The paradoxes that shape jazz music

At the end of the 19th century, former slaves and the children of former slaves – stripped of centuries of cultural and musical heritage – gathered on the streets of New Orleans to forge a musical tradition of their own. The style they ultimately created will spread across the country in a unifying force for the black community: jazz.

Half a century later, Frank Sinatra – a man who was 100 percent Italian – blackmailed white audiences to the sound of jazz. Behind him sat an all-white group. Although the music of New Orleans and Frank Sinatra could both be considered jazz, Sinatra’s big band style was strongly dictated by a Western musical structure that drew spectacular white crowds. This story raises a few questions: Why did Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and Buddy Rich become some of the most successful jazz musicians of all time while countless black musicians of equal or greater talent remain forgotten? Why have white musicians with a black style historically dominated the Billboard Top 100? Why is Elvis Presley, and not Chuck Berry, known as ‘the king of rock’ n Rouleau? ”These questions cover the marginalization of black music and artists in American culture, and the answers can strike at the heart of current American race struggles.

White audiences have a long history of indulging in black culture – the trend started centuries ago with white blackface artists playing Jim Crow characters. Today, all the major trends in American music – from jazz to rock ‘n Roll, to Hip-Hop – started from a place deep in the distress of the black community and was eventually co-opted by white audiences. Yet while white audiences enjoyed black music, they refused to give it a proper place in their society. While it may seem counterintuitive to appropriate the musical style of another culture while doing little to recognize that culture’s struggles, the trend is as American as apple pie.

In an interview with the Michigan Daily, School of Music, Theater and Dance professor Ed Sarath explained that white audiences’ detachment from the cultural origin of black music is “a subset of the marginalization of black music. black culture ”. Sarath is a professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation and author of the book “Black Music Matters”. According to him, the Eurocentric framework that governs the way music is taught in schools works to whitewash black music and separate it from its black roots.

Modern audiences and the musicians who listen to and play jazz music are still largely oblivious to the unique African American essence of jazz. The improvisation, sophisticated rhythms, and a witty playing style found in all mainstream American music all owe to the black performers and the uniquely black style they pioneered. White jazz students often fail to make this connection between art and its black roots, and generations of young musicians growing up without the connection between black music and black American culture only exacerbates this problem.

This lost connection is just one piece of the bigger puzzle of systemic racism to which white America has just woken up, Sarath said. Allowing black music and culture to be recognized for what it is must be an integral part of any strategy to end systemic racism in the United States.

“Now that we accept the holocaust of racism in a new way,” said Sarath, “the juxtaposition of celebrating the contributions of black people with the horrible thing that goes back centuries, would be a very powerful formula for healing. “

Systemic racism also continues to manifest itself in subtle ways within the music industry. In an interview with The Daily, music, drama and dance teacher Andy Milne discussed how black musicians often feel classified into musical categories because of their race.

“If you are a person of color and you write in [Western musical traditions], you are often considered a black composer, ”explained Milne, assistant professor of music and pianist for the group Dapp theory. “But you do not call the white composers who compose for [Western musical traditions] white composers, ”Milne said.

Conversations led by black vocal musicians, like Tyler, the creator during his album Igor won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, voices the very real frustration black artists when they try to experiment with their craft.

“Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backwards compliment,” Tyler told a reporter at the 2019 Grammys. “I don’t like that word urban. It’s just a politically correct way of telling me the word in N. “

Black artists are thus forced into a paradoxical social system in which they are undervalued when they play black music but stigmatized when they dare to challenge the expectations of society.

This summer has seen an increase in support for Black Lives Matter and a reckoning with this country’s racist past and present – but part of that support must include the recognition that black music matters too. The issues of systemic racism and musical gentrification are one and the same. In our fight for racial justice, if we do not make efforts to preserve and celebrate black musical culture, we will undoubtedly fail in our efforts for both.

Daily arts contributor Kai Bartol can be contacted at

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Ada J. Kenney