What is Jazz Studies?

Jazz is often called America's only original art form, its classical music, the twentieth century music par excellence. Now, near the end of its first hundred years, jazz has splintered into many things for many people, an avant-garde or alternative music for some, a traditional music for others, its audience deepened if not widened. Because of the global reach and dazzling variety of jazz, a serious study of the subject requires access to an enormous body of materials - historical, anthropological, musical, discographical, filmic, and bibliographical - spanning over a hundred years.

Jazz has been represented in a striking number of ways and by a variety of means. It has outgrown its original means, moving beyond the music to become what some would call a discourse, a point at which a number of ideas and texts converge. Jazz has a history of interaction with other art forms, its influence reaching far beyond the music through a variety of representations - on recordings, on film, in art, photography, literature, advertising, clothing, speech, food and drink, even in other musics. In short, the talk jazz generates is far greater than the music's audience, and now has a life of its own largely independent of the music.

Jazz was perhaps the first art to challenge the definition of high European culture as the culture, the first to challenge the cultural canon, the idea of the classics as "time-honored" and "serious." This challenge did not pass unnoticed. As early as 1917, the year The Original Dixieland Jazz Band of New Orleans made the first jazz recording, an article in the New Orleans Picayune disavowed the music, asserting that any music strong in rhythm and weak in harmonic and melodic content could only appeal to lower sensibilities. Eleven years later the New York Times, in assessing the state of American civilization, would list the "jazz mode of thought and action" along with lawlessness, boasting, intolerance, and jealousy on the deficit side of a literal ledger. Even jazz's defenders among the high arts could fin

But since then, the hybrid, creole, synthesizing, and combinatory nature of jazz has become an appealing model for modern culture, and shows no sign of fading as a paradigm for the century ahead. Jazz was postmodern before we knew what that was, shamelessly borrowing anything not fastened down, ignoring origins and cultural status, mocking hierarchies and pomposity, relishing contradiction and absurdity. High art was casually examined and remodeled by jazz musicians from the very beginnings. Jazz has, at one time or the other, claimed all of the world's music as source material for its own, and now the world has come to claim jazz as its own. Music with ties to jazz is now played by musicians of great accomplishment in places like Sicily, Archangelsk, South Africa, India, Japan, Nigeria, the Faroe Islands, Jamaica, Cuba, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Lapland. . . all with local inflections, but still recognizably part of the family.

The influence of jazz on the arts of the 20th century - film and video, radio, painting, sculpture, theater, and dance - has been varied and profound. Film directors have long spoken of the model that jazz provided for montage, cutting, citation and quotation, and movement within the frame. Modern art is indebted to jazz techniques such as polyrhythm, collage, and the physicality and improvisation of action painting and surrealism. Choreographers speak of the jazz influence on body attitude, movement, and rhythm. Classical and experimental music have shown the mark of jazz for the last 100 years. Historians and theorists of aesthetics now recognize that jazz has raised basic questions about the roles of musical literacy and composition, the nature and scope of improvisation, and many other issues that have surfaced with art of the modern era. Jazz may not have been the only art that originated in America, but it was the source of some of the most intense and productive artistic discussion and evolution over the last century.

Because jazz's sources lie in some of America's most important historical moments (the slave trade and institutionalized segregation, the annexation of Louisiana and Puerto Rico, the northern migration of labor, the urbanization of the country), its legacy uniquely reflects the politics and history of the United States. But jazz was also disseminated internationally during several wars, and was reinforced and transformed through fusion with parallel musical forms from the Caribbean and Latin America, so that its scope is also pan-American and international. Jazz has also become a worldwide emblem of freedom, and has been part of numerous critical, social and political movements: it was part of the soundtrack of the US civil rights struggle, a central weapon of the Cold War, and a symbol of resistance in places as varied as Occupied France, Communist Czechoslovakia, apartheid South Africa, and elsewhere in the world.