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.