their audiences, are themes that emerge in this discourse. Specifically, abstraction in the new thing was targeted as the means through which an artist’s motives, as well as the integrity and value of the music itself, might be determined and judged. I consider how techniques of abstraction in the new thing disclosed, citing Phillip Brian Harper, a unique representation of “social facts” that subverted the expectation of legibility so central to modern jazz criticism and consumption in postwar United States. How the aesthetic challenge of the new thing might be framed as a matter of knowingness—a recognition of the artists’ personhood and an acknowledgment of creative expression’s intrinsic politics—is my attempt to unravel experimentalism’s thorny reception in the music literature of this period. 


Kwami Coleman is a musicologist, composer, and musician. He is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He released his debut recording, Local Music, in February 2017; it is a bricolage of original compositions for keyboards, bass, drums, and interpolated field recordings captured in Harlem, his home neighborhood, between 2014–16. Kwami is at work on a book tentatively titled Change: The “New Thing” and Modern Jazz, but the title may very well change too.