17

E. Taylor Atkins: Let's Call This... Our Jazz?

Ian Patterson By

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Jazz did not speak to or for the people who were roughly analogous to Louis Armstrong as a child. It appealed more to people of some means, of some affluence who were connected to global trends in entertainment and popular culture —E. Taylor Atkins
African-American vernacular or universal language? Symbol of freedom and equality, or one of nationalist ideals and bourgeois elitism? Folk music or high art? Jazz, since its earliest days, has represented many things to many people. For Professor E. Taylor Atkins, such binary ways of thinking rather over-simplify the arguments. Whereas an either or way of thinking about jazz is merely divisive, Atkins has spent much of the past twenty years arguing for a more inclusive approach to jazz studies, one that recognizes the possibility of multiple meanings and histories.

As Presidential Teaching Professor in the History Department of Northern Illinois University, Atkins specializes in the cultural history of Korea and Japan. Author of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Duke University Press, 2001), a fascinating insight into the history of jazz in Japan, its social role and political overtones, Atkins is also editor of Jazz Planet (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), a series of essays which constitute the first in-depth study of jazz beyond the borders of the United States.

All About Jazz: Many people were critical of certain aspects of Ken Burns' film documentary Jazz: The Story Of America's Music (2001), the main beef being that the film gave very little space to jazz post-1960; I believe, however, that you may have a somewhat different criticism of his view of jazz history?

E. Taylor Atkins: Well, that's my main one [laughs]. I would agree with that. I think that's the biggest single problem. Jazz as you know is a disputed category of music and I think it would have been more appropriate for Burns as a documentarian, as a historian, to report on that rather than take sides in the battle. It's clear to me that he took the Stanley Crouch/Wynton Marsalis party line on the definition of what jazz is and who the great people were and why and took it hook, line and sinker.

I think the more productive and intellectually honest approach would have been to report that this isn't necessarily the way it is, this is just one perspective on jazz and there are others. By giving three episodes to the 1930s and one episode to the 1960s he's pretty much obliterating all the activity that Crouch and Marsalis consider irrelevant to jazz. Another criticism that I would have is that he doesn't consider jazz as a global phenomenon but I think that would have been asking too much for this kind of project. I think the project at its heart was something that anyone who likes jazz can appreciate and empathize with: trying to persuade Americans of this great cultural treasure we have that is no longer a commercially viable art form.

So he [Burns] had to do a lot of persuasion and explication why it's important, why Americans should care about it at all. That in itself was a big enough task to deal with but I think he could have done that and still been more respectful and fairer about the internal debates about defining jazz.

AAJ: You mentioned the global aspect of jazz, just how quickly and how far did spread beyond America's borders?

ETA: Surprisingly fast. In the internet age these things don't really impress us that much but it was pretty amazing how quickly it spread and a lot of it had to do with World War I and the United States involvement in that, the rising cultural presence of the United States after the war. One of the main ways that jazz was brought to Europe was through black American troops who went to Europe and who were also musicians. Also along the routes that connected imperial powers to their colonies and the increasing traffic in leisure and travel along the oceans and of course the medium of recording and of film. Even though film was silent you could see images of jazz musicians playing. Publication of sheet music....it was part of the media explosion; the rising profile of the United States, the continuation of colonialism all played a huge role in it.

Within a year or two of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's first record they were playing in London and by the 1920s, not even ten years after that, in a history that's still waiting to be written, Filipino musicians who were living in an American colony were already recognized as being the best ones in the Pacific. Again, we don't know very much about how they got to that level of performance but clearly by the early to mid 1920s, aside from Americans Filipinos were the ones who were most in demand in the Pacific Rim area.

AAJ: In Jazz Planet you talk of jazz as an early harbinger of globalization; could you share your thoughts on this idea, please?

ETA: There are lots of components to globalization but I think one of the most fundamental aspects of it is a sense of people in different parts of the world participating in a similar activity or sharing time, experiencing time, and forms of entertainment or leisure, or work, together—an awareness of connection with people who are unlike you in other respects spending their time the same way.

I think one of the ways jazz prefigures that is among certain populations—and they did tend to be urban, middle class, and cosmopolitan people throughout the world, both in imperial countries and in colonies—having a consciousness that jazz music and the dances that went with it were sweeping the world and they were participating in something that, whatever its origins—and the origins were clear—people all over the world were participating in it.

For me, it's not just the mechanics of getting print music or recorded music or instruments or repertoire into the hands of people around the world; it's also the sense of a shared consciousness and a belief that it was important. It was socially significant and it portended other big cultural shifts.

AAJ: It seems very odd that given jazz's global reach and social importance from the get go that this aspect doesn't form of part of the typical linear histories of jazz. It strikes me that it's like trying to write a history of football and only talking about football in England over the last 120 years.

ETA: Exactly. That's a very good analogy.

AAJ: Jazz is often written and spoken of as a universal language, as though it expresses core universal values; is this commonly propagated idea of jazz wide of the mark in your opinion?

ETA: [laughs] Oh, that's a good question and I'm going to have to give you a very equivocal answer and say yes and no. It's not universal in the sense that it communicates the same message or has the same sets of associations or meanings for everybody everywhere. As you remember from my presentation in April, much has been made about how jazz represents freedom, particularly to Americans and other democratic countries but also to people living under totalitarian regimes it represents personal liberation and autonomy and that sort of thing. I'm not saying that's not true but it doesn't just mean that. There are examples like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan where they put it to different uses and tried to make it mean something else, and even though it was calculated it didn't necessarily mean those same things.

It's tricky in another sense because our definitions of jazz are not stable over time. I think for instance of somebody like [bandleader] Paul Whiteman who was known as the King of Jazz. In Japan's early engagement with the music he was the most important person in defining what it was, and what he defined it as was a form of Negro folk music that he had elevated and made into something more artistic and respectable. It was cleansed of all the rawness or whatever you want to call it that was at its roots and I think a lot of people would not agree that that [Whiteman's music] was what jazz meant.

On the other hand, I believe that there are things we cannot explain through scientific inquiry or rational thought. I know what it's like to be moved by music that is culturally alien to me. It may have different associations in the country in which it originates but it still moves me and draws me nearer to those people or that culture, that way of looking at things. I'm thinking particularly of the solo opera form in Korea called pansori. It's not something that I can listen to and understand the libretto or anything like that, I'd have to read it in translation, but the music moves me and I do think that jazz and other forms of music have that capacity.

It may not give us very accurate understanding of the culture it comes from but it at least ignites our curiosity and empathy. This is more of a kind of a mysterious process that is beyond my expertise as a historian and I'm perfectly happy to just let it be one of those unexplained mysteries.

AAJ: This is the universal aspect of not just jazz but music in general—it can affect people anywhere.

ETA: Exactly. I think that's one of the things that is very special about music as an art form. I am sure there are lots of people who would argue that dance, literature and visual art have the same effect but from my experience I would argue that no other art from gets at us quite the way music does.

AAJ: I think a lot of jazz fans and jazz buffs sometimes think that jazz is the universal language but really blues, folk, rock or pop can all have that effect. We just have to think of The Beatles, Abba, Bob Dylan or The Chemical Brothers.

ETA: Right. I'm sure you agree that I feel sorry for people who don't appreciate jazz because I feel like they're really missing something special but as much as I love jazz, and if I try to be objective and rational about it, I can see how other forms of music can have that same kind of power and I've experienced that.

AAJ: These days almost every country has a national jazz agency and there appears to be a growth in jazz nationalisms; for example, people talk of Danish jazz, Dutch jazz, UK jazz, Australia recently published an Australian Real Book, and perhaps the most widely mentioned jazz nationalism is the so-called Nordic sound—the question is, to what extent can any country's culture define a national sound?

ETA: As you know I'm a real critic of that perspective because I don't believe in such things as national essences. I understand that different places have different cultures but I think of culture as not being the things we agree about but the things that we think are important enough to argue about. So for instance, in the United States everybody thinks that freedom is great but if you get a room with a hundred people you're going to get a hundred different definitions of freedom is and what its limits should be.

I think the whole idea that there's a national essence, a spirit that inculcates people and shapes how they relate to each other and how they relate as a group to the rest of the world is just balderdash in my view. I can understand how the cadence or rhythm of a language or the rhythms of a way of living can have an impact on the things that might come out of the horns of improvising musicians, or their pianos or guitars or whatever, but in the end the really great ones think outside of those boxes.

In the end, who would be representative of American jazz? Is it [trumpeter] Louis Armstrong? Why not [saxophonist] John Coltrane? Why not [pianist] Cecil Taylor or any other number of Americans? I think the way the cultural politics of jazz works out is that Americans are allowed to be individuals but then people who play jazz in other countries are given this burden of representation that they represent their national cultures. I just think that's baloney.

People who work on this music have ideas that they don't even know where they come from and I think to try and explain everything as the essence of national culture is demeaning. I think it's disrespectful to the artists and it just reinforces national identities that supposedly the universalism of jazz is helping to wipe away.

That said, yes, people do make deliberate creative choices to use aspects of indigenous or indigenous aesthetics in their music and that's perfectly legitimate but that's not even done along national lines. Some of the people that I know who are the most interested in playing jazz using Japan indigenous instruments or playing jazz versions of Japanese folk songs aren't Japanese themselves. So, I really don't buy into that idea of national styles and I'm kind of surprised that that mentality is as tenacious as it is.

AAJ: In "Blue Nippon" you refer to that way in which non-American jazz artists are perhaps made to feel obliged to represent their indigenous traditions as "orientalzing expectations"; could you explain what you mean by this?

ETA: In an art form that is so closely identified with the United States people who aren't American have to negotiate that and almost justify their performance of this music to their peers, to Americans, to people in the homeland—you know, a variety of constituencies.

A lot of the times the jazz audience will think "If I'm going to hear somebody just play straight up, mainstream jazz I'm going to go listen to [saxophonist] Stan Getz, I'm not going to listen to [saxophonist] Sleepy Matsumoto or somebody like that"—just because that person is Japanese. So, in order to win over an audience that would be curious about jazz with a Japanese-sounding aspect the Japanese artist will make that concession.

There is a point where if a Japanese band is going to go to the United States and play, they damn well better sound Japanese because that's what the audiences want. If they just go and play the Woody Herman or Count Basie stuff they play at home people are going to say, "What's the point? Why do you come all the way over here to play stuff that Woody Herman or Count Basie play better than you do?" Of course, that in itself is debatable but there would be that presumption.

The big example I'm thinking of is the Hara Nobuo Sharps and Flats big band which came to play at Newport in 1966 or '67, which commissioned a whole set of charts of Japanese folk songs for big band. Hara Nobuo was very up-front about this; he said we can't go over there and play the stuff we normally play because Americans can hear that all the time played by the original bands so we need to do something that's distinctive and different. So, they fall back on that national strategy, if you will. It has to sound exotic to get attention.

AAJ: It seems that non-Americans are often considered as being inauthentic if they play straight-ahead, bebop or whatever, yet it's okay for [saxophonists] Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd and Charlie Mariano or [pianist] Randy Weston for example, to explore other musics of the world: is there a double standard at work here?

ETA: Oh heck yeah. Absolutely there is. There's no question about it. There always has been a double standard. That's the privilege of being a superpower or an imperial power or whatever; you have perfect artistic license to pillage from other cultures but there's more skepticism when it's done the other way. I think there has been a double standard but it's not as pronounced as it used to be.

AAJ: In traditional histories of jazz—Ken Burns is a classic example—the story of jazz is usually portrayed as a natural, linear history, brought about by brilliant individuals; it's not really that simple, is it?

ETA: No, not at all. I don't think it's as big a shift from original jazz, New Orleans, Chicago-style jazz to the swing era; it's not such a big rupture. Bebop is a big rupture, free-jazz, jazz-rock fusion and what some would call world-fusion jazz including non-western instruments—those are bigger ruptures and I am very sympathetic to the view that those might productively be regarded as completely different kinds of music.

There are people involved in those movements who would be on either side of the spectrum. People like Louis Armstrong rejecting bebop, at least at first, beboppers rejecting [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and then there were others who could see some continuity between them. Certainly the people who were making those revolutions had an ambivalent relationship with the past—they respected it and it influenced them but they wanted to do something different.

I wrestle with it all the time because I really do like all kinds of jazz. When I had a radio show my unofficial logo was "playing it all from [pianist] Jelly Roll Morton to [pianist] Sun Ra. I do believe there's something that holds them all together but very tenuously and I would be hard-pressed to have to define what those things are. I'm much more comfortable admitting that jazz is something that people argue about, rather than saying it is this one thing. I think that that's just more real.

You're probably familiar with the idea that the term jazz came to have some really practical value as marking art from entertainment and white from black. People in the musician's unions were either musicians or they were jazz musicians, the implication being that jazz musicians tended to be black, that they tended to play in clubs rather than concert halls; that determined how they were paid and how they fit in society. People like [drummer] Max Roach, who rejected the idea of jazz, it wasn't because he was offended by the word, he was offended by the implication that it was less value than what classical musicians were doing, and I think that's where his hatred of the word came from because it had real, concrete consequences for the economic livelihoods and working conditions of the musicians who played it.

So, I'm very sympathetic to the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] in Chicago—it's not that they reject the jazz tradition, what they reject is the idea that they must either be jazz musicians or they must be something else, that they must either be improvisers or composers. In the end a lot of them say "It's music, damn it. It's just music." Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does it have to be composed or improvised? Why does it have to be classical or jazz? Why does it have to be art or entertainment?

I'm aware that the word jazz has a nefarious history. Somebody might ask me, "Do you think [saxophonist] Kenny G is jazz?" I don't think that's the right question. The right question should be "Is Kenny G any good?" It's not good because it's jazz or bad because it's not jazz. Critics have tended to use the term "jazz" to indicate something that's really good and pop or "non-jazz" as a term of abuse, as though it's self evidently good if it's jazz. This is the way Wynton Marsalis uses it, frankly.

AAJ: You make the point in "Blue Nippon" that in Japan in the late twentieth century you could find fans of every genre of jazz imaginable. I think we can also see this in other countries such as the UK, Australia, even America, yet this phenomena is rarely mentioned in traditional jazz histories; is part of the difficulty in discussing jazz that there is no single jazz culture, but rather there are myriad forms of jazz co-existing at the same time?

ETA: I do think that makes it more difficult but not unpleasantly so [laughs]. I think it's wonderful that the old music survives and people continue to play it or try to do something different with it. I don't think there's any harm in that. Perhaps the majority of jazz fans tend to prefer one aspect of the music to another and that does make it difficult to define. In the end that's one of the reasons I come down on the side of thinking maybe we should be focusing our energies on other issues or talking about other things other than whether something qualifies as jazz or not.

AAJ: In your book Blue Nippon referring to the artistic community in Japan post-WWII under the occupation, which includes jazz, you write, and I quote: "its aesthetic was referential; its art was quite deliberately derivative and its customs contrived; its faith in its own creative powers was too often obscured by its infatuation with American examples." It struck me on reading this description how it mirrors not uncommon criticisms of jazz as played around the world by non-Americans, and yet how it could just as easily refer to the most conservative elements of jazz in America today; do you see it that way?

ETA: Yeah, and I think I actually make the point in the postlude of the book that it's very strange you want to criticize Japanese for imitating when the Marsalis moment was guilty of the same sin, if you will. Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch were a sort of Godsend for academic jazz studies because they gave us this great sort of cartoonish straw man that we could bounce our ideas off. They were such polarizing figures who took in some ways ridiculous stands that it became like shooting fish in a barrel.

It's not as big a deal anymore for a lot of reasons, one of them being because Marsalis is such an establishment figure now, which is not a bad thing because if I was going to name some people who I wanted to be in charge of a great cultural institution, then why not him? He seems like a decent person and I agree with his belief in artistic integrity, I just don't draw the lines in the same place he does.

One of the reasons it's not as big a deal anymore is not because he doesn't have any influence—I mean he's not a rebel anymore, he's part of the establishment, he sets the standard—but it's that a lot of people have just gotten over that whole business about keeping the tradition alive and they've gone on about their business making music however they want with less hand wringing about it.

AAJ: In Jazz Planet, Christopher G. Bakriges argues that the rejection of the so-called New Thing, or free-jazz in America was fundamental in nurturing the European equivalent; to what extent do you agree or disagree with his view?

ETA: I'm not sure I would say it's because of rejection but I do think that there was definitely a sense that among European musicians—and I don't want to get into any stereotyping here—they had to do something different and what they were going to do wasn't necessarily going to be based on African-American aesthetics or blues. Part of it would be drawing on the compositional heritage from European art music and another was abandoning any kind of composing whatsoever and go completely free.

It's a fair question whether that is jazz or not but I don't really care if it's jazz or not, it's whether it's good or bad and in improvised music that's going to vary from performance to performance. A great improviser might give a really good performance one day and a really bad performance the next day. It's the nature of the beast.

I'm aware that that free improvisation aesthetic has come to be the signature element of European jazz but I think when we look at it that way it homogenizes what is really a very much more diverse scene than that. The struggle that a lot of people have is whether to try to put that into the jazz tradition and incorporate it into the narrative. That's an academic issue which may be productive but it's not going to yield the kind of certainty that we would like. We're just going to have to be comfortable with the ambiguity [laughs], at some point.

AAJ: The whole history of jazz is full of paradox, irony and ambiguity; it goes with the territory, doesn't it?

ETA: It does, absolutely.

AAJ: This idea of Christopher G. Bakriges that the free-jazz that wasn't accepted in America maybe helped to birth a lot of record labels in Europe or at least provide them with lots of recordings, and maybe inspire a lot of European musicians as well—is this one of the best examples of trans-national jazz?

ETA: Yeah, I think in a way it is. When you were asking the question I was remembering and thinking about one of the big heroes of the free-improvisation movement in Europe, Cecil Taylor, who to his credit does not believe he should have to conform to any particular stereotype of a black aesthetic or to have to side with anything and he has provided the foundation for what is now classified as the typical European approach to jazz.

The other thing is that Europe is not a homogenous area and the free improvisation movement that I'm aware of is very trans-national. You've got people from Germany and people from Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Poland—people working across their national borders together and creating lasting groups.

AAJ: Another point you make in Blue Nippon is the irony in the fact that in America at least, jazz is often portrayed as a catalyst for the emancipation of the poor and the oppressed; when that's not always how the music has been viewed around the world—could you expand on that idea?

ETA: Early on, the people outside the United States who were first exposed to jazz music were people who lived in cities, people who had access to phonographs, to records, to sheet music and instruments, dance-halls, cafes where music would be played publicly, people who went to movie theaters and heard orchestras play—they were people who had expendable income that they could afford leisure activities. They liked to participate in things that were hip, new and cosmopolitan. They enjoyed the cultural capital that they acquired by engaging in those kind of activities. It was a decent slice of humanity but not huge. That's the irony to me; when you think of someone like Louis Armstrong and people of his generation who became musicians, they came from the absolute poorest circumstances. It was a miracle that someone like Armstrong was ever given an instrument in the first place.

Because jazz was embraced by urban middle classes and cosmopolitans around the world in places like Japan and many other places as well, people who viewed that as a foreign contamination or an affectation or a way of lording over the people, the real people who formed the core spirit of the nation—that was very offensive to them. Jazz did not speak to or for the people who were roughly analogous to Louis Armstrong as a child. It appealed more to people of some means, of some affluence who were connected to global trends in entertainment and popular culture.

AAJ: That's a thought-provoking answer. Another theme that occurs in both Blue Nippon and Jazz Planet is how the politicization of jazz has been largely downplayed in traditional histories of jazz, yet it's been manipulated by various nations, or rather governments of nations to drive home different political agendas; could you give us an example of this?

ETA: One example would be the Japanese example where during the war they banned jazz when what in fact they were trying to do was strip particular, formal, identifiable elements from the music that they found to be offensive or anti-national and repurpose the whole idiom to facilitate expressions of Japanese national pride, identity and sense of mission, the desire to sacrifice whilst still being light-hearted.

When I say it was government-directed I say that with some caveats. Basically, the government enlisted musicians and music critics to develop what the guidelines would be and then get them involved in self-policing. They didn't have the staffing or the expertise to spare on micro-managing all of these things. So, they had to rely on the people who knew something about it.

And those people, whether they supported the war deep down in their hearts or not, they didn't know that they were going to lose the war and as far as they knew things were going to be different and they still had to make livings as musicians. This is what they had to do to fit into the new society that was going to be created, so it's really hard, for me at least, to be harshly critical of them for that.

I would say that another example of the political use of jazz is in the United States. Passing a Congressional resolution that it's America's classical music; using it on tours during the Cold War to places like Pakistan or places in Africa that were decolonizing. I write in Jazz Planet that the message of all this is, "If you embrace Communism you can kiss it goodbye—you're never going to see it again." So it's used to represent American freedom, it was used to represent a completely imagined racial utopia in the United States at that time. "Oh, we don't treat black people so badly. Look, here's Louis Armstrong just to prove it to you."

The other thing about that, too, certainly into the twentieth century Americans really hadn't contributed anything substantial to world culture and jazz is always singled out as the first great contribution of the United States to world culture. That has political meanings and political implications.

One of the things we talked about at the conference, [Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures, Salford, April 2013] though it probably wouldn't be in any official record of it, was the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters program, about Ken Burns and the Smithsonian Institution and all these things that emphasize the Americanness of jazz. And one of things I came back with was—and I'm not an apologist for ignoring the rest of the world's jazz activity—that the reason that there's so much emphasis placed on it is because advocates for jazz who are in the government or who have a relationship with the government want the music to be more popular than it is. So they emphasize the Americanness of it to get the Americans to actually pay attention to it, because if there's anything that Americans like it's America [laughs].

They play this nationalist bit up all the time to make Americans feel special. They want Americans to realize that this is important, in an environment where they're mesmerized by a ton of other things. So, in the end it's really hard for me to be too judgmental towards the Smithsonian or towards Ken Burns or towards these other groups that are waving the flag as they talk about how great jazz is because they are trying to reach and convert millions of Americans who don't give a damn about the music at all. I'm sympathetic to that.

AAJ: That's an interesting and valid point of view. Professor Atkins, the last twenty or twenty five years have seen a gradual growth in a scholarly approach to making sense of the history of jazz; how important do you think it is that we adopt an empirical approach to studying jazz history? How can this better serve the music and the non-performing consumer of the music?

ETA: Wow, that's a good question. There's no question in my mind. I'm a historian, I do research based on evidence and I try to be true to what the historical record leaves for me to pick through, and I don't think there's any real down side to approaching the music that way. I don't think there's any harm in using empirical research to demystify or demythologize some things. I don't think it has to have any damaging effect on the way that we appreciate the music.

The only major criticism I got about Blue Nippon, but I thought it was very fair, was in a review by Gordon Mathews of Hong Kong University in which he said that I'm moving back and forth in that book between being a scholar and a critic, because sometimes I talk about musical aesthetics and whether something is good or not, and at other times I'm more detached. I appreciated that he said that because it was something that I was always mindful of. Some people really liked the fact they could tell that I was invested in the music and that I liked it, but it's not an unproblematic stance to take. Taking me to task on that issue mildly was recognition of the problem and an acknowledgment of the problem that I had.

Nonetheless, I've been doing this for twenty-something years now, being a listener, somebody who goes to a club and I'm totally into the music. My whole body is moving and I'm moved by it. I collect CDs like they're going out of style and I'm really a big fan. But then I can still put my scholar hat on and set all those aesthetic and emotional things aside and look at it more objectively. I don't think I'm unusual in that; I think the best jazz scholars out there are capable of doing both. In my mind it's not a question of one approach or the other.

As I said to you earlier I'm a spiritual person and I believe in things we can't see and can't explain. I believe that the empirical approach to jazz or any other kind of music has a lot to offer but it's always going to run up against the profound mystery of music and its effect on our minds and our souls, if you'll allow me to use that phrase, that we'll never be able to document. I long ago made my peace with that.

AAJ: That's a great answer. The noted American historian and author Joel Augustus Rogers wrote in 1925: "Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home." Don't these words from 1925 seem incredibly prescient with regards to the state of jazz today and the debate surrounding it?

ETA: Very much. I think that's a fabulous quotation, and you're right, it's very prescient coming as early as it did. I don't know how unusual this is for a scholar to feel this way because usually we're always looking for right answers, but I'm really comfortable with "both/and" formulations and paradoxes. I don't think that everything can be reduced to one thing or another and that things can be both one and its opposite. That sort of explains my answer to the previous question about the mysteries that are involved, so I really appreciate that quotation a great deal.

I think it would be foolish to deny that jazz didn't originate in some peculiar circumstances that only the United States had at that particular historical moment. It's a very particular kind of music that emerged in particular circumstances at a specific time but once it left and went other places it acquired other particular meanings in other specific circumstances and times. That is my principal objection to a universal language approach to it.

That said, as I mentioned, even if it doesn't mean the same thing it doesn't mean that it doesn't mean something to everyone, or could.

Further reading as recommended by E. Taylor Atkins
Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Gabriel Solis, Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2007)
Penny M. von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2004)
Graham Lock, Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke University Press, 2000)
Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (University of California Press, 1999)

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