Jazz An American Journey Cultural Studies Essay

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Music is living entity, which is continuously changing, adapting and reflecting each environmental and cultural change. American music has been shaped by the country's social and cultural environment. It is always characterized by the use of syncopation with irregular rhythms and melodies, which reflects the unique American landscape and the nature of American life. Since 1920s, jazz has been linked with both the social and cultural identity of the America. Jazz is not only a way to reflect the cultural landscape of the U.S.A., to portray the history, the suffering, the joy and the culture of African Americans in the American society , but also to act as a synergistic process to stop racism and join Black and White communities together.

Although Jazz originated in the early 20th century, the root of Jazz can be traced back to the time of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries in America. At that time, slaves sang soulful songs to express their desire of freedom. Also, they sang secular songs that based on folk lore and field work when working, in order to raise their morale. The song leader sang out a line, and the slaves responded to the leader. Spiritual music and the "call and response" pattern then became the basic elements of Jazz music.

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Slavery was abolished by the American law in the 19th century, but it still greatly affected American society. It created a tendency of racism, that the African Americans were discriminated and oppressed by the European Americans. In late 19th century, Jazz was born in the city of New Orleans. The less religious, or secular themes the African Americans used to sing played a key role in the foundations of the Blues genre in Jazz, with much of the unorthodox musical aspects such as the rearticulating of words and the cries and shouts that have become a characteristic of the genre. The use of syncopation, irregular rhythms and unnatural melodies in Jazz reflect the urbanized American landscape and the desire of personal freedom of American life. By this time, the earliest form of Jazz was formed, and became a hallmark of the Black culture in the U.S.

Jazz is a portrait of African American culture within the United States. It was born at the time of racism. It demonstrated the life defense and expression of African Americans' lives in the U.S. In 1920s, the oppression the African Americans were facing had always been a big part of their lives. The struggle for freedom and equity within the society and Jazz are tightly linked together. Jazz is individual and unique. It allows musicians to interpret the music freely when they play to express their feelings that were difficult to explain in words. They can play differently throughout performances. Their improvisation and the spontaneous melodies express the love of freedom and the desire of unrestraint, and the casualness of African Americans. Though the syncopation rhythm, the use of unresolved chord and the unusual melody in Jazz, the African Americans were able to release their anger on the cultural segregation against them. Also, some African Americans are used to use informal English with a unique counter-metric structure. They usually exaggerate their speech by sedulously raising their tone. Their tune of speeches is not only singing-like, lively and rhythmic, but also very down-to-earth. In Jazz, the form and the rhythm are not ritual and formal. They are lively and sometimes exaggerated with the use of syncopation. They represent the casualness of the African American. Besides, the rhythms of Jazz also reflect their speech with the use of the counter-metric structure. It is closely related to the African American culture. It also reflects the urban landscape of the country.

Besides, Jazz is a musical portrait closely identified with American urban settings, displaying the urbanization, industrialization and the growth of the nation at that time. According to McClendon, "the urban working-class experience is the root and foundation for this creative musical tradition." (2006) The birth of jazz as a musical form occurred at a unique time in the American history. In the early 1900's the industrialization of the society was well under way. Millions of people were moving to cities for employment opportunities, and immigration from other countries. In New Orleans, most of the African Americans were living in the urban areas. The theme of their music changed from sacred to more secular, to reflect their working class lives. The music reveals the material relations of their urban secular life that they had been experience. (McClendon) Facing with those difficulties in their life, the African Americans were seeking a way to express their feeling, a different way to enjoy the freedom. They finally found a way to express their feeling in music. Thought improvisation, they were free to express themselves, and to neutralize all the hardship they had in their life. The syncopation and cross-rhythms in Jazz also demonstrate the busy and rushing image of America at that time. For example, George Gershwin's symphonic jazz Rhapsody in Blue composed in 1924 expresses a forward-driving energy towards urbanization of the U.S.A at that time. Written on a series of train trips between Brooklyn and Boston, Gershwin embeds the clicked-clack imitation sounds of the train into the music with its steely rhythms. It is a musical portrait of America, evoking the modern life and the urban bustle in America. Therefore, Jazz is a portrait of the urban landscape of American. It is also a reflection of racism in the U.S. society.

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Race and class are one of the main elements in Jazz. The African Americans have long been facing racism and culture oppression in the society. Therefore, these issues are deeply rooted in their hearts. Jazz is a way for them to express their anger. After Spain took control of Louisiana in 1763, New Orleans became the center of slave trade in America. When they moved into the city, the African American workers were already oppressed. They didn't have the opportunity to have good jobs, nice housing. The children were always rejected by the schools. With these social inequalities they were facing, African Americans expressed their anger in the music. They created Jazz that did not only reflect their hatred towards the European Americans who exploit them for their labor needs, but also help them to improve their social standing.

Jazz is the Americanization of African music, as well as the Africanization of American music. It is a melting pot with the African culture and the European culture meet. According to Thomas Lifson in his news article on American Thinker, he says, "Jazz is the great cultural achievement of America where blacks took a leading role as creators and practitioners, and where blacks and whites performed and listened in harmony." (2007) Although Jazz comes from African American music, that it is embedded with the culture, the identity and the suffering of the African American, it is popular all around the country, and ever the whole world, among all races. It is an important step in making the country equal in civil right. The appearance of Jazz has helped the African American to raise their social economical class in the American society. It is a medium to bring the unique culture and the history of the African American to the rest of the world.

Moreover, Jazz provides an opportunity for reducing the tension between the Black and the White, and joining the Black and White coummunities together. Since Jazz was developed by African Americans, at first, the European Americans had strong resistance to Jazz, trying to suppress the growth of the Black music. Since Jazz was a form of music that was improvisational and spontaneous in nature, and was closely related to the Blacks, early Jazz didn't gain reception in the city. However, the influence of Jazz defeated the Whites' suppression. Although the African-American musicians found racial discrimination in their lives, early jazz was popular with Whites. Jazz was often performed for or by Whites.

In the journey of Jazz, we can see how Jazz was influenced by racism historically, and how it shines a bright light on our way to walk away from the fallacy of racism. In these years, people with different ethnic backgrounds living in this multicultural society have started to adopt the music. For example, in the U.S., many Jazz concerts against racism are held throughout the year. (courier-jornal) Also musical events called like "Jazz against racism" were always held in Australia, and have gathered great interest among the public in Australia. (Green Left Weekly) Jazz is no longer African American music, but is truly the world music. It is multicultural. It blends the traditions and the cultures of all different races. Dale Barlow, a leading Jazz musical, says that in music, there is no aspect of prejudice, as it infinitely absorbs and adopts all elements it comes into contact with. (Green Left Weekly) It has the power to combine elements from different cultural origins. The music appeals to people of all races alike, and provide a culture in which one is judged by his soul alone, not by race of color of skin.

Although it is hard to correct racial inequalities in the U.S. with its long racist history, Jazz can raise public awareness of the racist phenomena in the society, and provides an opportunity for processing the dark period of history by bringing the community the history, the suffer, and the desires of African Americans. It also allows those who are oppressed to use their music to speak out for social equality. Jazz is not a magical pill that can heal the society, but it can still undermine racism with its interracial nature.

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Jazz is moving and passionate music influencing the senses of body and soul. It is closely identified with American urban settings. It creates images on cultural, geographic, ethnic, and economic levels, using the technical components of melody, harmony and rhythm to evoke American identity. It does not only portray the growth of the U.S. and affirm black culture, but also shows the interaction, the clash and fusion of African and European culture. Nowadays, Jazz has continued to mirror and exemplify the complexities and ironies of the changing status of African Americans within the broader culture and polity of the United States.

Reference Cited:

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Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and James L. W. West. Tales of the Jazz Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Lifson, Thomas. "Jazz Succumbs to Racism" American Thinker. June 2, 2007.

McClendon III, John H, Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 23, no.3, December 2006

Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2009.

Tucker, Mark. "Robert G. O'Meally- The Jazz Cadence of American Culture." JazzTimes Magazine Apr. 1999: n. pag. Apr. 1999. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://jazztimes.com/articles/20739-the-jazz-cadence-of-american-culture-robert-g-o-meally>.

Turner, Richard Brent. Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. Print.

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Goines, Leonard. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History . 2006

King, Betty. "American symphonic jazz: an excursion into the geography of music" La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 5.

Thomas, Greg. "Jazz vs Racism." Jazz vs Racism. N.p., 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=39039

"Jazz Concert against Racism Scheduled." The Courier-Journal. N.p., 3 July 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://www.courier-journal.com/proart/cb/20120703/news01/207030329/jazz-concert-against-racism-scheduled?pagerestricted=1>.

Gauci, John. "Jazz Against Racism." Green Left Weekly [Sydney] 4 Feb. 1998.