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April 1999

Robert G. O’Meally
The Jazz Cadence of American Culture

“Jazz,” writes editor Robert O’Meally in the preface to this hefty anthology of essays, interviews, and reportage, “is a massive, irresistibly influential, politically charged part of our culture.” It represents not only “the definitive sound of America in our time” but a constant in daily life: a “subtle set of threads [that] seems to sparkle within virtually every aspect of modern American living.”

Readers of this magazine may find it easy to say amen, though such preaching may be met with blank looks from viewers of MTV, legions of Garth Brooks fans, and loyal Philharmonic subscribers. Still, whatever you make of O’Meally’s bold claims, they effectively explode the constricting frame usually placed around jazz, its players, and its devotees. Jazz is not merely a style of music, O’Meally asserts, but a force that shapes the way we walk and talk, dance and dress, think and feel. Its rhythms animate our prose and poetry, its sounds inspire our visual artists, its soaring solos resemble our skyscrapers, its rebellious spirit captures the American ethos. These are neither new nor radical ideas. Commentators since the 1920s have drawn parallels between jazz and the American character. Musicians often speak of jazz as freedom of expression and as a metaphor for democracy in action. Those living behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War prized these very qualities in the music.

Yet despite this long history of linking jazz to extra-musical aspects of American society, O’Meally’s volume is the first to focus exclusively on the rich interdisciplinary commentary that jazz has inspired over the decades. It brings together—in what O’Meally terms a “jam-session style mix”—previously published writings by a distinguished group of authors and musicians, among them Stanley Crouch, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Evans, Albert Murray, Hazel V. Carby, Ralph Ellison, Barry Ulanov, Jacqui Malone, Gerald Early, and many more. That the majority of the contributors are African American is an added bonus, drawing attention to the major body of criticism produced by black writers, especially in recent decades. Amiri Baraka’s angry, well-known polemic “Jazz and the White Critic” (1960)—in which he lamented the predominantly white “middle-class,” “middle-brow” jazz critical establishment—is effectively answered here by a powerful polyphonic chorus of African American voices.

One result of the “jam-session” approach is that contributors express themselves in very different ways, some formal and self-consciously academic, others casual and colloquial. O’Meally leavens the texture by sprinkling in interviews with musicians; Benny Golson is predictably sage, Ben Riley reminisces humorously about Monk, and Wynton Marsalis riffs on Ellington: “He’s somebody whose music is like a big hot pot of good gumbo and every spoon that you pick up is gonna have a great proportion to it and it will surprise you pleasantly.”

More musicians speaking out in the volume would have been welcome. Also, the historical coverage could have been strengthened by including more writings from the 1920s and ’30s. But overall this impressive and thoughtfully assembled anthology–like the recent essay collections edited by Krin Gabbard (Jazz Among the Discourses and Representing Jazz, Duke University Press, 1995)–makes a compelling case for viewing jazz as broadly as possible. Both college undergraduates studying the music and long-time aficionados will be stimulated by this hearty literary gumbo. It can’t be consumed at one sitting, but repeated helpings should satisfy anyone hungering for new ways to understand the place of jazz in American culture.

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