As it is now renowned, respected, performed and taught internationally as an intelligent and incisive art form, it has been easy for me recently to forget the uniquely American origins of jazz. But in reading the introduction to Jazz: A History of America’s Music, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns were kind enough to remind me that this genre could not have been born anywhere else. Wynton Marsalis called jazz “our music,” and to hear Duke Ellington tell it, “‘Jazz is a good barometer of freedom . . . In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.’” He makes a strong point.
Jazz was born in New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century. The Crescent City was, at the time, effectively the most peacefully cosmopolitan locale in America, no small feat in a South still heavily segregated. It was also a city full of sound, from professional musicians in concert halls to parlor pianists in brothels to kids blowing tin horns in the street. The interaction between ragtime, which had become popular at the end of the nineteenth century, traditional church hymns and gospel music, and, perhaps most importantly, the blues, produced a scandalously provocative sound. Originally denounced by the white establishment as morally depraved, “jass,” its first name, gained respect within a few short decades and was vetted by European sophisticates during the World Wars as a fascinating new musical form.
Following its inception in New Orleans, jazz grew up in Chicago, moved to New York and spent part of its adulthood split between the East and West coasts. Its status in Europe is equal to, if not better than, its reception in the U.S. In fact, I wish jazz were more widespread now than it is. It used to be very much a part of American consciousness, and while it’s still important and, I think, will always be, it is moving towards a pedestal. Reaching elite status in just a little over a century of existence is impressive, but it also means jazz is becoming less accessible than it used to be. When I was at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year, it dawned on me that the changes made there for the 2012 season heralded changes in the entire jazz world. Access is stratified by the creation of VIP spaces and offering of more (read: expensive) ticket options, which leads to exclusivity and ultimately the disappearance of jazz from the larger popular sphere. Montreux is at the forefront of jazz trends, so it may take time for its ripple effect to reach to all corners of the jazz world, and in some ways I hope that is the case. What I hope even more for the genre is that it will be able to boomerang back as a popular art form after a stint in high society.