When Jeanette Thurber, the American music patron, invited the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892, she expected him to establish an American school of composition. A year later, the composer wrote: “the future music of this country [i.e. the United States] must be founded upon what are called negro melodies . . . There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.” Indeed, during his stay in the US, Dvořák wrote two of his most popular compositions, the “New World” Symphony (Symphony no. 9) and the “American” String Quartet (String Quartet no. 12) that were avowedly inspired by African-American music (Crawford 555-556).
Dvořák’s views were both taken up and strongly contested by a number of American composers. Among African American composers, William Grant Still composed a fine but unjustly neglected Afro-American Symphony and other compositions that sought to bridge African and Western musical elements. Edward MacDowell, one of the leading white American composers of this period, resented Dvořák’s suggestion that the musical traditions of former slaves could be the basis for a distinctively American music. Instead, MacDowell argued, the music of what he regarded as a “manlier” race, the North American Indian, was a better choice (Crawford 557). All these composers, with the exception of Still, would have been surprised, in varying degrees, by the developments that led to the creation of a musical tradition that has now come to be regarded as quintessentially American: jazz. Given that there was no consensus regarding the viability of African American music as being emblematic of America’s musical achievement, how did jazz come to regarded as “an outstanding model of individual expression” and “a rare and valuable national American treasure,” as the United States Congress declared in a 1987 resolution?
I suggest in this paper that jazz rose to fame on account of a number of reasons. Firstly, symphonic compositions based on African American melodies or rhythms often sounded like European art music inflected by African-American idioms, while jazz retained a more thoroughgoing individuality. Secondly, jazz covers a wide spectrum of music, involving improvisatory techniques reflecting the artistry of individual performers, on the one hand, to realizing a pre-composed score, on the other. As such, jazz musicians could work successfully with both classically-trained Western musicians and with improvisers and, at the same time, retain a distinct identity. Finally, jazz music bridged the gap between “high” and “low,” and between “art” and “popular” music, distinctions that a number of French composers since the late-nineteenth century sought to blur through compositions that could be modernist and popular at the same time. It is for these reasons that the French reception of jazz immediately following the First World War gave it a cultural cache that overrode the reservations voiced by the older generation of American composers.
As the Grove entry on jazz states, the term “refers to an extended family of genres, with all members sharing at least some traits in common yet none capable of representing the whole.” Tracing its beginnings, therefore, is a difficult question. If we regard a genre such as ragtime as a precursor of jazz, then the 1890s can be taken as a convenient starting point, since the leading composer of ragtime, Scott Joplin, formed his own band in New Orleans in 1894 and started publishing his first ragtimes from 1899. Although Joplin was forgotten from the time of his death in 1918 till the revival of his music from the 1970s, he was certainly remembered by a master of jazz such as Sidney Bechet, whose rendition of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag in 1932, when compared to Joplin’s own, reveals both the similarities and the differences between ragtime and jazz. Here first is the ragtime version, re-mastered from a piano roll version allegedly by Joplin himself:
And here is Bechet’s rendition, which holds on to the outline of Joplin’s melody, but freely embellishes it with altered notes, trills, faster pace and, most obviously, radically altered instrumentation:
Bechet’s performances in London in 1919, soon after the end of the First World War, elicited strong praise from one of the leading conductors of the 20th century, Ernest Ansermet. In keeping with other European writers of the time, Ansermet linked jazz with the purported racial characteristics of African Americans, but unlike many of them, his view was overwhelmingly positive. Ansermet located the uniqueness of jazz musicians in the ways in which they made a Joplin rag, a spiritual, or a European musical composition, part of the jazz tradition through their unique style of performance: “The Negro takes a trombone, and he has a knack of vibrating each note by a continual quivering of the slide, a sense of glissando, and a taste for muted notes which make it a new instrument; he takes a clarinet or saxophone and . . ., he discovers a whole series of effects produced by the lips alone, which make it a new instrument” (Jackson, “Making Jazz French” 27). Overall, Ansermet found Bechet’s blues solos “admirable equally for their richness of invention, their force of accent, and their daring novelty and unexpected turns” (qtd. in Tucker and Jackson).
The association of jazz uniquely with African Americans determined the ways in which it was perceived by various strands of the French musical élite and popular audiences, and sometimes tied in with anti-American sentiments; these perceptions were often negative, but there were also some very positive and influential evaluations from important quarters. The most blatantly racist of them, the poet and critic André Suarès, described jazz and “as orchestra of brutes with non-opposable thumbs” and that jazz music was for “all that carry their soul between the liver and the thigh” (Jackson, “Making Jazz French” 136-137). Others, such as André Maurois and Georges Duhamel linked jazz with the mechanical modern age represented most frighteningly by the US, while another critic wrote that jazz “is the music of . . . the mass-produced men” (Jackson, “Making Jazz French” 121). Opposed to these negative reactions were the very positive ones of leading French composers such as Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, and Darius Milhaud, who wrote pieces inspired by jazz, of the composer and critic Florent Schmitt, who championed jazz in his columns, and of the French public generally, who felt that French musicians were not as good as playing jazz as their African American counterparts, who had this music “in their blood.” Perhaps the most important of French champions of jazz was Hugues Panassié, who established the Hot Club de France, wrote the book Le jazz hot in the 1930s, and smuggled jazz records into France during the years of the World War that followed. (The Quintette du Hot Club de France would count among its members the guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli.) To return to 1918, however, the presence of a large number of Americans in France immediately following the First World War also contributed to the greater demand for African American and white jazz players. The fact that these American musicians did not have to be paid according to French union regulations spelt commercial success for relatively low pay (Jackson, “Making Enemies” 185).
So, what were some of the jazz music that the French heard and emulated in turn in the years immediately following the First World War? Among the most important were James Reese Europe’s celebrated 369th US Infantry Regiment Band, which Europe conducted in France during World War I. Following a very successful tour of England and France, Europe and his band returned to the US in February 1919, and made recordings of some of their most popular items for the French label Pathé in May of the same year. Here is an excerpt from the piece “Memphis Blues” (1912), described by its composer W. C. Handy as a Southern Rag, and performed in this recording by Europe and his 369th US Infantry Regiment Band:
It is interesting to note that, like Ansermet, Europe, too, linked music and race for the purpose of cultural self-assertion. After his return home in February 1919 he stated, “I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negros should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies . . . We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines” (qtd. in Peress 65). Another important group was the New York Syncopated Orchestra, also known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, led by the composer and bandmaster Will Marion Cook, and it was this band which made a deep impression on Ansermet. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any recordings of Cook’s orchestra, either on the internet or on CD.
Another important albeit controversial development taking place at around this time was the development of symphonic jazz, to which important contributions were made by American musicians trained in European traditions, most notably George Gershwin, Ferde Grofe, and William Grant Still, all of whom worked with the famous violinist and conductor Paul Whiteman. As I have noted earlier, there are scholars who regard this genre as not being true jazz at all, since the amount of improvisation is minimal, and the sound of the instruments too close to that of traditional European orchestras. This is a valid piece of criticism; yet, if we think of the historic impact of symphonic jazz, we have to recognize that a number of French composers, and in their wake, German, Russian, and English composers started incorporating jazz elements into their music, in the decade following the completion of the First World War. Such jazz-influenced compositions include Paul Hindemith’s Suite “1922” for piano (1922), Darius Milhaud’s ballet La création du monde (1923), Ernest Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf (1925), Albert Roussel’s Jazz dans la nuit (1928), and Dmitri Shostakovich’s two Jazz Suites for orchestra (1934, 1938); I will speak more about Ravel’s special enthusiasm for jazz a little later. Moreover, even among American jazz musicians, no less than Duke Ellington had high praise for Whiteman. Gershwin, the most well-known among the composers of symphonic jazz, wrote a number of orchestral pieces as commissions from Whiteman. He travelled to France in the early 1920s, hoping to take lessons in music from established composers such as Ravel; instead, the latter ended up emulating aspects of Gershwin’s unique style. To show how similar the imaginations of the two composers could be, hear first an excerpt from the finale of Gershwin’s jazz-influenced Piano Concerto in F (1925):
And now, listen to an excerpt from the close Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31), composed after the completion of Ravel’s American tour, during which he met Gershwin and heard many of his pieces. Note how the section begins with the vigorous yet mechanical hammering out of rhythms in the lower range of the piano, followed by jazzy, syncopated beats, and the gradually increasing prominence given to the trumpet, clarinet, and percussion sections of the orchestra, all expressing an intense joie de vivre. These measures, when matched against Bechet’s performances or Ansermet’s appreciative review of the same, provide a locus classicus of the imaginative appropriation of jazz elements by an European composer:
With the deaths of Ravel and Gershwin died in 1937 the first wave of post-World War I music inspired by jazz came to a close. But what had been set in motion was a larger and longer engagement with jazz in the western world, and the racist objections to the suitability of jazz as a quintessentially American genre were finally laid to rest, as leading European composers presented American audiences with jazz-inspired pieces that they heard during, or in the aftermath of, performances by American jazz musicians from around 1918 onwards. In turn, the cultivation of individual improvisational skills as well of techniques of Western art music by jazz musicians ensured that, by and large, in the latter half of the 20th century, jazz musicians would generally turn out to be more successful than either Western or Indian classical musicians in engaging in cross-cultural collaborations, enabling jazz music to absorb influences from different musical traditions without losing its own distinctiveness, a sign of its unflagging vitality.
Crawford, Richard. “Edward MacDowell: Musical Nationalism and an American Tone Poet.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 49.3 (1996): 528-560.
Jackson, Jeffrey H. “Making Enemies: Jazz in Inter-War Paris.” French Cultural Studies 10 (1999): 179-199.
–. “Making Jazz French: Music and Cosmopolitanism in Interwar Paris.” Diss., U of Rochester, 1999.
Peress, Maurice. Dvořák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores American Music and its African American Roots. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
Tucker, Mark and Travis A. Jackson. “Jazz.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP. Web. 3 May. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/45011>.