All Blues


I never met Stuart Hall, or even saw him speak in person, which seems surprising now that he is gone — there must have been opportunities I missed — but also somehow appropriate. I only knew him through his writings, which is to say intimately but at a distance, without the mirage of familiarity — without guarantees, to use his phrase. This seemed right, somehow, given the insistence in Hall’s work on the ongoing task, the not-yet-doneness, of reading, of thought, of political struggle. It seemed like the proper remove from a voice that insisted on “living identity through difference,” on an understanding of identity that was not a matter of assumed commonality or unanimity but instead something “contradictory,” something “composed across the silences of the other, as written in and through ambivalence and desire.”[ref]Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities,” in Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. Anthony D. King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 57, 49.[/ref] One can find parallel arguments about identity and difference elsewhere, in Edouard Glissant, for instance, or in Audre Lorde (“difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”), but for me the lectural voice in Hall’s writings — uncluttered, exacting, synthetic — was one of the most authoritative.[ref]Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 111.[/ref]

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, Hall’s work was part of the landscape. People would pass around photocopies of his essays — I still remember the first one I got my hands on, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” which had appeared in the hard-to-find Journal of Communication Inquiry — the way they passed around copies of out-of-print books like Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism or C. L. R. James’s Notes on Dialectics, faded from being xeroxed too many times, and with notes in the margins from multiple hands. Along with Nathaniel Mackey, Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Samuel Delany, and Sylvia Wynter, Hall was one of the writers whose work I began to collect, in a manila-folder-anthology of fugitive essays which I still have.

I don’t recall ever reading Hall for a class. (Again, this seemed appropriate, given the “extramural” origins of cultural studies in the UK, with Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart first working as tutors in adult education programs.) When I started teaching at Rutgers at the end of that decade, the first graduate seminar I taught was called “Black Cultural Studies: Issues and Approaches,” and it was there, with a stellar group of students who are mostly tenured professors now, that I first read Hall in depth. Without going into what was in fact a complex and multi-layered process, I would say simply that my own understanding of diaspora — of everything that term implied as an analytical tool in the study of the history of peoples of African descent — was derived in no small part from reading and teaching Hall’s work, and grappling with his incisive definition:

I use this term here metaphorically, not literally: diaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, imperializing, the hegemonising, form of ‘ethnicity.’ We have seen the fate of the people of Palestine at the hands of this backward-looking conception of diaspora — and the complicity of the West with it. The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.[ref]Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 235.[/ref]

Click here to watch “The Stuart Hall Project”

Although I didn’t write about it, or even consciously think it through at the time, I would also say that I was intrigued even then by Hall’s path — by the implications one might be tempted to intuit in the choices he made, in the way he approached intellectual life and work. To me it seems a somewhat unusual model, certainly in relation to the “tenure track” in the US, upon which I was then embarking.

First, given Hall’s stature, it is striking that one might say that his career as an intellectual started with his involvement in the 1957 founding at Oxford of Universities and Left Review (which in 1960 merged with another periodical, The New Reasoner, in the inception of the New Left Review, with Hall as the first editor of the new publication). In other words, it starts not with a groundbreaking monograph or even a brilliant essay, but with editing. Indeed, radicalized by the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis, Hall abandoned writing his Ph.D dissertation on Henry James. He would later say that his thesis — which was going to be on “cultural-moral contrasts between America and Europe” in James’s fiction, and the “destabilization of the narrative ‘I’” in his novels — was “not as distant from these pre-occupations as all that.” But he turned to Universities and Left Review out of an apparent need to participate in the current of contemporary political debate; “I didn’t feel it was right,” he explained, “for me to go on thinking cultural questions in ‘pure’ literary terms.”[ref]Kuan-Hsing Chen, “The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual: an Interview with Stuart Hall,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996), 498. For a powerful, oblique response to this formulation, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Reading with Stuart Hall in ‘Pure’ Literary Terms” (2000), collected in Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 351-71.[/ref]

Two other characteristics may in fact be related to Hall’s primary work as an editor. In his own writing, Hall was unquestionably a master of the short form. When one thinks of Hall’s bibliography, it is essays that first come to mind, not books: “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” (1980); “Encoding / Decoding” (1980); “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’” (1981); “New Ethnicities” (1988); “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” (1992); “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1992). It is perhaps noteworthy that so many of the major figures of African diasporic and postcolonial studies (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter) have been great essay writers, first and foremost — although in noting this, I’ll leave open the question of the precise contours of this constituency, and the implications of the short form for the constellation of issues at stake in their work.

Editors can be as ego-driven and magisterial as anyone. But considering the singularity of Hall’s brilliance, one might also be surprised at his penchant for collaboration, which may have had something to do with the teamwork necessary to put out a periodical. When he did publish books, they tended to be co-edited or co-written volumes, such as the indispensable 1978 Policing the Crisis.[ref]Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978).[/ref] As Hall himself observed, “I work best collectively”; in one televised interview, asked to describe his contribution as an intellectual, he said that above all he was “a sort of enabler of other people doing things.”[ref]Television interview with Hall, included in The Stuart Hall Project, dir. John Akomfrah (Smoking Dog Films, 2013).[/ref] I am not sure this is an issue of humility, although it is hard to imagine most equally prominent intellectuals describing themselves this way. To me it is first of all a matter of the foregrounding of a politics of collaboration: the conviction that if an undertaking is something of importance, then it necessarily must be pursued together, in dialogue, in a spirit of mutuality.

I gave an initial version of these remarks at a screening of The Stuart Hall Project, John Akomfrah’s 2013 film portrait of Hall. The film is remarkable not only for its elegiac tone, only underlined by Hall’s passing, but also for its composition. There is no voiceover narration. Instead, the film, in tracking what is described as “the multiple lives of a multicultural subject,” is composed through a juxtaposition of archives: the long history (going back to the late 1950s) of Hall’s appearances on television (political debate shows, speeches, interviews, and documentaries), on the one hand, and a poignant compendium of family photographs, on the other.

The soundtrack of the film is largely (though not exclusively) made up of the music of Miles Davis. Is jazz, here, meant to suture the “public” and “private” visual archives, to weave them into counterpoint, or on the contrary to emphasize their incommensurability?

Early in the film, Hall says: “When I was about 19 or 20, Miles Davis put his finger on my soul. The various moods of Miles Davis matched the evolution of my own feelings.” While the claim is riveting in its confessional tone, it is just as provocative in suggesting that Davis’s music — famous for its many radical transformations, which kept Miles at the crest of a series of styles (bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, jazz-funk, fusion) over three decades — could somehow be used to chart an “evolution” of Hall’s sensibility. Wisely, perhaps, the film doesn’t attempt to push this parallel too far, as though one could hear a chronological transcript of the full range of the political and intellectual changes of the late twentieth century in Miles’s commercial recordings. So “Filles de Kilimanjaro” (1968) shows up on the soundtrack before “Miles Ahead” (1957). Still, this proposition of a parallel frames the film, and it is resonant in part because it echoes other prominent arguments about the power of black music to represent black history, such as James Baldwin’s contention that “it is only in his music … that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear.”[ref]Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone” (1951), in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 19.[/ref]

kind of blue
“Some of what Hall says about Miles in the film strikes me as strange [… ] [E]ven if one can describe this as a sort of misrecognition of Miles, there is once again something that seems appropriate about it. It is an instantiation of the difference that diaspora makes — the unavoidable sea changes of black (British) ears hearing black (American) sounds.”
Some of what Hall says about Miles in the film strikes me as strange, just slightly off-kilter. After he moved to England in 1951 to pursue his studies, Hall says, “there continued to be a regret for the loss of a life which I might have lived but didn’t live. And the uncertainty, the restlessness, and some of the nostalgia for what cannot be is in the sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet.” Doubtless there is some “nostalgia for what cannot be” in Miles’s sound. Just to take one example, Miles describes “Saeta” on the album Sketches of Spain as “a song about loneliness, about longing and lament” that is “close to the American black feeling in the blues.”[ref]Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 242.[/ref]

But nostalgia is by no means the only, or even necessarily the most prominent, sentiment in Miles’s sound: there is also the urbane self-assurance of “Milestones”; the limpid tenderness of “It Never Entered My Mind”; the opaque interiority of “Blue in Green,” which as Nathaniel Mackey has written navigates “the path from reveille to reverie”; the brash aggression of “Walkin’” or “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”; the “pitiless romanticism” of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” — not to mention what Ralph Ellison called the “calculated surliness and rudeness” that some took to be the defining characteristic of Miles’ stage presence.[ref]Mackey, “Blue in Green: Black Interiority,” River City 16, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 116. Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1964), 225. The phrase “pitiless romanticism” comes from Josef Woodard, “Field Recordings from a Future-Leaning Past,” liner notes to Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 (Columbia Legacy 88725418532, 2013).[/ref] Whatever sentiment one might infer from a given recording, Miles himself described the sound he was aiming for as affectless: “a round sound with no attitude in it.”[ref]Davis, interview by Quincy Troupe, tape recording, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City, 6 May 1989. Quoted in Ashley Kahn, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001), 25.[/ref]

The famous reticence of Miles’s playing, its spare quality, seems to me less a function of absence or impossibility (“what cannot be”) than of presence. As Mackey puts it, “Miles’s approach — ‘the concept of space breathing through the music’ he called it — highlights analysis, dissection, the act of selection, discernment, choice.” Miles, Mackey writes, “made the music more palpably a vehicle for thinking out loud, though the ‘out loud’ was in fact an effect of his use of silence — reticent sound, it seemed, making cognition a manifest presence.”[ref]Mackey, “Blue in Green,” 119.[/ref]

When Miles, frustrated at the stilted interpretation (“robot playing”) of the classically-trained musicians in the orchestra for Sketches of Spain, enjoined them to play “what isn’t there,” he didn’t mean to invoke something absent or lost, but instead to give voice to a quality that was there, even if not adequately indicated in the written score. “The musicians only play what’s there and nothing else,” he complained.[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 244.[/ref]

At the same time, even if one can describe this as a sort of misrecognition of Miles, there is once again something that seems appropriate about it. It is an instantiation of the difference that diaspora makes — the unavoidable sea changes of black (British) ears hearing black (American) sounds. It brings to mind the insightful pages in Policing the Crisis regarding the Black Panthers’ “adoption and adaptation” of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to the particular context of the United States, which necessarily involved a “transposition” of Fanon’s argument: a reconfiguration of anticolonial thought that allowed the Panthers to theorize the situation of African Americans as one of “internal colonization.” It could similarly be described as a sort of misrecognition to call the US inner city a “colony” in the same way Algeria was a colony of France. But there is insight in the transposition, and a potential for linking seemingly disparate struggles: by this means, the word “colony” (or the term “Third World”) comes to “signify a set of characteristic economic, social and cultural exploitative relations, rather than a set of geographical spaces.”[ref]See Policing the Crisis, 386-87.[/ref]

Learning that Stuart Hall was a Miles Davis fan made me wonder whether it would be possible to read Hall’s best-known formulation as itself a kind of “transposition” of Miles. I am thinking of the famous proposition that “race is the modality in which class is lived.”[ref]Policing the Crisis, 394. This formulation is commonly attributed to Hall, although to do so is to overlook that it appears in a collectively authored book. That said, Hall himself does use the formulation, phrased slightly differently, in one of his singly authored works, the essay “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” where he writes that that race is “the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.’” See Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (1980), collected in Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 55. Here is the full passage from Policing the Crisis: “The constitution of this class fraction as a class, and the class relations which inscribe it, function as race relations. The two are inseparable. Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced” (394).[/ref] The main challenge of the sentence is figuring out what “modality” means. (It is not a Marxian term.) Would it be possible to hear Hall hearing Miles in this phrasing — to hear “modality,” in other words, as an adoption and adaptation of the “modal” approach to harmony and improvisation that is often associated with Miles’s album Kind of Blue?

Hall means that the black working class is constituted on every level through race. In terms of daily life; education; access to employment; the experience of the workplace; and collective organization — whether through union representation, community initiatives, or electoral politics — class position is determined by race: the fact of racial difference shapes these social forms, as well as “the struggles over ideology, culture, and consciousness which result.” Even if this is first of all a matter of racism (the forms of exclusion and deprivation that deny access and opportunity to black workers), race is also the “mode” or “medium” through which the black working class becomes conscious of its subjugation. In other words, the lens of race can be “occupied and redefined to become the elementary forms of an oppositional formation—as where ‘white racism’ is vigorously contested through the symbolic inversions of ‘black power.’ The ideologies of racism remain contradictory structures, which can function both as the vehicles for the imposition of dominant ideologies, and as the elementary forms for the cultures of resistance.”[ref]Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” 55, 57. This point is also elaborated in Policing the Crisis, 347.[/ref]

The word “modality” seems crucial to the formulation because it connotes at once structure (an objective social form) and sensibility (the consciousness of that structure as something imposed and ultimately mutable). Thus “what seems, at first, the product of circumstances –– fate –– comes to be understood as the product of particular social and historical arrangements. Modes of existence, inertly inhabited as unchangeable, ‘given’ in the structures which inscribe man as the bearers of their conditions, can, in this way, be transformed into a more positive agency or practice.”[ref]Policing the Crisis, 360.[/ref]

It is not an overstatement to say that Miles’s attraction to what would be called a “modal” approach to harmony had everything to do with this sort of combination of structure and sensibility. Rather than moving through a progression of “changes” (tonal centers), the improviser plays within a particular mode (a scale) for a given amount of time — the tune “So What” on Kind of Blue, for instance, employs a D Dorian mode for 16 bars, an E-flat Dorian mode for 8 bars, and a D Dorian mode for 8 more bars[ref]The Dorian mode is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth.[/ref]— in a manner that allows a much broader range of expressive possibility: the soloist can suggest a more varied palette of moods, in other words. Miles said that “the challenge here, when you work in the modal way, is to see how inventive you can become melodically.”[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 225.[/ref]

It is worth remembering that for Miles Davis, what came to be called “modal” was itself a species of translation. He said that he got the idea when his girlfriend, the dancer Frances Taylor, took him to see a performance by Les Ballets Africains (the troupe founded and directed by the Guinean poet and choreographer Keita Fodeba). “It just fucked me up what they was doing, the steps and all them flying leaps and shit,” Miles recounts in his autobiography. “And when I first heard them play the finger piano that night and sing this song with this other guy dancing, man, that was some powerful stuff.” He says that the rolling 6/8 time of the tune “All Blues” on Kind of Blue was an attempt to capture the “running sound” of the mbira, and the specific rhythmic interaction between the musicians and dancers in Les Ballets Africains.[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 225. If one thinks of it from this perspective, then one might say that the version of “All Blues” recorded by Kahil El’Zabar (on mbira) and David Murray (on tenor sax) brings the composition full circle — although a translation of a translation is not the original. “All Blues,” Golden Sea (Sound Aspects Records 027, 1989).[/ref] The tune combines this with another sound Miles remembered from spending time as a child in Arkansas, “when we were walking home from church and they were playing these bad gospels.” He says he was trying to get close to that feeling, too, “that feeling I had when I was six years old, walking with my cousin along that dark Arkansas road.”[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 225.[/ref]

Most interestingly, Miles says that as a translation “All Blues” was ultimately a failure. He couldn’t capture “that secret, inner thing” that he heard in Les Ballets Africains. Miles remarks that “when I tell people that I missed what I was trying to do on Kind of Blue, that I missed getting the exact sound of the African finger piano up in that sound, they just look at me like I’m crazy. Everyone said that record was a masterpiece — and I loved it too — and so they just feel I’m trying to put them on. But that’s what I was trying to do on most of that album, particularly on ‘All Blues’ and ‘So What.’ I just missed.”[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 235.[/ref]

Put differently, it is only through failure, through a certain kind of makeshift or ersatz transposition, that one intuits just the right mood (“a masterpiece”). Again, diaspora is another name for this misrecognition, for the ongoing process of modalities “constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.” Or as Miles puts it: “you just miss where you thought you wanted to go. I was trying to do one thing and ended up doing something else.”[ref]Miles: the Autobiography, 234.[/ref]

When you think about it, “All Blues” is an odd title for a song. It seems to amplify or double down on an impulse that is already at stake in Miles’s music, a “brooding” or “reflective” mood that is signaled by the infinite gradation of blues in his titles (“Bluing,” “Blue in Green,” “No Blues,” “Blue Haze,” “Vierd Blues,” “Blues by Five,” “Out of the Blue,” etc.).[ref]Mackey, 118.[/ref] It is almost as though, if you were blue enough, you would be African, too: the glint of the Nile in the twilight; the hue of a shadow in a township alley; a particular shade of dye only found in southern Morocco. If you mix all the manifold variants of blue together, do you end up with black? (In the weeks after the tune was recorded in April 1959, before the song had a title, the producer Irving Townsend simply identified it as “African” in his mastering notes.)[ref]Ashley Kahn, Kind of Blue, 143.[/ref]

Is “All Blues” then about the inescapability of a condition, about being condemned to deprivation? No escape: all blues, all the time. Or is it about having an unlimited palette, the power to represent the full gamut of loss, a blues of all the blues — a mourning that would contain all mourning, that somehow bound it all up into a rolling sound and a moan heard in the distance on a dark road? A rehearsal of loss that somehow transcends that loss, that somehow transforms the modality of loss to make it sound like an entirely different thing? If Hall’s modality is a translation of Miles mode, then it has to do with a recognition of the way “fate” becomes potential, the way a cage becomes a launching pad, the way we improvise a way out of no way, as the narrow confines of the given open onto an unsuspected expanse. Isn’t that an elegy? You just miss. But missing ends up something else, it keeps on keeping on. Miles made it sound like that, unbounded, open: “when you play this way, go in this direction, you can go on forever.”

Brent Hayes Edwards teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and is a former co-editor of the Social Text collective. 

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