Homework Eleven Answers - Student Eleven

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The Jazz Age

Jazz music, which was first adopted into the mainstream in the 1920s, was the first truly American music genre; and its freedom of expression, visceral rhythmic emphases, and unique cultural expressions fundamentally influenced American society during this era.

Musically, Jazz was the product of the heavily rhythmic, expressive music of Africa colliding with the sophistication of European music, which was beginning to experiment with less traditional melodic scales and structures and more impressionistic phrasings. The new music which was flourishing in the epicenters of New Orleans and Harlem was unprecedentedly spontaneous, often extensively improvised by the performers. This was a radical departure from classical music, in which the composer had complete control over musical expression. Frequently, one instrument would perform a solo while the rest of the band would “comp” the beat and basic chords. Call-and-response type structures were also common, harking back to the traditional chants of the plantation slaves. By the 20's, Jazz's driving rhythmic style was referred to as “swing”. This beat allowed the performers to synchronize their playing and develop a sense of organic, egalitarian unity amongst themselves and the audience.

By the 1920’s, Jazz had evolved through the stages of blues and ragtime and was generally characterized by medium-sized bands and a driving, dancible, accessible style. It was in this era that jazz had its greatest impact on society as a cultural force. Although previously Jazz had been associated with primarily black audiences, white Americans began to appreciate the genre, and the 20’s, often referred to as the “Jazz Age” (a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald), saw a surging rise of the popularity of Jazz in the mainstream. Jazz was embraced by an America emerging from the horror of the first world war and interested in good times, and a relaxation of traditional mores and values, which was often associated with the rule-breaking nature of Jazz and stereotypes of Black musicians. Along with the black movement, Jazz became a vehicle for the advancement of numerous other underground or illicit cultural ideals, including alcohol consumption (illegal under prohibition), recreational drug use, youthful rebellion, and women’s liberation. Alongside popular performers like Louis Armstrong, female jazz singers fought for recognition, including Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. For the first time, minority cultures were glamorized by the majority.

The vivid imagery and powerful expressive potential of jazz music inspired many authors during the era, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Van Vechten, and Langston Hughes, an archetypal poet whose work explores the experience of black Americans in urban settings (especially his home town, Harlem), and pioneered jazz poetry, a genre which often discusses Jazz music and incorporates it’s rhythmic meter. This excerpt from his “The Weary Blues” imitates the lazy sway of early Blues music;

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
... I hear a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
... He did a lazy sway …
... He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues

Jazz music was certainly not without its opponents; music critics scathingly opposed it, and it was frequently mocked in newspapers. It was generally seen as threatening the musical traditions and audiences of traditional classical music. Professor Henry Van Dyke of Princeton University remarked, “… It is not music at all. It’s merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion.” Jazz was, in fact, not music in the sense of much classical music; it did not aspire to be art, but was instead a product, like much of today’s pop music, which came with extensive cultural implications. The 30s saw the rise of big-band Dixieland and swing jazz, and throughout the 30s and 40s, Jazz became commercialized as a marketable product with a predominantly white audience. By the fifties, mainstream public attention was shifting to pop music and later rock and roll, and with the development of the improvisational, impressionistic Bebop, jazz became for the first time a critically accepted art form.

Jazz music in the 20s exemplifies a very rare phenomenon; the transformation of a society by music. It was the first genre of music which could be called truly American.

Nathan R

A truly magnificent essay - the finest I've read anywhere on this topic. You should consider publishing it in print also, either in its current form (I corrected a few minor typos) or in an expanded form with references. A+. TERRIFIC WORK!--Andy Schlafly 20:56, 14 May 2011 (EDT)