Jazz Remains the Sound of Modernism

Ed Simon at The Millions: There are two irrefutable axioms that can be made about jazz. The first is that jazz is America’s most significant cultural contribution to the world; the second is that jazz was mostly, though not entirely, a contribution born from the experience and brilliance of America’s Black populace who have rarely been treated as full citizens. Regarding the first claim, if the genre is not America’s “classical music,” for there is a bit of a category mistake in Wynton Marsalis’s contention which judges the music by such standards, then jazz is certainly the most indispensable and quintessential of American creations, surpassing in significance other novelties, from comic books to Hollywood films. Crouch describes Ellington, and by proxy jazz, as “maybe the most American of Americans,” even while the conservative critic was long an advocate for the music as being fundamentally our native “classical” (a role for which he was influential as Marsalis’s adviser as director of jazz at Lincoln Center). The desire to transform jazz into classical music—even my own comparison of Ellington to Bach—is an insulting reduction of the music’s innovation. Jazz doesn’t need to be classical music, it’s already jazz.

By contrast, the radical poet and critic Amiri Baraka, temperamentally and analytically the long-time foe of Crouch, unabashedly emphasized jazz’s racial origins, arguing in Black Music that jazz’s qualities—the “microtonal, modal emphasis,” the ubiquity of free forms—“has been our philosophy, our ideology, our aesthetic, since slavery began.” Maybe somewhere between Baraka and Crouch, Africa and America, is jazz’s origin. Regardless, in jazz’s harmonies, its improvisations, its syncopation and propulsive rhythm, there is both a diagnosis of alienation as well as a prescription quixotic and beautiful, utopian and true. Jazz is an American sound, an African sound, but it is also a modern sound, a modernist sound. Alfred Appel Jr. argues in his study Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce, that to call jazz musicians “‘modernists’ is to appreciate their procedures as alchemists of the vernacular who have ‘jazzed’ the ordinary and given it new life.” Armstrong and Ellington, Coltrane and Davis, Gillespie and Parker, were central to the same project as other modernists; they reconfigured time and space to craft an alternative way of expression.

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