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The Non-Classical Nature of America's Classical Music

Emmett G. Price III By

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There is nothing classical about jazz. Classical implies static, non-changing; a relic frozen in time. Jazz has never been static, non-changing or frozen.
"Every civilization is known by its culture, and jazz is America's greatest contribution to the world—it is our "classical" music. Jazz is spontaneous, honest, and natural, and it is a celebration of life itself." —Tony Bennett (Hasse, 1999: Foreword)

"The music, consequently, is being misrepresented, distorted, misconstrued, and capitalized upon by others than its authors." —Max Roach (Roach, 1962: 174)

In 1987 the Honorable John Conyers, Jr. (14th congressional district of Michigan) introduced H.CON.RES.57 to the 100th Congress of the United States of America. HR-57, as it is affectionately known by the jazz community aimed to have jazz ..."designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated" ( ). Passed by the House of Representatives on September 23, 1987; passed by the Senate on December 4, 1987 and shortly after signed into affect by President William Jefferson Clinton, HR-57 was unfortunately three years too late. The publication of Grover Sales' Jazz: America's Classical Music in 1984 sparked an intellectual and cultural frenzy. Sales not only transformed jazz from a cultural product rooted in the African American experience to a cultural product rooted in the American experience, but he also reclassified jazz (an urban folk music) as a national classical music. Whether or not Sales was the first to mention jazz as America's classical music is not as important as the amount of publicity the idea received from the first printing of his text. Interestingly enough, nowhere in Conyers' decree does he mention jazz as America's classical music. Today, jazz is more highly regarded as America's classical music rather than America's "rare and valuable national treasure." In my opinion, these are two diametrically opposed concepts.

The recent chastisement of Ken Burns in many venues and communities raises the need to revisit a few issues regarding the history of jazz in order to perhaps continue a conversation that may need revitalizing. Numerous communities within the jazz nation held discussions regarding the accuracy, integrity and legitimacy of Burns' production which boasted fantastic audio and video footage previously unheard and unseen by many. Yet, the conversations have died down and have become a smoldering haze of residue. This present writing is not an attempt to revisit the revisionist history of jazz a la Burns, but it aims to connect the dots of a continuing and persistent trend in the present (and past) attempts to chronicle a music that is far greater than a series of scales, chords, licks, riffs and the like.

In Jazz: America's Classical Music, jazz critic and concert & festival producer/ promoter proposed that jazz was indeed a serious music, one that was different in nature from the concert music of Europe but equally as important. As an introductory text catering to the non-musician and/ or jazz novice, Sales goes through each period, phase and style of jazz (to the early 1980's which was current for the date of publishing) introducing major innovators, analyzing innovations and situating these innovations within a musical context so that they could be musically appreciated. In his own words: "This book examines a crucial phenomenon of the twentieth century: how the music of black America began as a primitive folk entertainment and grew with amazing speed into a complex and varied art form that interacted with classical music; the ethnic musics of Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Orient; and with jazz's offshoots, rhythm 'n' blues and rock, and became an international language." (p. 3)

Interestingly enough, Sales and Burns were catering to the same audience in similar fashion. Sales suggests, "Whenever appropriate, the book will relate the continuous development of jazz to other concurrent art forms, particularly European concert music (p. 4)." Sales fails to see the relationship between jazz and the political, social, economic, religious and cultural developments both within and outside of the African American community. This lack of historical contextualization is further trivialized by the continued need, on Sales' part, to relate jazz to European concert music. Neglecting to lay the cultural foundation of jazz and the unnecessary need to compare and compete with Europe causes an unfortunate misanalysis of the music and its meaning.

Sales' use of the phrase "America's Classical Music" is an attempt to not only create a national identity that could compete with Europe's continued cultural dominance, but to also further coin a phrase which could suggest that jazz is a serious, intellectual and perhaps "cultured" art form. Sales' concept (shared by many) is admirable (in the most patriotic sense), yet it is based on a number of false assumptions.


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