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.
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The Best and Truest Story (for Jeremy and Esther)

(Delivered Saturday, September 28, 2013, following the wedding of Jeremy and Esther Carter.)

I’ve given a lot of thought over the past few months to what I ought to say today, and while I’m still not exactly sure what I ought to say, I’ve come up with a few things that I am going to say, so they’ll have to do. I hope that the Lord will use them to bless and encourage you despite the limitations imposed by my mind and tongue.

It has been diffficult for me to write this, in part, because of how honored I feel to be called your friend, and today, your best man. There are a thousand memories I could share, both joyous and somber, that would illustrate why I feel this way, but it will have to suffice for now to say that a man could not ask for a better friend, nor, as I trust Esther will testify today, tomorrow and half a century from now, could a woman ask for a better husband.

God gave man a wonderful gift when when He gave him marriage. After each of the six days of His Creation, God looked upon what He had made and declared that it was good. He took the man He had made to be His image-bearer and put him in the garden, to work it and to gaurd it. Adam set about his first task, the naming of the animals. As he went about his work, he doubtless realized that each of the other animals had a companion of its own kind, but there could be found no helper fit for him. Adam was alone. God looked upon Adam’s state and for the very first time said, “it is not good.” This was the first problem there ever was. So, God put it right. He put Adam into a deep sleep. In fact, smarter men than me will tell you that the Hebrew there suggests not just sleep, but something more like a coma, or an unconcious state very near death. And Adam’s side was opened and out of him God took a rib, and from that rib He fashioned a woman. It is interesting that, so far as we’re told, Eve is the only creature that is made from another creature, and not “brought forth from the earth” like the animals and like Adam himself. God fashioned man out of the dust of the earth, and woman out of man, which, in fact, is what the Hebrew word for woman means, “of man.” This speaks to the greater union of a husband and wife than that between two animals; Adam was truly incomplete before he wed Eve. God brought Adam out of His death-like state, and he awoke to a new creation, a more glorious world. We can imagine his joy as he exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh”. That is what we have gathered at this feast to celebrate with you, and it is indeed worthy of celebration. Though this day seems to have come upon us so quickly, I know that as you look back over your lives thus far, you are both ready to say, “at last, here is a companion fit for me”.

But we must remember the rest of the story. The story of marriage, like all the best stories, including the story of the whole world, has three central characters: a brave knight, a beautiful princess, and a dragon. Only, in the first marriage, the knight wasn’t so brave. He was charged by God to protect the garden, yet in walked the dragon. He stood by while the dragon tricked the princess and led her astray. Now, the woman forsook her honor too of course, believing the dragon rather than the word of God as relayed to her by her husband, taking the forbidden fruit because it looked desirable. But the man’s sin was greater; he failed to take his proper place, first between the garden and the dragon, then between his wife and the dragon, and then ate of the fruit himself when he had been given the command not to by God Himself. The unity of God’s Creation was distrupted. There was enmity between the woman and the dragon, competiotion between the husband and wife, and God’s children fell out of fellowship with their Father. This is the final problem, and as the first problem was put right at the first wedding, so shall the final problem be put right at the final wedding.

Now, Jesus tells us that you two will no longer be married in the Resurrection. From our earthly perspective, this seems like a let-down (or at least like a rotten thing to bring up at a wedding reception). After all, isn’t marriage glorious? Why should this glorious thing be undone in Glory? Marriage is glorious, but like all the glorious things given to us by God on this side of eternity, they are but shadows of those things which are ultimately and forever glorious. This is just what we’re told in the Bible; the union between husband and wife points forward and heavenward to the union between Christ and His bride, the Church, a union that we have in part presently, and will have fully when we dwell with Him in the paradise of His Father’s house. That will be marriage in its truest and most glorious form, and your present marriage is so glorious precisely because it points toward that most glorious marriage.

At the first wedding, we can see the story of all history in miniature, but where the first Adam failed, the second Adam succeeds. Before God made woman for man, or made man himself, or anything at all, He planned to make a bride for His Son. The bride was decieved by the dragon and went astray. The Son, full of love and courage, climbed to the top of a mountain to face the dragon. His side, too, was opened, and out of His wound flowed blood and water, the brideprice for His Church. Just as Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib, so Jesus’ bride was made out of His own body, as we testify when we partake of Him in the blood of communion and are joined to Him in the water of baptism. But unlike the first Adam, the second Adam truly died, and was not merely awoken, but resurrected, crushing the dragon’s skull beneath His heel. Now He prepares the bride for the wedding day, calling her to Himself, washing her clean with blood and water, “that he might sanctify her, having clensed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:26-27)

This feast we are enjoying now anticipates the wedding feast we will enjoy after we awake in the new, glorified world. Your marriage aniticipates the marriage without end. Enjoy it accordingly. Love one another even as Christ loves you. Jeremy, God has called on you to gaurd Esther against the dragon; you must be willing to give yourself up for her even as God’s Son gave Himself up for us. Esther, God has called on you to help Jeremy; you must be willing to submit to him even as the body of Christ submits to its head, which is Christ Himself. Remember that when you fail to love and respect one another, you hate your own flesh, which is the flesh of Christ. Your marriage is to be a bright beacon of Christ’s love in a gloomy world. In all your living, before God, before one another, and before the world, tell the best and truest story there ever was: the story of the valiant and compassionate Knight who came down from His Father’s house to slay the dragon who had taken His true love and bound her in captivity, sacrificing Himself and buying her freedom with his blood, so that he might bring her home with Him to heaven to be his wife, happily and for all eternity.

It is with all my love that I say, May the Lord bless you abundantly, today, tomorrow and forever more.