Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Apple Bears Fruit: Modern Jazz

            The story of jazz is the story of people and the cities they live in. New Orleans contributed most to the beginnings of jazz in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but which city holds the title of “Most Important Jazz City” by the 1920s is slightly unclear. Certainly, the contest is between Chicago with its South Side clubs and New York with its Harlem and Times Square clubs. Although Chicago did contribute a lot to the development of jazz in the 1920s, New York helped jazz to mature much more than Chicago ever could have. Essentially, both cities were fertile lands for jazz, but New York had a richer musical history, a unique socioeconomic situation for the black population, and the attention of the nation and the world – all extra fertilizers for growing jazz.
            The social landscape of 1920s New York for blacks offered a distinct opportunity: the Harlem Renaissance, a milieu of new black culture, art, literature, and music, but also representative of a divide between the black upper and lower classes living in Harlem, the largest black population in the nation. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he points out that “Jazz was very much a part of this second Harlem – more at home here than in the “other” Harlem of high culture and higher aspirations. True, the Harlem Renaissance created an ideology, a cultural context for jazz. But the Harlem of rent parties and underground economies created music (94, emphasis added). It was this cultural context that New York possessed and Chicago lacked – although Chicago’s South Side had a thriving jazz scene, the eyes of the nation and the world were set on New York. Whether or not the literary elite of Harlem liked it, lower class Harlem, including jazz, was a crucial part of their Renaissance.
            Before Harlem, the largest black community in New York was San Juan Hill, and sure enough, the history of jazz is tied to this location as well. This is also something Chicago lacked: an older foundation of black musicians who created this cultural context in New York early on. As Professor Stewart pointed out in lecture, James P. Johnson and his predecessors had been making music even before New Orleans jazz took hold, developing the famous stride piano style that would be crucial to the growth of jazz when it reached New York (Oct 21). Using the piano, Johnson was able “to bridge [the] gap between highbrow and lowbrow” in black culture, as the piano was both “a calling card of lowbrow nightlife” as well as “a symbol of middle-class prosperity” (Gioia, 95-6). Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars such as Willie “the Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, and more, making stride piano the true musical landmark of New York jazz.
            With New York being New York, the new jazz styles that grew out of the art being formed in San Juan Hill and Harlem soon became part of the cultural dialogue in the wider urban community. Jazz truly became part of the club scene in Times Square when artists such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson began to perform there. Henderson’s arranger, Don Redman, essentially gave birth to the modern saxophone there (Discussion, Oct 25), and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra commercialized jazz for a larger white population (Lecture, Oct 21). The list of famous artists and bands goes on.
Chicago may have helped the roots of jazz to spread, but New York is where jazz blossomed into a mature and recognized art form.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

New Orleans Jazz

Courtesy of Wikipedia
There are many factors that contributed to the creation of jazz music in New Orleans: the roots of different cultures intertwining, several evolutions of musical forms leading up to what we know as jazz, socioeconomic reasons, the hard-pressed but thriving slave culture – the list is effectively endless. However, no factor is more important than the factor of the city itself. This key factor, it seems to me, is really two combined in one: not just “New Orleans,” but the “multicultural location” of New Orleans. Having been situated on a nexus of French, Spanish, and British territory as well as having been controlled by all three powers at least once over its history created a truly unique environment for people of different cultural backgrounds to interact. With the addition of African culture through the slave trade, New Orleans became unlike any other city in the world. The fact that these four major cultures (and doubtless, other cultures of the world had smaller footholds in New Orleans) were centered on the Mississippi River would have created, quite literally, a vortex of people and their cultures trading and traveling up and down the Mississippi, with New Orleans being the terminus through which everyone must pass. This is what I mean by multicultural location. The location of the city and its mix of cultures are codependent factors in the creation of jazz. Jazz could not have been synthesized without them. I picture the creation of jazz like a jigsaw puzzle: location and historical circumstance make up the borders, the edges that hold the puzzle together, while the different people and cultures make up the center pieces, the mass of the puzzle.
But what is in this mass of puzzle pieces which make up the image of jazz? As we have read about and discussed in class, this puzzle’s composition is richly diverse. The multicultural roots of the city allowed for a more tolerant atmosphere towards the African slaves and their everyday lives, including their self-expression through music, song, and dance. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he opens his chronicle of jazz by introducing us to Congo Square, a place designated by the city of New Orleans for the purpose of allowing slaves to gather and perform (3-5). This tolerant (compared to most other cities) view of the slaves allowed for a more dynamic cultural mixing to occur. As Professor Stewart put it, “You just know there is someone [a non-slave] standing back, tapping their foot [to the music at Congo Square].”
Storyville 1907, Wikimedia Commons
Gioia also notes the role of two very different institutions, the Storyville brothels and the churches of New Orleans, in the creation of jazz. Stereotypically, jazz has been tied up with the “contagion of vice” in New Orleans, but as Gioia shows, the “ties with the house of God” were just as important, if not more so (31). He goes on to elaborate on all the general occasions that jazz performances occurred at, such as community activities and fundraising events, clarifying that the two extremes of the bordello and the church were not key factors in themselves (32). As I have already stated, it is my opinion that there is no small, local-scale, specific, key factor in the creation of jazz, but rather it was the large-scale, unique situation of New Orleans that created an environment which allowed for jazz.
So, like a puzzle’s center, the people of New Orleans who make up the picture of jazz are not simply a jumbled mess – the people, their art, and their lives have to fit together just right to make the image come together.