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Race and Jazz

Race and Jazz Criticism

By Published: October 3, 2011
JG: Actually, I was talking about cultural history. What could you do in a history department as a young scholar with jazz? It was around this time that The Creation of Jazz (University of Illinois Press, 1994) by Burton Peretti—a student of Levine's at UC Berkeley—came out. That derived from his dissertation. That was an important book, one of the first of the newer American Studies, American History approaches. A few years after that, David Stowe out of Yale did this book on the swing era, Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America (Harvard University Press, 1996). These were excellent books, but such work was still kind of a new development within U.S. cultural history, which was still an underdeveloped area within American historiography.

What I'm trying to say is the Lawrence Levine's essay gave me hope that I might be able to get a job in a history department. That's the way that I was tilting in my development within American Studies. And here was this eminent historian who was also a path-breaking historian of the black experience.

Here he was putting jazz front and center. He was making the argument that jazz was hitting the ground at a time when a Victorian sense of culture was ascendant. Jazz was modern, and it helped to inaugurate the modernist cultural revolution that was moving away from Victorian cultural ideals: the evolution of culture as linear, rational and orderly, formal perfectibility. What Levine's piece, and the book that it ended up in, was talking about is how right up through the 19th century, the United States remained culturally subordinate to England and to Europe. Victorianism had totally implanted itself in American intellectual culture.

That was the culture that was not hearing jazz as music. And that explains the kind of pervasive anti-jazz attitude of the U.S. intellectual establishment well into the 1930s. So jazz and the things that defined jazz and appealed to its supporters—improvisation, formal flexibility, emotional expressivity—were considered the very opposite of culture. These were seen as anti-culture, even barbaric and threatening to the foundations of civilization [laughter].

Actually Neil Leonard's book, Jazz and the White Americans, is all about that kind of anti-jazz hysteria in the 1920s. But here's the irony: I think that what I show in my book is that the canonization of jazz, as a result of the work of critics in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, was very much a process consonant with that Victorian, capital "C" Culture idea.

We mentioned Martin Williams and The Jazz Tradition before. He was probably the strongest, in jazz criticism, exemplar of a kind a Matthew Arnold, New Critical approach to thinking about what the critic should do with jazz, and thinking about jazz as an art.

AAJ: By doing the research for my essay, "The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature," I discovered that Williams had a very strong literature background based on his experience at Columbia University, right?

JG: Yes. And there was, in the 1950s, a lingering sense, among the critics, that they were part of a mission to get mainstream America to embrace jazz not just as American, but as high art. Bebop musicians of the 1940s wanted to be seen as something more than just entertainers. Ellington earlier had succeeded in getting the music into the concert hall, and had undertaken to write scored-through concert pieces, suites, etc. There's that way of thinking of jazz as art.

Then there's the way of looking at what Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans people are doing or what the Chicago jazz people are doing in those three-minute small-group recordings as art as well.

So, as Levine suggests, it was blowing the Victorian conception of culture out of the water, but the canonization of jazz rested on an approach to jazz that participated in that older intellectual tradition of searching for masterpieces. Like the suggestion that there was something really orderly and rational about a Louis Armstrong solo that can and should be studied with the same kind of analytical rigor that a trumpet concerto from a European classical piece could be studied.

You had to use the traditional tools of criticism and the propaganda of high art to make the case for jazz as a canonical American art form, but then also to build the American jazz canon. So you say these are the recordings, these are the performances you have to pay attention to. For Williams, that was totally parallel to what he had been taught was the right way to approach English poetry. These are the poems you take seriously, these are the masterpieces. And the criticism is going to explain why.

AAJ: Let's complicate this further. Let's bring race into this discussion.

JG: Yes.

To Be Continued . . .


Photo Credits
Page 1, Donald Fagen/Steely Dan: John Kelman
Page 1, John Gennari: Courtesy of John Gennari


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