In the introduction to his book Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century, Charles Garrett introduces questions that he claims “have always been critical to defining American identity. What is America? Who is an American? And who has the right to decide?” (Garret 3). Garrett’s simple answer is that music reflects the distinctive vision of national identity. It would follow, then, that when the United States Congress passed a resolution in 1987 labelling Jazz as “America’s classical music” and a “valuable American treasure” (Congress 291), Jazz and its players became truly American – a feat that honors the musicians who originated Jazz, whose music was first labelled as “an attempt to reproduce the marvelous syncopation of the African jungle” (Kingsley 4). But it is this disconnect between what Jazz started out as and what Jazz became that illustrates how Jazz became American Music.
The Jazz that attempted to “reproduce the marvelous syncopation of the African jungle” did nothing of the sort – and yet so much more. When, in 1917, Walter Kingsley published his article “Whence Comes Jass?” and described the music as “savage” and “instinctive,” he was – presumably unintentionally – degrading the music of Jazz in the most positive light he knew how. Kingsley’s article was one of the first published discussions of Jazz and thereby one of the first influences on the white audience’s reception of Jazz. Yet the first great jazz musicians played a music the origin of which white audiences would never understand.
Jazz was the product of ballads that cried the tales of local history; of work songs that were cried out to keep pace; of field hollers that loosed caller’s lonesomeness; of spirituals that called together black communities in a mix of Christian and African religious traditions. Jazz was the product of ragtime, the captivatingly lively music that “emerged in a ‘separate but equal’ era of legalized segregation” (Garrett). Jazz was the product of the intimacy of blues, the performance of minstrelsy and vaudeville, and the celebration of marching bands. Sidney Bechet, clarinetist from New Orleans, remembers his father’s description of music in the city after Emancipation:
And New Orleans just bust wide open…They [the freed slaves]
heard the music and the music told them about it
[Emancipation]. They heard that music from bands marching up
and down the streets, laughing like two people just finding out
about each other…That music, it wasn’t spirituals or blues or
ragtime, but everything all at once…
Maybe that’s not easy to understand. White people, they don’t
have the memory that needs to understand it. But that’s what
the music is…a lost thing finding itself (Bechet 2).
Bechet understood the music of his father’s celebration as the music of freedom. The music embodied the livelihood of the traditions – both storied and sung – that the slaves brought with them into their new life.
All those people who had been slaves, they needed the music
more than ever now; it was like they were trying to find out in
this music what they were supposed to do with this freedom:
playing the music and listening to it – waiting for it to express
what they needed to learn (Bechet 2).
Bechet speaks of the white community not having the memory to understand the music that the slaves needed. LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), however, tells of a far deeper misunderstanding between the two cultures that stems from American slavery itself. In his book Blues People, Jones explains that when, say, the Greeks and Romans enslaved people of their region, slaves and masters still shared cultural and philosophical backgrounds. A level of intelligence and humanity was afforded to those enslaved in familiar regions. “However,” Jones writes, “the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race” because the culture, society, and philosophy of this New World was the antithesis to that of the slave (Jones 2). “It was this essential condition of nonhumanity that characterized the African slave’s lot in this country of his captivity, a country which was later and ironically his land also” (Jones 3). Thus, the music that Bechet describes is the outburst of a recognized humanity that the white world into which that humanity burst forth had yet to acknowledge – much less understand. Yet the humanity of the music of the freed African-American community was brought into strict questioning when the blues and the ballads of the slaves and the marching bands of Emancipation solidified into the Jazz of New Orleans during and after World War I.
Scott Deveaux and Gary Giddens describe this first majorly recognized style of Jazz as “an artistry relying on improvisation, quick thinking, and a rhythmic sharpness that appealed to dancers and listeners” (Deveaux 59). This description, however, is written retrospectively. It looks back on the early days of Jazz with the lens of Jazz’s later legendary reputation. The hallmark of New Orleans Jazz was indeed collective improvisation (a heterophony of instrument lines each occupying its own musical space) paired with polyrhythms and a unique timbre. Leaving the description at that, however, fails to encapsulate the uproar of the first years of Jazz – both in terms of the music itself and its reception.
From the “undesirable” neighborhoods of New Orleans came a “rough, raw sound” that “the black man forced out of [the] European instruments [brass, winds, etc.]…It was an American sound, something indigenous to a certain kind of cultural existence in this country” (Jones 79). It was a sound unique to a group of the population that was aware it was prohibited from assimilating into the white world and so adapted the dominant European musical culture to match its own experience. “The black musician [in New Orleans],” Jones explains, “fashion[ed] something out of that culture for himself, girded up by the strength of the still evident African culture” (Jones 79).
Sidney Bechet’s records are great examples of the New Orleans fashioning of Jazz. His record “Cake Walking Babies (From Home)” is a good selection from his repertoire that illustrates the scope of this “adapted” music. Playing with Bechet (clarinet) are early Jazz influentials Clarence Williams (piano) and Louis Armstrong (cornet). From the moment the piece begins, the heterophony characteristic of this period is immediately recognizable. The arrangement is bursting with interwoven trombone glissandos, clarinet triplets, lock-step beats in the rhythm section, and varying timbres from the trumpet. The brass does not in the least sound like that of a classical symphony. The force of the banjo and piano together was suited only for the energy and excitement of a bar during Prohibition. As Jones concludes, the black musician “could not ever become white and that was his strength…It was this boundary, this no man’s land, that provided the logic and beauty of his music” (Jones 80).
In fact, it was partially the horrors of No Man’s Land that provided an impetus for the popularity of Jazz as heard in New Orleans – that brought some to indeed hear a beauty in the seeming chaos of the music. The devastating aftermath of World War I forced American society to confront the savagery of human nature and its easy ability to turn back to primitivism (Goldschmitt, February). The audiences who encountered, at illegal parties or clubs in urban areas, the strange timbres of the brass, the unfamiliar heterophony of collective improvisation of the Jazz band, and the new dances that accompanied these sounds, began to associate Jazz with lawlessness and felt it the embodiment of the exotic primitivism they were confronted with after the War.
The War itself provided an opportunity for Jazz to spread from New Orleans up the Mississippi River to Chicago and then east to New York. The rising enlistment in the armed forces, combined with major increases in wartime production and new federal immigration laws, helped propel the so-called Great Migration – an internal migration of mostly southern black laborers moving north for jobs, improved living conditions, and the potential for equality (Garret 86-7). Included in these laborers were the entertainers and jazz musicians who brought their music to the record labels in the North.
Yet the music first marketed through jazz records was unlike the Jazz that musicians like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong were playing in bars and night clubs. The first jazz records were made by a white group from New Orleans, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), who took its version of Jazz to a restaurant in New York in 1917, caused a sensation, and caught the attention of the record industry (Deveaux 63). Listen, for example, to the ODJB’s “Tiger Rag.” The start of the record holds true to the New Orleans heterophony, but within twenty seconds, the piece turns its focus more toward featuring novelties than featuring improvisation. The arrangement is not bursting with force and interweaving lines, as is “Cake Walking Babies,” but rather spattered with trills, repetitive glissandos, temple blocks, and other small interjections in the comparatively tamed musical texture of the piece. Both pieces weave around the same melody, though the ODJB’s record sounds more like an artificial interpretation (or imitation?) of the driving spirit that inhabits Bechet’s record.
Even though “Cake Walking Babies” was released several years after “Tiger Rag,” it is the differing styles of the black and white jazz musicians that is important to note. On their publicity sheet for the ODJB, Victor (record company) wrote, “Anyway, a Jass band is the newest thing in the cabarets, adding greatly to the hilarity thereof” (quoted in Deveaux, 63). The record labels saw the all-white jazz group as nothing save a joking cacophony that sold well. On the other hand, Ernest Ansermet, Swiss conductor and one of the first prestigious concert hall musicians to endorse Jazz, writes of jazz players,
They are so entirely possessed by the music they play that they
can’t stop themselves from dancing inwardly to it in such a way
that their playing is a real show…When they indulge in one of
their favorite effects, …it seems as if a great wind is passing over
a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy
It was this possession of and by the music that the ODJB and other all-white groups could not understand or replicate – and it was this indulgence in musical revelry that brought the greatest opposition to Jazz in the first years.
Conservative, white audiences and musical traditionalists composed the largest opposition to Jazz in the 1920s. Contrary to precisely what Jazz meant to musicians like Bechet and his father, German-American conductor Walter Damrosch charged, “Jazz…is rhythm without…soul” (Damrosch 26). Traditionalist music critics called Jazz “nothing more or less than the distortion of every esthetic principle” (Pettis 16) and “merely a raucous and inarticulate shouting of hoarse-throated instruments” (Spaeth 270). Neil Leonard claims that “the most disturbing thing about the new music was that it seemed to infect almost every part of American life” (Leonard 36). This nationwide infection was, of course, due to the Great Migration of musicians and entertainers during the War and the succeeding sale of their records. A.W. Beaven, a minister in Rochester, New York, explained, “It has gotten beyond the dance and the music and is now an attitude toward life in general” (Beaven 15). This is not a surprising statement, given the fact that much of the American consumer population had developed a different “attitude toward life in general” after the War and was drawn to Jazz for the ability of its rough, raw, human spirit to match the consumer’s new views of society.
On the other side of this human-nature-is-purely-instinctual consumer population was the human-nature-demands-restraint-and-propriety opposition. Leonard explains that much of this aspect of the opposition to jazz was less an opposition to the music itself and more so that “many traditionalists found that the African origins of ‘jazz’ held even more frightening implication” (Leonard 39). He cites an example of a conclusion drawn by the medical director of a Philadelphia high school for girls, in which the director claims, “The consensus of opinion of leading medical and other scientific authorities, is that its [Jazz’s] influence is as harmful and degrading to civilized races as it always has been among savages from whom we borrowed it” (Leonard 39). In this and the quote from Rev. Beaven, it can at least be said that the critics of Jazz began to admit that more was behind the jazz musicians’ performances than simply a random selection of notes and rhythms. Yet, the fundamental antithesis that Jones discusses between the culture of the black musicians and that of the white listeners remained in place with the initial creation and reception of Jazz.
How, then, did Jazz become a “valuable American treasure” if its style and players were still considered “harmful and degrading” to American society? – if there was such a misunderstanding between critics and creators? What changed? Or, rather, who changed? The answer is not precisely who or what changed but rather who had which dominating world view. As time proved, the dominating world view became that of the consumer population that saw the need to break down traditional values and bring about a revolution in manners and morals after World War I and the failure of the peace (Leonard 48). Leonard reasons that “the breakdown of traditional values led to an exchange of norms between [social] classes which tended to blur the line” dividing them. At the heart of the jazz musician’s behavior was an absorption in aesthetic experience, which made the new music their main source of happiness and morality (49, 60). White patrons of the arts were thereby often found in the jazz clubs and speakeasies enjoying jazz bands for a night out. These patrons were far from viewing Jazz as equal to their level of civilized society, but they were at least acknowledging their need, desire, for indulging that human aesthetic of expressive sensation and they did so by listening to what Jones calls “something indigenous to a certain kind of cultural existence” in America.
Nonetheless, these patrons were still seen as deviant if they expressed a liking for anything syncopated outside of the “cultural existence” in the speakeasies. Only the American youth supported Jazz without hesitation, whether in front of the bandstand or not (Leonard 65). The breakthrough that made Jazz acceptable and accepted in the great majority of the public’s eye was band leader Paul Whiteman. With a name that epitomizes the challenge Jazz had to overcome, Whiteman “set out to prove his contention that Jazz was a form of classical music” and could thereby be respected (Deveaux 80).
He did so at New York’s Aeolian Hall with a concert entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Whiteman opened with a “crude” performance of the ODJB’s “Livery Stable Blues,” played “for laughs as an example of Jazz in its ‘true naked form’” and closed with the debut of a new commissioned work from George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. The response to the concert was so fervent that Whiteman was labelled the “King of Jazz” and the man “who made a lady out of jazz” (Walser 45). The program notes handed out at the concert did a careful job of priming the audience’s reaction to the music that was to be played – down to the point of calling the concert an “experiment.”
The experiment is to be purely educational. Mr. Whiteman
intends to point out…the tremendous strides which have been
made in popular music from the day of the discordant Jazz…to
the really melodious music of today, which – for no good reason
– is still called Jazz. Most people who ridicule the present so-
called Jazz and who refuse to condone it or listen to it seriously,
are quarreling with the name Jazz and not with what it
represents (Ernst 46).
Whiteman’s own symphonic style of Jazz was praised later in the program notes:
The greatest single factor in improvement of American music has
been the art of scoring. Paul Whiteman’s orchestra was the first
organization to especially score each selection and play it
according to the score. Since then practically every modern
orchestra has its own arranger or staff of arrangers (Ernst 46).
What Whiteman presented at the Aeolian Hall was not the Jazz that began in New Orleans and travelled north to Chicago and New York. To begin with a piece from the ODJB is to completely disregard the true origins of Jazz. To call the concert an experiment is to deny Jazz, from the outset, a place in the modern arts cannon. To claim that the music he condoned at the close of the experiment, though called Jazz, was anything but that, is to market an entirely different face and sound for the name of Jazz. To score the “jazz” pieces is to render insignificant the great skill of collective improvisation that was the hallmark of New Orleans Jazz and that characterized the start of the musical genre. To make a lady out of Jazz implies that Jazz was a form that needed molding and class in order to be presentable to white society. Paul Whiteman, in essentially one concert (though, for those who were not at the concert, in his records as well), polished and changed the true face of Jazz almost completely in order to popularize it for mainstream, white, middle-class families. And it worked. Whiteman’s Jazz became the mainstream, praised Jazz for quite some time – a Jazz that seemed to neglect its own background.
This is not to say that Whiteman himself misunderstood the meaning of Jazz. Though he put a different sound to the name, Whiteman saw, heard, felt, in Jazz the same thing that Bechet’s father saw, heard, and felt when Emancipation was announced – the same factors that played into Bechet’s own music. Whiteman wrote, “In America, jazz is at once a revolt and a release. Through it, we get back to a simple, to a savage, if you like, joy in being alive. While we are dancing or singing or even listening to jazz, all the artificial restraints are gone. We are rhythmic, we are emotional, we are natural” (Whiteman 155). Whiteman’s Jazz expressed the same base humanity that Bechet’s Jazz expressed, but in a manner suited to his level of traditional preferences.
When asked in 1924 to give his opinion of Jazz for Etude, a popular music instructor’s magazine, John Alden Carpenter responded, “All music that has significance must necessarily be the product of its time…I am convinced that our contemporary popular music is by far the most spontaneous, the most personal, the most characteristic, and, by virtue of these qualities, the most important musical expression that America has achieved” (Etude 49). Whiteman’s polished Symphonic Jazz and New Orleans’ driving heterophony were contemporary, popular music in their own way. Each found an audience for whom the music carried a significance that was a product of the time: post-World-War-I American society trying to determine what kind of human nature inhabited it. Yet finally, there was an understanding between the varying groups of musicians and listeners that Jazz was, across the board, an expression of humanity. The history of what that meant to the original Jazz musicians may have been lost in the commercialization of Jazz, but the understanding began to arise by the end of the 1920s. By the Great Depression and the 1930s, Jazz fully encapsulated the national identity and from henceforth grew to become what Congress in the 1980s deemed a national treasure.
A Note on the Text
This essay focuses on how Jazz became American Popular Music. That it became American popular music is a fact. That there were virtuosic, famous, legendary musicians – such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and more – who came out of the first true decade of Jazz is a fact. How these musicians and their music came to be American popular music is debatable. Thus, this essay focuses more on the ideologies behind the originators of jazz and the critics of jazz than it does on the jazz musicians themselves. Though the essay centers on a “black and white” argument, there were many great contributors to both sides of the argument who did not come from one of those categories – or who stood in between the lines. To fully discuss all the great musicians and bands and their impact and influence on Jazz, as well as the philosophies behind that impact, requires much more space and time than is allotted here. This essay uses a few key moments and written arguments to discuss how the idea of Jazz, and therefore the music of Jazz, came to be accepted enough to later turn into a “valuable American treasure.”
A Note on Wynton Marsalis and Neoclassicism
The early 1980s saw a movement in Jazz called Neoclassicism, an approach to Jazz “predicated on fidelity to a specific Canon of masterpieces” (Deveaux 379). In his book on neoclassicism, The Jazz Bubble, Dale Chapman describes the Neoclassical era, “In the early 1980s, as often as not, the term [neoclassicism] was used to describe a crucial subset of the jazz avant-garde that had integrated a posture of robust engagement with earlier stylistic moments (New Orleans polyphony, swing, bebop, hard bop) into its vision of experimental improvisation” (9). Wynton Marsalis, a New Orleans-born virtuosic trumpet player who denied jazz avant-garde as being true jazz (Devauex 381), emerged as the face of neoclassicism. Insisting on a suit-and-tie dress code and releasing (and winning Grammy Awards for) both classical and jazz albums simultaneously, “Marsalis’s vision of jazz has made it legible to those individuals and institutions who might otherwise have been skeptical about reviving such a transgressive musical legacy, originating from such a culturally charged site of identity” (Chapman 12). Marsalis made marketable again the kind of Jazz that struggled to be popular in the first place. Yet there is a distinctive difference in the sound of Marsalis’ records and those of the 1920s – namely, in the layers of jazz tradition that can be heard underneath Marsalis’ New Orleans melody line. Marsalis in fact did so well in bringing back the older styles of jazz that young fans were challenged with a choice: to buy a tribute to the Greats, or to buy the original album from the Greats? Marsalis’ record sales plummeted and, with them, the investment of Columbia Records, one of the first three major record companies to sell jazz records. It was just before this plummet that Congress passed its resolution on Jazz. What style of Jazz was the “valuable American treasure?” Was the treasure meant to stay in the past or be revived? According to record sales, the treasure was in the past.
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