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Bridges vs. Walls

Bridges vs. Walls
J. Scott Fugate By

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If you ask ten Americans "what does it mean to be an American?" you might well get 10 different answers.

So it goes with America's only original, indigenous art form.

Wait... we have one of those?

Yes indeed—although it's rarely given the National respect or attention it deserves.

Thus, if you ask ten Americans what our only original, indigenous art form may be, the correct answer might not even make the list.

Baseball, hot dogs and apple pie may represent America... but none of them originated entirely in this country, and despite the defense of avid fans—none of them are actually art forms.

Pizza is actually more American than the hot dog—even though it masquerades as Italian... but that's an entirely different subject.

Basically, our cultural identity is a mash-up of every other culture around the world... just like our art form—which happens to be jazz, by the way.

If you just turned up your nose, or made a face or derisive sound when you read that—you are most probably an American.

However, the fact that any ten different Americans could express such varied opinions is part of what jazz is all about. The very fact of our diversity, our differences, outlooks, preferences, and all the various cultures that combined to create these United States are the DNA of America's only original art form.

America is a synthesis of sounds, styles, attitudes, traditions, beliefs and cultures—creatively linked through communities, improvised communication and collective democracy... just like jazz.

Anything that can be called truly "American" must represent all the races, cultures, religions, ages and tastes that are part of this great Nation... and we are also free to accept or reject it.

True to form, Americans on the whole tend to reject and ignore jazz. Many have never really listened to it—except in the guise of annoying background music—and even fewer have seen it performed live. Most Americans have never had any education as to how jazz was developed, why it had an effect on the rest of the world, how it influenced every style of music that came after it and remains embedded in everything they currently listen to, or... what it actually is.

Much of this problem arises from our diversity—and the desire to define everything according to demographics. Like any product in our free market economy—jazz has been codified, classified, and narrowed down to fit a small spectrum of very specific consumers... even though the essence of jazz appeals to all demographics by its very nature.

Those that have claimed jazz as their own over the years have managed to extricate it from any cultural relevance, and remove all vestiges of it from popular music. Sadly, this is often done in the name of preservation.

I believe the primary problem lies in the definition. "Jazz" is often defined as a singular and specific genre of music—or applied to the popular styles played throughout the 1920's, 30's, 40's or 50's... even though each of those eras had a different definition of the word.

The people playing jazz in the 1920's did not recognize what was called jazz in the 30's—not to mention what big bands did to it in the 40's—and the jazz musicians of the 1950's and 60's claimed the word as their own by rejecting the previous styles developed by their mentors and predecessors.

For the past century, people have tried to put jazz into a narrowly defined box—rather than embracing it as a cultural phenomenon and unique process of shared improvisational creativity. The word is used to define a singular style of music, rather than the foundation and primary link to ALL styles and eras of music developed since the onset of the 20th century.

When someone says, "I don't like jazz," they probably don't realize that they are proclaiming a dislike for every style of music created since the 1890's. If you enjoy anything other than pre-20th century classical music, you do indeed like some kind of jazz... because every style that has emerged in the past century is connected to it in some way. However, jazz remains largely misunderstood, and completely irrelevant in most American's lives.

I'm sure you've heard it said that America is a melting pot—a conglomeration of cultures that have joined together in a great experiment of democracy. We are a wide collection of every religion, ideology, race and culture known to man; which is superbly represented by our quintessential music... a diverse Continuum containing a century of styles under the banner of one word.

That word is "jazz."

Or is it?


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