New Orleans -- Myth and Music

Jazz was America’s most popular music from 1917-1945. The musical practices that jazz brought into American culture —- its rhythmic sophistication, improvisation, and space for individual soloing — have influenced all subsequent popular musical forms, from swing to soul, from rock-and-roll to hiphop, from funk to techno. Yet the artistic achievement of blues and jazz musicians remained un-sung until the 1970s due to artistic (and aesthetic) racism. Jazz and blues were often considered folk music or just popular music (or worse, commercial music); jazz did not fit into Eurocentric artistic objectives or ideals around the composer or written score. Jazz creates an artistic forum for musical conversation that also requires individual self-expression: each musician must contribute to the creation and sustenance of a groove and also out and solo, an act of spontaneous artistic composition. As a musical form, jazz created something entirely new through its emphasis on improvisation and conversation: an ideal of ensemble individuality.

There were three generations of culture wars fought around the recognition of jazz as an indigenous American art form and now often called "America's classical music." The social mobility of jazz raises the following questions central to the fields of history, art history, sociology, race and ethnicity, and culture:

-(1) What constitutes vernacular American culture?

-(2) How does artistic production by Americans emerge?

-(3) What is the process by which it achieves value as part of national identity?

-(4) What can cultural wars around definitions of American culture tell us about issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and national identity?

Recognition for jazz from Europe — in particular, from France — took American music critics by surprise. The first full-length study of the music, Hot Jazz: The Guide to Swing Music (1934), was by French critic and jazz enthusiast Hugues Panassie and soon full-page ads appeared in the first magazine focused primarily on jazz, Down Beat (first issue, 1934).

Here is an early example of a French intellectual recognizing the artistic and aesthetic power of the jazz solo. Philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir caught New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet and his band at a nightclub on 52nd Street in New York in 1947. She left this evocative observation of how his solos provided musical joy, therapy and resistance to an African-American female cook who kept peeking out of the club's kitchen to listen to the band:

Bechet could not dream of having a public worthier of his genius than the dark-faced woman in the white apron who appears from time to time at a little door behind the platform. She’s probably the cook, a stout woman in her 40s with a tired face but big, avid eyes. With her hands resting flat on her stomach, she leans toward the music with a religious ardor. Gradually, her worn face is transfigured, her body moves to a dance rhythm; she dances while standing still, and peace and joy have descended on her. She has cares, and she’s had troubles, but she forgets … [them], forgets her dishcloths, her children, her ailments. Without a past or future she is completely happy: the music justifies her difficult life, and the world is justified for her. She dances … with a smile in her eyes that’s unseen on white faces, in which only the mouth expresses gaiety. And looking at her, we understand the greatness of jazz even better than by hearing Bechet himself.