Jazz is the purest expression of the American spirit—innovative, independent, and, ultimately, revolutionary. The history of jazz is inextricably linked with the political, geographic, and cultural history of our country, and to understand the evolution of this music is to grasp the passion and genuine humanity at the heart of American democracy. The music reflects every region of the country—not just New Orleans and New York, but Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, and the myriad small towns in between where local musicians infused jazz with their own regional styles.
The United States was something altogether new when it achieved its independence from Britain near the end of the 18th century: a democratic republic built on the idea of individual rights and the will of the majority, neither of which was supposed to impinge upon the other. One’s independent and individual rights were supposed to co-exist in a respectful relationship with the majority, and the majority was supposed to respect the rights of the individual.
Those ideals were by no means perfectly realized. At the time of the birth of our nation, most African Americans were relegated to the status of slaves. Native Americans were brutally displaced. Women could not vote. Neither could men who did not own property. But the ongoing struggle to remedy these and other problems has always been waged in the name of those revolutionary founding principles. And revolutionary they were in the eyes of Europe: While anti-monarchist feeling was growing among the people of France, and British rulers had been forced to share some of their power with an elected parliament, by 1776 the Old World still remained firmly in the hands of kings and queens.
This hierarchical structure was clearly reflected in the European music of the day; composers, not players, wielded control over the performance and interpretation of their work. For the most part, their music was performed to the letter—nothing added, nothing taken away. The score was the final word. The choices made by the composer—from the overall structure of the piece to small nuances like whether a note is to be played short or long—strictly determined the expression of the piece. The performer’s job was simply to interpret the will of the composer. Listen to a Haydn symphony, for example, and one hears how that composer introduces central themes, then develops them by varying the instrumentation, filling out harmonies, adjusting dynamics, and utilizing many other compositional devices to create expressive drama as the piece unfolds. The music of the New World, however, would soon place more responsibility in the hands of the performer, just as America’s founding fathers placed more civic responsibility in the hands of the individual.
Whistler’s Jug Band.
Courtesy of the Duncan P. Schiedt Collection.
The years that followed the War of 1812—during which the British burned the White House to show their contempt for the former colonists who dared to believe themselves capable of self-government—saw a surge of American nationalism in the arts as well as in politics. Up until this time, there had always been a lingering sense in America that European culture was far superior to the rough-hewn, home-spun American way. Now, embracing more fully the spirit of the Revolution, many Americans finally declared independence from European cultural conventions. While Americans continued to revere European artists and composers, many now wanted to see American characteristics—both the beautiful and the ugly, the crass and the refined—celebrated. Styles evolved in the theater, in dance, on the printed page, and in music that were rooted in the American vernacular—the country’s folklore, speaking style, sense of rhythm, and everything else deemed indigenous to the United States and free from the old, aristocratic conventions of Europe.
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