I’ve encountered many who are champions of jazz who are fond to say that “Jazz is America’s Classical Music.”
The main reason for this is to stake a claim that jazz is just as worthy of aesthetic contemplation and every bit as serious a “high art” as classical music. For much of the twentieth century most saw classical music as clearly “high art” while jazz was just as clearly “low art.” Even today, when jazz is not so regarded (ironically in large part because it’s not popular entertainment music), classical tends to carry more prestige.
Race is involved as well. One major reason why jazz carried lower prestige, at least through the mid-twentieth century, was because of the common perception of jazz as black music (see my earlier post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop”).
To claim jazz as America’s classical music is to argue that jazz is a distinctly American form of art music (and it is that – or at least was – it’s no longer so specifically American), to place it on the same aesthetic level as European classical music, and to make a case for the centrality of race and black experiences in American art and life in general.
Jazz and classical do have some things in common. They both tend to be associated with high standards of performance to a greater extent than with “popular” genres. Classical is generally regarded as “art music,” as has jazz for at least the past several decades. (All music is art in the sense that it involves the production of an existing object with distinct physical [sound waves] and aesthetic qualities. Jazz and Classical are “art music” in the sense that sociologically they tend to be performed in contexts where their aesthetic qualities are overtly emphasized – though also always in contexts shaped in important ways by political, economic, and other social factors.) Both have a generally recognized canon of composers and performers (something obviously true of some other genres as well).
There is an American Classical Music – And it’s not Jazz
Despite the similarities, there are other clear differences. Both “Classical” and “Jazz” can be difficult to define (and adding to the ambiguity, both terms can be used to refer to either the music of a specific period of time [as in “Baroque,” “Classical,” “Romantic,” etc., and “Jazz,” “Swing,” “Bebop,” etc.] or to broadly defined genres persisting over long stretches of time) – and that’s not my main goal here. Suffice it to say that most have a general sense of what falls into either genre (there are exceptions, e.g. is Terry Riley’s In C classical, jazz, or something else; is Miles Davis’ and Gil Evans’ version of “Concierto de Aranjuez” on the Sketches of Spain album jazz or classical; is Porgy and Bess jazz, classical, opera, or a “musical” – or does it depend on the specific performance?), so I want to focus not so much on providing absolute definition as presenting one or two important distinctions.
Jazz has from its beginnings been a music that emphasizes improvisation. The degree of improvisation varies considerably. In some cases, only a soloist improvises and within highly circumscribed limits, while in others the whole ensemble might simultaneously improvise, but whether in the form of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, improvisation has been central to the music.
Jazz has been a hybrid genre from the start, drawing on multiple pre-existing musical traditions (something true of any genre really – but jazz’s hybridity is an important part of many people’s conception of the genre). Two of the most important sources for the jazz tradition were ragtime and the blues, with the result being that most jazz shares with ragtime syncopation and a playfulness with rhythm, and often draws on the pentatonic scales of blues.
It would be a mistake to argue that syncopation, much less experimentation with rhythm generally, are not part of classical music. Just think of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or much of Ravel’s work, or even the much earlier piano works of Chopin, where the left and right hands often have slightly offset rhythms. But syncopation is a much more crucial component of jazz – what makes the music “swing,” and the eight tones of each major and minor key or the twelve tone rows of serial music are quite different from pentatonic blues or jazz. Finally, while improvisation was often emphasized in the Baroque, from the mid-18th century until quite recently, improvisation was essentially absent from classical music.
There is an American classical musical tradition that includes important composers such as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Cage, Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon and many, many others.
To refer to jazz as “America’s Classical Music” does two unfortunate things. First, it misconstrues the nature of jazz and misrecognizes what’s unique and important about it. Second, it marginalizes America’s tradition of actual classical music.
Jazz Doesn’t Need to Be America’s Classical Music
As I said earlier, to claim jazz as America’s classical music is to argue that jazz is a distinctly American form of art music, to place it on the same aesthetic level as European classical music, and to make a case for the centrality of race and black experiences in American art and life in general.
I endorse each of these basic claims. Jazz is a distinctly American form of art music, though one distinct from classical music. It does have the same aesthetic worth as classical music, without having to be classical music (and thus losing what makes jazz jazz – this is also to say that when it comes to aesthetic appreciation, I see no reason why jazz and classical can’t actually be separate but equal). Given the centrality of black musicians in the history of this distinct art music, jazz does mark the centrality of race and especially of black experiences in American art and life in general.
None of these claims, though, depends on claiming that jazz is classical – if anything, such claims distort and undermine the realities of jazz.