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March 11, 2002

African American musicians reflect on 'What Is This Thing Called Jazz?'

By Ann M. Gibb

Duke Ellington rejected it, Charles Mingus was ambivalent about it, and Wynton Marsalis is okay with it. For many African American musicians the word "jazz" is a double-edged term, sometimes representing black accomplishment and virtuosity; sometimes a symbol of segregation and creative limitations.

Eric Porter is the author of What Is This Thing Called Jazz?
It's a dichotomy that extends from the word to the music. Jazz has been seen as a way to showcase contributions of African Americans to American society, to highlight black history and affirm black culture. But for some African American musicians, the music called jazz is a reminder of an oppressive and racist society and restrictions on their artistic visions.

"Now, jazz is celebrated as America's classical music," said Eric Porter, an assistant professor of American studies at UCSC and author of What Is This Thing Called Jazz?(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). "But in the past, it had a second-class status."

Porter covers the transformations, debates, and achievements of the African American jazz community across the last century. Analyzing the writings and commentaries of African American jazz musicians, he looks at the public face of a critical dialogue within the African American jazz community, and documents the intersections of music, American society, and African American intellectual history. The overlapping issues of
Louis Armstrong swings with his band, circa 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Collection.
race, economics, politics, and gender reverberate across decades of jazz history.

"It was surprising to find how much consistency there was over time in the core issues and themes," said Porter. "While the conversations changed in significant ways over the course of jazz history, depending on the position of music in the culture and society, it's interesting to see how many of the same issues had been addressed from different perspectives and at different times."

One common point of contention has been the ways the discriminatory economic structure of the music industry has plagued African American musicians for much of the 20th century. "Jazz has, in important ways, marked the position of African American musicians as laborers in the music industry," said Porter.

Especially in the first half of the last century, it was not uncommon for African Americans trained in classical music to take jobs as jazz musicians when racial discrimination prevented them from obtaining positions in symphony orchestras. Porter documents the work of percussionist Max Roach, singer Abbey Lincoln, and other activist artists who, according to Porter's research, "accelerated a long-standing critique of economic inequalities in the music industry."

Female vocalists such as Lincoln are notable exceptions in the largely male-influenced history of jazz. Although women "have generally been the most popular and respected jazz singers," said Porter, "the community of jazz instrumentalists has largely been dominated by men, which in turn, has helped create a sense that jazz is a field of masculine accomplishment." African American men dominated the development of the black jazz community, and the language and concepts of jazz, just as men dominated in the other arts, the workforce in general, and most aspects of American society.

As Eric Porter's book makes clear, there's no simple answer to the question "What is this thing called jazz?" But paying attention to the ideas of African American musicians working in jazz, Porter argued, can "provide a means for rethinking jazz history. Musicians' ideas can add another chapter to the story of African American intellectual life."

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