Daniel Rosenberg

Daniel Rosenberg

Dan Rosenberg teaches history at Adelphi University, just outside New York City.

Boxing, crime and capitalism: review of The Bittersweet Science
Saturday, 04 December 2021 10:59

Boxing, crime and capitalism: review of The Bittersweet Science

Published in Sport

Daniel Rosenberg reviews The Bittersweet Science by Gerald Horne, £19.70, $19.95. New York: International Publishers, 2021. 

It is difficult to defend boxing. It is often brutal, and sometimes deadly. Its less odious, even admirable, traits involve skill, speed, tactics, concentration, and movement. In combination with the strictest safety precautions, and free of criminal control, dubious elements, and economic exploitation, it can be deemed a sport. But its very aggression mandates caution in any assessment.

Boxing pre-dates capitalism. Incitement to murder for a thrill in general and gambling returns in particular transcends boxing per se, but emanates from a culture that views workers and oppressed people as things and treats force and violence as casually as drinking milk. Of course, class societies prior to capitalism latched their coattails to combat as entertainment. But incapacitation at a bloody cost is a special money-maker in modern context. Profits infect sports under capitalism. Assault can be a profitable spectacle.

Competitive sport and decay are not one and the same, but competition can also go too far even under non-capitalist circumstances. I attended an amateur boxing tournament in Hungary when it was a socialist-oriented country, at the invitation of longtime Budapest resident and British Communist Charlie Coutts. It involved boxers from Cuba, Nigeria, Italy, and Hungary. To an extent it resembled all such competitions of the time: smoke filled the air, one periodically heard invocations to “kill em.” The requirement to slug still held true, but the generally civil conduct between competitors was clear, in the ring no less: they were not prizefighters. Coutts also got me a ticket for a World Cup preliminary between Soviet Union and Hungary, the latter emerging victorious. In a sign of celebration as well as nationalism, a car outside the stadium was overturned and set afire, a disturbing sight under any social system. Yet the systemic mechanisms driving corruption did not exist and the athletes were not under corporate control.

Most athletes remain true to mutual regard, matching of skill, and sportsmanship, despite the constant drumbeat to humiliate and harm. Critics of capitalism have as much responsibility to evaluate and critique boxing as they do all phenomena under capitalism.

The book under review is a good example of how this can be accomplished. Noted U.S. historian Gerald Horne’s numerous works include The Counter-Revolution of 1776 and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism. Insofar as his new book on boxing deals heavily with the role of mobsters and organized crime, his previous Jazz and Justice and Class Struggle in Hollywood established Horne’s insight into the integration of mobsters into U.S. capitalism.


Gerald Horne

Indeed, Horne focuses on the U.S., though his findings pertain to the control of boxing in other countries, such as South Africa. After all, the professional boxing authorizing bodies: World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation, and others, with their proliferating dozens of new weight classes – are international. Horne employs boxing commission records, minutes of regulatory agencies, oral histories, state gaming commission documents, papers of civil rights organizations and figures, trial testimony and oral histories: thorough and impressive range of sources.

Horne addresses the historical ties between violence and systems based on class division. Similarly he demonstrates resistance by officially disarmed lower classes, including weaponless approaches to self-defence. Nelson Mandela was one of many progressive figures with a boxing history. 


Nelson Mandela

Horne establishes the American background in the origins of racism and slavery in North America. As in ancient Rome where slave gladiators fought to the death for the entertainment of spectators, U.S. slavery manifested similar obsessions. The latter, notes Horne, “was notorious for the arranging of fighting contests among enslaved men in particular, where masculinity was honed, evoking “the overriding bellicosity of U.S. culture.” Horne mentions the attendant “theory” that African and African American slaves were impervious to pain. On this score, Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington is recommended.

Horne also observes that slaves fought the brute force of those who owned and controlled them. He refers to Frederick Douglass, former slave and eventual abolitionist leader in both the U.S. and Britain. Douglass’ autobiography details his repulsing of an attack by the notorious “slave-breaker” Covey (an unusually accurate job title):

Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment — from whence came the spirit I don't know — I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845, p. 73


Frederick Douglass

The integration of violence and racism remained a constant, keynoted by lynching and continued with vigor today by police departments.

By the time of the emergence of imperialism at the end of the 19th century, US culture had harnessed theories attesting to the benefits of conquest by “real men,” and other shows of strength apparently bearing out the importance of physically subduing others. Professional boxing went on to display an inherent sexism and latent or blatant homophobia. Horne’s pithily captures what Emile Griffith did to his homophobic opponent Benny Paret, who mocked Griffith’s alleged sexual orientation: Griffith “methodically executed him in the ring.”

Prizefighting at first inspired mixed reactions as well as criticism as a near-barbaric pursuit. But Horne points out how imperialism served to legitimize physical force: U.S. president and eugenics advocate Theodore Roosevelt successfully produced a merger of intense compulsion as manhood with the virtues of colonial conquest and the laws of racial superiority. Sexism was especially emphasized in the royal treatment of the heavyweight division, where the best incarnations of male domination could allegedly be found: unless those involved were African American or Jewish. Horne details both the emergence of and discrimination against boxers from nationally oppressed groups. Despite anti-Semitism, Jewish boxers held a certain sway in professional boxing for a while, winning numerous titles while Blacks were essentially excluded. Horne mentions champion Barney Ross as an example, a skilled boxer but controlled by gangster Al Capone.


Barney Ross

Racism manifested in the pay differentials for white and Black boxers, stealing black fighters’ promised money outright; the grave threats and isolation accorded African-American fighters like Jack Johnson, who fought at a time when it was illegal to hit a white man, or for that matter to have a relationship with a white woman.


Jack Johnson

Hence the calls almost from the get-go for white “hopes” – James Braddock, Gene Tunney, Gerry Cooney – towards the ostensible goal of white race survival and the rescue of white women from the onslaughts of African-American men. Racism extended to the amateur ranks too: the Amateur Athletic Union for a time banned interracial boxing. When Black fighters, often thanks to growing TV markets became more prominent and often fought each other, both promoters and press created dichotomous images of decent versus savage. When Muhammad Ali came out against the Vietnam War, the advertised clash was between traitors and patriots.

At first regarded as unseemly and forced into remote areas of the country, like the emerging state of Nevada, boxing gained traction as it became a clear money-making enterprise in the operation of organized crime in the 1920s. Still it took a while before the most brutal incidents were investigated and steps were taken to prevent them: Horne mentions that a Mob-associated trainer inserted a layer of cement plaster into Jack Dempsey’s gloves for the consequently sanguineous heavyweight title clash with Jess Willard. The trainer went on to have a long career as a boxing “fixer” for crime syndicates. However, adopting a modicum of protective measures did not erase the brutality of the “sport,” the resulting brain damage and the life-threatening problems engendered by the strenuous effort to maintain weight eligibility for the different boxing classifications.

Nearly all the chapters detail the mechanics of criminal control over boxing in the United States, but Horne brings the matter into clearer focus at certain points. Well established promoters Bob Arum and Don King made arrangements with organized crime organizations. King’s Mob ties were deeper. African-American promoter Truman Gibson was less enthused and more resistant to such connections, and, as Horne shows, paid for it in a trial that singled him out for practices far less corrupt than those of his white confreres in the business. Al Capone and the criminal businesses headed by the Jewish-led gang Murder Inc., the Gambinos, Genoveses, and Luccheses circulated naturally in the netherworld of prizefighting. Boxing trainers Lou Duva, Cus D’Amato (who worked with heavyweights Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, and Angelo Dundee (Muhammad Ali’s man in the corner) are among those whom Horne specifies as “connected.” Under the jurisdiction of promoters, trainers, and mobsters, boxers were cheated, short-changed, set up, exploited: Joe Louis, the champion who defeated Nazi Max Schmeling in 1938, lost promised payments and made desperate efforts to find work after retirement: Horne indicates his relationship with Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson.

Louis v. Schmeling 1938

Boxing judges also fell into the category of the ethically challenged, along with managers, promoters, and trainers. Most properly then the terrain shifted to the gambling sites under the greatest influence of criminal syndicates: Nevada, and Atlantic City in New Jersey. Here also were based prominent political and business figures who celebrated the exploitive cause by self-enrichment. As Horne puts it, “Like flies to faeces, the odoriferous sport attracted human scum effortlessly.” The slime created Donald Trump, facilitated into boxing prominence by his mentor, the virulently corrupt McCarthyite attorney Roy Cohn, prosecutor of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Horne carefully notes the interplay of boxing and politics. Jack Johnson, the first Black champion to inspire a nearly hysterical search for a “white hope,” espoused strong opposition to racism, settling in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s with its advocacy of land reform and nationalization of foreign companies. He also denounced the rise of Hitler, earning admiration by progressives and Communists. Joe Louis supported several Communist Party USA-led organizations in the 1940s, backed anti-war Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 Cold War presidential election (Paul Robeson was one of Wallace’s most active campaigners), and endorsed Communist Benjamin Davis’ election to the New York City Council. Davis went to prison during the McCarthy period.


Henry Wallace next to Paul Robeson

Louis’ interviews with the Daily Worker, the Party newspaper, were a regular feature. He called for the removal of restrictions on African-American voters, and an end to segregation. Lightweight Henry Armstrong enunciated similar principles. Another boxer with leftwing affinities was the future actor Canada Lee, who would later be blacklisted from the film industry. Instances of boxers – including several with random Mob connections – speaking out in support of labor causes and strikes were not uncommon.

However boxer Sonny Liston, whom Muhammad Ali defeated to win the heavyweight title in 1964, served the Mafia as a violent scab protector in strikes. He also stands as one of the most exploited boxers in history. Horne mentions that three organized crime figures regularly drew 76 percent of Liston’s earnings.

At the same time, a number of boxing figures held right-wing opinions. One was 1920s champion Gene Tunney, who expressed fascist sympathies and clearly articulated his fervent opposition to fighting Black opponents. Later, this trend metamorphosed into validating the South African apartheid regime as a worthy partner on the world boxing stage, giving recognition to fights held there, and backing its government as an exemplary partner in sportsmanship. The ever-present enterprise of “white hopes” validated apartheid’s boxing champions and fuelled their integration into the rankings and the matches. Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer, organized a number of these fights, as did the promoter Bob Arum. Boycotting and isolating apartheid-sponsored bouts became in turn a component of the anti-apartheid movement internationally.

After Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, establishing himself as a principled voice amidst the milieu of a growing peace movement, he was deprived of his heavyweight title and access to all boxing venues for three years. A boycott of the 1968 Olympics by many African-American athletes, as well as protests during the Games, indicated support for Ali and registered outspoken stances for peace and against racism, including by sympathizing white athletes. Writes Horne: “Ali placed himself broadly within the ranks of the mass dissent that bubbled to the surface in the 1960s, driven by the anti-Jim Crow and antiwar movements.”

But rival boxers did not hesitate to criticize Ali, a Muslim, as a traitor to the nation, as well as to Christianity. Critics expounding rightwing attacks on Ali included future opponents Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Foreman associated himself with pro-war jingoism as a challenge to Ali’s anti-war position, making Ali’s 8th round knockout of him politically symbolic.

Ali v. Foreman 1974, round 8

Horne’s analysis of Ali demonstrates that the boxer was somewhat protected from boxing’s worst practices by the fact that he belonged to the African-American nationalist organization, the Nation of Islam. The organization assumed the role of managing Ali’s career, appointing Herbert Muhammad, a son of the founder, to fulfill that role. Though Muhammad was no model of integrity either, the Nation of Islam’s own security force helped to reduce outside criminal access to the fighter. Nevertheless, it was nearly impossible to avoid discredited forces in prizefighting and Ali fought more than one Mob-paid opponent, engaging in many bouts organized by the corrupt promoter Don King. Then too, Ali’s trainer had his own criminal associations, as Horne points out while demonstrating certain other contradictions.

Thus, while Ali did not fight South African fighters, he apparently did consider it. Still, the anti-war Ali visited the Soviet Union in 1978, met Communist leaders, and spoke out quite favorably on Soviet life:

Lenin was a common man. He was from the community. Does Communist mean community? Commune, common, or community? What’s wrong with the common man? What’s wrong with helping the community? So communism, it seems to me, if it means community, isn’t a bad word.


Muhammad Ali with Leonid Brezhnev

But Ali endorsed right-winger Ronald Reagan for president in 1984.

 Among the offspring of the political economy of boxing were the innumerable cases of deaths, permanent injury, or brain damage: Horne spares no words on this score. One need only glimpse the films of Briton Henry Cooper’s fights to see mass bleeding at work.


Henry Cooper

Horne’s exposure of the nexus of profit, racism, and gangsterism is profound enough to conclude that capitalism and organized crime are synonymous. He concludes with a call to unionization. Boxers can only advance and improve their conditions, gain pensions and quality medical care if they organize collectively, even though they engage in singularly individualistic work. At an early 80s World Boxing Council convention, several boxers supported some sort of a form of unionizing. They argued that only a handful earn multi-millions. But what of the care, health, and well-being of those who don’t? In a response similarly witnessed by tennis players seeking to organize, managerial representatives insisted that any such group be a joint trade association representing the supposedly mutual interests of boxers, investors, promoters, and managers.

Globally, corporations and governments have made a custom of defining many categories of workers as independent operators, thus undermining union drives in a wide range of industries. Horne concludes: “The admirable proposal – and the swift deep-sixing of it – too were part of the bittersweet reality that continues to animate boxing.”

Jazz and Justice
Monday, 26 August 2019 13:23

Jazz and Justice

Published in Music

Daniel Rosenberg reviews Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music by Gerald Horne. 

Capitalism turns art into product, which is put on the shelf with other products. Here you have something that is really precious, that really mirrors the human experience, it speaks to the human experience, the emotional experience. It should be respected, but it’s not. Once jazz moved from creative music to product, it lost its place, jazz lost its stature, its identity. As soon as capitalism enters the equation, there’s no caring about the artistic properties that jazz as a music makes available. Capitalism tends to bring out the negative side of the human mind.

— Julian Priester, trombonist

 Dr. Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, is well-respected for his research in U.S. and world history. In his seventh decade, his scope stands virtually unmatched: seminal works on slavery and the American Revolution; penetrating books on South African apartheid, Brazil, Japan, the Caribbean, and India; biographies of labor organizer Ferdinand Smith, artist Paul Robeson, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, author Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Communist leaders William L. Patterson and Ben Davis. Insofar as his research spans the conflicts of capitalism, he contextually turns his attention to the arts. Given the contexts of flammable entrenched racism in U.S. policy and ideology, jazz too needs Horne’s withering criticism of its impacts on musicians.
Professor Horne acknowledges his debt to such previous authors of American jazz as Frank Kofsky, Amiri Baraka, Sidney Finkelstein, Robin Kelley, and Eric Hobsbawm. He also acknowledges the biographies of pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Among Horne’s wide sources are the recently released tribute by Maxine Gordon to her husband, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and the Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson’s new volume on jazz in Washington D.C. Both critical and supportive readers of his interpretation must acknowledge the character and magnitude of his sources: first of all the oral histories of hundreds of musicians at the National Museum of American History and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. His new book sustains Dr. Horne’s reputation as an indefatigable researcher. He mined the collections of letters of Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Ross Russell (a record producer with leftwing origins), Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, and Willis Conover (the Voice of America’s jazz host). Of special interest is Horne’s use of the Nevada State Gaming Board Records and other primary sources shedding light on organized crime’s impact upon jazz artists.
Each chapter title, taken from a musical composition, album, or concept, denotes a period of jazz from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Horne argues that that history of jazz was marked not only by its evolving styles but by the forms of racial exploitation and discrimination experienced by Black artists and their various ways of struggling against this racism. The first chapter is thus titled “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” exploring the origins of racism in jazz at its New Orleans foundations. A section named “Hot House,” from a composition by pianist Tadd Dameron, examines the development of racism in the music’s economic system into the 1940s. 

Dameron’s “Hot House” by Charlie Parker
A chapter called “Haitian Fight Song” (a piece authored by the politically aware bassist Charles Mingus) shows the resistance to racism by musicians in the decade that followed, which included establishing their own record labels and fighting intensively for proper recognition and compensation. Pianist Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” heralds Horne’s attention to the civil rights orientation of numerous artists. 

Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”
“Song for Che” by bassist Charlie Haden (strongly identified with the Left) headlines the chapter illustrating radical criticism of the industry’s powers-that-be. 

Charlie Haden, “Song for Che”
Horne shows that the unreliability of work has been a hallmark of the difficult conditions under which jazz musicians live. Many jazz artists had to make living by means other than their art: saxophonist Ike Quebec (taxi driver), pianist Cecil Taylor (restaurant worker), drummer Roy Haynes (whiskey salesman), trombonist J.J. Johnson (post office) and saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas (post office), trumpeter Jimmy Owens (hospital worker).  Numerous musicians, such as Gigi Gryce, C.I. Williams and Vi Redd became teachers, not only out of love for education but also by necessity.
Horne submits that while U.S. capitalism produces an insecure environment for all artists, the exigencies of racism cut far more profoundly into the work of African American jazz musicians than others. They were denied exposure, radio airplay, and jukebox access, barred from clubs entirely, or if permitted to perform then only under strictly segregated conditions. The policy prevailed well outside the South. Horne points out that the existence of segregated clubs in California prompted union leader Harry Bridges to lead a campaign against them.  Working conditions on the road were especially challenging:  finding food, accommodations, relief of thirst, and basic comfort entailed a frustrating, often violent-prone search. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell were assaulted, either by audience members or police.
Horne suggests the “candelabra” thesis of jazz evolution and expanse. Sourced in culture-rich New Orleans that had a history of opera as well as popular and music education base, with abundant Cuban, French, Mexican, and African music, jazz migrated along Mississippi River and along train routes to become a national presence. Horne stresses the Cuban contributions to jazz both at the roots and thereafter (as heard in the music of violinist Regina Carter and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Hargrove). He also notes that numerous jazz musicians had Native American cultural roots.
Horne explains how certain cities became virtual training centers for jazz including Memphis, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and others whose vital currents Horne charts thoroughly. He shows how the St. Louis area became a virtual geyser for jazz musicians producing Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Blueitt, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Marvin Horne, Grant Green, C.I. Williams, Jimmy Forrest, Frank Chapman, John Hicks, Ronnie Burrage. Young musicians bid for admission to highly reputed music programs at high schools like Cass Tech in Detroit, DuSable in Chicago. Pittsburgh produced Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson, and Billy Strayhorn.
A major highlight of the book is Horne’s exposure of the role of organizing crime in the history of jazz.  Horne explains the centrality or organized crime in various aspects of U.S. entertainment from night clubs to managers, producers, and record companies). Agents, producers, club owners stole wages, diverted royalties, purloined copyrights. Horne cites the cases of singer Betty Carter, pianist Earl Hines, saxophonist Gigi Gryce. 
Gangsters used violence against musicians. “Birdland,” the club named for Charlie Parker, was run by organized crime figures. Jazz venues exhibited a ubiquity of guns, threats and beatings. Clarinetist Woody Herman suffered gunshot wounds while listening to pianist Earl Hines at a club run by Al Capone. Accordingly, some musicians armed themselves. Las Vegas that emerged as a performance space after World War II spurred the growth of performance opportunities but was entirely under the domination of organized crime. Horne does not shrink from appraising another contradictory event: as previously segregated white and African American locals of the American Federation of Musicians merged, the issues most pertinent to black musicians often became obscured, while the union at the same time advanced demands for better conditions.
Organized crime also stood as the chief purveyor of drugs wherever musicians worked. In the capacity of club owners and record executives, gangsters worked upon the time-tested observation that addicts would be easier to manipulate and less likely to challenge unfair conditions. Horne proves the inextricable tie between drug addiction and the political economy of jazz. Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Hank Mobley went to prison. So did saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Woody Herman’s band was filled with heroin addicts. The line of wasted musicians stretches tragically: Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Bobby Timmons, Serge Chaloff, Charlie Parker, Anita O’Day, and on. Horne focuses on three record companies under dubious ownership: Prestige, the “junkies’ label,” paying artists just enough to buy narcotics, thus using drugs as currency; Roulette, controlled by the Genovese criminal enterprise; and Savoy, replete with strong arm tactics.
Violence, threats, and discrimination took a toll on musicians’ health.  Pianist Fats Waller drank himself to death. Cheated by record contracts, Gigi Gryce descended into paranoia. Saxophonist Oliver Nelson died of exhaustion. Pilloried by critics (for playing “too fast”) the virtuosic pianist Phineas Newborn retreated into isolation and mental illness. Flutist Hubert Laws recalled that the social pressures of segregation made him physically sick.
Horne returns repeatedly to the abuses faced by female jazz artists.  They were taken advantage of by promoters, and were mocked, ridiculed, and harassed by critics and the public. Lena Horne and Billie Holiday drew radical conclusions from such experiences. So did singer Abbey Lincoln, singer-pianist Shirley Horn and singer-saxophonist Vi Redd.  Redd performed benefits for Left organizations, including the W.E.B Du Bois Clubs. (Fellow saxophonist John Handy did as well). Witness Redd’s defiant rendition of the lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology”: 
I hope you see that all of us need urgently
To stick together on the family tree
Brothers and sisters here on earth
And now before it’s too late
You better dig what its worth

 Vi Redd, “Anthropology”
Horne recounts the denial of jobs to Redd, “having to cope with a never-ending flow of words laced liberally with sexual overtones made by bandmates and fans alike.” The pioneering pianist Mary Lou Williams stuck to her advanced harmonies (exemplified by her “Zodiac Suite”) despite pressures to commercialize and capitulate to racist stereotyping. 

Mary Lou Williams, “Taurus” from Zodiac Suite
Many musicians protested segregation and fought for equality. Horne notes a tendency of post-World War II musicians to confront Jim Crow more openly than they had before. However, they had predecessors.  Trumpeter Frankie Newton (a Communist), pianist Art Hodes, bandleader Artie Shaw, and singer Billie Holiday opposed segregation and discrimination early on. Such promoters or club owners on the Left as Barney Josephson and Norman Granz refused to segregate venues and performers. The late 40s witnessed a step up in political defiance.  Drummer Max Roach, saxophonists Benny Carter and Buddy Collette, pianist Randy Weston, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were among those identifying with Paul Robeson’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’ anti-racist stances. Miles Davis performed at the founding convention of the leftwing Labor Youth League. While some musicians expressed their resistance by turning toward the left, other African American musicians found orthodox Islam appealing. A number, like guitarist Grant Green, later joined the Nation of Islam, which would regular feature jazz performers at weekly events.
In another sign of protest, numerous musicians left the United States in the 1950s and after, continuing a minor theme going back to the 20s. Paris, Tokyo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam beckoned. The roster of musicians leaving included Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Steve Lacy, Myra Taylor and Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Clarke, and Art Farmer. Horne’s research into this realm is extensive. While other capitalist countries have histories of discrimination and inequality, playing crucial roles in subjugating other nations, they were places where African American and other musicians felt more welcome than in their own country. Max Roach said: “Europeans are more cosmopolitan than people here.” In Japan, observed singer Shirley Horn, “They respect the musician.” Saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s residence in Europe taught him that “the government puts a lot of money into the arts.” “We have to go to other nations for our careers,” Lincoln explained. In France, asserted saxophonist James Moody, “People took you for what you were and they…didn’t discriminate against you.”
Frustrated by the violations of composer’s copyright and the wholesale theft of royalties, a number of players endeavored to start their own record companies or otherwise exert control over the music. Among these pioneers were Gigi Gryce, Charles Mingus (who with Roach set up Debut Records) and Charles Tolliver (who started Strata-East Records). Some musicians became openly involved in civil rights actions and organizations.  Notable among them were Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Oscar Brown, Jr. Charlie Parker performed at a benefit for Smith Act victim and Harlem hero Ben Davis.  He also signed the Left-initiated anti-nuke Stockholm Peace Appeal. Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus,” a torrid attack on Arkansas’ segregationist governor. 

Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus”
Rollins issued his “Freedom Suite,” Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln the “Freedom Now Suite,” Art Blakey “The Freedom Rider.”  Black musicians were not alone in taking political stands.  Horne points out that that the white pianist Marian McPartland and white bassist Charlie Haden were outspoken critics of Jim Crow. The case of pianist Dave Brubeck was especially interesting, since he endangered his own successful career by refusing to change the make-up of his racially diverse band and refusing to accept offers to perform in segregated venues.
In the 60s and 70s, jazz artists gave benefit concerts for the imprisoned Angela Davis and Black Panthers. Trumpeters Lee Morgan and Don Cherry publicized their admiration for Davis; Morgan and pianist Herbie Hancock dedicated music to her.  Charlie Haden, saxophonist Archie Shepp and Max Roach participated in Communist party festivals in Portugal, Italy, and France. 
  Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music by Gerald Horne. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019. $27. Pp 456. This article first appeared in Marxism-Leninism Today.
Sidney Finkelstein: an appreciation of the great Marxist cultural critic
Friday, 12 January 2018 15:50

Sidney Finkelstein: an appreciation of the great Marxist cultural critic

Published in Music

Dan Rosenberg offers an appreciation of Sidney Finkelstein, who died on 14 January 1974.

Out Jumped Sidney

The Marxist cultural critic Sidney Finkelstein lived in a suitcase in my mother’s closet. My parents never used the suitcase in question for travel. When I was around 13, in 1966, I asked my father what the deal was with this suitcase. He put it on the big bed and opened it up, and out jumped several hundred pamphlets, booklets, and magazines, with materials by Finkelstein among them. They were all publications of the Communist Party USA, to which my parents, along with Finkelstein, belonged. Having worn red diapers all my life I was not completely taken by surprise, but my dad went on to explain that during the McCarthy period of the 1950s, (coinciding with my infancy) we had gone underground.

My parents lived a secret existence on the recommendation of the Party in the face of potential fascism. And my mother and father had cleaned out many of their books, while locking up the remainder in the green suitcase, which remained in hiding for more than ten years.

Encounters with Jazz

Upon Sidney’s release from the suitcase, I was able to read his articles on the arts and proceeded to acquire at last his fundamental book on jazz: Jazz: A People’s Music. Sidney came out of the suitcase in the form of articles written for a magazine once called Masses & Mainstream and then Mainstream. My eyes rested first on one with an orange cover. Finkelstein had the headlining article: “Jazz: National Expression or International Folk Music.” It appeared in 1960. That was the year I had begun studying the drums under the percussionist Roger “Montego Joe” Sanders in Brooklyn, from whom I learned a bit about improvising. [I learned a little later that he worked with Nina Simone, and much later that he recorded with Max Roach].

After the Beatles appeared in the U.S. in 1964, I went hunting across the radio dial in search of as much of their music as possible. When I could not find it on the AM stations, I turned in frustration to the ones on FM. This became an adventure culminating in two jazz stations at the far end, reception fading in and out although they were right there in New York City where I lived: WRVR and WLIB-FM. On the latter, I encountered the pianist Billy Taylor one afternoon as I struggled with my maths homework. He was the station’s most illustrious disc jockey, and he explained and taught between the records. In time, I found “Just Jazz with Ed Beach” on WRVR, featuring two and four-hour programmes on particular musicians, with Beach’s puns in the interludes. The names then appeared to me for the first time: Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley. I never abandoned the Beatles, but more often I lived on the edge of the FM dial. In the same year I read Sidney’s article on jazz in Mainstream, my dad took me to see Duke Ellington at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Around and about the Left movement in New York City, I certainly had heard of Sidney Finkelstein. My piano teacher knew him well, and spoke of him often when I mentioned my growing interest in jazz. Her appraisal in 1966 was a mixture of admiration and pity. He could have done so much, could have gone so far with his knowledge in a more tolerant society. She thought of him as simply brilliant, but spoke rather snidely of the fact that he could not play an instrument. She described to me his hands and fingers: fat, she said. Ungainly. Clumsy, cumbersome, too thick for the delicacy of piano fingering. She went on about her friend Sidney: he lacked style, and was a bit crude. I did not think much about this. I did not know him yet. Besides, she wasn’t such a great teacher.

Finkelstein’s Work

Meantime, I slowly made my way through the bushel of Finkelstein articles now free of underground existence. In a piece “How Art Began” (1954), Finkelstein discussed how early societies imaged their existences through artistic expression: pottery, increasingly embellished, for storage of food, water, and seeds; cave paintings, in depiction of the rituals of the hunt; burial tombs with carvings, portraits, and sculpture, culminating in pyramids; dances reflecting the rhythms of work, the gods, birth and death. Nothing arises from people more naturally than art, wrote Finkelstein. But in exploitive societies, the “ruling class sees only itself as human,” impacting the acceptable forms and depictions. Nevertheless, working and lower class populations find “ways and means to express in art the humanity of the ruled, the ‘nobodies.’”

He wrote on architecture, film, literature, painting, and poetry, and more than once on Shakespeare. I had difficulty understanding everything. Mainstream and Masses & Mainstream possessed an impressive board of editors, to which Sidney belonged from the outset in 1948. Screenwriters like John Howard Lawson, writers like Lloyd Brown, Howard Fast, Phillip Bonosky, Jesus Colon, Barbara Giles, and Shirley Graham, artists like Hugo Gellert, scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, Herbert Aptheker, and Annette Rubenstein. Paul Robeson’s name was always on the masthead.

Most were in or close to the Communist Party. Party members on the magazine belonged to the same Party club or branch of people working in the field of culture. Blacklisted journal full-timers were not among those who went underground but instead worked as open Communists, including Sidney. Masses & Mainstream started as a fairly appealing and large-format left-wing journal (taking off from the widely circulated but defunct New Masses), but the Cold War and anti-Communist persecutions beat it down into the narrower Mainstream.

My parents rebuilt their book collection even before they took the magazines out of the suitcase, but they owned none of Sidney’s books. Later I acquired Realism in Art, How Music Expresses Ideas, Art and Society, Existentialism and Alienation in American Literature, Sense & Nonsense of McLuhan, and Composer and Nation. I showed a deft hand in obtaining books, sometimes without the knowledge of their owners. But in my mid-teens, Jazz: A People’s Music was the one I wanted. My aunt had a substantial collection of old jazz records, given by her father: a good deal of Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson. She had a four-album set of Louis Armstrong, also Duke Ellington’s Masterpieces by Ellington. Of these, she made a present to me in 1970. And when I was about to leave her house with the record-laden shopping bags, she gave me Jazz: A People’s Music. It appears that she was not the only one who made a present of it.

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Back home, I studied it like the Bible. To this day, I am surprised that so few jazz historians and observers have mentioned his book. Then again, it was written in Cold War times. The well-known jazz critic Martin Williams certainly knew of Finkelstein, but told me in 1985 that he found it laughable for Marxists to write about jazz. His guffaw was instructive. Of those who commented favorably or drew upon the book, most were on or close to the Left: Francis Newton (the British historian E.J. Hobsbawm), Frank Kofsky, Amiri Baraka, and Ross Russell stood out. In his biography of Charlie Parker, Russell referred to Sidney as “a recluse,” “tough and hardboiled,” and “proletarian.”

I was soon thrilled to learn that Finkelstein would be coming to our house to lead a discussion on culture, sponsored by my parents’ Party club. I determined to obtain his autograph on the sacred day, which was a Friday in December 1970. The crowd was already sitting in our living and dining rooms when he arrived. I had been clutching the holy book all night, and I came running when he rang the bell. He entered the house and I was rendered speechless with fright. I quickly gave Jazz: A People’s Music to my brother Jesse and whispered that he should get Sidney to sign it for me. Sidney happily complied but autographed it “To Jesse with regards,” an everlasting humiliation whose ink is sadly still visible.

Jazz: A People’s Music

Finkelstein published his book on jazz in 1948. He dedicated it to the birth of modern Israel, which took place that year. There had as yet been no wars between Israel and the Arab states. Finkelstein hoped that Jews and Arabs might live together peacefully. Finkelstein’s subtitle, A People’s Music, reflected his belief that African-Americans were its initiators and developers. The belittling, ignoring, ridiculing, stereotyping, and commercializing of jazz, in his view, belonged to the overall oppression of African-Americans. Supporting, appreciating, teaching, listening, and exploring the theories and accomplishments of jazz musicians were on the other hand part and parcel of fighting for equality. Leftwing artist Jules Halfant supplied illustrations for Finkelstein’s book. As Art Director of Vanguard Records during Finkelstein’s later years, Halfant hired Sidney to write liner notes. Sidney often gave Joan Baez and other Vanguard LPs to his friends. When I knew Halfant, he was on the board of a progressive Jewish children’s school in Brooklyn, which one of my brothers attended.

At the time Jazz: A People’s Music was published Finkelstein held to the Communist Party’s view that the African-American people in the United States were an oppressed nation. U.S. Communists particularly applied the thesis to the contiguous areas of black majority or near majority in a region of Southern states, strongholds of slavery a century before. Their espousal of “self-determination” shared certain characteristics with anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa.

Finkelstein’s first chapter is one of the clearest outlines of the emergence of a field of music. He asserts, “This genuine creation within jazz is an imposing production, the most important and lasting body of music yet produced in the United States.” Thanks to the best in jazz (for he saw the influences of commercialism and branding), “our age will be respected in the future.” But jazz stemmed from many influences, thus assimilating old elements into a “wholly new music.” Since its main innovators came from “the most exploited people among us,” Finkelstein was not surprised that by its white evaluators “it is called…‘barbaric.’” Significant achievement lay in their incorporation of African musical styles, “European hymn tunes, French folk songs, Spanish songs and dances, mountain songs and dances which were transplanted growths from Europe.”

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The Black Belt, 1936

It was above all “a fresh and new musical creation” of the “Negro people.” And, wrote Finkelstein in 1948, they constituted “a group within America, a nation within a nation.” Bringing together the Marxist criteria, he observed that African-Americans, “bound together by their common economic life and struggle…have built up a history, tradition, and cultural life of their own, along with a growing sense of their own nationhood.” U.S. Communists would eventually abrogate the nationhood theory in the face of crucial socio-economic developments. But they nonetheless maintained the conviction that the fight for black equality was indeed a “national question” central to the rights of all working people.

Ellington’s Role

Finkelstein explained that jazz is both simple and intricate, containing group, individual, social and reciprocal components. He objected strenuously to biased assertions of the “subconscious,” natural,” and indeed “primitive” attributes of jazz improvising. On the contrary, “jazz is a flow of emotion in music guided by the most conscious skill, taste, artistry, and intelligence.” The notion that “musicians who can’t read notes” create jazz tends to cheapen the integrity of improvisation. His extended treatment of the magnificent Duke Ellington is a comprehensive argument for the intelligence at the core of jazz. More than anyone else, submits Finkelstein, Ellington’s “handling of instrumental sound, …power of melody, …rightness of harmony and interweaving of melodic lines…made many products of the conservatories seem, by comparison, mechanical and bloodless.” Ellington’s “unity and variety” often appeared through three movements of a composition: “an opening theme, which is actually a group of two or three melodies, and is antiphonal from the very first bars.” This “A” section of a piece might be played twice. The “B” which followed was “frequently the section where the blues enter, often treated as a series of solos or duets.” The closing reiteration of “A” always contained “a new harmonic twist, a cadence of instrumental reply, rounding out the performance like the classical ‘coda.’”


Finkelstein made many of the same points on jazz complexity in his other writings on music. The same year that Jazz: A People’s Music came out he published “What About Bebop” in the September Masses & Mainstream. Here he discussed the latest genre in greater detail than in the book. He defended the startling new sound, whose beacon was Charlie Parker, as in full keeping with the “constant experiment and change” characteristic of the “main line of jazz.” He showed its constituent past, the blues and the music of Kansas City and the Southwest epitomized by Count Basie and Lester Young. He pointed out that a certain “bitterness” came through this particularly “witty” music marked by “unresolved dissonances, chromatic notes, common chords with raised or lowered notes.” It demanded “musical tight-rope walking” and “the most knowing musicianship.” Finkelstein reminded his readers that bebop again revealed “the pre-eminence of the Negro musician in every new development of jazz.”

His bebop article welcomed the other heralds of the new style: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey, saxophonists Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, and Lucky Thompson, pianists Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron, trombonist J.J. Johnson. In another venue, Finkelstein warned: “Always in jazz, each innovation that found a public was immediately vulgarized, commercialized, and imitated by white musicians who made far more money than the genuine black originators.” Elsewhere he added that black jazz musicians faced pressures not to remain creative: “to clown, to play a role dictated by managers, agents, and sensation-mongers.” Moreover “powerful commercial music houses” would rather the artist “plug” or “put over” the “songs they want to make into hits.” And in “Jazz: National Expression or International Folk Music” (mentioned above), he took issue with his fellow Communist E.J. Hobsbawm for failing to appreciate the crucial role of African-Americans in shaping jazz, to which he devoted the entire final chapter of his history of classical music, Composer and Nation.

A Master Class with Finkelstein

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend 1971, about a month before my 18th birthday, I went over to Sidney Finkelstein’s house. He had just moved to our neighborhood. I brought Jazz: A People’s Music with me. While at college that Fall I had made careful notes about music I wished to explore and discuss with him. Although my earliest jazz discoveries included the musicians most eminent when I was a teenager, particularly John Coltrane, my focus on this day was the tenor saxophonist Young and the alto saxophonist Parker. I especially wanted to listen to Young’s recordings with Count Basie from the 1930s.

True, I had picked up a Basie album in one of the record stores in the town of State College, Pennsylvania, but it dated from the 1940s band that had Lucky Thompson on tenor. I would come to respect Thompson as a superior musician and composer, but at the time I was set on deepening my understanding of Young, and his disciple Parker. Finkelstein remarked that Count Basie “was strong in the one point where [Duke] Ellington had been comparatively weak. Ellington had never made much of the solo tenor sax…” This point may have been truer when Sidney’s Jazz was published (though at the same time he recognized the importance of tenorist Ben Webster to Ellington), but Ellington would make much greater use of tenor soloists in later years, especially Paul Gonsalves. In any case, I wanted to hear the Basie sound with Young, which Sidney described so evocatively: the opening spare piano on so many pieces, the powerful bass and rhythm guitar, the drummer Jo Jones’ mastery of the high-hat, and the powerful riffs behind and in between the soloists.

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Lester Young

Sidney opened up the door and let me in. It was a sprawling house. A burly fellow, he drew me into his living room, which contained built-in bookcases on every wall. Perhaps he had more upstairs. I was envious, books were packed like commuters struggling to breathe on the subway, floor to ceiling. My one-time neighbor, the great Puerto Rican Communist writer Jesús Colón, who had been an editor with Sidney of Masses & Mainstream, had had a similar set-up. But Jesús had lived in an apartment, towering his books in the hallways.

Sidney shelved his records similarly, in the dining room: all the walls were covered, even above the windows. He filed them by type: classical, folk, jazz, blues. Within each, he classified them by period and genre. At the end of each shelf, he attached a sign to guide his searches. The majority of his records were 78 RPMs, no surprise considering that this format had characterized music releases for most of his life. We had some 78s at home as well. From Sidney’s records, the root of the “album” concept was pretty obvious: a collection of songs, like a collection of photos. Here were a number of Teddy Wilson’s records with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, in a hardcover binder containing ten 78s, with two songs apiece. Over there were Benny Goodman sets, with Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and Wilson. Like books, the spines of the binders held the titles.

But thousands of LPs took up one side of the dining room. I do not know how Sidney could get the ones from the upper reaches. I did not notice a ladder enabling him to do so, or to pluck a book from the thin atmosphere by the ceiling. I’m sure he had a way. I had told Sidney over the phone of my concentration on Young and Parker. In the most extreme Brooklyn accent I had ever heard, he confirmed the goal of our session. While he went over to the stacks of 78s, I browsed his long-playing records. Sidney knew where the desired 78s were, so I did not have much time. He had one shelf with the modern jazz names with which I had become initiated into jazz. I remember in living color: Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, an elite representation for sure.

Young and Parker

Sidney came back to the record player with a stack of albums of 78s. We began with “Lester Leaps In,” went then to “Dickie’s Dream” and “One O’ Clock Jump” (on which Young played the second tenor solo).....

.....and on to “Lester Leaps Again,” all with Basie. This was the first time I heard what Finkelstein had described as Lester Young’s “cloudier” tone on the tenor (contrasting nicely with the growl of his bandmate Herschel Evans), airy, lagging the beat, over and above the just plain cool rhythm section. I could not imagine a more effective platform for improvisation than Basie. “Setting the tone” was putting it mildly, cool, laid-back, but jumping. Finkelstein would start and stop the records to point things out to me, to suggest other songs to hear, to show contrast and dynamics. I recall that he was easy to talk to, unpretentious. Some of the other intellectuals in Communist circles were on the contrary quite stuck up.

My head was full. He asked if I wanted some tea. To me, tea was only something I drank when I was sick. I would have it on a tray with a thousand pounds of sugar, and drink it with a spoon. I said sure, and he disappeared into the kitchen. I listened to more music, and glanced again at the wall with LPs. Soon he returned, with tea, sugar, and a spoon. Though quite healthy, I was able to drink the stuff as accustomed. I asked if we might turn our attention to Charlie Parker. He walked over to the appropriately marked section of 78s and took down a few albums. In his book, he had emphasized “Slam Slam Blues,” “Congo Blues,” “Get Happy,” “Hallelujah,” “Ornithology,” “Buzzy,” and “Parker’s sick, nerve-wracked ‘Lover Man,’ made when he was at the point of collapse.” (Parker suffered a nervous breakdown in 1946). These were the pieces I wanted to hear.

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Charlie Parker

To be sure, I was no perfect stranger to Parker. I had an LP of his called “Now’s the Time,” from the early 1950s. One of the 78s given me by my aunt was “Sweet Georgia Brown” from a 1946 concert. But I felt a need to seriously build up my appreciation of musicians before Coltrane, and to see how developments evolved. Sidney meanwhile asked if I wanted a ham and cheese sandwich. A fussy eater, I was no fan of ham, but said yes. I figured Sidney did not have much else in the refrigerator. It is possible that Ross Russell’s reference to Sidney, quoted above, as a “recluse” was accurate. Sidney put on the first 78, with “Hallelujah” on one side, with phenomenal solos by Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The riff at the end was explosive. It was interesting to me that the pianist and tenor sax player were the relatively more “traditional” Teddy Wilson and Flip Phillips, respectively.

Finkelstein showed me that while jazz styles were distinct, they borrowed from and coexisted with older ones. We chomped and listened. He turned the record over. Parker continued. We heard “Congo Blues” (with another powerful closing riff and a sweeping solo by Wilson) and “Get Happy.” Eventually, during “Ornithology,”.....

....Sidney pointed out that it was based on another song called “How High the Moon,” an example of which he promptly withdrew from one of the shelves.

After this we listened to Parker’s “Buzzy.” We talked only between songs and between musicians. My tea got cold. I had been there three and a half hours. We had begun to tire. Wrapping up the lesson, I asked Sidney if I might borrow several LP albums to tape-record. I didn’t want to appear too greedy, so I narrowed my request to Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High, a collection of Charlie Parker’s performances on the Dial record label (highlighted by “Cool Blues”), Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus, and Ben Webster’s Soulville. My stereo equipment at home was barely primitive. I would place a tape-recorder in front of the speakers of my record player. The resultant cassettes included my brothers laughing, my parents calling me down for dinner, arguments, and slamming doors. But I would have the music in any case.

However, this was only the first of our jazz conversations. About a month later, Sidney came over to my house for a meeting of the local Communist Party club, of which my parents were leaders. I brought down the albums I’d borrowed, and also had him listen to John Coltrane’s piece “Olé,” which was based on the melody of an anti-fascist song of the Spanish Civil War, “El Quinto Regimiento.” Finkelstein loved the extended performance, which featured Coltrane on soprano saxophone, Eric Dolphy on flute, and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, all pacesetters.

And thereafter, whenever I saw Sidney, whether at a neighborhood political activity, a meeting, a demonstration, or a celebration, we talked about jazz.

I remember when Sidney passed away. I heard about it from my mother. I had actually seen him the summer before, at a petition drive on one of the main thoroughfares. He looked alright, but didn’t stay. But in early 1974, my mother told me that he wasn’t answering his phone or his doorbell. No one knew what had happened. The sense of concern extended to his lifelong friends Phillip Bonosky and Herbert Aptheker. Those closest to him did not know if he had a family. There was no one else to call. Finally, some of the club members were able to get into his house. He lay sprawled in a corner against a wall, beneath a column of books. He had had a stroke.

In Sum

He died soon after, at 64. My teenage mind had played tricks on me back when we’d gotten together two years earlier: I’d thought he was ancient. Young folks are susceptible to vague calculations of advanced age. I may have known him, but I clearly did not know much about him. A New York Times obituary was bare bones. However, his personal papers at the University of Massachusetts show the scope of his work and career. He had two master’s degrees, including one earned when in his 40s. The notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities obliged him to testify in 1957 upon the subject of his Party membership (banned under the Smith Act). His reviews of culture had begun at several well-established papers prior to the Cold War. He had worked for the U.S. Post Office, before serving in the military during World War II. His second master’s thesis was on Picasso. A background note supplied by the University of Massachusetts library observes that he was the Communist Party’s “leading musical and cultural theoretician.” It calls Jazz: A People’s Music his “most famous” book.

I wonder how famous Finkelstein was and is. His books exerted a pull beyond the Left, but certainly did not draw the attention they merited when he was alive. Jazz: A People’s Music is now 70 years old. It remains in a second printing with a marvelous preface by Professor Geoffrey Jacques of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who traces many of the jazz developments after 1948 and places Finkelstein in historical context. Hundreds of works on jazz, many quite perceptive, have filled the genre’s shelves in the past seven decades. But Sidney’s is a foundational text. Analyses of jazz and society will therefore run aground if they fail to consult Jazz: A People’s Music.

Dan Rosenberg's writings include New Orleans Dockworkers: Race, Labor, and Unionism, Racism, Dissent and Asian Americans, Underground Communists in the McCarthy Period, and Between Mission and Market: The Freshman Year in a Corporate Age.