The Social Effects of Jazz

Zola Philipp


This paper’s purpose is to examine the social effects of jazz music. It focuses on the exploitation of black jazz musicians by whites in the industry and looks at whether black musicians benefited at all from their innovations. Many of today’s African American musicians are faced with similar social circumstances as those of past jazz musicians and as a result, the importance of the African American culture is still being ignored. Despite the negative social conditions that blacks faced, some blacks were still able to benefit and gained respect, stardom, and recognition for being the inventors of jazz music.

Where words fail, music speaks,” says the poet Hans Christian Andersen. This message is profoundly expressed in jazz music. In the 1920s, jazz experienced a rise in popularity when the music began to spread through recordings. Some black jazz musicians believe that they were ripped off financially and that they did not get full recognition and compensation for being the inventors of jazz as African American culture. Furthermore, some people oppose the idea that jazz was invented by blacks. Jazz music as such became more of a commodity than an art and the highest achievers were white.

Music is essential to the African American experience in the United States. Faced with racism, discrimination, and segregation, blacks have always found comfort and a sense of peace in their music. Music continues to be a means by which the anger, grief, compassion and desire for change is transformed into positive energy for blacks (Dawson, 2001). Today, the social conditions facing American popular music, especially rap, are analogous to those faced by jazz music, and many musicians have similar experiences. Despite the fact that jazz music has created some positive social effects, it has created more negative ones for black jazz musicians, such as exploitation and jazz appropriation, some of which are still occurring today.

In order to understand the social effects of jazz music, there must be an understanding of how this music came into existence. I will then discuss the positive and the negative effects jazz had on black jazz musicians. Jazz developed from Afro-American music which included: Work songs, spiritual music, minstrelsy (a stage entertainment usually performed by whites with blackened faces who performed songs, dances and comedy ostensibly of black American origin), and other forms (Wheaton, 1994). Dorsey (2001) believes that black music and black musical accomplishments have been rooted in the continent of Africa. Jazz’s relationship to African music can be demonstrated in “the dominance of percussion in African American music…and bending the notes expressed in improvisation” (p. 36). The same way Africans were able to spontaneously invent a piece of music or beat, sometimes without any instruments, black jazz musicians are able to incorporate some of these features in their music. The improvisational style of the latter is very much influenced by the former, and is a unique feature of jazz music.

Furthermore, jazz is considered an integral part of African American culture. Though there has been great debate about a standard definition of jazz, Wheaton (1994) believes it “can be defined as a combination of improvisatory styles with western European form and harmony” (p. 90). In other words, despite jazz’s African roots, it also has many European features such as composition, internal structure, and harmony. Peretti (1992) too states that jazz obtained its musical identity from the African and European traditions. Jazz music emerged out of “hot music” from New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century and some of the structures were inherited from Africa and passed down to blacks from slavery to freedom (Dorsey, 2001). Jazz categories include Dixieland, swing, bop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, Third Stream, jazz-rock, and fusion (Wheaton, 1994). The first jazz-style to receive recognition as a fine art was bebop, which is mainly instrumental and was formed by serious black jazz musicians who experimented with new ideas in the late night jam sessions (Wheaton, 1994). Bebop evolved in the 1940s and was said to have been created by blacks in a way that whites could not copy (Gerard, 1998).

The history of jazz proves that black musicians are the inventors and innovators of jazz, and that has been a major accomplishment of blacks. According to Wheaton (1994), an innovator’s “job is not to entertain, but rather, to make the listener aware and to force the audience to confront often disturbing realities and hidden truths about themselves, their society and their world” (p. 143). Jazz is often referred to as “Black classical music.” Gerard (1998) cites Amiri Baraka, who first argued that jazz is an African American music in his book Blues People (1963), and also called jazz “Black music” in books he wrote later. In fact, one of the first musicians to label his music “Negro music” was Duke Ellington, who made it a priority to express the African American culture profoundly in it (Gerard, 1998). Mackey (1992) believes that blacks were cheated out of their invention of jazz music. In other words, commercial success was only obtained by whites. Blacks were basically locked out of it. Yet most white jazz musicians did not have the improvisational skills or originality that the black musicians displayed in their music. Malcolm X says that whites simply replicate what they heard in the past, whereas blacks “could spontaneously invent.” He states:

I’ve seen black musicians when they’d be jamming at a jam session with white musicians—a whole lot of difference. The white musician can jam if he’s got some sheet music in front of him…But that black musician, he picks up his horn and starts blowing some sounds that he never thought of before. He improvises, he creates. (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p. 78)

However, there are opposing points of view when it comes to who invented jazz. Textbook writer Frank Tirro writes: “contrary to popular belief, jazz does not owe its existence to any one race” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p.88). Because of the western influences and American band traditions in jazz, some people believe that it does not simply belong to African Americans. In addition, in response to the statement that whites stole the music, Jim Hall says, “I’ve always felt that the music started out as black but that it’s as much mine now as anyone else’s. I haven’t stolen the music from anybody—I just bring something different to it” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p. 90). Hall is indeed acknowledging that blacks invented jazz, but he does not feel that whites have stolen it, even if whites imitated the various jazz styles created by blacks and became wealthy as a result.

Upward social mobility among black jazz musicians is a very significant factor, though it was not common. Opportunities were given to black musicians by the radio and recording industry and popular black bands were promoted as long as there was a demand for jazz music by white Americans (Gerard, 1998). However, Mackey (1992) believes that there was a containment of black mobility on the political level and that the social and economic progress blacks might have accumulated because of their artistic innovation was blocked by whites. Black jazz musicians were primarily from the lower class. As Means (1968) points out, despite their social background, “some of these jazzmen received recognition as serious composers and several conducted well-known symphony orchestras and were invited to give concerts in Carnegie Hall (p. 18). Benny Goodman, a white jazz bandleader, brought to stardom Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian, but still encountered criticism for benefiting from their talents; a few other black jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, made a lot of money (Gerard, 1998).

Jazz music has created a sense of integration between blacks and whites in the industry. Buster Bailey, a black jazz musician said, “One thing I’m happy to see is the integration that’s happening among musicians” (qtd. in Means, 1968, p. 22). Discrimination still existed, but in the jazz community, musicians were somehow considered as equals. Whites were hired to perform in several black bands and the white trombonist Roswell Rudd was introduced to jazz audiences by Archie Shepp (Gerard, 1998). Means (1968) cites Monroe Berger who notes that jazz music created black-white contact where a black musician received full acceptance as an equal and was “(often admired as superior) without condescension” (Means, 1998, p. 17). Jazz music has not only integrated people in the United States, but also brought them together internationally. It has been influenced by third world countries such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and India (Wheaton, 1994). Great jazz musicians integrated international ideas into their music; for instance, Duke Ellington has an album named Far East Suite, and two of Coltrane’s albums are named Africa and India (Wheaton, 1994).

Today, jazz music is progressing in many ways. Despite its economic decline and struggle to survive because of the developed wealth of rock and pop, there have been many opportunities for the survival of jazz. Jazz began to penetrate the music programs of high schools, colleges and universities right after World War II, and in 1968, the International Association of Jazz Education was formed (Wheaton, 1994). Ron Dewey Wynn, co-founder and executive director of the Mill Street Jazz and Culture Society in Philadelphia, teaches inner city kids to appreciate the history and training in jazz music and calls jazz “African American Classical Improvisational Music” (Dawson, 2001). He contends that African American children won’t experience jazz culture as music programs decrease in schools around the country (Dawson, 2001). Jazz has also gotten much recognition in the United States and around the world through jazz festivals. Overseas festivals have been more successful than festivals in the United States; in places like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy, jazz festivals have all broken records for attendance (Wheaten, 1994).

Now that the positive social effects of jazz have been clarified, I will present the negative effects. The recording industry has played a major role in the commercialization of jazz music, which has led to uniformity. Jazz music would not have been widely distributed to the general public without the recording industry, and it provided a perfect opportunity for making the music more marketable. As a result, blacks were socially affected, and according to Means (1968), they had limited opportunities to showcase their originality and were forced to create music that appealed only to whites. However, white bands had a sense of sameness that was more marketable. According to Mackey (1992), swing music lacked improvisation, and the soloist’s creativity was not relied upon as much because of the commercialization of the music. Jazz became so commercialized that the industry was less dependent on black innovation, but rather produced a music that was lacking the essence of jazz—its improvisation. Baraka quotes Hsio wen Shih’s “comments regarding the anthology album The Great Swing Bands, a record Shih refers to as ‘terrifying’ due to the indistinguishability of one band from another” (qtd. in Mackey, 1992, p. 60). Swing music basically lacked creativity and distinction and as a result, swing bands sounded alike.

Black jazz musicians were less credited for their invention and innovation of jazz music. Jazz music created a sense of identity, originality, and social cohesion among black musicians, but they were seldom credited with inventing it. Kofsky (1998) believes that this refusal of whites to credit blacks is because they refused to equate anything valuable with African Americans. According to Miles Davis, this is the case because “the white man likes to win everything. White people like to see other white people win…and they can’t win when it comes to jazz…because black people created this” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p.16). In addition, whites became more famous than blacks because of their unwillingness to give blacks credit for their talents. Means (1968) too believes that black jazz musicians experienced a lot of resentment because they felt that they did not always receive acknowledgement for their accomplishments, while whites were granted titles such as “King of Swing” and “King of Jazz” (p.18). Again this social effect of jazz was a result of greed by whites, and it created anger, fear and resentment among black jazz musicians.

While whites in the jazz music industry got rich, black musicians did not reap equal benefits. The industry caused a great deal of exploitation and discrimination by whites against blacks. Rex Stewart says, “Where the control is, the money is. Do you see any of us running any record companies, booking agencies, radio stations, music magazines?” (qtd. in Kofsky, 1998, p. 19). In other words, the recording/distribution industry was in complete control, not black musicians. Because of this power and contempt for black art, blacks were likely to suffer and the recording industry basically determined the economic success or failure of an artist. White musicians who benefited from the talent of black musicians were labeled exploiters and for the financial gain they drew from the music, they were called thieves (Gerard, 1998, p. 14). For instance, arrangements were purchased from black musicians by Benny Goodman, a white jazz musician known as “King of Swing.” However, the majority of black musicians, despite their invention of the music, experienced very little success (Mackey, 1992). Mackey (1992) further states that “the most popular and best-paid bands were white” and with the development of radio, which was an excellent form for publicizing the music, the best paid studio jobs were predominantly secured by whites (p. 52). In other words, because of race, black jazz musicians have experienced great disadvantages throughout the history of jazz music (Means, 1968).

Furthermore, the jazz music industry contributed a great deal to the continuous victimization of blacks. Whites continued to exploit black jazz musicians for financial gain, even in death. For instance, a month after Bessie Smith died, John Hammond, an employee of Columbia Records, wrote an article in Down Beat magazine saying that “a special Bessie Smith memorial album will be released…and this will be the best buy of the year in music” (qtd. in Kofsky, 1998, p. 33). Evidently he was more interested in promoting his fame and fortune than paying respect to the dead. However, Hammond frequently referred to himself as being the protector of black artists to increase his reputation (Kofsky).

Another social effect that was pivotal in jazz was the social stigma associated with the music, not only by whites, but also by blacks. This stigma created an environment for black exploitation because jazz was considered black folk music. The stigma consisted of a belief held by whites that the tradition of African American music was not art, but was rather artistically worthless, trivial and only tolerated for profitability (Levine, 1989). For instance, “Jazz Must Go,” was the title of an article published in 1921 in the Ladies Home Journal (Means, 1968). Peretti (1992) also states that the exploitation of that era was typical and was only for the purpose of profitability. However, in the twentieth century, while jazz was being rejected in the United States, African American jazz musicians received many opportunities overseas. Their artistic ability was acknowledged and encouraged and they discovered that segregation was not widespread (Ross, 2001). Ross further states that though the music had originated in the United States, because of its carrier, “the so-called negros,” the dominant group (whites) quickly condemned it.

Likewise, in the 1920s, jazz was thought of as “a backward, low form of expression” by reputable blacks from Oklahoma City, said the black novelist Ralph Ellison (qtd. in Means, 1968, p. 334). For instance, C.J. Handy’s father told him “he would rather see him dead than become a jazz musician” (Means, 1968, p. 334). One must wonder what brought on this negative view of jazz among blacks. Was it the race factor? Yes, it was. Means relates the views of E. Franklin Frazier and LeRoi Jones, who believed the main reason was that middle class blacks wanted to fit into white society. They repudiated jazz because they thought it was too much a part of black slave heritage (Means). Individual blacks have tried to assimilate into the American mainstream by achieving high levels of education; however, assuming the mainstream culture meant abandoning or destroying their own culture (Baskerville, 2003). Gerard (1998) adds that black musicians and the black middle class ceased to be ashamed of their culture with the civil rights movement and became proud of jazz music.

Jazz music has not only created negative social conditions, but has also been a force for racial integration, respect, and social mobility. Social mobility proves to be a very significant factor because it showcases a similarity between black jazz musicians and black rap artists in terms of their accomplishments in obtaining wealth and stardom because of the invention of their music. Jazz should be given more recognition and should be studied in more high schools and colleges in the United States so that students, particularly black students, can be educated about its origins.

The origins of jazz music have been in much dispute and have caused many controversies. Though people may argue that jazz music was not exclusively invented by blacks, the fact remains that the great innovators of the music are indeed blacks. Gerard (1998) notes that African-American ideologists become offended “that each style of jazz—and each variety of blues, rhythms-and-blues, and rap, for that matter—have been appropriated from the African-American community almost the day after it was first heard there” (p. 14). As classical music is clearly European, jazz music should undoubtedly be considered African-American music.


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