The history of jazz has been told, re-told, written, re-written, presented and re-presented ad nauseum. An often revisionist chronicle of jazz neglecting certain aspects and exaggerating others has overwhelmed the amassing literature. With African-American Jazz Musicians in the Diaspora, Dr. Larry Ross a trained anthropologist but more importantly a skilled, seasoned, award-winning musician aims to set the record straight. In this timely text, Dr. Ross examines “some of the cultural and microeconomic externalities that contributed to the migration trends of African American jazz musicians” (p. 11). Through years of research, Dr. Ross brings a refreshing account of the historical and cultural significance of the innovations of numerous African American jazz musicians throughout the Diaspora. Interesting discussions on race, migration patterns, culture, class and aesthetics in addition to interesting facts make African-American Jazz Musicians in the Diaspora a unique and personal analysis worth reading.
I had the pleasure to have a conversation with Dr. Larry Ross about the book.
AAJ: The book is excellent, it was cutting-edge, abrupt and in-your-face at times yet extremely informative. A lot of the dialogue on race, class, culture and aesthetics is very intriguing.
Dr. Larry Ross: I’m so glad you recognized all of the things that I wanted recognized in this particular work. I approached all of the things that I felt were missing, left out or glossed over in other works.
AAJ: In your opinion what is the strongest aspect of the book?
Dr. Larry Ross: I would say, a deconstruction of the concept of race upon which everything else flows, and that is what people do not know and would not know unless they had anthropological training. Even some people with anthropological training don’t know it because there are so few people of color in anthropology and the subject of jazz is not of interest to most of them.
AAJ: How has race been used to devalue, underrate, or diffuse the power of jazz?
Dr. Larry Ross: This is a great question because it brings into question aesthetic philosophy which is very stratified. If it was the product of a Negro, then, the thinking is, it couldn’t possibly be of any worth. That philosophy underlies all of the disparity in the social, political, economic and cultural realm. This is why John Philip Sousa’s comment that the Negro musician who wrote “Turkey in the Straw” was a genius, is so interesting. Sousa said that. But of course he was attacked by his peers for using and approving of jazz - the music of Negroes; Antonín Dvorzák, who was also attacked by his peers. As far as the aesthetic is concerned if it involved the Negro or something of African descent, it had to be inferior. This is the underlying thinking. When people start talking about aesthetic then they bring all of that baggage into their thinking, and then when they try to talk about a Black aesthetic they are using that stratified system and trying to be part of the colonial machinery instead of having self-determination and rejecting it all together.
AAJ: What do you find about the book is most controversial?
Dr. Larry Ross: It would be controversial if the documentation did not support everything that I say. I don’t think that there is anything controversial in the book because the documentation is staring everyone in the face; whether they actually engage it or not is the question.
AAJ: There is a phrase, Jazz: America’s Classical Music and there is a phrase, Jazz: America’s rare and valuable treasure. What’s the difference?
Dr. Larry Ross: I think rare and valuable treasure is certainly appropriate; classical again places it into the aesthetic. Now the term classic comes from classicus which is something that the Romans used to talk about the army and the top officers. Also there is another problem with the term classic. It collapses Greek and Roman philosophy, culture, architecture and everything else when in fact these people actually hated each other so much. That is why Julius Caesar was probably murdered rather than have this Greek queen Cleopatra be on the throne of Rome. The concept of classic is a real corruption of the historic and cultural fact in of itself. But at the same time it is used to say that this is the height, a fine art. It is neo-classical reaching back to the supposed ancestors in Greece and Rome and this romantic idea that Europeans have regarding culture. Classic itself is problematic and people need to look into that. Besides, Jazz can stand on its own, it doesn’t need the validation of being classical. Why does it have to be classical in order to be good, in order to have value or in order to have merit. It seems that some people feel that the music is not worth anything unless it measures up to the standards of classical, and to most classical musicians or aficionados, the only music is classical. Many of them would not dare listen to or play jazz, it is seen as an abomination. Jazz is one of a few cultural products produced by the African experience in America. This is irrefutable, although numerous people have attempted to say otherwise and deconstruct history. The documentation is all there and still people would say otherwise. I am not against classical music, I have enjoyed classical music for over forty years, but I can say it is not the only music.