Paul Knopf’s life spanned nearly a century: a jazz composer and performer; a revolutionary activist, philosopher and Marxist-Humanist; a poet, a lifelong learner with an encyclopedic mind and a friend and comrade to people both famous and unsung.
Back home after World War II, Paul was one of the few soldiers who refused to “volunteer” to break the railroad strike. Of his short-lived stint in the Army Band, he recalled, “I jazzed up the clarinet parts in the military marches, so I was demoted to rifleman.” Later he was jailed for his part in blocking the Armed Forces Day parade in New York City in a protest against the Vietnam War.
Seeking a revolutionary socialist organization in the late 1940s, he met Raya Dunayevskaya when she was Freddie Forest in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which was then part of the Socialist Workers Party. In 1980, under the impact of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he joined News and Letters Committees.
In 2020 as the COVID pandemic raged, Paul and other members and friends of News and Letters Committees met regularly via conference calls. His comments ranged over revolutions from Spartacus in ancient Rome, Freedom Rides in 1960s South USA to Black Lives Matter and women fighting forced veiling in Iran; Hegelian philosophy and Marxist-Humanism; World War II and his life as a revolutionary poet and jazz musician over the past 75 years. He would quietly mention his performances at Carnegie Hall and with world-famous jazz artists only in the context of a point he would be making, never to boast about his association with them.
When Paul spoke and wrote for News & Letters (in prose, poetry, music, or all three), past, present, revolution, philosophy and action always flowed and transformed what you thought you knew into a heightened integrality of philosophy and life experiences. For example, as a young musician, he said, “I wanted to be involved in politics besides the resolution of the C-major chord and blue note.”
Paul was a prolific jazz composer as well as musician, which he did not separate from organizing and agitating to break down segregation in music venues. He joined the fight against the New York Police’s “cabaret cards” that kept someone as talented as Billie Holiday from performing in New York clubs.
“In the 1990s I worked through a music program in Greenhaven Prison in upstate New York. I taught music and formed a band: I was able to help the prisoners express their humanity, so before long I was banned. I encouraged them to write music. We’d imagine performing in a club. (I had to go through three checks by the prison and couldn’t bring in a daily newspaper or a tuning hammer, or strings for instruments; also chewing gum. All because they might be weapons. But they could have easily picked up one of the iron chairs that were there.) A lot of rules didn’t make sense for prisoners’ lives. We need to look at them as people who wanted to do something meaningful. It was a very moving experience. Prisoners told me: ‘It took me over the wall.’”
Paul was proud of his Local 802 musicians’ union even as he worked to break down the separation of Black and white performers into “Jim Crow” locals, a division which cramped the freedom and creativity of all the musicians, who were subject to the same social forces as all workers:
“I cherish my Local 802 union card despite the fact that my work has been wiped out, most of my work is non-union…This is what automation had done to labor, to me. Work has become degrading—the worker is forced to keep time to the machine. When the harp is synthesized, the violinist has to go with the automated harp. It’s a metaphor of society. Recordings are a paradox of society. A recording can be a beautiful performance, but can keep live music from developing.”
When Paul spoke directly on Marxist-Humanist philosophy, there was always connection to individual and organizational experiences:
“The point is, as Marxist-Humanists see it, dialectical thought, where we negate the ideas that are to be negated and from that we find the power of Reason…Reason involves being immersed in philosophy (Marxist-Humanism); but Practice is also needed: we just don’t interpret the world but to be free we have to change it.
“I’ve been re-reading passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology. I see how things that just appear to happen have connections and how consciousness assumes different forms including lordship and bondage…There the oppressed develop a richer and more concrete consciousness than the “free” consciousness of the oppressor…
“How we come to what we believe is both personal and related to organization. Personal intuition—‘outrageous fortune’—is the personal pain we experience. We ‘take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.’ That’s the revolution. ‘What dreams may come…must give us pause.’ ‘Who would bear the slings and arrows…?’ We intuitionally perceive a wrong, we accept it but a dream comes off as something better…I was depressed by politics in the 1960s but woke up with the Freedom Rides and Martin Luther King’s dream. An idea begins in dream, intuition; then we mix the two: We have our own picture, with mediation we recognize others with the same idea…
This excerpt from his review in News & Letters of “Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser” underlines Paul’s multidimensionality:
“A classic film about a pioneering Black musician who redefined jazz performance and composition…raises questions about the searing racism that burns through American life…In the middle of an inspired first take the musicians are stopped…Why? Because the Black commodity must be strained through the sieve of ignorant critics, eager to show how hip they are, omnivorous disc jockeys devouring the precious kernels of the Black art, and of course the market moguls.”
For more articles in N&L by Paul, see:
Musician Solidarity (p. 3)
—Susan Van Gelder