The control and co-option of jazz music in America


Picture this: You just saw a photo of the most mouth-watering fettuccine pasta, slathered in Alfredo sauce, on someone’s Instagram story. You don’t know the person well, but the food looks delicious; you need to know where they got it from. You reply to the message by asking for the name of the restaurant that prepared this appetizing meal.

“This place is kind of a personal thing for me,” comes the response. “What’s really crazy is…you wouldn’t even have wanted this if you hadn’t seen me post it.”

This exchange probably seems unrealistic. It’s actually a joke – a quote from a video that recently circulated on the internet that pokes fun at people who go to great lengths to prevent others from accessing the things they treasure. Most people call this access control.

I laughed, but then again, maybe sometimes the mental trick is just natural. We protect the things that are valuable to us. Perhaps the extent to which we care to protect these personal discoveries is a measure of their value to us. Secretly, you hate that the two Diag trees you still use for your hammock have been occupied by someone else. Or maybe you don’t want to see anyone you know at the quaint little cafe you discovered last week, because it ceases to be special when someone else finds out about it.

In our heads, we watch all the restaurants, study places and cafes we love, but no one is more vocal with their control than music fans.

Unfortunately, I’m a music fan. I’m also the first to admit that it’s both comical and absurd when a music fan tells you about a band you’ve “probably never heard of before”. Nevertheless, I get quite excited by a complex chord progression or a punchy bass line. If I find a niche song that I’ve never heard, I feel like I now own something special. Maybe I have a subconscious fear that the song that is now special to me might lose its value if it fell into the hands of my friends.

But where does this attachment come from? It’s not my song, and yet I buy the illusion that since I “discovered” it, I have a certain claim to originality.

We want things others have, but it also feels good when others want something we have. So for music fans, access control may be a natural human tendency. This raises the question: who are the true owners of artistic expression? Is it the creator, the person who produces an original creation and makes something out of nothing? Or is it the consumer who inhabits it, identifies with it and affirms his invention?

And more importantly, when we think of musical genres rooted in the voices and endeavors of people of color, what does it mean when that art is co-opted or appropriated by a hegemonic group, namely white people?

At first, the notion of a music listener thinking they own someone else’s creation seems delusional. However, whole genres of music – indie, house music and underground hip hop come to mind – appeal to listeners because they haven’t crossed over to the mainstream. An artist’s success is directly tied to their cult audience when listeners are essential to what makes music valuable: its niche status. The paradox is that when a band’s unpopularity is what makes it cool, people are naturally drawn to that coolness and cause the band to inadvertently gain popularity.

And while we don’t tend to think of artists as gatekeepers themselves, in a column for Medium, Hal H. Harris reminds us that jazz music first acquired character through key gatekeepers.

“Jazz was such a rebellious music. In its genesis, it was unmistakably black,” Harris asserts. “Although you had artists like Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman making the bank, they were still subject to the influence – and needed the cosign – of black gatekeepers like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others. .”

Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, perhaps America’s most famous jazz composer, set the bar for other creators of jazz standards. His composition “Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro” in America debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and asserted that the lived experience and cultural expression of black Americans deserved equal recognition. than that of their white counterparts.

However, the rise of the recording industry ultimately determined that the commercial success of jazz depended on its liking to a wider audience and its acceptance by white Americans rather than the innovation and creativity of black musicians. . As Harris puts it, “jazz became colonized, and the way we treated its characters became distorted as well.”

In an article for New Music USA, Eugene Holly Jr. recalls that “Duke Ellington knocked on the door of Dave Brubeck’s hotel, to show the white pianist who had been on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before (Ellington )”. Holly explains, “Throughout my life, I was taught that jazz was created by black people and was the pinnacle of African-American musical civilization. So how did a white jazz pianist end up on the cover of Time magazine ahead of one of the genre’s most influential and pioneering composers?

Access control can do little to preserve the original character of a Music Style. This could not prevent jazz from being co-opted by white musicians and adopted to suit the general public, which above all reveals the intrinsic racism of our society that artists like Duke Ellington had tried to subvert with their musical expression. in the first place.

Perhaps as music becomes more and more accessible, the ideas of ownership and access control will become less and less concrete. We can stream music wherever we go using our mobile devices. In fact, anyone can create a professional-looking, perhaps a bit rudimentary, song on their iPhone themselves. The use of “sampling” in modern music production has already tested our ideas about intellectual property. And because of all that, the jazz genre suffered.

According to Nielsen’s 2014 year-end report, jazz is gradually losing favor with American listeners. In 2014, it tied with classical music as the least consumed music in the United States. Francis Davis, writing for NPR Music, notes that “For decades jokers have thought jazz is dead. But what is actually falling prey to the changing times is the whole recording industry. Jazz is just collateral damage.

I did say that when artists create, they make “something out of nothing”, but that’s not quite true. Jazz drew on a variety of different techniques, instruments and sounds to give people something they had never heard before. We may try to protect the music we love, but originality comes from wanting it to change and blend into the hands of others.

Likewise, the next time someone asks me where I got the delicious fettuccine pasta I’m eating, I’ll ask them if they want to come with me the next time I go. The more I try to keep this Alfredo sauce to myself, the less I appreciate what makes it special in the moment.

Like the improvisation of a jazz solo, it’s the little flavor quirks that make the dish unique that should be celebrated and given due recognition.

Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at

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Henry R. Wright