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What is jazz?

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Published: Fri, 03 Mar 2017

What is jazz? This question has been debated throughout the 20th Century, as jazz has proven difficult to define. The dictionary definition of Jazz states jazz as “a genre of music that originated in African-American communities around the late 19th – early 20th century”. Regarding its musical features, jazz relies heavily on the use of improvisation and syncopation as well as incorporating elements such as blue notes and poly-rhythms. The birth of jazz into Americas multicultural society has led many to believe that Jazz in one of America’s pristine art forms, parallel to the western classical tradition in Europe. But does this make jazz an American way of creating music, and therefore ‘America’s classical music’?

This assumption leads to questions about identity and race as a social construct. Jazz emerged as an indigenous form of music that reflected the American ideal of the individuals freedom of expression. However throughout its discourse, jazz has continually evolved from casual improvisations into a set of musical elements that can characterize and define each classical style. However each new classical jazz style carried emerging ideas of ethnic black identity as a sub cultural crisis point. For example, the Blues period was a reflection of slavery, dixie jazz was an early reflection of crayol life and swing represented the commercialisation of black musicians. This implied the idea that jazz music was a ‘reflection’ of race which articulated African American feelings and thoughts of the socio-political injustices of the time into the music. It is this struggle for identity and equality that in many ways, suggests jazz is a metaphor for the American idea of democracy.

However the introduction of jazz to the black community was initially seen by the white as transgressive. It gave the black community emancipation from race, but not an emancipation of race. In essence, jazz created black people who spoke like middle class white people. This subverted their ethnic identities, which created a new socio-ethnic black stereotype, allowing the black man a ‘redefined status’. This led to many artists such as Dizzie Gillespie to create a new black intellectual image, as the social boundaries began to break down. Yet it could also be argued that this merely replaced one stereotyping with another. As jazz became more popular, white jazz bands such as the ‘Benny Goodman Orchestra’ (1935-1939) began to emerge. However, music critic/poet LeRoi Jones saw problems with appropriating jazz. As a champion of the African-American population, he believed that black music belonged to black people. He saw white jazz musicians as thiefs that steal music from black people. How can jazz be seen as ‘America’s classical music’ if America is divided on its appropriation?

However, over time this view changed. Some 50 years later, jazz arguably transformed from a single, guarded expression of the consciousness of African Americans to a national music. This identity of jazz emerged in 1987, when the 100th congress of the U.S.A recognized jazz as “a national treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgate” (Price 2003, 1). This was a unique American phenomenon which appropriated jazz as a national symbol. Jazz historian/critic Grover Sales’ book Jazz: America’s Classical Music (1984) initiated this discussion of jazz’s importance a few years earlier. The main proposition in the book was that jazz was a ‘serious’ form of music that should be regarded as equally important as Western classical music, despite its differences. In 2001, the same statement was made in Ken Burns documentary Jazz (2001) by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This started another debate as to whether jazz should be perceived as America’s classical music or whether jazz and classical music should remain separate.

On the one hand, jazz’s emergence as a form of popular music in the United States, like classical music was performance orientated, with jazz schools such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) formed in Chicago, 1965. This association, much like a conservatoire aimed to give young African-American jazz tutelage. As a genre, jazz music has also evolved through different forms, levels of complexity, literacy and excellence. Because of this, it shared many similarities with classical music. It is also argued that, like the classical music of other cultures, jazz has been time tested. In the early 20th century; it became a standard and a model, later established value and most of all was native to the African-American culture. A culture which, echoed it’s struggles, decade by decade through music. Jazz serves, in a sense, as a musical mirror, reflecting how not only the African-American jazz community saw themselves at different times in their history, but also how society portrayed them, for example in the way Hollywood movies portray the 1920’s and 30’s using the jazz of those decades to underscore the pictures.

Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, believed in promoting the appreciation of both Classical and Jazz music. Born in 1961, Marsalis’ career progressed from teacher, to music educator, becoming Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, winning nine Grammys in both genres in the process. But despite his talent, critics opposed Marsalis’ views. Scott Yanow criticized his “selective knowledge of jazz history” and that he considers “post-1965 avant-garde playing to be outside of jazz and 1970s fusion to be barren”.

Marsalis was also criticized for pressing his opinions as producer and on-screen commentator in the Ken Burns documentary Jazz (2001). The documentary focused primarily on legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, presenting jazz as a lineage of ‘great men’ and as Americas classical music. Marsalis also covered the years 1920–1965 more than later decades, and almost disregarded 1970 jazz completely. In response to the film, music journalist David Adler wrote, “Wynton’s coronation in the film is not merely biased. It is not just aesthetically grating. It is unethical, given his integral role in the making of the very film that is praising him to the heavens.” Grover Sales opinion in 1984 supported Marsalis’ view, but he too was also criticised. Emmett price, associate professor of music and one of the worlds leading experts on African-American music, opposed Sales saying; “There is nothing classical about jazz. Classical implies static, non-changing; a relic frozen in time. Jazz has never been static, non-changing or frozen. (Price 2003, 1). Price’s interpretation is questionable, as the idea of classical music as a ‘relic frozen in time’ is controversial, however his point about jazz being the opposite of this is hard to disagree with. The genre of jazz has been constantly evolving through the decades, with the emergence of fusion as a hybrid musical form. Can any ‘classical’ genres, such as music from the Romantic period be described as a ‘hybrid form’ to the same level as fusion is to jazz? Immediately there is difficulty classifying jazz as a classical music. Jazz is a constantly changing art-form that nowadays refers to new and evolving genres (such as acid jazz, punk jazz in the 90’s). Arguably, the idea that jazz is never finished evolving challenges Sales’ 1984 claim of it being a form of classical music. The word ‘classical’ implies a level of unchanging, solidarity, so is it appropriate to label the ever-changing jazz climate as classical music?


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