JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Popular music is different because – and it really goes back a long, long way[,] as soon as even a slave who knew how to fiddle would be hired to play dance music for white patrons, and of course that's different than playing for their compatriots on a plantation because they could get paid and getting paid is really the big thing. Working in music is something that had been established in this country firmly by the nineteenth century; in the twentieth century it became reestablished in New York thanks to people like James Reese Europe, who managed in some ways to reinstate in people's minds the idea that the best dance music is coming from black people. So a lot of people entered music because of the fact that it was a good profession. I mean in some ways a profession that was better than being a doctor or a lawyer because you could earn more money, frankly.

You know, there are any number of stories of musicians who are coming back to their parents, and their parents, coming from religious families or whatever, thought that playing music for a living seemed to be not the kind of thing they wanted their son or daughter to do; but when they came back with the amount of money that they were able to get for a given weekend they began to say, "Go ahead and play some more." This is becoming a real, you know, it becomes a real middle-class profession by the middle of the twentieth century. And it puts the best jazz musicians clearly within the top one percent or maybe even the top point-one percent of black population of the time. It makes jazz musicians have to pass through all of the stereotyping that exists in popular culture through things like the minstrel show. But fortunately at least musicians in the background don't have to do that. I'm more thinking of people like Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, whose whole shtick had to pass through that kind of filter. But it becomes a basic way that jazz is presented to the public, they see it as a commercial phenomenon and it just thrives in that environment.