Why is it that Jazz music is often regarded as one of the most distictively American art forms? (Reworked from original November 26, 2018 broadcast.)
Jazz occupies a curious place in the cultural landscape of America. Throughout the 20th century its level of sophistication seemed to depend in large part upon the person listening to it. Highbrows (for lack of a better word) thought of it as too vulgar and associated it with speakeasies or drug infested clubs. Lowbrows on the other hand often thought of it—particularly in the 1950s—as too complicated,
esoteric, or elitist: in a word, highbrow.
But many consider it to be the most American of all the arts. Filmmaker Ken Burns, who rose to fame for his multi-volume PBS documentaries on the Civil War and baseball, gave jazz a similar treatment, calling it “America’s music.”
Just in the past year the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded grants to support jazz festivals or similar performances in Mississippi, Florida, Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. A recent NEA study on arts participation said that about 21 million people attended a jazz performance in 2017, roughly the same as attended a classical music concert. The Endowment also maintains an educational program called “Jazz in the Schools” that gives teachers lesson plans and materials to help them integrate jazz into the classroom for a better understanding both of the art form and of American history itself.
Why should jazz be singled out like this? Part of the answer is how it captures American individuality. More accurately jazz is a perfect manifestation of the way in which individuality and teamwork fit together. Because of its improvisational character, jazz depends on—and highlights—the creativity of the individual, but frames that creativity in terms of a group of musicians working together in a common direction.
For a great example of this paradox, listen to Miles Davis’ 1959 album “Kind of Blue.” Davis gave the members of his band nothing more than chord charts and a melody line for each of the five tunes. They all then improvised their parts, playing off each other, and in the process created one of the most impressive and important recordings in American music.
More so than any other style of music, jazz has grown along with the country, often seeming to embody the freedom, the struggles, and the changeable, improvisational character of the nation as a whole. But today, some studies indicate the audience for jazz is shrinking fast. For a nation whose knowledge of its own history grows more shallow with each passing year, this is hardly surprising, but equally sad.