Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars

By Joel Dinerstein | Go to book overview
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3
AFRICAN AMERICAN
MODERNISM AND THE
TECHNO-DIALOGIC
FROM JOHN HENRY TO
DUKE ELLINGTON

Gilbert Seldes identified a conundrum about jazz in a 1926 Dial article. If jazz reflected the American tempo—its energy, its machines, its restlessness—then how could an ethnic group perceived to be lazy, childlike, and primitive produce music that expressed the powerful, reckless spirit of American life? Seldes began his argument from the minstrelderived theory of blacks: “The Negro holds to a pace and a rhythm different from those of our large cities; he still loafs, is carefree, avoids business a little.” But, he wondered, how would this stereotype “explain the snap and surprise of current jazz?” 1

“It is a rough generalization that the rhythm of jazz corresponds to the rhythm of our machinery, Seldes wrote, restating a truism of the 1920s. Yet if black musicians managed to absorb machinery into their musical traditions, “we cannot say that a simple civilization (the African) by accident hit upon a complex one (our own).” Seldes had been reading the most recent analyses of African American music, as well as European studies of African art. Armed with Henry H. Krehbiel's breakthrough studies of African American folk songs and West African drumming, Seldes leapt the cultural divide. “If we can hazard that the African civilization preserved for us in their art was of a high order, and that ours is of an equal intensity, expressed in the complication of machinery, we can suspect a parallel which would make the suitability of African rhythms not at all surprising.” For Seldes, machinery and West African rhythms swung together to create the jazz aesthetic. 2

For African Americans, music is the cultural form that mediates between oppositional and assimilationist trends, between resistance and accommodation. 3 Pre-1945 jazz qualifies as “modernist” art within

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