JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


Can you elaborate on how the clash of European and African cultures resulted in the emergence of a new form of music based on collective improvisation?

Well, the exciting thing about jazz-and this is something that's often become a controversial point-who created jazz? What do we mean when we say that jazz is an African American music? We mean specifically that it comes from African American roots and that's not the same thing as African roots and it's not the same thing as American or Europhile roots. We're talking about a music that could only start in the United States because the slaves that came here from Africa were immediately put into communication with Christian rituals, hymns, Christian kinds of music, Christian or European instruments. And so, blacks invented some of their own instruments like the banjo, various percussion instruments, instruments that they took from Europe.

But they combined those abilities with instruments that they learned to play in marching bands. And so all of these influences, the blues and slave songs-a lot of it starts out as a parody. You know, there's a theory that all of the slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, right before the Civil War, were sort of forced to learn "Silent Night," which became a huge hit in America around that time-that explains why a lot of early jazz has similar harmonic changes to "Silent Night." So all of these mixtures are coming together. You can't ignore by any means the European influence, but the European influence is all over Western civilization. It's only affected in this particular way in the United States. And then the proof of the pudding, the proof of jazz's greatness, is that almost from the moment it establishes itself as an art form in the United States, it takes control of the whole world. It moves everywhere-it goes to the Soviet Union, where it was illegal. It goes to the East; it goes to Japan. It goes all over South America and Europe. Everybody recognizes that this is an important moment in music. Classical figures like Stravinsky and Ravel and Debussy hear ragtime and blues and they take from it and use it, even though they may think of it as a folk music.

The one place where people didn't know what to make of it was the United States, for racial reasons. It was still categorized, for decades, as whorehouse music. It was used in the movies as music to describe losers and lost souls and drugs and all kind of dark parts of humanity, the underbelly of humanity. But the rest of the world didn't see it that way. And there was a moment in the 1930s when we were in the middle of the Depression when suddenly even Hollywood said, you know what, these bands-it's not just about disillusion, it's about optimism and American spirit, and so suddenly in that period in the 1930s you have all these musicals, with guest appearances by Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and they're representing the greatness of the American spirit, the vitality, the optimism, the dance enthusiasm. But right after World War II, jazz in almost every movie in which it appears accompanies junkies, prostitutes, and gangsters.