Contradictions in Jazz

Delving into jazz this week, I’ve realized that by own perception of the genre is full of contradictions. I simultaneously have a conception of jazz as a broad, far-reaching category of music and as a very specific sound. I would count myself as a peripheral consumer of jazz; I’ve listened to it intentionally a few times and been exposed to it in a vague sense for my whole life, but I’ve never studied it or fully immersed myself. In this sense, I’m probably fairly representative of the general public in my relationship to jazz; accordingly, I think many of the contradictions I find in my own perception of jazz show up in the way the general public talks about jazz.

Even our use of the word jazz itself reveals this contradiction; we use “jazzy” as an adjective almost constantly. It’s odd, considering that we wouldn’t really call anything “classical-y,” “rock-y,” or “country-y.” Usually, syncopation, a swing, a little dissonance, and some blue notes are what prompt us to label a music as “jazzy.” In this way, we have some very specific sounds that we think constitute jazz. Many early critics of jazz, such as Anne Shaw Faulkner and Frank Damrosch, found that these very characteristics of jazz were what made it “primitive,” “vulgar,” and even “evil.”1 I am more inclined to agree with Langston Hughes and Dave Peyton, who see jazz’s structure, style, and sound as enabling freedom of expression.2 It is this very quality that I suspect allows the span of musics that are considered jazz to be so vasts. This span is excellently illustrated just by the Wikipedia page “List of jazz genres,” which lists fifty-five distinct sub-genres of jazz.

Chico O’Farrill, circa 1950

My reflection on how we conceive of jazz was prompted by one of these sub-genres, Afro-Cuban jazz, which I stumbled upon while searching through The Latin American Experience database.The founder of the Afro-Cuban jazz genre, Chico O’Farrill, was a Cuban-born musician who is now regarded as one of the most influential figures in the forming of Latin jazz. Particularly, O’Farrill’s “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” fuses Afro-Cuban drumming practices, Cuban dance forms, jazz styles, and classical music form.3

Chico O’Farrill’s “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite”

Listening even just to the first track, “Cancion,” we can hear the typical call and response solo style of jazz, the intense rhythmic drumming in Afro-Cuban style, the syncopation and melodic lines of a traditional Cuban “Cancion,” and the dissonant, sharp chords typical of big bang jazz. I think it was precisely the contradictory nature of our conception of jazz that allowed this kind of fusion to be fully embraced as a part of the genre.

1 Robert Walser, Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999), 32-44.

2 Robert Walser, Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999), 55-59.

3 Gail Cueto, “Chico O’farrill”, 2019.

Works Cited:

Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite. Recorded January 18, 2005. Verve Records, 2005, Streaming Audio. 
Cueto, Gail A. “Chico O’farrill.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2019.

Walser, Robert. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.


The Early 20th Century Othering of African-American Music

African-American composers and performers have long been disregarded and ignored in the American music industry. But visibility and exposure are the not the only problems they have faced; even when performances or recordings featured music by African-American composers, for example, they often did so in a way that presented these works as peripheral.

While searching through old articles written in The Manitou Messenger, one particular review of a vocal performance stuck out to me. The article is a review of a Canadian baritone, Cameron McLean, who performed at St. Olaf on December 6, 1923. Apart from several unintentional roasts by the author (“It was pleasing, but not especially brilliant”), one of the opening descriptions of the repertoire caught my eye. The author details the program, saying “His native Scotch songs were features of the program, although he presented several from other sources, Italian, American, Russian and German. One negro spiritual was also included.”

Listing the spiritual song as separate from all of the other pieces featured is just one example of a way music by African-Americans was othered even when it was performed. By all rights, the spiritual should be included in the previously mentioned category of “American music,” but instead, it is viewed as something different that must be mentioned on its own. In addition to this, the actual content of the review specifically calls out the two spiritual-esque songs, “The Gospel Train” and “Goin’ Home” as weaker parts of the performance. It could very well be that the reviewer just thought the McLean did not connect with these pieces as well or that his performance was technically weaker, but I suspect the author had a personal and societally enforced bias against these songs.

Though it came earlier in time, an album of “American Art Songs” found in the music library was less blatant in its othering of African-American spirituals. The album, called “When I Have Sung My Songs,” features twenty art songs by American composers, including three by H. T. Burleigh. While these three are not blatantly treated any differently than the rest of the songs on the record, the cover material does seem to set them apart a bit. There is a large informational timeline entitled “Highlights of German Immigrant Influence in the United States, 1859-1918” that takes up half of the back cover. Digging deeper into the other composers featured in the album, I found that the majority had connections to Germany. From Edward MacDowell, who studied in Germany, to Walter Damrosch, who was born in Germany, it seemed like German-influenced American composers were the theme of the album, with African-American composers such as H. T. Burleigh and J. Rosamond Johson once again conspicuously outsiders.

Clearly, even when African-American composers did begin to gain a little attention and exposure in the American classical music scene, the battle was not won. The early twentieth century may have allowed them to have a corner of the spotlight, but the way they were presented still made it clear that they did not fully belong.

Works Cited:

“Music Review”, The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 13,  Vol. 037, December  11, 1923, page 4., Accessed October 30, 2019.

When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records. 1976, Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

The Complex Contradictions of William Grant Still

One particular quote from Tuesday’s reading by Samuel Floyd grabbed my attention; Floyd reveals that “William Grant Still maintained that his purpose was “to elevate Negro musical idioms to a position of dignity and effectiveness in the field of symphonic and operatic music”.1 The fact that Still seems to imply that the current state of black “musical idioms” was lacking something puzzled me. My impression had been that Still was one of the composers who most explicitly worked toward making black voices and sounds heard. Indeed, Rae Brown says that Still “was consciously writing in the Negro idiom”, and Still himself says works such as “Darker America” are meant to “represent the American Negro.”2, 3 That Still seemed to believe that black music was in need of “elevation” at first seems at odds with these other sentiments.

Digging deeper into Still’s personal correspondences with his long-distance friend and colleague, Irving Schwerke, I found myself engrossed in a web of attitudes and opinions that sometimes seem to build on each other and sometimes contradict one another. In one enclosure to Schwerke, Still analyzes his own “Afro-American Symphony” and seems to build upon his previous implication that black musical idioms were at a lower level than classical music. He says that his symphony “portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions…These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally child-like. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity.”4  Still’s blatant comparison between this “class of American Negroes” and children actually shocked me. How do we make sense of one of the most prominent and accomplished African-American composers of the 20th century seeming to buy into many of the stereotypes of black music that we condemn?

Another of Still’s earlier letters to Schwerke perhaps reveals some of the psychology behind his remarks. A distraught Still writes “It is unfortunate for a man of color who is ambitious to live in America…I have never felt this so keenly as in the past few months. Friends who would lend me a helping hand, who would make it possible for me to make a living for my family, are unable to do anything because of those who are opposed to placing a colored man in any position of prominence.”5 This letter reveals some of the strain under which Still struggled during his career. It also made me think twice about my own criticisms of Still’s words. While we certainly should analyze a composer’s opinions, I think it is also important to not let a composer’s identity alter our expectations for these opinions. Perhaps we should criticize Still’s implication that some black melodies are in need of improvement, but we should also acknowledge that he was a composer struggling to make a living; it is entirely possible he was pressured to either conform to society’s stereotypes of black music or espouse them himself. Furthermore, it is natural for any composer to believe their genre of music is superior. It is a slippery slope to write off Still’s statements as pure pride or societal pressure, but I think it is an equally slippery slope to ignore these factors.

All in all, I have no clear answers or even arguments regarding Still’s words, and that is precisely my point. Like all of the issues we discuss, the opinions and words of a composer such as Still are complex and multi-faceted, and we must always strive to avoid oversimplification.

1 Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 13.

2 Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 75.

3 Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. 243.

4 Ibid., 245.

5 Ibid., 239.


Works Cited:

Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. New Yor,. Greenwood Press, 1990.

Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, Center for Black Music Research, 1992.

Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.

The New World Symphony and Spirituals

As my first search in Sheet Music Consortium, I mindlessly typed in “Dvorak.” Mostly using this search as a test run to see how the database works, I expected to come up with a hundred and one variations on “The New World Symphony.” Instead, what I found was a conglomeration of pieces by Antonin Dvorak himself and American popular songs that were evidently based on these works.

In particular, the fourth result up was a song called “Goin’ Home,” billed as a “Negro Spiritual from the Largo of The New World Symphony.” As it turns out, the largo of the New World Symphony doesn’t really quote any particular spiritual directly, and “Goin’ Home” is not a preexisting spiritual but a song adapted from the Largo and set to words by one of Dvorak’s white students, William Arms Fisher. After reading for class about Dvorak’s assertion that American music should be based upon spirituals, I found it extremely ironic to find that the chain of influence for one of the most well-known “spirituals” connected to Dvorak goes the opposite direction. Rather than finding any authentic spirituals on which Dvorak based his American symphony, I stumbled upon popular songs and “spirituals” that were manufactured from the precise melodies in Dvorak’s work.

“Goin’ Home” is not the only instance of this that I found right away. Another popular song, “In your moonlit bower,” by Jas. H. Harrington, popped up as a song “adapted from Humoresque by A. Dvorak.” While there was no actual sheet music available for the adapted song, the Humoresque is immediately recognizable to most of us by recording. The mere fact that American popular music seemed to conjure up some sense of Americanness by reverse engineering from Dvorak’s work, which may have contained minimal direct American influence in the first place, raises many questions for me.

Is it right to claim that we are placing African-American spirituals at the center of a new American music if the piece that started this new music only vaguely references this music? Is it right to create new music based on a piece which only gives a broad sense of what a white man perceived to be the “spirit” of spirituals? And how can we make sense of the Czech composer’s contributions to creating an American music when his direct exposure to actual American music was severely limited before the composition of “The New World Symphony”. All of these questions and more are issues we must grapple with as we consider the role Dvorak played in creating an “American music.”

Works Cited:

Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7. De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

What Makes Music Black?

What makes music black? Is it the performer? The composer? The performance style? While not many newspaper blurbs or display ads explicitly grapple with these questions, even seemingly innocuous clippings contribute to the conversation.

A display advertisement from a 1973 issue of the Chicago Defender proclaims a “New Black Radio Alternative,” boasting that the station includes “All That Makes Up the Black Musical Experience.”1 This type of bold statement doesn’t tell us what makes music black, but it does validate our curiosity. The ad implies that there is such a thing as a universal “black musical experience” that can be neatly boxed and encapsulated. This very assumption is what prompts us to try to define black music. Many of the scholars we have read in class touch on this idea; for example, both Amiri Baraka and Samuel Floyd might agree that some black essence underlies black music, whatever it may be.2,3

Another short newspaper article in the Chicago Defender from just a few months prior to the radio advertisement espouses a similar belief in the existence of a quintessential “black experience.” In his short article, Earl Calloway discusses the fact that Columbia Records has just begun to record not only jazz, blues, and folk music, but also classical music by black composers. Calloway lauds these composers as having “dipped their pens into the core of the black experience and brought to surface ingenious creative music unlike any that exists today.” 4

There’s a lot to unpack here. At the base level, Calloway reinforces the existence of a universal black experience that is somehow part of what defines “black music.” But he also complicates his portrayal of black music by creating a hierarchy. He implies that classical music by black composers is better than other music, especially the standard “black popular music” that has already been recorded for sixty years. Earlier in the article, he asserts that “many composers have taken ethnic ingredients and transformed their earthy rhythms and simple melodies into the more complex sonata form.”5
This almost implies that classical music by black composers transcends ordinary black music, which Calloway seems to dismiss as “simple” and “earthy.” It is unclear if Calloway would even directly consider music by Joplin, Coleridge-Taylor, or Price to be “black music,” or if he would think of it as white music composed by black artists. Such complications always lead us back to the question: What makes a music black?

We come full circle with another advertisement in a 1970 issue of Village Voice at Bowling Green State University. The ad is for a talk described as “A fine survey of black music in America,” given by Arnold Shaw, the author of a book called The World of Soul.6 This again hearkens back to Samuel Floyd’s argument that black music has some cultural memory, or soulfulness, at its heart.7 So is it this characteristic that defines black music? I don’t think this question, or any other concerned with defining black music, is one that can or should be answered definitively; however, it is certainly fascinating to see that even the most commonplace advertisements and articles contribute to both the asking and answering of these questions.

1 Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, page 19.

2 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

3 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

4 Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, page 10.

5 Ibid.

6 Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, page 6.

7 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, page 10.

Works Cited

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Unpacking the Link Between Nature and African-American Music

Imagine you’re sitting in studio class, getting feedback on your musical performance. Someone describes your performance as “natural-sounding”. We’ve all received notes like this before and wondered: Was that a compliment, or a criticism? Reading through our course materials and seeing a persistent, underlying description of African-American music as “natural-sounding,” I was left asking the same question. The answer, unsurprisingly, is not simple. The common association between naturalness and African-American music is simultaneously demeaning and empowering, and has been both since well before the 20th century.

In Blues People, Amiri Baraka identifies one of the leading criticisms of Blues music as the judgement that it is “raw” or “unrefined”. Baraka traces this back to a fundamental difference between Western and African conceptions of music as “art music” versus “functional music”, which results in “the principle of the beautiful thing as opposed to the natural thing”.1 It is this very principle that has often caused the association of African-American music with a natural sound to be degrading. Blues-players such as Charlie Parker often actually imitate the human voice with their instruments, but in these cases, many critics perceive this type of natural playing as uncultured, hoarse, or raucous.2

James Trotter writes a whole chapter of his 1880 book, Music and Some Highly Musical People, on the music of nature. Though generally venerative of music’s natural origins, Trotter’s content opens the door for exactly the kind of degradations of African-American music that later critics would make of Charlie Parker. Trotter says that it was from nature that “man received his first impressions, and took his first lessons in delightful symphony.”3 While this is a lovely thought, it also places music that emulates nature at the earliest, most primitive point in musical evolution, which opens the door for racist analysis of “natural-sounding” African-American music. Trotter also speaks highly of “the charming music of the birds,” placing birds just below humans in rank.4 Later perversions of this general idea would allow critics to degrade African-American music as more natural-sounding and thus more animalistic, and even savage.

So on the one hand, we have “natural-sounding” African-American music being demeaned as simple, unpolished, and crude. But on the other hand, we have authors like Baraka acknowledging these degradations and reclaiming the natural sound as an intentional and meaningful choice. It came as a surprise to me that this kind of empowerment was present even long before Baraka. A letter to Frederick Douglass published in Douglass’s paper in 1855 compares two recent concerts, one given by white singers, and one by an African-American choir:

In this review we see the typical assessment of the music by the African-American choir as “simple”, but in this case, there is also a positive spin. The music may be simple, but it is also heartfelt. The author of the letter goes on to question his time’s assumptions concerning the value of the kind of “high character” music that the white performers sing5:

Here we finally have an author who identifies a link between African-American music and nature in a positive manner, asserting that the simplicity he perceives in the music actually enhances its beauty and grandeur.6

From both the letter-writer and Amiri Baraka, we learn that the link between nature and African-American music is fraught with complications. Historically, it has been used to degrade and demean, but even back in the 19th century, some authors acknowledged it as a choice and a strength.

1 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Perennial, 28-30.

2 Ibid., 30.

3 James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston Lee and Shepard, 12.

4 Ibid., 13.

5 For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 3.

6 Ibid., 3.


Works Cited:

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

“For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper. (Rochester, New York) VIII, no. 6, January 26, 1855: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston: Boston Lee and Shepard, 1880. Readex: Afro-Americana Imprints.


Country Music Mythologized in Murals

Mismatched faces loom down at passersby in Dothan, Alabama. Some grinning, some straight-faced, sixteen white ovals are superimposed on each other. The mural’s array of country music artists is reminiscent of a bad photoshop job. I will argue that our conception of country music as a genre is just as piecemeal and whitewashed.

Country Music Mural in Dothan, Alabama

Wes Hardin’s 2010 mural presents a myriad of flat, disconnected faces and instruments that are meant to represent country music as a whole. These individual, one-dimensional shapes are imposed on a vaguely southern, pastoral backdrop. This representation of country music is almost exactly what we encounter in written attempts to describe the genre. As Jeffrey Manuel points out, the history of country music is intertwined with a “set of ideals and customs” prescribed to the “plain white folk”.1 These plain white folk themselves are often given a physical description: “Fat or lean, blonde or brunet, the Southern type could be discerned by travelers”.2


Written histories have taken perceived elements of white folk culture, pasted them onto a general image of white folk, oriented the whole scene in a generic Southern landscape, and called it country music. Perhaps the ridiculousness of a mural in Alabama with sixteen heads of varying sizes shows us how this description is a mere caricature of country music.

Mural to Country Music in Bristol, Virginia

Meanwhile, in Bristol, Virginia, a similar sight meets our eyes. Yet another mural depicts symbols of country music painted together onto a brick wall. More white figures holding guitars and banjos dominate the scene, reinforcing the public perception of country music as a genre of the “plain white folk”. This mural, created by Tim and Murphy White, reveals another element of our perception of country music as well. The words at the top claim the town as a “birthplace” of country music, seeming to attribute a whole genre to a few white guys in a southern town. While most people are aware that the genre’s origins aren’t quite so easy to pin down, this mythology of country music as a genre spawned by some white folk in the rural south is still pervasive. The use of white figures and common symbols of country music such as the banjo to represent the genre only perpetuates this view.

Murals such as those in Alabama and Virginia show us an image of country music that is easy to swallow. They depict a genre that can be neatly boxed up and captured by a mythical sense of southern, white culture. But as Jeffrey Manuel points out, no genre of music is ever this easily defined. We need to move past thinking that such basic tropes of southern culture can characterize an entire history and genre of music.

1 Jeffrey T. Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society, 421.

2 Ibid., 422.

3 Ibid., 421.


Works Cited:

Hardin, Wes. Country Music, 2010. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America. Dothan, Alabama. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Jeffrey Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (October 2008): 417-431.

Murphy White and Tim White. Mural to Country Music, 1980-2006. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Bristol, Virginia. Accessed September 23, 2019.

The “Vanishing Indian” Ideology in 19th Century Poetry

Reading the melancholy words of an 1841 poem entitled “The American Indians,” I can practically hear the final F major chord of Edward MacDowell’s “Indian Idyl” fading gently into the background. The two works could easily be based on each other. In her poem, Emeline Smith describes Native Americans as “passing away like a dream,” a sentiment echoed perfectly in the soft closing passage of “Indian Idyl”.1
As Daniel Blim discusses in his paper, MacDowell’s work evokes a wistful nostalgia that reflects a white American vision of a cohesive Native American culture confined to the past. According to Blim, this is just one instance of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, an assertion that is supported by the presence of the exact same sentiments in Smith’s poetry.2

Emeline Smith, writing her poem as an entry in the monthly issue of A Lady’s Companion, is blatant in her perpetuation of the “vanishing Indian” trope. She refers to Native Americans as “doom’d,” “passing away like a dream,” and even “hastening on to decay,” clearly displaying the same attitude we discussed MacDowell as guilty of during class.3 Smith treats Native American life and culture as a relic of the past. What MacDowell does artistically in his New England Idyls, Smith does verbally in her poem. 

Just as the cover art of the collection presents an image of Native Americans that reduces them to a part of the landscape, Smith couples nearly every reference of Native Americans to a description of nature.4 She views Native American existence as merely a fading memory that is now incorporated into the natural landscape of white America.

The cover art of a collection of Edward MacDowell's music.

Lanman, Charles. “Farmyard.” 1838. Naxos of America.

Furthermore, the title of Smith’s poem, “The American Indians,” implies that the subject will have something to do with Native American life or culture. What follows the title, however, contains little more Native American identity than superficial references to “chieftains,” “warriors,” and “relics”. Even in her remembrance of Native Americans, the only details Smith describes are a warrior’s shout and the “low music” of an echo of Native American life that lingers in the hills.5 These two auditory remnants simultaneously represent a distant memory of a powerful culture and a dwindling present existence – exactly what we hear in MacDowell’s music as well. The lively opening passage (a “warrior’s shout”) reflects a dramatized view of Native American life, while the way each phrase subsides into nothingness (“low music”) marks this life as something of the past.6

What struck me most about Smith’s poem was how evident the “vanishing Indian” perspective was in a seemingly ordinary piece of poetry. If it took me only a few searches and clicks to stumble upon such a blatant example of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, then surely this is some indication of how pervasive the concept is. From music to poetry, representations of Native Americans as a vanishing race are ubiquitous.

1 Emeline Smith, The American Indians, (New York, The Ladies’ Companion, 1841), 220.

2 Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, (Vancouver, 2016), 3.

3 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

4 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 10.

5 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

6 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 9.

Works Cited

Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

Smith, Emeline S. 1841. The American Indians. The Ladies’ Companion, a Monthly Magazine; Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts (1834-1843). 02, (accessed September 15, 2019).