Jazz: America's Classical

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Jazz has been called, among other things, America's "only original form," showing it's clear cultural roots in America. In addition, jazz historians have touted jazz's pedigree as "American's Classical Music." An appreciation and analysis of jazz history forces one to question both the "American" and "Classical" descriptors that past historians have used to label jazz music. Using primarily sources such as "From Somewhere in France" by Charles Delaunay and "An Interview with Wynton Marsalis" by Lolis Eric Elie, I argue that although jazz grew out from a distinctive African American tradition, the influx of influences in its development throughout the years as well as it's transcending appeal have made jazz much universal as opposed to American. In addition, I argue that although labeling jazz as "Classical" gives it aesthetic credence, there is a real danger in downgrading jazz both in musical difficulty and musical value.

My first argument concerns the duality between seeing jazz as "American" and "universal." In "Somewhere in France," Charles Delaunay, one of the pioneers of French jazz criticism, makes the argument that jazz is universal, transcending it's American and African-American roots -- a result of "simple, direct, and natural" appeal and a product of "cultural fusion." Universalism benefited the "connoisseurs" (i.e. the French) of jazz by making it something to be appreciated by those who understood it, and not something of American exceptionalism. This, of course, treads dangerously close to "downgrading the artistry and artifice of musicians"; the "dehistorization" that grew out primitavism also does not account for the significant contributions in jazz history. This could arguably be interpreted as saying jazz would be the same without Duke Ellington or in a similar line of argument, that classical music would be the same without Beethoven. However, Delaunay does provide strong justifications for the universal nature of jazz, most notably by...
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