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.