Using The Jazz Trope For Assimilation

Scott Krane By

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I read an interesting thing in the Harvard Gazette today. Hansung Ryu a cellist from Seoul who played a summer concert at Harvard said "If Harvard were an Aaron Copland song, it would be 'Hoe-Down'—difficult to play but very colorful and exciting." Ryu played selections from "Rodeo" at Harvard's Sanders Theater on August. 3. The Gazette quoted the cellist saying, "Whenever I play Copland, it makes me feel the way I do about America."

Jazz is both a genre as well as a trope used to signify Americana. Aaron Copland, not considered an innovator of jazz music, instead used it as he used Western music and cowboy culture as a trope to evoke a sense of assimilation. Like America, the jazz trope is always taking in new parts that must reshape to fit the whole. Apropos, it is fascinating the way someone from Seoul relates Copland with his perspective of America, no?

"Copland composed "Billy the Kid," he recalled, having heard his immigrant mother sing cowboy songs she heard growing up in Dallas, Texas." said Gail Levin, co-author of 'Aaron Copland's America: a cultural perspective,' and distinguished professor of art history and American Studies at Baruch College.

"When Copland spent two months in 1928, working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he spent most of the time working on Vitebsk, 'a study on Jewish Theme for violin, cello and piano,' which connected to his growing up in the 'Eastern European Tradition.'" she said, adding that "Drawn to modernism, Copland's life and work reveal his cosmopolitan tastes even while he, like so many of his contemporaries, strived to find his own American identity."

Another example of how jazz and other American tropes have helped immigrants to assimilate and other foreigners like Hansung Ryu to experience America is heard in the composing of Arnold Schoenberg's American years.

"The tonal music that Schoenberg wrote in America is quite diverse." said Michael Cherlin of the University of Minnesota and author of Arnold Schoenberg's Musical Imagination.

"In contrast, the <"Theme and Variations for Band" (1943), a work that was meant to have pedagogical as well as esthetic value, responds to the tradition of music for wind band, then and now a distinct part of American culture. [Another] example is Schoenberg's little known arrangement of an Appalachian folksong, "My Horses Ain't Hungry" (1935). This piece, left uncompleted at the composer's death, showed Schoenberg's interest in learning about and contributing to another aspect of musical Americana."

But more importantly, like Copland, it is Schoenberg's taste for jazz.

"With typical irony, Schoenberg described being 'driven into Paradise.' Musical culture, especially of the sort that Schoenberg left behind in Europe, is something one develops over a lifetime, involving highly sophisticated performance practices and deep, historically informed knowledge of compositional traditions." said Cherlin.

"And though America had her own traditions of popular and folk music as well as jazz, the roots in traditions that Schoenberg knew best were relatively shallow on this side of the Atlantic."

This amalgamation of continental styles is unmistakably jazz.


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