The White Reception of Jazz in America

Article excerpt

It came almost like a start of terror, like a sudden awakening, this shattering storm of rhythm, these tone elements never previously combined and now let loose upon us all at once. (Darius Milhaud)

From 1917 to 1930, white America was forced to realize that a new form of music, jazz, rising on radio waves and appearing in clubs worldwide, was here to stay. At the same time, articles analyzing, judging, appraising, and condemning jazz flooded into publication. Titles such as "Unspeakable Jazz Must Go" (see McMahon), "Students in Arms Against Jazz," "Why 'Jazz' Sends Us Back to the Jungle," and "The Jazz Problem" (see Wilson) appeared in mainstream publications and revealed the political and racial endeavors of hostile white critics. By asserting in 1925 that jazz "is a release of all suppressed emotions at once" (Rogers 30), J. A. Rogers created a description that whites would expand on in order to label jazz in Harlem culture as primitive and evil. Jazz served in several ways as a precursor to fifties' be-bop and rock-'n'-roll, eighties' pop, and nineties' rap. Principal among them is that jazz critics, like critics of these later musical forms, were often diabolical in their attacks on the music. Motivated by political and racial concerns, many jazz critics during the Harlem Renaissance publicized their dislike of jazz music in order to express their dislike of African Americans.

In striving to analyze and to understand the concepts of jazz music white critics often hid behind black stereotypes in order to explain the increased fascination the world had with jazz. Some, in utter contempt, wrote that jazz plagiarized and then mutilated the works of classical, white composers. Still other critics maintained that jazz was dangerous, unhealthy, or, even worse, a form of bayou voodoo. In an attempt to understand jazz, many publications resorted to asking professionals why Europeans liked jazz, since jazz was acclaimed in Europe as a form of musical liberation. Magazines turned to composers, doctors, educators, and even the black populace to explain jazz. Stunningly, what remains consistent in the reports on jazz is not the ultimate dislike of the music, but the political and social dislike of the black population. In sum, the articles on jazz that appeared in mainstream magazines between 1917 and 1930 reveal the racial prejudice that white jazz critics had against African Americans. As magazines first began to recognize jazz, between 1917 and 1920, critics' principal aim appeared innocently enough to be asking what, exactly, jazz was. Yet, delving deeper into the language of early articles, one soon discovers that the explanations of jazz are also the signs of aggression by white critics against the recently emancipated black man. Popular publications such as Literary Digest and Current Opinion linked jazz immediately to slavery and Africa and, shortly thereafter, disqualified any claim jazz might have to being a serious musical genre. For example, in the Literary Digest article "The Appeal of Primitive Jazz" (1917), the critic begins by analyzing the word jazz but finishes with an outright racial manifesto against the black man. (1) Jazz, the article begins, is "a strange word, an adjective descriptive of a band" (26), but the article then goes on to explain what sort of "band" might be called a "jazz":

   The groups that play for dancing,
   when colored, seem infected with the
   virus that they try to instill as a stimulus
   in others. They shake and jump
   and writhe in ways to suggest a return
   of the medieval jumping mania. The
   word, according to Walter Kingsley,
   famous in the ranks of vaudeville, is
   variously spelled jas, jass, jaz, jazz, and
   jascz; and is African in origin.

The switch from Africa to slavery is a short leap for this writer, since shortly after asserting the word's African origin, the article links the word to slavery:

   In old plantation days, when slaves
   were having one of their rare holidays
   and the fun languished, some West-Coast
   African would cry out, "Jaz her
   up," and this would be the cue for fast
   and furious fun. …