Read the following quotations carefully and, on a separate sheet of paper, explain how you believe jazz has defined, or redefined, what it means to be American. Refer to your classroom notes and to the essay where applicable.
“Jazz has much to tell us about our history and, indeed, much to tell us about ourselves if only we have the wisdom and skill to listen to it and learn from it.”
—Lawrence W. Levine, historian
“Jazz is a good barometer of freedom ... the music is so free that many people say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
—Duke Ellington, composer, pianist, bandleader
“Just as American democracy is a political, cultural, economic, and social rejection of the automated limitations of caste and class, jazz is an art in which improvisation declares an aesthetic rejection of the preconceptions that stifle individual and collective invention.”
—Stanley Crouch, author, cultural critic
“It’s not what you play but how you play it.”
—Jelly Roll Morton, pianist, composer
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrels’ lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
—James Weldon Johnson, songwriter, poet, novelist, journalist; excerpted from the poem “O Black and Unknown Bards” (1908)