Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Appalachian Jazz: Some Preliminary Notes

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Appalachian Jazz: Some Preliminary Notes

Article excerpt

It hardly seems necessary to justify the study of jazz and jazz musicians, in this case Americans of African descent, in any effort to understand this music as the product of real individuals, people who belong to a place and who are formed in some measure by the place where they live and work. The Americans here to be considered are roughly 11 percent of the American people; the place to be considered is the Appalachian region, which makes up a sizable part of eastern America. As for the music, it is hardly possible to discuss jazz without considering the role of black America in its origins and evolution. Although no racial or ethnic group is likely to be distributed evenly over the American landscape, common sense tells us that, given the size of Appalachia and the number of Americans who originally came from Africa, a good many of them will be found in this area. Furthermore, given the genius of these people for the improvisational music that we call jazz, a certain number of them will be jazz musicians. So we begin with a people, a place, and a vital part of American musical culture. The first step is easy, although no thoughtful consideration of the topic at hand is likely to remain easy for long.

One way to begin is to establish what is intended in the following consideration of jazz and its creators. Another article in this issue discusses the blues (Pearson 2005). This form of musical expression tends to overlap with jazz, particularly because it is found among black Americans; but since this musical topic is treated elsewhere, it will not be addressed here. We make no attempt at historiography--the origins of jazz or earliest manifestations in Appalachia; rather, we consider the melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically complex music, frequently spontaneous and often startling in its innovations, that is sometimes considered an alternative classical music, even if it is performed in the decidedly informal environment of a cabaret.

Another point to be made as we begin is what is included in Appalachia. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (Speer and Abramson n.d.), the only state wholly contained within its domain is West Virginia. The next most included state will surprise some--Pennsylvania. Within that state, everything west of 1-81 and north of 1-78, which runs from near Harrisburg to the New Jersey border at Easton, is considered Appalachia. The high country of western Maryland, the headwaters of the Potomac, is a part of this ground, as are all of western Virginia, western North Carolina, and several counties in northwest South Carolina (Charlotte, North Carolina, is not included, but Winston-Salem, Spartanburg, and Greenville are). The Appalachian Regional Commission includes within its borders all of northern Georgia exclusive of metropolitan Atlanta, roughly the northern 40 percent of Alabama, the northeastern sixth of Mississippi, just under half of both Tennessee and Kentucky--the eastern half--southeastern Ohio from just east of Cincinnati to the point where the Ohio River becomes the state border, and finally--this also will surprise some--a sixty-mile strip of New York State bordered by Pennsylvania on the south and west and extending east to within perhaps forty miles of the Hudson River. Given the extent of the region, the reader may begin to consider the improbability that jazz musicians in Binghamton, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama (both in Appalachia), will have ties with one another as strong as those that Binghamton musicians will have with people in New York City or Birmingham musicians with people in the American South--or New York City, for that matter. There may be a certain cultural integrity within the Appalachian region, but it is not one that is easily described.

A question that we must ponder at the outset is how important any largely rural setting is in forming the American music that we call jazz. A few years ago, both writers of this article were in the company of pianist Billy Taylor, who had come to Appalachian State University to be the speaker at fall convocation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.