Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Social Interpretation of Modern Jazz

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Social Interpretation of Modern Jazz

Article excerpt

Introduction1

The history of jazz, unlike that of classical music, has always tended to be viewed in social as well as musical terms. Although its exact origins and earliest development are still unclear, jazz emerged as the folk art of a specific group of people, American Negroes, whose segregated social situation produced distinctive cultural patterns. In its popular commercialized forms of Dixieland and swing, the evolution of jazz seems obviously related to broad social changes associated with the development of mass consumption, mass media, and mass entertainment. The rapid changes in jazz musical styles are clearly related to changes in entertainment venues, recording technology, and the processes of commercial organization surrounding entertainment music. After all, popular music was - and is - a commodity and has to be in tune with the times if it is to be saleable on a large scale. Since the 1940s, the more esoteric traditions of jazz have evolved from an increasingly self-conscious high-art development of the original folk music traditions and elements, elaborated particularly in reaction against the pressures of commercialization and white imitation. As part of this artistic development, jazz evolved as a black instrumental music with instrumental virtuosity in improvisation at its core. The rapidly changing character of the American black community, particularly the shift from an agrarian to an industrial basis, transformed the conditions of production and reception of this music and interacted with the processes of commercialization and the musicians' attempts to escape commercialism.

The intensification of the 1950s civil rights movement and the ghetto riots and broader radicalization of the 1960s have left their marks on the social interpretation of jazz. Three works in particular stand out as sociologically sophisticated attempts to connect the musical evolution of jazz with changes in racial relations and black political and cultural consciousness. Blues People by LeRoi Jones, the black poet and writer, appeared in 1963. Using a social anthropological perspective, Jones analyzes the way the post-Emancipation exclusion of the American black from the social mainstream produced a cultural tradition resistant to assimilation, even though major elements of the dominant white culture are borrowed and used in producing that cultural synthesis. Part of this novel cultural tradition has its roots in Africa and part in American experience, but it is entirely black, and not simply derivative of white American or European traditions. Black music - particularly jazz - clearly demonstrates the construction of a distinctive black culture which fuses African and European elements.

In 1970 a series of essays entitled Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music appeared, written by Frank Kofsky, a white historian and jazz critic. Kofsky argued that the American black's status as a major part of the industrial reserve army,2 separated from the rest of the working class by special racist forms of exploitation and oppression, perpetuated a specific sense of national oppression on the part of blacks. This nationalism has had a long history, but is episodic in appearance because of the overwhelming power of white domination. However, black nationalism had grown continuously since the second World War and ultimately exploded in the ghetto riots and black power movements of the 1960s. Black jazz musicians during this period were acutely aware of the cultural oppression of their people because of their own intense struggle for survival in an extremely competitive and exploitative commercialized field of music. Hence they were either in the vanguard or expressed clearly in their music the nationalism which was more slowly crystallizing in the consciousness of the broader community of American blacks.

A year later, Ben Sidran's Black Talk (1971) appeared. In many respects this work recapitulated Jones's analysis, using McLuhan's distinction between oral and literate cultures to specify the characteristics of the culture of blacks in America. …

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