Copland, the Writer, On Jazz

Aaron Copland was not just a prolific composer, but also wrote extensively about both his own works and his contemporaries. In a preface to a collection of his writing, he’s described as having “epitomized the ideal of the composer-writer” in his career.1 He also wrote about trends and occurrences in music, particularly American music. One example of this is a short essay from 1927 titled “Jazz Structure and Influence.” 

In the essay, Copland aims to contribute to analytical and critical writing about jazz, a field of study which had just begun to emerge. The essay’s general thesis argues that jazz’s main contribution to music as a whole is its rhythmic innovations. He begins by consulting a few different sources for a definition of jazz, including composer Virgil Thomson and music critic Henry O. Osgood’s book, So This Is Jazz. Both of the definitions emphasize rhythm, and the central function of “‘a counterpoint of regular against irregular beats.’”2

Copland continues to build on these assertions by pinpointing a particular type of syncopation that is unique to jazz. He traces the development of this jazz rhythm through spirituals, ragtime, and the foxtrot. He asserts that “Modern jazz began with the fox trot,”3 and identifies a specific rhythmic motif, pictured below. By putting it over four quarter notes, “the play of two independent rhythms…” creates “a molecule of jazz.”4 He clarifies later that polyrhythms themselves were not invented by jazz, but that “the polyrhythms of jazz are different in quality and effect… The peculiar excitement they produce by clashing two definitely and regularly marked rhythms is unprecedented in occidental music.”5

The “molecule of jazz” pictured in Copland’s essay.

Copland then moves into an analysis of the ways in which this identifying aspect of jazz has “achieved a new synthesis in music.”6 This is also where his rhetoric begins to feel problematic for a modern day reader. Copland posits several times that jazz is “so difficult for ordinary ears” that these polyrhythms only appear a few measures at a time in contemporary music, and goes on to credit Gershwin as having written the “most original jazz song yet composed.”7 These statements indirectly communicate a belief that jazz’s rhythmic complexity places it above music “developed among primitive races.”8 Also, he places a white man at the pinnacle of achievement in a genre that he even describes as having Black (specifically African-American) origins. He provides some nuance when he argues that European composers have “exploited it as an exotic novelty.”9 However, his concluding statements describing jazz as “indigenous, music an American has heard as a child,” and encouraging American composers to draw on it as a musical resource, are ignorant of the actual Indigenous music of the Americas, as well as the institutional racism in America that complicates the use of jazz by white composers as inspiration and source material.10

1 Kostelanetz, Richard. “Preface.” In Aaron Copland: A Reader : Selected Writings 1923-1972, by Aaron Copland. New York: Routledge, 2004.

2 Copland, Aaron. “Jazz Structure and Influence.” In Aaron Copland: A Reader : Selected Writings 1923-1972. New York: Routledge, 2004, 83.

3 Ibid, 84.

4 Ibid, 85.

5 Ibid, 87.

6 Ibid, 85.

7 Ibid, 86.

8 Ibid, 86.

9 Ibid, 87.

10 Ibid, 87.

Cultural Exchange between Chávez and Copland

Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez met in New York in 1926, both young and only at the beginning of their long and influential careers.1 They became close friend, and although much of their relationship was long distance, they maintained a strong connection, “mentally and spiritually and musically.”2 The long lasting bond between the composers can be partially attested to their natural fondness for each other and additionally to the similarities between them. 

Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez3

Born a year apart, they both began musical study on piano before pursuing composition and harmony lessons in their teens.4 Additionally, both studied in Europe in the 1920s, where they were exposed to the latest innovations in art music.5 Over the course of their careers, the two seemed to develop a similar approach to modern composition in relationship to national identity. They both found the use of folk music as an effective way to create a distinctive “New World” sound.6 Many of Copland’s most beloved works, such as El Salón México and Short Symphony quote or incorporate the sounds of Mexico that he encountered on his many trips to visit Chávez. Similarly, Chávez’s works were celebrated by Mexican musicians for establishing a modernist, Mexican sound with use of Mexican folk music.7


Copland admired Chávez’s non-European sound and “complete overthrow of nineteenth-century ideals.”9 Similarly, Chávez deemed Copland’s works as, “genuinely American,” and “the music of our time.”10 Their mutual respect for each other helped facilitate a cultural exchange of a new musical sound. Both Copland and Chávez introduced, programmed, and conducted the works of the other in their respective geographical locations.11 The quintessential American sound of the 20th century must be not only attributed to Aaron Copland, but Carlos Chávez and the close relationship between them.


1 POLLACK, HOWARD. “Aaron Copland, Carlos Chávez, and Silvestre Revueltas.” In Carlos Chavez and His World, edited by LEONORA SAAVEDRA, 99–110. Princeton University Press, 2015.

2 Copland, Aaron, Elizabeth B Crist, and Wayne Shirley. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

3 Copland, Aaron. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . [Date of production not identified] Photograph.

4 Parker, Robert L. “Copland and Chávez: Brothers-in-Arms.” American Music 5, no. 4 (1987): 433–44. 

5 Ibid.

6 Murchison, Gayle. “‘Folk’ Music and the Popular Front: El Salón México.” In The American Stravinsky: The Style and Aesthetics of Copland’s New American Music, the Early Works, 1921-1938, 190–207. University of Michigan Press, 2012. 

7 MIRANDA, RICARDO. “‘The Heartbeat of an Intense Life’: Mexican Music and Carlos Chávez’s Orquesta Sinfónica de México, 1928–1948.” In Carlos Chavez and His World, edited by LEONORA SAAVEDRA, 46–61. Princeton University Press, 2015.

8 “El Salón México.” Spotify, January 1, 1960.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

“Painting & Music”: Fine Art in 1830s America

The manager of the Baltimore Museum bought an advertisement in the Baltimore Patriot on November 4th, 1831, to publicize an upcoming event, shedding light on the role of music in antebellum American society. The manager wished to advertise an exhibition that would be occurring at the museum that Saturday night at which Francis Johnson and his military band would be performing, in order that “amatures [sic] and connoisseurs in fine painting” alike would be able to enjoy “the concord of sweet sounds” of the live music.1

This advertisement reveals several details about the role of music, and art in general, in American society in the early nineteenth century. At the time, bands like Johnson’s could not distribute their music by recording. Instead, their profits came from performing live. While many ensembles, especially Johnson’s band, put on their own concerts, this article demonstrates that they also performed at events that were not necessarily dedicated concerts but simply required some musical accompaniment. Music could be combined with the experience of viewing paintings for the greater enjoyment of “amatures and connoisseurs” alike, indicating that while this was a social function, it was more about the sensory experience than about asserting the upper class identity of those who had the luxury to consider themselves “connoisseurs”. This was the same tradition of live performance that minstrel shows and vaudeville would evolve from, and the combination of different forms of entertainment in one event for convenience and accessibility actually resembles these later traditions.2 The manager of the museum describes Johnson and his band as “famous” and “excellent” and advertises that they would “perform many of the most popular and justly celebrated pieces of instrumental music”, which was a feature of much of the American concert music of the early nineteenth century. Bands and even early American orchestras would mix high-brow music with more popular and fashionable music, drawing very diverse crowds as a result.3 However, money was still a factor for the artists, and just as Johnson’s band relied on public support, the success of this museum was “so much indebted to the liberal patronage” of the public.1

By playing popular music at public events like this art exhibition in addition to their own concerts, ensembles like Johnson’s band could draw audiences from a variety of backgrounds, garnering attention for their music as well as for the art displayed at the museum. Their reliance on public support helped both institutions–that of music and that of art museums–to reach a wider audience, ultimately creating more opportunities to engage with art and in turn contributing to more widespread artistic literacy among the American public.


1 “Advertisement.” BALTIMORE PATRIOT & MERCANTILE ADVERTISER. (Baltimore, Maryland) XXXVIII, no. 98, November 4, 1831: [3]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

2 Lewis, Robert M., ed. From Traveling Show to Vaudeville : Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Accessed November 25, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.

3 Locke, Ralph P. “Music Lovers, Patrons, and the ‘Sacralization’ of Culture in America.” 19th-Century Music 17, no. 2 (1993): 149–73.

Record Companies, Racism and You!

In February 1916, the Tuskegee singers were recorded singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in Camden, NJ. The spiritual is part of a rich history of Black musicking in America, a tradition that incorporates African folk, Christian hymnody, and Native American musics, among other influences, and has been made possible by Black resilience, ingenuity, and artistry despite the circumstances they as a people have faced in America. Uplifting this art and its creators was a primary goal of the Harlem Renaissance. Which was just beginning in 1916, when this recording was made.1

The image of an RCA Victor record presented in the catalog entry for the Tuskegee Singers’ 1916 “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” recording.1

The session was organized by Victor Talking-Machine Company (today, RCA), and their role in the musicking process here became quite interesting to me after I found the catalog entry for this recording in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox. The intentions of Black artists in the Harlem Renaissance are clear – they are well documented in writing by the artists themselves – but what about the intentions of recording companies who facilitated recordings such as this one?

According to its Library of Congress catalog record, the recording was part of an educational effort by the record company. The label “educational” was applied to folk music from all over the world, including White musics, so at first glance it doesn’t seem to be an expression of othering. In fact, it may even speak well of the company that they went out of their way to include Black art in educational efforts. However (and this is a big however), the fact that the recording’s official subtitle is “Primitive Negro chant” paints a much more concerning picture of the company’s engagement with and recording of BIPOC art. While “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the Black spiritual tradition may have originated primarily in the fields of forced labor rather than in the concert hall, this recording definitely constitutes art music. It’s a presentation of Black folk material that is much more compliant with Western European musical traditions. Other presentations of such material – think Dvorak – were respected and embraced by white audiences at this time, certainly not called “primitive.” Now, there was definitely othering, fetishizing, and appropriative behavior that underlied those white audiences’ love for art music based in Black traditions. But the fact remains that they loved the material and loved it as art music.

The choice of language is extremely reductive, then, implying that spiritual art-songs are somehow lesser than other art music, and it indicates serious disrespect for Black creativity. Given the positive reception of Black music when it was appropriated and presented by a white composer, one can only conclude that the devaluing of the spiritual tradition evident in the “Swing Low” recording was a direct result of disrespect for the Black composers and performers involved in this performance. Considering the power record companies hold in marketing and branding the recordings they produce, prejudices like this, and subtitles like the one on this work, cannot be ignored. Companies have the power to perpetuate stereotypes and shape societal value systems, and they do it like this, through language that either explicitly or implicitly reduces BIPOC musics to “other.” In musicology and as we consume music in our daily lives, we ought to be cognizant of branding and the hidden power of the people who control recordings. Marketing matters.

1 Tuskegee Singers, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” recorded February 16, 1916, RCA Victor/B-16512, accessed November 10, 2022,