Is Jazz Dead? ( or has it changed its dress)
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In this essay, I will first historicize jazz within a paradoxical American identity which sees itself embodied by both a broad common culture and fierce individualism. Jazz, as a participant in this paradox, is described in similar contradictory terms: its combination of African and European elements, relationship to both art and popular culture, and as a symbol of both working class and high-brow culture. The notion of racial appropriation, which has long been a profound problem in jazz, will be integral to my argument for the place of jazz in America. Jazz was born out of and has matured through the convergence of European and African cultures in the unique displacement of America, and there is something embedded within the music that continues to thrive in its endemic environment. J.A. Rogers, in his essay "Jazz at Home," wrote that it is "difficult to say whether jazz is more characteristic of the Negro or of contemporary America. As was shown, it is of Negro origin plus the influence of the American environment. It is Negro-American ... [a] product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country." This sentiment, although half a century old in Rogers' case, is still echoed in contemporary jazz circles. When asked if he saw any potential problems with Europe becoming the new center of jazz, pianist Matthew Shipp replied, "This will never happen for the mythic power of the idea of black Americans creating an alternative language out of the hellhole of the American experience is such a strong and empowering idea that it will trump every idea of the perception of jazz's new center being Europe ... take my word on this." Finally, after outlining the problems of American jazz, most of which lie in Marsalis' triumvirate of self-proclaimed messiahs, I will delve into a music scene which has been neglected by the larger scope of jazz and proves a vibrant American jazz which neither necessitates nor begs transplantation to European soil. My intent through this writing is in no way to disparage or discredit European artists. Rather, my concern is that a shift to Europe may act as a final symbolic cementation of the classicizing, canonizing, and white-washing of jazz which has led it to its current state. Finally, this is a call to American musicians, listeners, and critics to look past the rigid prototype which has been put forth, towards contemporary music which is both in conversation with the jazz of old and pushing forward the voices of new. Nicholson concludes a synopsis of the jazz mainstream by claiming, "If art is meant to be a reflection of life, then in America, by instinct a conservative nation, the main area of jazz activity had become conservative because there was a growing realization there was much to conserve. However, his mistake is not in a critique of contemporary American jazz, but rather, in the semantics of art, for art is not meant to be a passive reflection of culture, but rather an upsetting of the status quo, a dissection, and a radical response to the culture it inhabits. If America is as Nicholson sees, an instinctively conservative nation, then perhaps it needs jazz more than ever.