Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide
Oxford University Press, 2011
184 pp., $17.95
Music endears itself to us long before we achieve an understanding of it. When I was enrolled at Wheaton College, where students must uphold a covenant (popularly known as "the pledge") that entails abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and—at that time—dance, I felt the institutional standard for "the responsible use of freedom" was really an impingement on freedom. Escaping the claustrophobic campus, I discovered a freeing atmosphere in downtown Chicago at the Green Mill and Jazz Showcase, amid hoot 'n holler, clanking glassware, and a marine layer of cigarette smoke.
Those nights grooving to jazz are indelibly stamped on my imagination. Bewitched by the democracy of musicians who vocalized their eccentricities through instruments, I bopped my head, thumped my foot, and snapped my fingers. None of the entertainment seemed "immodest, sinfully erotic, or harmfully violent," as the pledge cautions against. But it was—and is—spontaneous, experimental, and daring. Years later I realized why this music appeals to me beyond its pleasurable sounds. "Jazz is freedom," declared the great Duke Ellington. It is an exhalation of the human spirit, like all music, but uniquely textured by the African American cry for freedom: long-suffering, exuberant, and sensuous.
Asking a big question in the title—as Kevin Whitehead does here—primes the reader to expect a big answer. Why Jazz? aims to "tune you in if you're new to the music, or tune up your listening if you've already got the bug." Whitehead, National Public Radio's Fresh Air jazz critic, admirably succeeds in meeting this goal by using a chronologically organized Q&A format. With remarkable precision and polish, he traces the lineaments of each genre, discerns the significance of key figures, explains the anatomy of sound, and sketches the important venues—making this a useful reference for a puzzled or curious audience. I am now equipped with more angles for listening to jazz performances, although the music theory continues to stump me.
While jazz is an indigenous art form that began in New Orleans, the author notes that it evolved "out of music already in the air," marrying the complex rhythms of Africa with the harmony and instrumentation of Europe. From racially integrated bands to compositions of black pride to protests during the civil rights movement, jazz has functioned as a great leveler in our democracy. Harlem Renaissance historian J. A. Rogers observed the multicultural reality and reach of jazz with great penetration in his 1925 essay "Jazz at Home": "Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home. And yet jazz in spite of it all is one part American and three parts American Negro, and was originally the nobody's child of the levee and the city slum."
Jazz, in Whitehead's account, is an unpredictable phenomenon, always shape-shifting like Proteus, absorbing from and contributing to its environment. The story of jazz cannot be told without also touching upon the blues, country, rock and roll, hip-hop, and world music. Whitehead deftly shows how jazz, despite its relatively young history, has dramatically transmogrified its rhythms, melodies, and forms—ever transparent, ever volatile, and, yes, ever fun.
For all of its considerable accomplishments, Why Jazz? does not provide the kind of big answer that this music deserves. It does not explain why I lingered in Chicago's nightclubs as a student. Once again, I turn to Rogers, who intuited the liberating essence of jazz at its sunrise:
The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air. The Negroes who invented it called their songs the "Blues," and they weren't capable of satire or deception. Jazz was their explosive attempt to cast off the blues and be happy, carefree happy, even in the midst of sordidness and sorrow. And that is why it has been such a balm for modern ennui, and has become a safety valve for modern machine-ridden and convention-bound society. It is the revolt of the emotions against repression.
Christopher Benson writes on religion, literature, and culture for The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. He blogs at Bensonian.org.
Copyright © 2011 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.