Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blog #5

Reflection on Jazz

Before taking this course, jazz was a total enigma to me. I had never been exposed to the music in any real way aside from a few poor high school performances and dull elevator tunes. Worse yet, I had never considered jazz in a historical context; it was vague abstract whose origins were unknown and unexplored. For instance, while I knew that jazz was closely associated with New Orleans, I did not know that it was born there. Although this course taught me a great deal, discovering that race played a crucial role in the development of jazz impacted me the most. This discovery was only emphasized by Miles Davis’ observations of race relations in his novel Miles The Autobiography.
    My original assumption prior to enrolling in this course was that jazz was an inherently black artform that had little association with white audiences. To my surprise, I discovered that white people were very much involved in the jazz scene and in fact did much to both hinder and promote its success. An example of one such hindrance was the appropriation (mostly by whites) of black jazz music. In the 1920’s, Chicago was teeming with gangster-owned nightclubs such as the Sunset, where black musicians played for exclusively white audiences. The mafia prevented these musicians from playing other gigs, which severely inhibited them from expanding their audience or controlling their income. Because this practice was nothing more than a subtle form of slavery, authors like Travis dubbed these establishments “plantations.” After reading about these nightclubs, it came to my attention that other races, not just whites, also took advantage of black talent. Perhaps the most degrading of all was the appropriation of black innovation by white businessman. Prominent white industrialists such as Benny Goodman would buy black jazz musicians and their music in order to make a profit. Miles Davis expresses his disdain for this appropriation when he says “I hate how white people always try to take credit for something after they discover it. Like it wasn’t happening before they found out about it...Then, they try to take all the credit, try to cut everybody black out” (Miles, 55). Although I knew that racism was still rampant in the 1920s, I had never imagined that it could so strongly affect the world of jazz music. In my ignorance, I had believed that racial conflict was limited to economics and education and had little impact on music and art. Witnessing Davis’ obvious disgust for white people and their sense of entitlement altered my previous misconceptions that white and black populations had little to no association with each other in the context of jazz music.
    Perhaps because I had such generalized assumptions about racism in the 1900s, I had also never considered the positive interactions that occurred between white and black people. This was most clearly demonstrated in the career of John Hammond, one of the most influential critics in the 1930’s. He emphasized the connection between race and jazz, and strongly endorsed the musicians he believed were true to their roots and the origins of the music. This included artists such as Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie, who he generously supported by getting them their first recordings. Besides being a supporter of black musicians, he was also a firm political advocate for racial equality who dreamed of a world where “white and colored friends of his could play blues together in racial and musical harmony” (Swing Changes, 8). After reading about Hammond and others like him, my assumption that race interactions were purely negative was completely revised.
    Throughout this course, I learned that jazz is much more than mere entertainment; it is a product of innovation and collaboration, of racial conflict and ingenuity. My belief that jazz music was an inherently black artform was reinforced, but my assumption that race had only a minor impact on the development of jazz was completely shattered. Race conflict was not limited to economics and society, and it was not unilaterally bad or good for jazz. Thanks to this class, I am now able to appreciate jazz for its powerful role in history and its capacity for social change.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Blog #4

Behind Monk's Genius

             In 1940’s New York, jazz had evolved into a more rebellious and expressive style of music called bebop. Discordant and extremely modernist, bebop was an artform born out of post World War II dystopia and moved away from the mainstream of popular music. This divergence attracted an eclectic fan base and a small group of virtuosos that thrived on improvisation and the idea of music for listening rather than for dancing. Thelonious Monk was one such artist, and created a legacy as one of the most influential forerunners of bebop in history.
              The source of Monk’s genius likely came from a multitude of sources, but according to Robin Kelley the San Juan Hill community where he grew up was one of the most significant factors to his success. San Juan Hill was so named due to “its reputation for violence” (Kelley, 16); in fact, “between 1900 and 1917, the place was famous for its race riots” (Kelley, 17). The neighborhood was deeply embroiled in a consuming race war. This disturbing trend of violence continued until just before 1922, when there was a mass exodus from San Juan Hill and to Harlem. By the time the Monks moved to the community, the population was still most black but there was also a wide variety of cultures and ethnicity that had previously been absent. This melting pot of different backgrounds made San Juan Hill a community filled with “porters, domestic servants, laundresses, longshoremen, cooks, chauffeurs, delivery men, truck drivers, [and] a surprising number of musicians” (Kelley, 18). Languages of all types such as French, Spanish, Yiddish, and Italian were often spoken amongst the streets; Monk was exposed to a remarkable amount of diversity from a very young age. In addition, the community boasted the largest collection of black musicians before the Harlem Renaissance. For example, a local jazz musician who had the greatest influence on Thelonious was Alberta Simmons, who “would teach him a variety of stride piano techniques and help him develop his left hand” (Kelley, 27). This influence, combined with the invaluable time Monk spent at the Columbus Hill Neighborhood center, was according to Kelley what led to his remarkable genius. The Columbus Hill center was a safe haven for children from the West Side, and allowed them the opportunity to explore interests such as athletics, art, and social interaction amongst their peers.
            Monk was fortunate enough to enjoy a supportive community not only at the center, but also at home. His mother Barbara was a figure of strength and stability throughout his young life, and “raised her children with very strong morals.. she kept her children in line by relying on reason, faith, example, and her quiet, dignified strength” (Kelley, 22). Not only that, she also tried to “introduce her children to the city’s rich cultural life” (Kelley, 22) by frequently taking them to Central Park in the summer to see musical performances. With influences such as these, Monk, like all of his young peers, “became a kind of cultural hybrid” (Kelley, 23).
 The saying “Jazz is New York, man!?" can be understood in the context of the San Juan Hill experience. Jazz was a product of some of the most degenerate communities in the nation, which happened to offer an exceptional melting pot of different cultures. Communities such as San Juan Hill and the greater New York presented environments such as these. As Monk describes it, “every block is a different town...you go in the next block and you’re in another country” (Kelley, 19). Jazz brought these communities together due to its amazing ability to inspire improvisation and collaboration from its performers, and in this way New York and jazz become almost synonymous ideas.
               The relationship between jazz and the San Juan Hill community is very similar to its relationship with Leimert Park. For example, Leimert Park also offered community centers such as 5th Street Dicks Coffee House and The World Stage. Through this collaborative effort, the residents of the community had an opportunity to separate themselves from the violence of their surroundings and to enjoy art. Both neighborhoods found in jazz a sanctuary from violence and a powerful form of expression that brought people together.
An individual is a combination of both nature and nurture. Artists and musicians of all kinds may possess a certain predisposition for music and the visual arts, but it is their surroundings that determine how these skills manifest. Thelonious Monk grew up in a supportive and highly diverse community that encouraged him to explore his artistic talents and to escape from the violence of his surroundings. Without this influence, he likely would never have discovered his love for jazz music, and would never have gone on to become one of the most influential bebop musicians of all time. After witnessing several examples such as these, it is my belief that jazz and its artists are direct products of the community from which they are born.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Blog #3

 Race Conflict in the 1930's 
 Since the birth of jazz in New Orleans, race had always been a significant issue. There was conflict between slaves and their masters and between lower class blacks and upperclass Creoles. When jazz migrated to Chicago, there was tension caused by the injustice of black musicians having only a predominantly white audience. Despite the obvious racial tensions that surrounded the burgeoning jazz movement, very few people questioned it. Segregation was the norm, and not until the 1930’s did anyone start to give race any serious consideration.  

Due to the invention of the radio and popular magazines such as “Down Beat” and “Metronome,” jazz music was well known throughout the nation by the 1930s (Swing Changes, 2). The burgeoning popularity of jazz caused an upwelling of critics, who would listen to the newest artists and write articles about their findings. In this way, a small number of musical critics shaped the way the general public viewed the current style of jazz (Swing Changes). As the number of critics began to increase the analysis of the jazz style of music became much more political. Inevitably, the issue of race began to arise. 

Previously, jazz was perceived as an “uncouth and primitive a variety of music associated with African-Americans, and the arena for a dangerous social miscegenation (2).” It’s connection with black culture was what made jazz music unsavory; in the 1930’s however, critics began to assert that black musicians were in fact superior to whites in the realm of jazz music. This was most clearly seen in the career of John Hammond, one of the most influential critics in the 1930’s. He emphasized the connection between race and jazz, and strongly endorsed the musicians he believed were true to their roots and the origins of the music. This included artists such as Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie, who he generously supported and got them their first recordings. Not only did he support black musicians, he was also a firm political advocate for racial equality who dreamed of a world where “white and colored friend of his could play blues together in racial and musical harmony” (Swing Changes, 8). He even went so far as to insist that black musicians were superior to white players, saying “'The best of the white folk still cannot compare to the really good Negroes in relaxed, unpretentious dance music'” (6). Not only was he a personal advocate for racial equality, he was also extremely outspoken. This is witnessed by his castigation of Duke Ellington, who played at the “Cotton Club” a whites-only establishment. Hammond accused Ellington of forgetting the roots of jazz and forsaking his people for the sake of wealth and stardom.

With critics like Hammond so prevalent in the social scene of the 1930’s, it is easy to see how race suddenly became a popular topic of discussion in public forums. Due its ability to make people reconsider the injustices of race, jazz was likely one of many significant factors that led to the Civil Rights Movement.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Blog #2

Chicago: The Promised Land of the 1920's 

The 1920’s were a time of rapid social and economic growth in America that caused the outgrowth of many important works of art. This included the jazz style of music, which received it’s most important influences in Chicago. Due to the Great Migration, Chicago was flooded with new arrivals, all with unique cultures and lifestyles. It offered black people a chance to enjoy a measure of economic freedom and to build a life for themselves removed from the South, the “scene of the crime” (Jones, 1). In fact, “between the years 1910 and 1920...60,000 Negroes migrated from the South to the city of Chicago” (Jones, 1). In an effort to expand their audience, black jazz musicians left New Orleans behind and brought jazz to the urban scene of Chicago.

There were several factors that allowed jazz to flourish in Chicago during this time. First and foremost, there was a larger demand for the music simply due to the increased population; this allowed for the creation of the first race records, which “revealed the commercial potential of African American performers” (Gioia, 44). This important step led to presence of black and interracial bands in the studio. The spread of jazz is also due the establishment of performance halls such as Lincoln Gardens, “the largest dance hall on the South side” (Gioia, 44), where the hottest jazz was played. Chicago was also uniquely dominated by gangster organizations that owned segregated nightclubs such as The Sunset. These clubs hired black musicians and catered to exclusively white audiences, which gave black artists a chance to expand their skills and earn a better living (Travis). As jazz became more popular amongst the white middle class, it evolved from the group-oriented and disjointed New Orleans style of jazz into a smoother, more composed species. Recordings and radio, combined with a melting pot of cultures and greater economic stability for black people made Chicago a crucial influence on jazz in the 1920’s.
As jazz music became more popular, a distinct Chicago style of jazz emerged. In New Orleans, there was a greater focus on the ensemble act and improvisation. Chicago jazz was different in that it emphasized improvised solos and arrangements, became more refined, and lost some of it’s bluesy influences. The forerunners of this style were extremely talented musicians such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, The Austin High Gang, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Earl Hines, and Bix Beiderbecke. Despite the fact that all of these artists played significant roles in the evolution of jazz culture in the 1920’s, Louis Armstrong best represents the culture and community of Chicago during this time. With his inspirational work in the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings and his tremendous work as a soloist and entertainer, Armstrong brought in a new age. According to Gioia, “the New Orleans pioneers exit stage left; Armstrong on trumpet enters stage right heralding the New Age of the Soloist” (53). The sheer number of recordings he made combined with his talents as an entertainer brought jazz into the limelight, which transformed it into a recognized art form in society.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Blog #1

The Birth of Jazz

New Orleans was an ideal place for the emergence of jazz because it was a crucial point of commerce along the Mississippi. It was a “prosperous, cosmopolitan environment that few cities in the New World could match” (Gioia, 27). This wealth of industry attracted a melting pot of people, which created a lively and diverse culture that welcomed music in all forms. Jazz flourished in the Saturday night fish fries and the lawn parties, private events that gave musicians a chance to play for the locals. One source of this outgrowth was due to the city’s high mortality rate; according to Gioia, the “average life span for a black native of New Orleans in 1880 was only thirty-six years” (Gioia, 28). Such high mortality rates created an obsession with death that manifested itself in raucous merrymaking, which allowed people to distance themselves from their suffering. This was especially evident in the New Orleans parade for the dead, which was a paradoxical combination of both funeral and festival. Despite accusations that jazz originated from sin and licentiousness, Gioia maintains that in reality it was derived from the Baptist rhythms of the church. Musicians such as Bolden that would later become well known listened to religious music to get ideas for their own creations. Perhaps more influential still were the brass bands that became central to the social fabric of New Orleans; they played at nearly every type of social event and had a highly varied repertoire.

In terms of the Mexican contribution to New Orleans Jazz, there is substantial evidence that many black musicians were strongly influenced by the Mexicano style of music. New Orleans was a major center of commerce between the United States and Latin America, which attracted much international interest and immigration. When the Mexican government sent a national military band to New Orleans for the Cotton Exposition in 1884, many mexican musicians remained in the city after it ended. They in turn collaborated with many aspiring black artists, who integrated classical and latin influences such as wind instruments into their music (Johnson). Due to the strong Mexicano presence in the borderlands and their close association with black jazz artists, I believe that the mexican contribution was very important to the evolution of jazz.

The most important factor that strongly brought about the emergence of jazz in New Orleans was the remarkable amount of tolerance that its citizens displayed. Not only were there multitudes of different people and cultures, the city council even established an official site for slave dances. This shows an unprecedented and “exemplary degree of tolerance” (Gioia, 7) that allowed everyone to express themselves through art. By allowing slaves to practice and assimilate their music into European culture, African styles of art and dance began to emerge; without this influence, jazz would likely never have been born. Due to this rare acceptance, “music of all types permeated New Orleans social life; whether high or low, imported or indigenous, it found a receptive audience” (Gioia,32). In such a collaborative and welcoming environment, the African sense of rhythm was integrated into Western styles; an emphasis was placed on improvisation and spontaneity, which gave birth to the lively and spirited jazz culture that emerged from New Orleans.