Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country. – Duke Ellington
When talking of a free society, one must take into account the importance of institutions that foster and allow for individual freedom to thrive. Indeed, Hayek noted in Law, Legislation, and Liberty that “individual freedom…has been largely the product of a prevailing respect for such principles which, however, have never been fully articulated in constitutional documents” but has been preserved ”for prolonged periods because such principles, vaguely and dimly perceived, have governed public opinion” through the framework of institutions. Music is one institution of human society that throughout history has routinely allowed for expanded individual expression; jazz particularly represents this tendency in American history.
Jazz music emerged in the first two decades of the twentieth century and took the United States by storm, leading to the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. This music owes its birth to the fusion and cross-pollination of musical styles that occurred between whites and blacks in New Orleans. It is important to note that the shared culture of music that developed between these peoples occurred under slavery and Jim Crow, periods of our history in which equality before the law was a fairy tale, and the state had a direct hand in trying to isolate blacks and whites from each other both culturally and physically. Jim Crow as a legal system sought as its goal to regulate the interpersonal behaviors and define the nature of relationships of individuals. However, like any true spontaneous order, jazz music was not part of some central plan for society, but was merely the “result of human action but not of human design.” Through jazz, individuals that the law divided found a way to view each other as equals and create a common culture around the music.
Jazz as an institution has always placed high emphasis upon the individual artist. The jazz solo, in which one member of the band stands above the others and showcases his talent, is a defining feature of the genre. Jazz music greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie all had a defining characteristic unique to them that was celebrated. Jazz also strongly values creative destruction and the musicians who are imaginative, creative, and innovative receive more accolades than those who only duplicate the styles of another. However, as all information is free, the best jazz innovators are those who borrow and rearrange what they have heard from others; Ella Fitzgerald once said “I stole everything that I heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.” Jazz innovation represents the best of man’s creative power, described by Ayn Rand as “the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before.”
Despite jazz’s focus on the individual, it also channels individual expression through the spontaneous order of voluntary cooperation that forms the core of a jazz band. Jazz great Stan Getz described the music as a form of spontaneous talking, and likened a jazz quartet to “a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas.” While basic internal rules have developed within the genre, such as using a 12 or 32–bar blues form, jazz musicians play off of each other in much the same way individuals respond to each other organically in other parts of society. Jazz music, with its perfect balance between highlighting the individual and voluntary cooperation within groups, reflects the larger vision of a Smithian-Hayekian society governed by the Invisible Hand.
If an institution’s internal processes foster freedom through organic systems of rules, individuals that interact with that institution usually have their habits affected in pro-freedom ways. This was no less true in the case with jazz, as social freedom expanded wherever this music thrived. Jazz clubs and dance halls were seedbeds for the flapper culture of the 1920s that valued individual freedom and the leveling of racial, class, and gender divisions of the Victorian Era (a trend that was strengthened by the unintended consequences of Prohibition as well). The famed Savoy Nightclub in Harlem which gave birth to the Lindy Hop was also a social sphere in which white and black youth, affluent and poor, found equality on the dance floor or in the bandstand. A former manager of the Savoy recalled “at one stage, about half the people at the Savoy were white and half were colored…the cops used to hate it.”
Not only did the cops hate the liberalized culture of jazz, but social conservatives in general reacted to the new music form as offensive. The August 1921 version of The Ladies’ Home Journal warned that jazz was an “expression of protest against law and order” and represented the youthful “desire to break the shackles of old ideas and forms.” But as Hayek wrote in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative”, the “liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” Jazz was a subversive force culturally, but even its very musical form flouted convention, bending and augmenting nontraditional chords and tonalities. The progressive nature of this music led jazz pioneer Nick LaRocca to proclaim jazz artists as “musical anarchists.” As jazz music grew in popularity, its free nature produced expanded zones of social freedom and equality in its wake; controlled orders could not withstand the spontaneous order and anti-authoritarian ethos embedded in jazz music and culture.
Jazz both as a musical form and a social force has represented and promoted the values of individual expression, voluntary cooperation, and creativity since its emergence nearly a century ago. Free societies give birth to free institutions, and these cultural institutions, including music and other aesthetic movements, work in turn to promote and sustain that society’s freedom. Jazz music is more than just a Louis Armstrong riff, a Billie Holliday skat, or an imaginative Miles Davis solo: jazz is the sound of freedom. Perhaps bebop pianist Thelonious Monk summarized both the genre and human society best when he told an interviewer, “I don’t know where jazz is going. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”