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The Non-Classical Nature of America's Classical Music


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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" ( hr57.org ). 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.

Noted jazz historian James Lincoln Collier, similar to Burns and Sales presented his views in a monograph published by the Institute for Studies in American Music titled The Reception of Jazz in America. Subtitled, "a new view," Collier refutes numerous "myths" that plague the public history of jazz. Collier presents the notions: that Americans appreciated jazz before the Europeans (p. 67); that racial tensions were bad in twentieth century America, but not as bad as they were perceived (p.3); and that things were not much better over in Europe (since numerous musicians were leaving the US in route to Europe) (p.52), amongst other claims. Different from Burns and Sales, Collier goes through great strides to prove his claims using a host of resources and great amount of time and energy, yet too, his scholarship is based on a few false assumptions.

Even though this was not an attempt to present a thorough review of these documented perspectives, it is an attempt to expose a rather disturbing trend in jazz historiography. Burns, Sales and Collier, in their own individual ways setout to present jazz as a serious art form. Their collective notion of jazz as a once "primitive" music from the impoverished Black community and now national treasure is absurd. This notion suggests that prior to jazz's national acceptance the music was not taken seriously. The misanalysis (or lack of analysis) of African American culture not only leads to this false notion, but it also adds to the misunderstanding of jazz as a form of entertainment. Unbenounced to many, jazz is a functional music with the primary purpose of expression and communication. Entertainment is a distant third. It is this same misunderstanding that misleads scholars to speak of the spirituals and slave songs as music that helped the slaves to be happy while under the oppressive system of slavery in the United States. Scholars girded with an understanding of African American culture have since revealed that these songs served to not only give slaves a voice against slavery but also allow for communication with one another. It is from this same tradition that blues, jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, early rock 'n' roll and hip hop have evolved. These music forms are all examples of folk music (whether they are labeled as popular or "classical"). These music forms deal with the needs, concerns, feelings, emotions, desires, challenges and struggles of the people who create them. Music is their voice.

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. Through the history of the last century, jazz has mutated, transformed and morphed to speak to and respond to the changing dynamic of society. As the political, social, economic, religious and cultural landscape has changed so has jazz. Jazz is a living music created, performed and maintained by living people. It is the epitome of a folk music if there ever was such a thing. Besides, what makes jazz attractive to so many people around the world is not only the artistic combination of improvisation, rich harmony, syncopated rhythms and all of the other things that make jazz what it is; but also the way jazz speaks to people in distress and how it responds to oppression. Similar to blues before and hip hop after, what might appear as a unique system of entertainment is actually a very functional system of expression and communication rooted in the African American experience in the United States. An experience plagued with constant bouts with injustice, discrimination and a host of other forms of oppression.

Regarding Collier's other "myths," other problems arise. There is no need to challenge whether Americans appreciated jazz before Europeans. First of all, who cares? But secondly, this position assumes that African Americans are not included with the American collective. Other than the extremely religious community, most African Americans were great fans of jazz. Even within the church (although this is not largely acknowledged), many of the musicians doubled as jazz/ church musicians, which implies that even in the church, jazz was going on. Much of the repertoire of the early brass bands (particularly in New Orleans) was material influenced by hymns and spirituals. Collier's notion reveals that by his conception, African Americans or the African American community was not considered a part of the America that Collier cites. There is no need to even qualify Collier's perception of the racial tension in the United States. His notion is absurd. Collier's perspective on whether or not musicians who fled to Europe and abroad found what they were seeking is greatly debated by the works of Bill Moody, Tyler Stovall, William A. Shack, Larry Ross and a host of others.

Returning to HR-57, perhaps we might find informative two important yet subtle points within the larger document. When listing six major impacts or contributions of jazz on the large scale, Conyers posits:

"3. [Jazz] is a true music of the people, finding its inspiration in the cultures and most personal experiences of the diverse people that constitute our Nation..."

"6. [Jazz] has become a true international language adopted by musicians around the world as a music best able to express contemporary realities from a personal perspective;"

As we seek to continue to honor the integrity of jazz and perhaps even follow the tenets of HR-57 to preserve, understand and promulgate the past, present and future of jazz, we might ask ourselves what story do we tell? How might we tell it? And how will the story be received?

Tony Bennett is right, "jazz is spontaneous, honest, and natural, and it is a celebration of life." It perhaps is the greatest contribution created by a myriad of talented individuals who innovated, championed and protected an art form derived, nurtured and developed in the United States. It may well be the greatest contribution the United States has presented, is presenting and will continue to present to the world. But it is not "classical music!" To refer to it as classical music is perhaps one of the misrepresentations, distortions and misconstructions that Max Roach so adamantly refutes.

In his ever-growing infinite wisdom, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1964 speech at the opening of Berlin Jazz Festival titled, "Humanity and the Importance of Jazz," remarked: "For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these."


Burns, Ken, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward. JAZZ/ a Florentine Films Production, distributed by Warner Home Video, 2000

Collier, James Lincoln. The Reception of Jazz in America: a new view. I.S.A.M. Monographs: Number 27. Brooklyn, NY: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1988

Hasse, John Edward. Jazz: the first century. NY: William Morrow, 2000


Moody, Bill. The Jazz Exiles: American Abroad. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1993

Roach, Max. "Jazz," in Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement. Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1962

Ross, Larry. African-American Jazz Musicians in the Diaspora. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003

Sales, Grover. Jazz: America's Classical Music. NY: Da Capo Press, 1992. [Reprint of Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984]

Shack, William A. Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002

Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000


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