My knowledge of jazz before taking this course was minimal. The only jazz that I had ever listened to was on the local “smooth jazz” radio station that my dad would tune into every morning while he drank his coffee and read the newspaper. I knew that African and African American culture was tied up with the history of jazz, but I never knew to what extent. Coming into this course, I was expecting to learn about jazz and its styles and technical developments over time rather than the history of the people and places behind it – I should have read the course description more carefully! What I am taking away from this course is a better understanding of the narrative of different black populations in a white-controlled America, and how they were able to create a new way to be American through jazz – the first true, modern American art form that united different races and classes.
Other than my effective ignorance of almost all of the history of jazz, I cannot say that I had many more assumptions about this course than the generalities I discussed above. I still do not know enough about music in general or have enough interest in learning the technicalities of playing music to have truly known what jazz was before this class. I still do not understand most of the technical portions of the readings we have been assigned (such as when an author would describe the workings of an entire piece over the course of two or three pages. I can, however, discuss some aspects of the history of jazz that truly surprised and fascinated me.
The first specific portion of the class that was very interesting to me was the section about Chicago and the Chicago “plantations.” The fact that mobsters were able to control so much about someone’s life was frightening. I knew that such things had occurred during the 1920s, but I did not know that they occurred to such an extent – I thought a lot of the mobster tales were fictional. It distresses me that the mob had so much control over these artists – artists who could have been so much more than they were if they had been allowed to follow the natural course of where their music was taking them, rather than being scheduled out to work specific hours at specific venues for the mob’s profit.
The other major portion of the class that was truly fascinating was the history of Thelonious Monk. I think I will remember his unique persona for a long time, and I hope to find time to listen to some of his music on my own. Part of me wishes that he could have been bigger and greater than he was, but perhaps if he had been, he would not have been as artistic. I only hope that maybe I can meet a contemporary artist like him one day. I would have liked to learn more about Monk and other bebop artists.
Overall, the entire scope of what the history of jazz encompassed amazed me, especially musically. I did not know that blues and ragtime and big bands and bebop and all really counted together under the title of jazz (or at least were very closely related to jazz). I have never been very musically inclined, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to participate in this course. It allowed me to explore a subject that I would have never decided to explore simply on my own.