The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture

The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture

The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture

The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture


A study of the ways popular culture viewed jazz & its musicians in postwar America.


After twenty years in the marginal wilderness, jazz is gearing up to slip out of its ghetto again. While it's still true that only 3-4 percent of recording consumers pick up the CDs in jazz bins, jazz is showing up in mainstream forums that only a few years ago would have shrugged the stuff off as elitist. . . .

This upsets some folks in the jazz world. They don't like the less informed grazing randomly on hallowed turf. Many jazzbos, after all, really are cultist and elitist. Like hamradio operators, baseball card or pog collectors, audiophiles and wine connoisseurs, they're not looking to share passion, information or even space with the great unwashed. (Santoro 1996: 36)

At the risk of seeming like one of the "elitist jazzbos" gently satirized above by music journalist Gene Santoro, I take a look in this book at the representation of jazz music in the U.S. cultural mainstream. Comparing representations of jazz and jazz musicians during the 1950s and early 1960s, I argue that white and black Americans differ fundamentally in their use and understanding of jazz as an African American cultural resource, and moreover, that these differences are linked to racial developments in the social, economic, and political spheres during this era. Before I delve into the history of this period and offer my analysis of the images themselves, I will sketch out the theoretical and methodological concepts that underpin my approach to the topic.

Many recent cultural critics of the 1950s have empathically emphasized the symbolic distance traveled by progressive white Americans to the stigmatized cultural territory of black Americans; I, however, choose to underscore the gap that remained after they had traveled this symbolic distance. My purpose is not to excoriate white people for their misappropriation of African American culture, nor to claim that black people have a purer, more privileged relation to these cultural resources. Instead, I seek to place race at the center of our understanding of the cultural exchanges that occurred during this period and to claim that the subordination of racial difference in previous constructions of progressive 1950s culture (even to achieve the goal of empathic understanding) has obscured and continues to obscure the centrality of racial power and experience in the making . . .

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