The Non-Classical Nature of America's Classical Music
Sales’ use of the phrase “America’s Classical Music” is an attempt to not only create a national identity that could compete with Europe’s continued cultural dominance, but to also further coin a phrase which could suggest that jazz is a serious, intellectual and perhaps “cultured” art form. Sales’ concept (shared by many) is admirable (in the most patriotic sense), yet it is based on a number of false assumptions.
Noted jazz historian James Lincoln Collier, similar to Burns and Sales presented his views in a monograph published by the Institute for Studies in American Music titled The Reception of Jazz in America. Subtitled, “a new view,” Collier refutes numerous “myths” that plague the public history of jazz. Collier presents the notions: that Americans appreciated jazz before the Europeans (p. 67); that racial tensions were bad in twentieth century America, but not as bad as they were perceived (p.3); and that things were not much better over in Europe (since numerous musicians were leaving the US in route to Europe) (p.52), amongst other claims. Different from Burns and Sales, Collier goes through great strides to prove his claims using a host of resources and great amount of time and energy, yet too, his scholarship is based on a few false assumptions.
Even though this was not an attempt to present a thorough review of these documented perspectives, it is an attempt to expose a rather disturbing trend in jazz historiography. Burns, Sales and Collier, in their own individual ways setout to present jazz as a serious art form. Their collective notion of jazz as a once “primitive” music from the impoverished Black community and now national treasure is absurd. This notion suggests that prior to jazz’s national acceptance the music was not taken seriously. The misanalysis (or lack of analysis) of African American culture not only leads to this false notion, but it also adds to the misunderstanding of jazz as a form of entertainment. Unbenounced to many, jazz is a functional music with the primary purpose of expression and communication. Entertainment is a distant third. It is this same misunderstanding that misleads scholars to speak of the spirituals and slave songs as music that helped the slaves to be happy while under the oppressive system of slavery in the United States. Scholars girded with an understanding of African American culture have since revealed that these songs served to not only give slaves a voice against slavery but also allow for communication with one another. It is from this same tradition that blues, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop have evolved. These music forms are all examples of folk music (whether they are labeled as popular or “classical”). These music forms deal with the needs, concerns, feelings, emotions, desires, challenges and struggles of the people who create them. Music is their voice.
There is nothing classical about jazz. Classical implies static, non-changing; a relic frozen in time. Jazz has never been static, non-changing or frozen. Through the history of the last century, jazz has mutated, transformed and morphed to speak to and respond to the changing dynamic of society. As the political, social, economic, religious and cultural landscape has changed so has jazz. Jazz is a living music created, performed and maintained by living people. It is the epitome of a folk music if there ever was such a thing. Besides, what makes jazz attractive to so many people around the world is not only the artistic combination of improvisation, rich harmony, syncopated rhythms and all of the other things that make jazz what it is; but also the way jazz speaks to people in distress and how it responds to oppression. Similar to blues before and hip hop after, what might appear as a unique system of entertainment is actually a very functional system of expression and communication rooted in the African American experience in the United States. An experience plagued with constant bouts with injustice, discrimination and a host of other forms of oppression.