Jazz and Multiculturalism
What can we learn about multiculturalism and cultural pluralism through the history and ethnomusicological study of jazz? Begin with the notions of what jazz represents, where it developed, and how it evolved. Noted jazz historian Paul Berliner set the stage when he described the European colonialist expansion and the African Slave trade as removing many “ancestral voices from their homelands… dispersing to many parts of the world.” These displaced peoples carried their musical customs and traditions with them, where in America they “cross-fertilized one another, producing new stylistic fusions that eventually (asserted) their independence from their parent traditions.” The mixture of African, European, Native American, Latin American, and Canadian customs and traditions combined in a manner that brought forth this music which represents an amalgam of the evolution of many of the world’s musical systems in a foreign land. Berliner pointed to jazz as a unique style of music that is capable of “absorbing new traits without sacrificing its identity.” In support of his theory, he listed several instances where innovative jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Calvin Hill, and others have, over several decades, successfully incorporated various African, Latin, French, Spanish, Indian, and other world musics into their own jazz styles. Further reinforcement comes from the fact that many musicians outside the USA are learning the jazz traditions and “reshaping its conventions according to their own musical traditions.” Jazz music, then, since its inception has been and continues to be a multicultural musical phenomenon. The ability of jazz to synthesize and embrace multicultural influences while maintaining its own identity is harmonious with the ideals of cultural pluralism and multiculturalism.
Berliner, Paul F., Thinking in Jazz:The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 489.