According To Adorno: A Portrait of Jazz’s Harshest Critic

According To Adorno: A Portrait of Jazz’s Harshest Critic


Though the vast majority of his writings on music dealt primarily with the classical tradition, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) also devoted a considerable amount of attention to jazz. To say Adorno was skeptical of this dance music that had paddled its way across the Atlantic, would be a gross understatement at best. On top of being incredibly biased, his opinions on jazz music were so harsh, that one may wonder if they are to be taken seriously at all. Indeed, many jazz historians have dismissed them altogether, while others went so far as to consider them “the stupidest pages ever written about jazz.” Nonetheless, Adorno’s jazz essays are of great historical value.

©Mathias Gabriel

Theodor Adorno, best known for his critical social theory, was a German thinker and one of the leading theorists of the Frankfurt School. Apart from being among the most renowned philosophers on aesthetics of the twentieth century, he also grew to be one of the harshest critics of jazz, for it embodied the very “mass culture” he so strongly opposed. Adorno’s first writing on jazz appeared in 1933, at which point it was published in the Europäische Revue, a conservative and national socialist magazine. The essay, titled Abschied vom Jazz (“Farewell to Jazz”), was prompted by the radio ban on the so-called “niggerjazz,” that had recently been imposed on German broadcasting stations. In this article, Adorno ironically claimed that the prohibition of jazz was unnecessary, since it had already reached the end of its short musical lifespan and had succumbed to all kinds of commercial pressure. A painful conclusion it must have been to realize that as years passed, jazz did anything but lose its popularity. In 1937, Adorno’s second article On Jazz (Über Jazz) appeared in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the yearly journal issued by the Institute for Social Research of the Frankfurt School. By this time, Adorno had already left Germany due to his Jewish heritage, and was now residing in England, where he pursued a doctor’s degree at the University of Oxford. The article was published under the pen name Hektor Rottweiler, supposedly to dissociate himself from the broad German public, that largely consisted of jazz enthusiasts.

Adorno initiates Über Jazz with a lengthy theoretical analysis of the technical aspects of jazz, as he interprets them. Its foremost innovation was to be found in the extensive use of the syncopation, a rhythmical phenomenon widely associated with jazz music. According to Adorno, syncopation could be recognized by two subcategories: anticipation (“Überbindung”) and delay (“Aussparung”). Other rhythmical novelties of jazz were the “Scheintakt” or “pseudo-bar,” that was created when a rhythmical pattern of three beats would extend over the 4/4 bar lines, and the typical instrumental solo break. The latter was accused of being no more than a hotchpotch of clichés, reflecting the canonical Marxian concept of false consciousness: one is given the illusion of freedom (improvisation), but forced to choose from a list of existing commodities (clichés). Adorno explained that, no matter how complex and rhythmically daring a jazz musician would play, he would always surrender to the “dictatorship” of the 4/4 metre and the 32-bar song form.

Jazz timbre was characterized by the vibrato, whereas all other forms of instrumental timbre, such as slaptonguing, growling and other vocalization techniques, were simply dismissed as decadent showmanship. Further analysis led him to believe that jazz harmony was merely an imitation of impressionism: Ninth chords, constant structures, stereotypical blue notes and other “vertical charms” that jazz offered were all “taken from Debussy.” From this extensive analysis, Adorno concluded that jazz is defined by its dichotomy between the rigid and the excess: Despite its false idea of freedom, jazz is mechanical and “soulless,” since it is continuously hamstrung by its stylistic limitations, while on the other hand, jazz depends greatly on its explosive, flamboyant virtuosity and almost circus-like showmanship.

It is important for us to take into account that Adorno’s perception of jazz was influenced by many different factors, the first of which is the blatant fact that his opinions were formed during the Weimar Republic of Germany. Like many other European countries, Germany was struck by a burning enthusiasm for jazz music shortly after World War I. It is, however, the relationship between Germany and jazz that evolved in a most peculiar way. After the naval blockade had been lifted in 1919, the German population barely had the time to recover before the increasing political instability reached its peak during Germany’s hyperinflation in the early twenties. By now, the country had been economically and culturally isolated for years. While jazz flourished in cities as London or Paris, Germany’s economy was too weak to import music, let alone host concerts of renowned American jazz musicians. Instead, German musicians created a musical substitute for jazz, based on their own popular music and rough ideas of what jazz might sound like. Needless to say, this “jazz” surrogate was far from the authentic Afro-American music that had originated in the early twentieth century.

The stabilization of Germany’s economy in the mid-twenties allowed new investments to be made in the entertainment industry, such as the matrix exchange programme with America. The exchange programme enabled the import and export of metal matrices used to press records, and by the late twenties, Germany was shipping a substantial amount of classical recordings to the United States in exchange for American dance music. Ideally, the matrix exchange programme would have cleared up all German misconceptions about jazz; yet, as we may already suspect: There’s a catch. The imported jazz music excluded, as expected, the so-called “Race Records,” on which virtually all legitimate Afro-American jazz recordings were to be found. This led to German “jazz” bands drawing inspiration from figures such as Zez Confrey, Paul Whiteman or vaudeville singer and entertainer Al Jolson.

When taking this information into consideration, Adorno’s criticism on jazz appears to be somewhat understandable. Furthermore, his idea of “pseudo-improvisation” was not entirely misplaced either: As a rule, German jazz musicians consulted a multitude of break “manuals,” and learnt the instrumental solo breaks they contained parrot-fashion, leaving little to no room for genuine improvisation or creativity. Likewise, his image of jazz musicians resorting to circus-like showmanship seems less unreasonable when baring the cultural context of Weimar Germany in mind.

At this point, we have reason to believe we have ironed out the confusion concerning Adorno’s contempt for jazz music. His harsh opinions on jazz, however, remained the same even after residing in the United States for more than ten years. Following two critical book reviews of Jazz, Hot and Hybrid (Winthrop Sargeant, 1938) and American Jazz Music (Wilder Hobson, 1939), Adorno published his third extensive essay on jazz in 1953: Zeitlose Mode: zum Jazz (“Timeless Fashion: on Jazz”). If anything, Adorno reconfirms his previous thoughts on jazz in this essay, not despite, but because of his exposure to America’s music culture.

After a new (but certainly not more accurate) technical analysis, he concludes that all subgenres of jazz that had emerged over the years were in essence all of the same calibre. Popular songs, or standards, were all simply “dressed up in a new fashion” over and over again to sell to countless new generations of jazz fanatics. Despite jazz musicians’ attempts to build on and recreate well-known standards, the internal structures of the songs remained unaltered, thus ruling out complete freedom. According to Adorno, the musicians’ efforts to overcome the limitations of jazz music were less relevant than the existence of those very limitations. Adorno finally concludes his essay by labelling jazz as the “false liquidation of art”: “Instead of attaining the Utopia, jazz causes it to disappear completely.” This last phrase reflects his sociological and political analysis of jazz, which we shall tackle in part II.




Though Adorno had many points of criticism regarding the technical aspects of jazz, his contempt for the music genre was fueled by something else. Given the fact that Adorno was best known for his critical theory of society, it is far from surprising that jazz would not escape a social deciphering in his essays.”Jazz is not what it ‘is,’” he claims in Über Jazz; jazz is defined by the role it plays in society. It is this belief that led Adorno to form his most aggressive opinions on jazz yet, many of which may puzzle us even when attempting to place them within the historical and geographical context of Weimar Germany.

One of Adorno’s most confusing statements regarding jazz, is what he called the “Negerfabel.” Not only did he continuously deny the African-American heritage of jazz music, he also went so far as to claim that “the Negro’s skin” was merely a “colouristic effect”: nothing more than an aggressive marketing tool, that was meant to give the music an exotic touch. Throughout the years, Adorno remained convinced that jazz was undoubtedly a white man’s music, and insisted its predecessors were to be found in European salon music and the march. Adorno’s refusal to acknowledge both jazz’s African and American origins, reveals the extent to which his analysis was laden with eurocentrism. As we previously discussed, many of Adorno’s opinions on jazz were formed within the Weimar Republic of Germany, and must therefore be interpreted accordingly. Before reaching Central-Europe, jazz had already been subjected to two processes of musical acculturation, in which its African-American elements were first toned down for white American consumers, and later all but nullified for European audiences. Considering Germany in particular had been culturally isolated since World War I, it is not too surprising that German musicians relied heavily on European, commercial music to create their own home-grown equivalent for jazz. Adorno was correct in recognizing two musical styles that contributed to the birth of Weimar jazz, namely that of the salon orchestra and the military march band.

In addition to being a predominantly white and European music genre, Adorno also asserted that jazz was the “Gebrauchsmusik” of the upper class. It was a product in the strictest sense; intended for consumption by the grand bourgeois of society: a handful of dance groomed aristocrats that had the time and money to learn the newest dance trends. Needless to say, it did not take long before jazz gained immense popularity and spread throughout the echelons of society. Adorno divided jazz into two main categories: hot music and amateur jazz. Hot music could be identified by its high technical demands and improvisational freedom, which set its small, elite audience apart from middle-and working class consumers. Amateur jazz on the other hand, was the umbrella term for more commercial jazz music, particularly popular amongst younger audiences, such as the Swingjugend. According to Adorno, the novelty effects and musical outbursts of these rebellious youngsters were not created in a true revolutionary spirit, and instead served the sole purpose of épater la bourgeoisie.

As J. Bradford Robinson cleverly mentions in Popular Music*, it is interesting to point out that Adorno accurately documented the exact inversion of the social dispersion of jazz music in America. Both American and German jazz started out with social minorities and spread through society via processes of acculturation and imitation. It is curious that, although they developed in the same way, they moved in the exact opposite direction: American jazz music emerged from the lowest rungs of the African-American community, whereas German jazz was first established by the cream of society.

Adorno regarded this mass distribution of commercial jazz music as highly unfavorable, and claimed that “the more democratic jazz is, the worse it becomes.” He insisted that, as jazz marched down the ranks of society, it gradually dropped all its revolutionary features in order to appeal to the broad public. What was left was a popular “musical accompaniment of collective fashion,” that did “little more than glorify suppression itself.”

We have now reached what seems to be the root of Adorno’s contempt for jazz: his conviction that it was irrevocably intertwined with fascism and even Nazism. This may well be his most puzzling statement yet. Was jazz not banned from all Nazi broadcasting stations in the early thirties? Was it not seen as the very music of “the era’s modernism”; a sentimental yearning for the American democracy and way of living? What brought Adorno to make these bizarre allegations? Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to these questions, and it is no surprise that many jazz historians have dismissed Adorno’s writings altogether. There are, however, several historical factors that point us in the direction of understanding his claims a little better.

Despite indeed being banned from Nazi broadcasting stations, it is misguided to assume that jazz instantaneously disappeared from Germany’s popular culture. There were in fact no immediate restrictions in early Nazi Germany regarding the performing or attending of jazz concerts in hot clubs, and instead, the Reichsministerium resorted to anti-jazz propaganda. It was this propaganda that resulted in a most peculiar development of commercial jazz music, which as it were gradually devolved; dropping its innovative elements and returning to its German predecessor: the military march. By the time Adorno wrote his first essay on jazz, this transformation was almost complete; “jazz” had already succumbed to the German “oom-pah” propaganda, and no longer shared any musical features with authentic American jazz. Furthermore, the fact that Germany had its own Nazi-sponsored swing band is often ignored by historians. Charlie & His Orchestra was the initiative of Joseph Goebbels, who saw in jazz the opportunity of combining popular culture with Nazi propaganda. The result was a relatively sophisticated sounding jazz band, playing well-known American jazz standards with pro-Nazi lyrics. Their music was by far the most authentic sounding jazz that was permitted on German radio stations, and may slightly help clarify Adorno’s wild accusations.

Does this fully explain why such an intelligent man as Adorno insisted that “jazz and pogrom goes hand in hand”? Perhaps not entirely. Nevertheless, his jazz essays do offer us an interesting and historically valid take on the Weimar and Nazi jazz scene, a topic that was not initially open to much discussion. It is careless and intellectually dishonest to simply ridicule and dismiss his writings as “the stupidest pages ever written about jazz”*, for they shed light upon an under-documented chapter of cultural history.


*Johnson, J.B., Popular Music, Volume 13/1. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

*Hobsbawm, E., The Jazz Scene. New York: Pantheon, 1993.