Part 4: Jazz and American History

February 7th, 2012 Posted by Jazz 0 thoughts on “Part 4: Jazz and American History”

Jazz and American History

What is unique to jazz that is representative of America’s diverse musical practices? The investigation may draw parallels to our social history. As a relatively young nation of immigrants, Americans sought to establish their own culture through the establishment of universal American beliefs. American identities have been shaped by their forefathers who have pursued the ideals of democracy and freedom. Not withstanding the struggles for social justice, equality, civil rights, and cultural pluralism, they have built a national identity on this philosophical backbone. The spirit of America, it can be said, is based on the beliefs of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all men as framed by its declaration of independence. However, the ideology of the late nineteenth century America was reflective of the ideals of a small group of Northern industrialists who, following the civil war became the architects of American education. In his book on ideology and power William Watkins explained that “The dominating ideology is a product of dominant power.” The power brokers whose industrial fortunes shaped the policies of politics and education were men like Russell Sage, Leland Stanford, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Their influence in social issues and the structure of America was tied to the business model that provided them with an exorbitant amount of wealth and economic power. This power extended to education. These industrialists spent a considerable amount of money through philanthropic ventures that helped to establish policies for education throughout the south, in an attempt to best suit the workforce for their capitalist pursuits. Watkins explained, “Organized education, much like organized religion, has long been influenced by the forces of power structure, the state, and those with an ideological agenda.” The focus of this paper is not to retrace the history of educational philosophy in America, but it is important to recognize that educational policies were established and designed by the most powerful White industrialists in America’s history. Within this context of White aristocratic authority, America’s musical culture began to take shape. It should not be a surprising, then, that even today’s call for multicultural music education is held against a backdrop of the dominant Western European Art traditions.

The music of America throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was as diverse as its inhabitants. Music historian Burton Peretti in his dissertation about race, culture, and music in urban America pointed to the “cultural melting pot theories” of music that prevailed during the early days of jazz in the nineteen twenties. He contended that several different ethnic and cultural groups participated and contributed in the quest for a music that would symbolize the developing industrial nation’s artistic life as America’s Music. The melting pot was not only a symbol for the multiethnic contributions to American music, but was also reflective of the racial difference and discrimination that was part of American life during the early part of the twentieth century. Peretti suggested that jazz played a significant role in the American social climate that followed. “The blending of musics, then, held a symbolic significance in this highly heterogeneous nation: increased contact between the races in the future would heighten the significance of heterogeneous musical cultures.” Considering this perspective and the fact that jazz has survived the same challenges as our social history and continues to represent the pluralistic musical paradigm, should it be included in the foundation for the multicultural experiences we are seeking in music education?

Throughout its one hundred year history, jazz has evolved as a democratic institution that embraces multicultural diversity and celebrates individual freedom of expression. Jazz in the twenties originated from the American working classes of both Black and White musicians who could make a decent living from royalties made from recordings, radio, and performances. Peretti wrote that the jazz culture grew out of mass musician migrations from New Orleans to Chicago, and New York where musicians adopted certain values, styles of dress, behavior, and self-education. He wrote that “jazz, at the very least illustrates ordinary American’s struggle, amid scarce resources, to obtain a more perfect and expressive urban culture.” In the case of the African-American, Peretti believed that the historical “study of early jazz fills a void in the scholarship of the Great Migration.” It was through the institution of jazz that these migrants became “artistic citizens” of the urban culture.

Much of the historical culture can be discovered through the music as Berliner explained, “As a result of diverse influences contributing to its tradition, jazz in performance reveals layered patterns of cultural history (for both the performer and the educated listener).” The process of jazz musicians combining the knowledge of their predecessor’s musical ideas with their own improvisations can sometimes produce spiritual happenings that transcend time and place. Berliner believed that: “Such performances can assume a spiritual quality in which improvisers draw strength from a symbolic link to the past, as if becoming joined to a long chain of expressive human history.” This spiritual connection helps to preserve history and retell the

Watkins, William H., The White Architecs of Black Education: Ideology and Power 1865-1954, ed. William Ayers, Teaching for Social Justice (NY: Teachers College Press, 2001), 9.
Ibid., 10.
Peretti, Burton William, “Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America: The Creators of Jazz” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, 1989), 61-63.
Ibid., 400-01.

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