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17

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

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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