For generations, jazz has been a genre of music that’s brought people together. It has been a genre all walks of life can appreciate and enjoy. “Despite slavery’s having ended in 1865, African Americans still didn’t have the same rights as white Americans. But jazz was music that both black and white people could enjoy (Washington Post).”
The very nature of jazz celebrates freedom from the expected and constrained. During the Great Migration in the late 1800s/early 1900s in America, thousands of black people who had once been enslaved by the Jim Crow-South, poured into the North. As these people filtered into the urban scene, art and culture became something to share and perform.
By no means was life with racism or hate. In fact, many black Americans were socially segregated into the urban slums by white Americans. The largest and arguably most famous of these neighborhoods being Harlem, the birthplace and namesake of the Harlem Renaissance.
Jazz became part of American History, and more specifically, Black History when the musicians in the art community brought their blues, ragtime, hymns, African beats and drumming, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink from the South and mixed it all together.
A Blues Dance by Miguel Covarrubias (plate from Blues by W.C. Handy, 2nd Ed., 1926).
This genre of music is so deeply vital to the American experience. Now more than ever, it needs its place on center stage.
Improv. Creativity. Letting the notes lift and fall to match the vibe of the room. Jazz is like other genres when it comes to having a melody, tune, harmony and rhythms strung together. But what sets jazz apart is its use of improvisation. You don’t have to follow a piece of sheet music in front of you (unless you want to). You can just play what feels right. The freedom is something that I think a lot of genres have trouble with. People have an idea of what a genre is supposed to be, what elements part of a cookie-cutter formula that need to be followed. In jazz, there aren’t nearly as many rules, giving musicians a much broader world of notes and melodies to explore. Compared to classic for example where you’re expected to follow a piece from start to finish, to play it as perfectly as you can.
In jazz, it’s less about perfection and more about creativity, to ask, what can be done with this piece to make it different. High notes, low notes, gravely notes, short notes, they can all be part of the same song. It’s up to the musician. In our current world where musicians always feel like they’re being put into boxes, perhaps it’s time to let them experiment with jazz and get a chance to spread their wings without judgement.
McLaughlin, Moira E. “All about Jazz, Uniquely American Music.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 May 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/all-about-jazz-a-unique-form-of-american-music/2012/05/24/gJQA4bswnU_story.html.
“The Harlem Renaissance.” U.S. History Online Textbook, vol. 46e, 2020, https://www.ushistory.org/us/46e.asp. Accessed May 27, 2020.