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Of Mutts & Melting Pots

President Kennedy coined the phrase “a nation of immigrants” in tribute to the various diasporas that came here voluntarily or in chains. But President-elect Obama was simply going for a joke when, in discussing his family’s search for a dog, he referred to “mutts like me.” Maybe he was onto something, though: a nation of mutts. (He was, of course, using the vernacular and not the literal meaning, as derived from “muttonhead”-a distinction that needs to be spelled out for some in the right-wing blogosphere.) If the melting pot, characterized by a rabbi in 1906, never came to a boil, the mongrel culture that brimmed over the sides has been this country’s pride, joy and most effective ambas-sador for the better part of a century. Indeed, we helped mongrelize the world, as foretold by Duke Ellington in his posthumously released The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: “It’s most improbable,” he noted, “that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom.”

Purity, like virginity, is greatly overrated except when refining olive oil. The more we study jazz in the context of its times, the more we are obliged to recognize that jazz is almost always locked in a willing embrace with other musical cultures, above and below, behind and ahead, or straggling alongside. Jazz gives mongrelism its good name, taking what it will from where it will. Consequently, the definition of jazz-or rather, the scope of its extended family-is constantly expanding.

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