Is Jazz America’s Classical Music?

brubeck-bernsteinIs jazz, as is often claimed, “America’s classical music?”

The answer, quite simply, is no. American classical music is “America’s classical music.”  

But I hasten to explain myself, lest you think I mean to be disparaging. To say that jazz is not “America’s classical music” does not mean that it is something lesser, only that it is something other. We are making a categorical, and not a qualitative, judgment. And such a judgment is worth making, as this phrase is quite unhelpful and misleading for our understanding of our musical heritage.

An American Voice in a European Tradition

Firstly, this saying overlooks the fact that America has a significant and unique voice within the classical music tradition. [1] While this is most certainly a tradition adopted from her European forebears, America’s composers, from Billings to Beach, Copland to Cage, and MacDowell to Mamlok, have made significant contributions to the classical repertoire, and have given voice to the spirit of the people of this land. Their voice is not the only voice, nor is their perspective on the American spirit the only perspective, but it is a legitimate and an important voice in our cultural heritage, and in Western music generally. [2] By naming jazz “America’s classical music,” we mute this wonderful body of art and its creators.

Additionally, if parenthetically, we would do well to remember that a number of twentieth-century European composers (giants like Stravinsky and Schoenberg among them), wrote some of their most enduring works while living in the U.S., having fled from oppressive regimes in their native countries. Furthermore, American conductors and orchestras were responsible for the commissions and premieres of many works now embraced as well-loved standards, such as Bartók’s seminal Concerto for Orchestra, first brought to life not in Budapest, but in Boston.

An American-Born Artform

The second reason comes from the other direction, which is that it is inaccurate and unhelpful to describe jazz as “classical.” This is not to say that these two musical streams share no common traits; on the contrary there has been, and continues to be, much cross-pollination between them. Stravinsky, Ravel, and Bernstein (to name just a few) as we know them could not have existed without the influence of jazz; and it is difficult to imagine Brubeck without Bartók (though, in fact, his teacher was Milhaud), or to forget the night at Birdland when Charlie Parker weaved strains of Stravinsky’s Firebird into his playing, much to the delight of the Russian composer, who was in attendance. But in spite of their many crossings, these two paths retain their own distinctive voices, their own ways of speaking. And while jazz did not come from nowhere (insofar as nothing created by mankind comes from nowhere), it owes its origins to no single existing tradition, and certainly not to a European classical tradition.

This is reason enough to realize that we cannot declare jazz “America’s classical music.” It does not owe its being to the classical tradition, and there is a great body of American music that does. It would be far less problematic, in my view, to make a simpler, and a bolder, claim: jazz is America’s music.

It is not America’s only music, but jazz is a distinctly American artform in a way that American classical music is not. While there is an identifiable thread of American song now running its course through the classical tradition, it is but one component of that vast musical culture. America’s composers spoke into and through a musical means already available to them from across the Atlantic, though they did so in innovative and vibrant new ways. But Jazz was born here. Not only that, but its impact on the musical world in and beyond the West has been tremendously far-reaching. I stand by my claim that we tend to underestimate the appreciation the rest of the globe holds for our classical music, but I do not think this can be compared to the degree to which the wider world has embraced jazz. Jazz musicians have certainly been informed by classical music, but I doubt this has been the case to the extent that American classical composers of the twentieth century to the present have been inspired, and in many ways shaped, by jazz.

Why Our Words Matter

I do not call attention to these distinctions for the purpose of any contest, nor for mere academic posterity, and I certainly do not wish to be unnecessarily contentious. I make these distinctions because the way we talk about our musical traditions and their relation to our cultural heritage has a real impact on the way students of these traditions think about themselves and about their relation to their culture. I have known the impact of these well-meaning (usually) but misplaced views of American music personally, and now observe it in my students as they wrestle to find their place in the musical landscape.

For a young person pursuing classical composition or performance to hear it implied that their discipline might be culturally irrelevant, or artistically illegitimate (because jazz is America’s classical music), can have a considerable psychological effect. It is difficult enough for students to come to terms with the apparent fact that the broader culture has grown disinterested in classical music, [3] making them worry that perhaps their life’s pursuit is relegated to history or distant nations. And if jazz is America’s classical music, is classical music a second-rate pursuit for an American musician? [4] Is American classical music inherently inferior to that of Europe, as well as to jazz? What of Copland? What of Ives? John Adams? Me?

My concerns extend to students of jazz as well, though I do not claim to know their trials as intimately. I think of myself as a jazz lover, and listen to more jazz than do most of my friends and colleagues in the classical world, but readily acknowledge that I am no expert.

Jazz has been standing on its own two feet just fine for over a century. Why then should anyone feel the need to appropriate the term “classical” in order to describe it? I wonder if the tendency to apply this term to jazz betrays an insecurity in some of its practitioners, a desire to make jazz sound more “legitimate.” But jazz does not need any such help. Jazz is not classical music, and it does not need to be thought of as such in order to be taken seriously or enjoyed. It should be taken seriously and enjoyed because it is great music.

Beyond Category, Beyond Music

And this, after all, is the heart of the matter. Style and genre are well and good, as are our traditions and cultural inheritances (and it is fitting to celebrate them), but ultimately, they are second things. It is all music; all a striving to understand or to express what it is to be human in the condition in which we find ourselves. Every time and place, every artform, every people and indeed every artist is a unique channel for an eternal song. Music itself, then, is a second thing too, for the object of its adoration and of its longing, that to which it points, dwells outside itself. Outside, and above.

We are fortunate to have so rich and various a musical heritage in this country. Our jazz and classical traditions are both worthy of our pride and pleasure, and neither need appeal to the other for justification. They both contain great music, and beauty is bound by no earthly label. We should welcome it in all of its manifestations, knowing that neither uniformity nor diversity are goods in themselves; the glory of our musical diversity is owed to its unity at a deeper level. It all reveals something of the American spirit, from this or that vantage and through this or that tongue, but more importantly, it reveals something of the human spirit. Style and trend, movement and nation, these things shall one day cease to be. That which can unite us, and indeed that in which we were made to be united, is Forever.    

  1. The label “classical music” has fallen out of  favor of late, especially within academic circles, but it is the one I prefer. Classical music, most properly, refers to music of the Classical era, that is, the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, following the Baroque and preceding the Romantic eras. However, it remains the most widely used term for referring to the tradition in its entirety, and is less problematic in my view than the proposed alternatives of “concert music” and “art music.” Plenty of other traditions include concert performances, and much of the music belonging to the classical tradition began its life as music for the church, court, or salon. And the label “art music” implies that the music of other genres is not artistic, which is (to borrow another bit of academic parlance) silly.
  2. The reception of American classical music in the other parts of the world does not seem to justify America’s own insecurity about her music. The music of the twentieth-century American symphonists, for example, is embraced much more readily on the other side of the world than it is here in the U.S., as Samuel Adler has observed here.
  3. This perception stems more from a misguided set of expectations than it does from any truly present reality. Classical music has never been the music of the masses in the way modern popular music is, and it was never meant to be. But, to fully explore this will take another essay.
  4. I remember my own high school jazz band director (who was otherwise a wonderful person, and a tremendous trumpeter) chiding me when I expressed my excitement at the prospect of going to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on an upcoming class trip. “You’re just going to a museum,” was his declaration. Classical music is dead in the ground, he seemed to say, while jazz is alive and well.