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Jazz, Racism, and Struggle

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

Nobody is served by the strict invisible boundary between “Classical” music and every other kind.  Music is a continuum:  the great masses of the Renaissance were based on popular tunes (hundreds, according to Peter Schickele, on the french ditty “L’homme armé” alone).  Mozart composed for the symphony and the play house, and to say it shows in his work is a compliment.  There was no wall between “music” and “classical music” when it was composed.

All kinds of walls go up, however, once “music” becomes “history.”  A friend once suggested that there is an unbroken line between classical music and death metal, which is the only kind of modern music that really retains the instrumental complexity of the older form.  He has a point, but we’ll never hear the two played side by side in either the church concert hall or the metal club.

That’s just cultural obstinance.

Of greater concern is the “One-drop rule of jazz,” which I just read about in Slate.  

No musical form, at all, has a better claim than jazz to be America’s greatest contribution to classical music.  There’s not a lot of popularity there, but there’s honor.  Jazz certainly has its devotees and its place in the academic cannon, but Duke Ellington really deserves to be put in the same class as Beethoven.  I’d thought it was simple cultural obstinacy that was keeping that from happening.

Mistaking racism for cultural obstinacy, of course, is the privilidge of white people.  To quote from Slate, quoting George Lewis:

“(A)s ‘that holdover from America’s high-eugenics era that decreed that a single blood drop of ‘Negro ancestry’ was enough to render anyone a Negro.’  A white musician previously coded as a jazz artist who presents a new work for a classical ensemble is likely to be praised for bravely crossing boundaries. But when a black musician tries the same thing, the entire enterprise is often seen as a strained attempt to cast off or move beyond the jazz identity.”

(Sigh) – it’s so obvious now that it’s been pointed out to me.  Of course including black jazz artists in the great cannon of western music, as classical music, is out of bounds.

It’s funny:  jazz earned its own category of music.  It took truly heroic effort and passion, nevermind musical genius, to get it to a point where it had to be acknowledged as its own vital force and tradition.  At the time it burst into mass consciousness, attempts to put it in the Western cannon were attempts to “put it in its place”:  another way of saying “white people did that.”  Oh, they couldn’t have come up with that music, they’re just copying what they got from us.  It was bullshit.

Yet once that recognition came, the very autonomy jazz had earned became a prison that even its most talented composers couldn’t push out of:  its vitality and independence were turned into a reservation.  White musicians can come and go from it as they please.

Ah racism.  We’re reached the point where everybody can see it going, but most of us still don’t see it coming.