The Jazz Cadence of American Culture

The Jazz Cadence of American Culture

The Jazz Cadence of American Culture

The Jazz Cadence of American Culture

Excerpt

"If you have to ask what it is, you will never know." "If you don't know what it is, well, just don't mess with it!" So many books about jazz open with such apocryphal warnings, usually ascribed to Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, that jazz can appear to be a secret logo, the special province of the precious few. This aura of exclusivity is compounded by the music's "folk" "origins" (both loaded terms of dispute that further complicate the case) and by its definition as an improvised music, one that cannot be documented with authority by the lines and dots of conventional written systems. Perhaps most confounding is the fact that virtually all (some would say absolutely all) of jazz's indispensable pathfinders have been African‐ Americans. Defined as occupying the bottom of the U.S. social hierarchy and, until quite recently, outside history, blacks and their expression in art, with its own airs of exclusivity and mystery, appeared to be the dangerously unknowable (albeit at times delectably alluring) exotic, the not-Us.

And yet despite all racial romance and mystic obfuscation, jazz is a definable set of musical forms, transmissible not by blood transfusions or magic codes but by careful, painstaking study (at the nexus of work and play) within its particular ritual testing grounds and classrooms. It involves individual apprenticeship, no‐ mercy on-the-job learning, and that ancient monster of the woodshed: practice.

This part of The Jazz Cadence of American Culture represents an impulse to catalog the music's definitive forms—call-response exchanges, repetitions-with-a-difference, Afro-dance-beat-oriented rhythms (each beat representing, as one critic has put it, a story and a "promise"), solo breaks and other improvisations, vampchorus-riff-outchorus patterns, impulses to play and game, soulful changes straight out of church, and, perhaps most fundamentally, face-to-face exchanges with the . . .

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