The quest for cultural legitimacy
I say this because jazz, the music I play most often, has never really been accepted as an art form by the people of my own country… I believe that the great mass of the American people still consider jazz as lowbrow music… To them, jazz is music for kids and dope addicts. Music to get high to. Music to take a fling to. Music to rub bodies to. Not “serious” music. Not concert hall material. Not music to listen to. Not music to study. Not music to enjoy purely for its listening kicks.
Dizzy Gillespie, “Jazz Is Too Good For Americans, ” Esquire, June 1957: 55
In 1957 jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie criticized the continued lack of respect in America for jazz as more than a lowbrow entertainment. Gillespie's criticism came surprisingly at a time when jazz was enjoying a resurgence in national recognition as well as a booming commercial market in recordings and live performances. It was in fact the peak of a renaissance in jazz music – a rebirth of jazz as a high art movement that over the two decades of the 1950s and 1960s transformed American music. Inspired in the 1940s by a new style of jazz called bebop, musicians during the renaissance explored various styles of jazz performance, composition, and improvisation. Their musical exploration generated a long list of stylistic nomenclatures: cool jazz, hard bop, soul jazz, west coast jazz, east coast jazz, mainstream jazz, free jazz, third stream jazz, black music, fusion jazz, bossa nova and others. This renaissance in jazz firmly secured this music as a major American art tradition that continues up to the present day.
Dizzy Gillespie, however, was not alone in feeling that jazz in the 1950s still did not garner the respect and rewards it deserved. This shared feeling among jazz artists reflected a long-standing ambiguity in the United States toward this music's place in American culture: one that continued to haunt jazz even during the renaissance. Since the first jazz craze of 1917, this music confronted a variety of distinctions that positioned it as far less than legitimate. At the same time, however, this music also was quickly claimed by some as an authentic and legitimate American art form. Was jazz a lowbrow deviant form of entertainment or a complex and subtle art equal to the classical tradition in Western music? Who made these