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Race, Music, and National Identity: Images of Jazz in American Fiction 1920-1960 by Paul McCann

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Paul McCann is a scholar, and a Literature scholar at that who does not necessarily come to music naturally in his work. But McCann knows literature and American culture, and he attempts very well to bring jazz and fiction together in Race, Music, and National Identity. The book is a simple task for McCann; he describes this publication as being “concerned with exploring the connections between jazz and narrative fiction in the United States.” The time period is 1920-1960; thus, the jazz imagery examined by McCann is broad, jazz, in other words, in its infancy and mature, when America was offended by it, or as McCann writes its “increasing popularity…reflected a wider decay” to the public but also when acceptance of it as American had arrived.

The early fiction where jazz images and ideas appeared reflected the initial negativity according to McCann, which says much about the country overall and the attitude in power at the time. The writers produced fiction that succumbed to the obvious.

Later, McCann’s discusses The Great Gatsby by F. Scott’s Fitzgerald and it is impressive discourse. McCann even traces Fitzgerald’s use of the term, “Jazz Age,” prior to this discussion but then goes on to identify how “The Great Gatsby” is indicative of the attitude of many (black writers especially) at the time: to reveal the “shortcomings of the dominant culture” in America. The writing is detailed, and exacting in its ability to trace literary trends long since forgotten but nevertheless part of the cultural history of America.

A true cultural and literary examination of 20th century American culture, Race, Music, and National Identity contains many of the dominant points of disagreement in jazz and asks the right questions: how African-American is jazz? How much did the white jazz musicians really influence the music? What role did racism play in the development and/or underdevelopment of jazz? What is jazz anyhow?

McCann aptly names it “Music of Contradictions” in one chapter and resists definitive definitions. It is here as well that McCann firmly links jazz to an American “national identity” and also where jazz became even more of an inspiration to writers just as the larger public was turning its attention to rock and roll.

Originally Published