The paradoxes that shape jazz music

In the late 19th century, former slaves and the children of former slaves – stripped of centuries of cultural and musical heritage – came together on the streets of New Orleans to forge a musical tradition of their own. The style they eventually created would spread across the country in a unifying force for the black community: jazz.

Half a century later, Frank Sinatra – an all-Italian man – serenaded white audiences to jazz music. Behind him sat an all-white group. Although the music of New Orleans and Frank Sinatra is remembered as jazz, Sinatra’s big band style was strongly dictated by a Western musical structure that drew spectacular white crowds. This story begs 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 black-styled white musicians historically dominated the Billboard Top 100? Why is Elvis Presley, and not Chuck Berry, remembered as “the king of rock ‘n’ Roll?” These questions cover the marginalization of black music and artists in American culture, and answering them can strike at the heart of current American racial struggles.

White audiences have a long history of indulging in black culture — the trend began centuries ago with white performers in blackface taking on Jim Crow-like personas. Today, every major trend in American music – from jazz to rock ‘n’ Roll, to Hip-Hop – started from a place deeply rooted in the fate of the black community and was eventually co-opted by a white audience. Yet, while white audiences appreciated black music, they refused to give it a proper place in their society. While it may seem paradoxical to appropriate another culture’s musical style while doing little to acknowledge 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 background of black music is “a subset of the marginalization of black culture”. Sarath is a teacher of jazz and contemporary improvisation and author of the book “Black Music Matters”. According to him, the Eurocentric framework that governs the teaching of music in schools works to whitewash black music and separates it from its black roots.

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

This lost connection is just one piece of the larger puzzle of systemic racism that white America is just waking up to, 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 new ways,” Sarath said, “the juxtaposition of celebrating black contributions with the horrific thing going back centuries, would be a very powerful formula for healing.”

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

“If you are a person of color and you write in [Western musical traditions], you’re often seen as a black composer,” explained Milne, an assistant professor of music and pianist for the group Dapp theory. “But you don’t call the white composers who compose for [Western musical traditions] white songwriters,” Milne said.

Conversations led by vocal black musicians, like Tyler, the Creator when his album igor won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, expresses the very real frustration black artists when trying to experiment with their craft.

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

Black artists are thus locked into a paradoxical social system in which they are devalued when they play black music but stigmatized when they dare to defy society’s expectations.

This summer has seen a surge in support for Black Lives Matter and an acknowledgment of 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. In our fight for racial justice, if we don’t 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 reached at [email protected]

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