Jazz music has been called “America’s classical music,” and “the uniquely American art form.” Fittingly, the story of jazz is a uniquely American story. Essentially, jazz captures the American spirit, a spirit of “individuality, freedom of expression, human interaction, [and] beauty.” Jazz began in the early 20th century, in and around New Orleans, and is deeply rooted in the African-American experience. Early jazz musicians combined European musical traditions with ragtime, blues, and marching band into their new musical style that of jazz. As many African American moved north they brought jazz with them to places like Chicago and New York.
Jazz contributed to the greater equity and freedom of African Americans and women. During the 1920s, the Jazz Age, jazz music allowed women tremendous amounts of freedom. Jazz music served as an outlet for rebellion against tradition and rigid societal rules that controlled society. Jazz gave African Americans and women jobs in the music industry that had never previously been available. Jazz also influenced other industries of the 1920s, providing yet more job opportunities to minorities; these included the advertising, cosmetic, and clothing industries. It is jazz’s places as a liberating music that is perhaps most profound.
During the Cold War era, those behind the Iron Current suffered from a rigidity of control that attempted to eliminate freedom of expression, individuality, and beauty. However, starting around 1955, there was at least one respite from this crushing society. A program broadcast throughout the Eastern bloc by Voice of America, hosted by Willis Conover. His one hour jazz program introduced many in the Soviet bloc to jazz music and, thereby, to America and to greater freedom. In its heyday it is estimated that Music, USA reached an audience of up to 30 million people. “Jazz,” said Conover, “tells more about America than any American can realize. It bespeaks vitality, strength, social mobility; it’s a free music with its own discipline, but not an imposed, inhibiting discipline.” The role of Conover’s jazz program in the downfall of communism has been largely ignored. However, the cultural impact he had is unquestionable. For example, the poet Joseph Brodsky, in reflection of his Soviet childhood, wrote: “the richest-in-the-world bass baritone of Willis Conover, something began to happen, I remember, even to our walk: the joints of highly inhibited Russian frames harkened to ‘swing.’” This is the power of jazz, a power of freedom.
To quote Jazz saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen: “Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.” The history and the spirit of jazz are in some ways the history and spirit of the United States. From African-American and women’s liberation to the liberation of people’s souls under communism, jazz has always been music about freedom, love, and beauty. Perhaps, now in such troubled times, jazz can remind us about freedom, individuality, community, and beauty.
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