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

“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.

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