Forget who you would have at your dream dinner party – this is Robert O’Meally’s dream jam session. Antagonistic Cooperation puts three of the most influential African American artists of the twentieth century – Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden – in conversation in an accessibly interdisciplinary text. Through comparative analysis of their music, fiction and visual art respectively, O’Meally sets out to demonstrate how conflict – ubiquitous, particularly in the rhetoric of American politics in these years surrounding the Trump administration – can be a productive rather than divisive force.
Antagonistic Cooperation sits comfortably within the critical turn that has come to be known as the ‘new jazz studies’: emerging out of Columbia University’s Jazz Study Group in the 1990s, O’Meally, alongside colleagues including Brent Hayes Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin, called for a move away from a discipline-restricted approach jazz studies to consider the music as the progenitor of an aesthetic that not only spans disciplines but American life. In the last five years, texts such as Fumi Okiji’s Jazz as Critique (2018) and Daphne A. Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution (2021) have also looked to jazz and Black contributions to popular music in their dynamic interdisciplinary theorising on contemporary culture.
The arguments in Antagonistic Cooperation are framed by insights from two genres of music and visual art: jazz and collage. In the former, O’Meally looks to the jam session – a group of musicians improvising and playing standards together informally – as a model for intellectual exchange, insofar as this mode of collaborative improvisation requires deep listening and embraces disagreement and competition. The jam session is a demonstration of and an analogy for ‘antagonistic cooperation’. Taken from an open letter written by Ellison to the literary critic Irving Howe, O’Meally uses the phrase to draw out from the jam session a framework for ‘community building, of competition and coordination with a jazz player’s spirit of love’.[i] As O’Meally writes:
Jamming not only with and against other players, but with and against art forms themselves – editing the forms of blues and jazz, editing the forms of the novel – can also uncover new directions to action in that aesthetic sense, as well as in the hard-facts world of here-and-now political change.[ii]
Antagonistic cooperation, then, is the form and focus of O’Meally’s work, requiring interdisciplinary analysis yet also interested in what that discipline-crossing could represent – though the explicitly ‘here-and-now political’ implications are left largely for the reader to discern. The literary depictions of music in Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and ‘A Coupla Scalped Indians’ (1956) unpack the reverberations of antagonistic cooperation and demand active reading.
O’Meally also sees antagonistic cooperation in the visual art collage – particularly those of Bearden, including his Odyssey series and other works primarily from the 1960s and 70s. The aesthetic principles are also present in the equally esteemed Jean-Michel Basquiat and that folk-art craft of quilting. As ‘a model for self and community’, the collage reframes the idea of a whole made up of disjunctive parts as cohesive rather than ruptured.[iii] O’Meally subsequently uses collage to understand Armstrong: as an amateur collagist himself, the varied quotations and allusions in his music, as well as the multitudinous aspects of his grinning, growling and occasionally politically outspoken public self, can be read as patched together to form a complex whole.
The text culminates in an examination of Paris Blues: the 1961 film starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier (and Armstrong in a cameo as trumpeter ‘Wild Man Moore’), as well as its other lives as a novel, a film score (by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) and a collage book (by Bearden, film producer Sam Shaw and cultural commentator Albert Murray). In the ‘disturbing failure of nerve’ that saw an interracial romance in queer Paris transformed into the story of a white trombonist’s crisis of confidence, O’Meally hones in on moments of ‘unruly Black cosmopolitanism’, in which artists refuse to be fixed down and instead become ‘the more capacious and boldly transgressive realization of humanity in art’.[iv] Starting from the director’s farcical stipulation that Newman’s character had to be dubbed by a white musician, O’Meally not only highlights the film’s fleeting traces of the more subversive original idea, but also how Ellington and Strayhorn’s effusive score tussles for power with the visuals and dialogue.
O’Meally strays into a defensive position when considering Armstrong’s decision to play the role of Wild Man Moore, whose name and spirit lean into a ‘noble savage’ stereotype. While O’Meally argument here is slightly contrived, his determination to showcase the intellectualism of the historically maligned Armstrong is admirable. The context he introduces illustrates the push and pull between anti-Black racism and Black self-expression that Armstrong was navigating – including calling out the left-wing righteousness of branding Armstrong as a ‘sellout Uncle Tom’ as ‘one of the most annoying and sometimes dangerous faces of white racism’.[v]
As with Paris Blues itself, the most exciting ideas of O’Meally’s text are found in the small moments. Parenthetical asides often allude to the wider critical questions behind the layers of historically contingent example, such as using an anecdote about Marlon Brando’s short-lived involvement in Paris Blues to illustrate the difference between the absence of racism and anti-racism, or hinting at a comparative arts vocabulary by glossing ‘tone’ as a ‘richly cross-generic term’.[vi][vii] Likewise, O’Meally’s turns to etymology are incisive – particularly his observation on the etymological proximity of ‘to mean’ and ‘to moan’, which gestures towards what Nathaniel Mackey describes as ‘nonspeech’ and Paul Gilroy calls the ‘topos of unsayability’ in their discussions of how Black diasporic music finds meaning beyond words.[viii] [ix] [x]
O’Meally clearly takes joy in his writing. His choice of material stays safely within the canon, and though this makes for a more conservative study that is largely restricted to the male and heteronormative, situating widely admired artists in a thoroughly interdisciplinary context is important for engendering a shift in how the arts are studied. As well as the trio of artists at its heart, cameos by Basquiat, Ellington, Billie Holiday, Mark Twain, Henry James, Toni Morrison and others suggest the sprawling web of artists implicated in this jam session. At a talk on Bearden at Columbia, Morrison said: ‘The borders established for the convenience of study are, I believe, not just porous, they are liquid’.[xi] O’Meally calls Morrison’s words ‘a kind of manifesto for twenty-first-century commentary on the arts’ – one that Antagonistic Cooperation certainly subscribes to.[xii]
[i] Robert G. O’Meally, Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2022), 17.
[ii] Ibid., 49.
[iii] Ibid., 58.
[iv] Ibid., 168.
[v] Ibid., 201.
[vi] Ibid., 182.
[vii] Ibid., 160.
[viii] Ibid., 36.
[ix] Nathaniel Mackey, Paracritical Hinge: Essay, Talks, Notes, Interviews (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2018), 193.
[x] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 74.
[xi] Toni Morrison, “Abrupt Stops and Unexpected Liquidity: The Aesthetics of Romare Bearden,” in The Romare Bearden Reader, ed. Robert G. O’Meally, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 178-184, 182.
[xii] O’Meally, Antagonistic Cooperation, 84.