After reading yet another article recently on the "glory years of jazz" and the usual lamentation on the demise of this art form, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone ever worried about the demise of European classical music. So much is made of what jazz is or isn't and how terrible it is that straight-ahead jazz is no longer at the helm of the jazz vanguard, when to me, the real discussion should center on why America cannot accept classical jazz as its only contribution to the classical music genre.
I grew up in a house where jazz was king. I heard the music from the time I was a little girl until I moved away from home to go to college. I had an uncle, and have a brother and a sister, all of who were/are jazz performers. I am a devotee of the music and support it to the best of my ability in the cultural center I manage. So I feel qualified to present what I'm calling an informed opinion about this on-going debate. Jazz in America, has never been elevated to the status of European classical music despite its acceptance by Europeans as such. As is true in so many other instances of Black life, when the measure of worthiness is based on acceptance by others, the true value of the contributions of that life is never fully appreciated by its originators. Jazz is played by all kinds of people who bring all kinds of interpretation to the music. But like, European classical music, it has its classical form from which all other offshoots are derived. When we talk about traditional, straight-ahead jazz, we should actually be calling it classical jazz.
Every civilization has its classical period in the arts and America didn't begin to develop hers until the late 19th, early 20th century when artists in all disciplines finally began to reference America rather than Europe for inspiration and aesthetic development. So in the scheme of world culture, the American arts are infants but no less influential than the arts of classical Europe. You just need to travel the world and see the impact jazz has on world music to know that our major contribution to that world, besides popular music, is jazz. The respect the music receives throughout the world is the reason so many American jazz musicians spend their careers abroad. If the same respect were afforded the music in its birthplace, perhaps we wouldn't need to reminisce about the "good ole days of jazz" because that music would be included in the music curricula of all American music education programs alongside that of Europe.
So much of this debate centers on the importance of particular jazz composers like Coltrane, Miles or Monk and their innovations and how we don't see their genius replicated today. Well that is why they are geniuses! I don't hear anyone complaining about how we don't see any Mozarts or Beethovens anymore as if this kind of prodigy comes around with any frequency. Its that double standard at play; when it's jazz we're talking about, we refuse to place the music in the same arena as European classical music, worthy of the same level of scholarship. It is precisely because jazz is relegated to a lesser status that we constantly engage in the kinds of squabbles contemporary jazz musicians do about what is or is not legitimate jazz expression. Is Ornette Coleman's music any less significant than Duke Ellington's simply because it strays from the classical format? Is freestyle jazz less worthy for the same reason? None of this would even be debatable if jazz were afforded its proper place in the music arena. The fact that American children never even hear the name John Coltrane or Thelonius Monk in the course of their music education unless they take a Jazz studies course underscores my point. The sad reality is that like everything else related to the Black Experience in America, jazz is a constant reminder of the second class citizenship held by African Americans. No matter how esteemed the music is outside our country, it still remains a stepchild at home, despite the efforts of many to change that position. This debate is more about this dichotomy than anything else. I only hope I live to see the day when jazz will become a staple in the musical diet of all Americans.