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William Edgar

Jazz in Midlife Crisis

Spearheaded by Billy Taylor, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and many others, jazz—mainstream, historic jazz—is enjoying a comeback. America's original art form is 100 years old and was in danger of fading until some of its natural heirs began to revive it. To do that they needed to know: What is the authentic music, what are its roots, where is the true line? (Renewals in rock 'n' roll are often similarly produced by going back to the roots and following the right line.) So jazz is very much alive, but it did experience a serious midlife crisis.

Jazz was born from the marriage between West African and European music. The courtship took place in North America during slavery. The meeting places were peculiar: Calvinist churches, funeral marches, and plantation dances. Strongly affected by the Great Awakenings, African Americans were never far from the message of deliverance in Christ, especially in their musical expression. The deep sorrow and the deep hope of the gospel permeated their music.

Yet, despite the encounters that begot jazz, the wall of separation between the two communities, black and white, was high. As a result, the sources for jazz and for Western music were substantially different. African Americans drew from the workplace (the blues, judgment songs), and especially the separated churches (shouts, spirituals, and gospel). Although they often had to play in tough sections of town, in the honky-tonks and barrel houses, it was more a question of economic survival than deliberate choice. By contrast, the highbrow music of whites was nurtured in concert halls, living rooms, and universities and was evaluated by critical reviews in the white press.

To be sure, in the early decades of the twentieth century, whites were well aware of jazz. Some loved it. They came in great numbers to places like the fashionable Cotton Club to hear the vibrant sounds of Duke Ellington. Hugues Panassié, the French aficionado, greeted le jazz hot of Louis Armstrong ...

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