Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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1. Introduction.

Writers have often portrayed the history of jazz as a narrative of progress. Their accounts show jazz evolving from a boisterous type of dance music into forms of increasing complexity, gradually rising in prestige to become an artistic tradition revered around the world. Certainly attitudes towards the music have changed dramatically. In 1924 an editorial writer for The New York Times called jazz ‘a return to the humming, hand-clapping, or tomtom beating of savages’; in 1987 the United States Congress passed a resolution designating jazz ‘an outstanding model of individual expression’ and ‘a rare and valuable national American treasure’. In keeping with this general theme of progress, historians have emphasized innovation as a primary force driving jazz forward, identifying new techniques, concepts and structures that presumably helped push the music to ever higher stages of development.

But tracing lines of evolution and innovation in jazz reveals only part of a story much broader in scope and more complex in structure. For if some musicians have sought to make a mark as adventurous innovators, many others have viewed themselves as stalwart bearers of tradition. If some have struggled as uncompromising creative artists whose work reaches only a small, select audience, others have flourished providing entertainment for the masses. And if jazz has undeniably accrued status and respect over the years, it has also consistently provoked controversy. The term itself has often carried negative associations, which is partly why Duke Ellington and other musicians spurned the label, and why Max Roach once told an interviewer, ‘I resent the word unequivocally’ (Taylor, H1977, p.110).

Several factors account for the volatility of jazz as an object of study. First, its musical identity cannot be isolated or delimited. Although often used to designate a single musical idiom, ‘jazz’ (like the signifier ‘classical’) refers to an extended family of genres, with all members sharing at least some traits in common yet none capable of representing the whole. Second, the varying functions of jazz have made it difficult to perceive as a unified entity. Jazz can be background sounds for social recreation, lively accompaniment for dancing or music that invites close listening and deep concentration – and the same performance might operate on these different levels simultaneously. Third, the subject of race has generated heated debate over jazz and shaped its reception. While jazz is a product of black American expressive culture, it has always been open to musical influences from other traditions and since the 1920s has been performed by musicians of varying backgrounds throughout the world. In different eras, for example, commercially successful white musicians such as the bandleader Paul Whiteman and the saxophonist Kenny G have been identified by large segments of the public as major exponents of jazz. Many others, however, view these two as standing outside the tradition altogether and consider jazz to be a form of ‘black music’ in which black Americans have been the leading innovators and most authoritative practitioners.

Such problems in accounting for the identity, function and racial character of jazz are bound up in one another. They have been present from the very beginning.


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