Blowin' the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene

By Travis A. Jackson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
History and Memory, Pathways
and Practices
The African Americanness of Jazz

History will either off you or make you valid. … I think
the idea now is for blacks to write about the history of our
music. It’s time for that because whites have been doing it all
the time. It’s time for us to do it ourselves and tell it like it is.
The whites have a whitewash look at our music. Naturally,
they’re going to try to ooze off as much as they can to the
whites, but they can’t, because we’re documented in records
and the truth will stand.

—Dizzy Gillespie, quoted in Taylor (1993, 126-27)

There are perhaps no issues more vexed in discussions of jazz than the concepts of race and culture. Whenever one encounters them, whether those offering their opinions are musicians, critics, historians, or musicologists, what is arguably at stake is legitimation: who can rightfully lay claim to jazz and on what grounds? Is it African American music, America’s classical music, or just music (Walser 1995)? When stories about jazz, however conceived, are told, which narratives receive priority: those transmitted in historical writing, those produced by critics, or those based in memory and orally transmitted among musicians and aficionados of the music? In differing ways, anyone concerned with answering these questions has to turn the past into something usable. It becomes a charter variously interpreted to authorize (or invalidate) cultural practices (Appadurai 1981;Trouillot 1995; Sider and Smith 1997).

Even without consideration of jazz, race and culture are highly contested terms in the United States. Many lay commentators use the two

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