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Jazz, Blues, and Literature

Adapted from Tulane University ENLS 4010

As forms of artistic expression, jazz, blues and literature challenge each reader and listener to consider everyday life as an improvisational challenge. Authors and musicians model for readers and listeners a path for finding one’s voice, for speaking out within a community and for expressing one’s experience from a distinctly personal (or subjective) perspective. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke called the reading of literature “equipment for living” and blues theorist Albert Murray adapted this phrase for African-American music. Burke and Murray both intended the same meaning concerning the aesthetic objectives of art: that if readers (of literature) or listeners (of blues or jazz) internalize the messages within these art forms, they will increase their level of self-understanding. "Jazz, Blues and Literature" integrates music, literature, history, race and ethnicity, aesthetics and local traditions — in other words, this course analyzes the relationship of music and place, of site and sound. We begin at the beginning by exploring the conditions under which jazz and blues arose at the turn of the twentieth century in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.

Course PDF

Joel Dinerstein

Associate Professor of English

Joel Dinerstein
Director, New Orleans Center for the Gulf South
Associate Professor of English

Joel Dinerstein is the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization and the Director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. He is the author of an award-winning cultural study of jazz and industrialization in the swing era, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture Between the World Wars (2003), and influential articles on saxophonist Lester Young, New Orleans second-lines, and technology in American culture. He is also the co-curator and co-author of American Cool, a photography and American Studies exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution open from February – September 2014.

Course Chapters

  • About This Chapter

    The Blues is a musical form with its mythic origins between Memphis and New Orleans. A synthesis of spirituals and field…

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    Jazz was America’s most popular music from 1917-1945. The musical practices that jazz brought into American culture —- its rhythmic sophistication,…

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    The blues women of the 1920s produced the first feminist body of work in American culture (and literature) and yet they…

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    Really the Blues is one of the most evocative memoirs in American literature. Mezz Mezzrow has a conversion experience to jazz…

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    Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray were the most influential theorists and spokesmen of blues and jazz as…

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    Tenor saxophonist Lester Young first coined the colloquial phrase "I'm cool," but he did not mean "I'm the man," but instead,…

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    Both "hip" and "cool" are terms with their origins in postwar African-American jazz culture and the Black vernacular. Writers such as…

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    The literary practice of the Beats owes as much to jazz as to any of the authors they admire, from Whitman…

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    It would be hard to overestimate the role of music in the civil rights movement. The vernacular forms of jazz, blues,…

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    Jazz is an indigenous American art form, a creolization of the musical cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Its keynotes…

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    Poets have always shared an artistic bond with jazz musicians as artists meditating aloud and often on-stage, whether verbally and on-the-page…

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    Jazz has not been well-served by Hollywood films, from the earliest attempts to represent its emergence in New Orleans to respectful…