Revolutionary Rumpus: an Introduction to Jazz
Jazz is supposedly the “quintessential” American art form. But what does that mean—about jazz (as a form and artifact), on the one hand, and America, on the other? Rooted in the blues and the ragtime rhythms of Jim Crow-era New Orleans, jazz was born in the synthesis of Black folk music with European classical and even burgeoning American popular musics, creating an entirely new idiom. It flourished and transformed as it traveled north with the Great Migration, taking on myriad new expressions, from the fulsome arrangements of Big Band to the pared-down instrumentation of its later iterations in bebop, cool, free jazz, and other avant-garde forms. Its formal innovations were shaped largely by African-American experience and resistance—what Ralph Ellison called its “revolutionary rumpus”—as well as the structural racism endemic to American life. How can we understand jazz’s formal evolution in relation to the material and cultural history of the United States, from urbanization to Civil Rights to global cultural hegemony? What connects its various strands? How does jazz draw upon the classical and vernacular music that preceded it as well as influence the varieties of pop music that emerged in its wake? And what does jazz composition, performance, and history reveal about the contradictions that continue to shape American life?
This course is a musicological and historical exploration of jazz—from its New Orleans origins, through its massive growth in popularity during the Swing Era, to its modernist and avant-garde turn against commercial and racial appropriation. As we explore jazz’s formal characteristics, we’ll also consider its cultural situation—as, on the one hand, America’s “classical music,” expertly cultivated in conservatories and orchestra halls; and, on the other, a living tradition, perennially experimental and counter-cultural. We will focus on jazz’s stylistic history, listening to great voices and innovators between 1920 and 1970, including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John and Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra. As we listen, we’ll read from essays and excerpts by key interpreters and historians, including Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Greg Tate, Robin Kelley, Brent Edwards, Penny Von Eschen, Ted Gioia, and Alex Cummings; as well as literary evocations of jazz culture by Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, and Frank O’Hara, among others. Throughout, we will seek to evoke, imaginatively and critically, the shifting historical milieus of jazz. How did a segregated, underground musical form come to pervade American culture—indeed, to serve as a symbol of something “essential” about America itself? What are the racial and cultural politics of jazz? And how does it cut against, as well as in some ways fortify, the mythos of imperial America?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 11 — August 01, 2022