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Jazz was formed during a time when the slave trade was thriving and many persons kidnapped as slaves were living in squalor. With no culture, the slaves resolved to build their own, and the new world became filled with music as a form of emancipation. White Americans who held slaves saw African-Americans as unequal, separate, and unequal, prompting slaves to establish their culture through music. Jazz arose as a result of this, and music became the African American way of fostering social togetherness.Due to their interaction with Europeans, jazz had some elements such as syncopation, raspy timbre, polyphony, and "blue" notes. African American and European American jazz musicians were both celebrated and demeaned as rebels whose intention was to bring about a new world while mocking aspects such as slavery and oppression that it contained.
Jazz was introduced in Europe during the First and Second World wars, and it was received with both intense appreciation and excessive hostility. These extreme reactions were the result of the shock of the new tradition-bound establishment where social classes were against each other and other forms of rebellion against slavery. The main aim of Jazz was to radicalize the crisis of modernization - jazz was a cultural import that represented a variation of musical language known as well-tempered grammar. For the Europeans who accepted the musical culture, they were labeled as excessive rebels considering that European grammar was the epitome of perfect English.
European American jazz musicians were viewed with a lot of dissent as they appeared to be a group of people who accepted a culture connoted with disgruntlement. Jazz came at a time when cultural self doubt existed and classical grammar was questioned. There was the emergence of many secessions and avant gardes in most of the metropolitan centers of Europe who allowed jazz to grow (Clark 41). However, they were also viewed with a lot of dissent and most people gave jazz a negative stereotype as a source of impediment to modernization or westernization. So the European American jazz singers were considered part of a rebellious movement and were treated with a lot of contempt.
This rebellious movement was criticized by a German called Fritz Giese who shows the way jazz introduced a completely new form of dance in Europe and this was mostly propagated by those who accepted it (Monson 49). Later on, the second wave of jazz began and most European Americans understood its concepts deeply based on existing records. At this point, jazz became famous and some European American singers started a movement known as "genuine" jazz which was meant to return the original European dance to effect (Reagon 2). Most of the revered jazz musicians during this point include Jim Reese. As a result, there was the emergence of various books such as Madison Grant's "The Passing of the Great Race".
While their European American counterparts were being looked down upon, African American jazz musicians were celebrated for the most part since jazz was viewed as a cultural movement. Jazz was meant to influence the young in language, dress, and attitude towards various social aspects such as racism. During this period jazz artists would inspire the young people to develop a culture that was known to them by mocking racism through certain dances. That was the initial perception of African American jazz singers and most of them were revered especially due to their contribution to the growth of the various civil movements.
African American jazz singers were hailed and revered among the people since this type of music broke on the scene during the arrival of various civil groups such as the New Negro Renaissance and Harlem Renaissance. From the year 1919, African American life marks a period when black leaders including Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson arose (Maryemma and Singh 61; Clark 44). African Americans were undergoing a political change and this led to the growth of literature which was used by most political leaders to pass messages. The leaders started a concept that was later known as the school of black literature whose aim was to help African Americans become great.
As explained by Millard, African American jazz singers received mixed views regarding their songs (49). There were many middle class and educated blacks who viewed jazz as a low class form of secular (the devil's music). On the other hand, a few of the middle class folks celebrated the music especially in the 1920's. One of the African American writers who received double backlash of this kind was Langston Hughes (Reagon 2). Millard says that the reason he received both acclamation and sentiments of disdain was because he played two roles; a poet and a jazz composer and singer (50). Many African Americans such as Frank Marshall Davis who was also a journalist and a poet was particularly keen on the work of Hughes and he is responsible for making him immensely famous.
The central theme in African American jazz was spirituality geared towards escape from slavery, and freedom. In most of these songs, the basic tenet is confirmed through the titles and content - such as "O Freedom," "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," and "Steal Away". African Americans were particularly focused on the concept of freedom, which they distilled it into music. The spiritual aspect of jazz was meant for the purpose of protesting the injustice received from their white owners who believed in white supremacy. In fact, jazz was the main reason why most African Americans were able to stay together and remain in unity. During this period, the African American jazz singers and writers were hailed as propagators of freedom.
One of the most celebrated African American jazz singers in regard to their spread of the message of freedom is Will Marion Cook. In the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, the singer sang jazz pieces titled "On Emancipation Day," "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?", and "Darktown is Out Tonight". In all of these and his other songs, the singer makes a rhetorical reference to slavery, racism and the oppression that the African American slave were undergoing at the time. Some of these songs are looked at as factors that encouraged the slaves to move to the urban centers as a way of seeking better sources of income. However, this period became one of the most difficult for the African American people.
Jazz in the African American and European American cultures was hailed as great art, and black political leaders used it to spawn black literature. For example, Du Bois played a significant role in the development of literature through his editorship of The Crisis magazine. All these political leaders used various stylistic devices in their speeches and gave opportunities for the growth of poets and other literature fanatics. For example, Du Bois gave opportunities for poets (who were influenced by jazz) to write pieces in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People magazine (Maryemma and Singh 61). Most civil rights movements were also formed due to the influence of jazz.
One of the most famous writers believed to have been influenced by jazz is Ralph Ellison who wrote a monumental novel titled Invisible Man after the Second World War. In as much as the book does not include stories regarding a musician or music, it had a lot of influence from jazz. Ellison was knowledgeable on the technical aspect of music, and thus he wrote his book from the view that it was meant to bring understanding (Maryemma and Singh 93). For this reason, he wrote about music from a historical, metaphorical, and cultural perspective. He was hailed by most people during this time as one of the people who influenced numerous essays including "The Charlie Christian Story", and "Living with Music".
To some, jazz was actually a threat to culture and modernism as it spread aspects that were more westernized than African Americans. A good example of people who despised jazz were the visual artists and the bourgeoisie inspired writers. The main reason given by these groups of people was that jazz was associated with drugs and sex. Visual writers and artists appreciated the sense of spontaneity in jazz music together with its dissonance and anti-bourgeois attitude. Their problem was that it spread the popularity that drugs and interracial sex relationships were acceptable. Such aspects of modernism, no matter how beneficial had a negative impact on the African American culture.
Most European Americans and African American jazz singers were viewed as a threat by the society simply because it was deemed as a source of impurity from a spiritual point of view. African Americans were already knowledgeable on Christian aspects and they deemed jazz (which was connected to the use of drugs and alcohol) as one having evil influence (Reagon 1). One of the greatest forms of display of dissatisfaction is through the repudiation of jazz related dances such as the 'toddle'. The problem was especially perpetuated by the visual writers and artists who produced films where jazz was only used to portray scenes such as night clubs and prostitution. In another instance, jazz was discouraged in most farm lands where slaves worked since it was found to have a demoralizing effect (Monson 41). Apparently, workers who listened to jazz tended to have unevenness and inability to function effectively.
Several writers and singers portray the way jazz music was viewed negatively. John A. Williams wrote the novel titled Night Song that was based on the life of another saxophonist called Charlie Parker. This novel together with that of William Melvin Kelley titled A Drop of Patience feature interracial romances - a concept whose influence was perpetuated by jazz. The Poet Ted Joans wrote a poem regarding jazz titled "Jazz is My Religion." In this poem, he sort of makes a mockery of the Christian belief where he calls church a commercial place (Millard 71). As a result, some of these writers who have a lot of influence from jazz made most African Americans despise jazz singers.
The other reason why African American jazz singers were looked down upon was because they were said to propagate racism instead of killing the art. For example, most jazz artists would perform in clubs where all the people who sat down to listen to the performance were from the white race. On the other hand, all the people from the African American race were responsible for working the floor, providing drinks to the white patrons, cleaning up the place and other activities. Furthermore, the beginning of the twentieth century marked a period known as the Great Migration.
Jazz musicians are blamed for encouraging the period of the Great Migration where there was a mass movement of African American slaves from the South in response to the tough Jim Crow laws (Monson 34). Instead of the African Americans living in freedom after this period, they suffered from virtual slavery. The music is blamed for encouraging the African Americans to fight for freedom and so most of the problems are blamed on them.
European American and African American jazz singers were received with acclamation and disdain based on the way the society viewed their contribution to the community. African American jazz singers were especially victim to both acceptance and rejection. Jazz was viewed as a rebellious movement since it interfered with the spirituality of the African Americans and thus it was deemed as demonic. There was also the period when jazz musicians were celebrated due to their contribution to literature and even the freedom of African Americans. European American jazz musicians were mostly looked down upon especially before the First World War because of the way they interfered with European culture and English grammar.
Clark Davis J, For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South, Southern Cultures, Winter, 2011, 45-55.
Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (eds.), Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Jackson, MS.: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. Print.
Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.
Monson, Ingrid. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Reagon, Bernice J. "In Our Hands: Thoughts on Black Music." Sing Out. 24.6 (1976), 1-2.
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