The Power of Jazz: Exploring its Impact on American Culture

Jazz is a powerful form of music that has shaped American culture in countless ways. From its influence on social movements to its impact on the music that followed, jazz has had a ripple effect on almost every aspect of life in the United States. Learning more about the importance of jazz can give us an even greater appreciation for the genre. Jazz has always sought a popular audience, but since its inception, it has been music that is often performed by musicians for musicians.

This has made many listeners impatient with it, feeling that if one practically needs a degree in music theory to appreciate it, its practitioners should not expect the untrained or casual audience to be bothered by it. On the other hand, its technical pretensions have made jazz a kind of status music with some audiences. Jazz has to do with race in the United States, not only because African-American musicians were so central to its creation and the African-American public was so important in their creative responses, but because whites played such a dominant role in its dissemination through records and performance venues and their ownership as intellectual and artistic property. Whites also played jazz from their earliest days and always constituted an important part of their audience.

Whites, both in the United States and in Europe, were the main critical performers and writers on jazz as well. Jazz has generated an international and influential lifestyle, an attitude towards life — the hot, the modern and the cool — that is secular, obsessed with youth, obsessed with the marginalized and detached but passionately egocentric. This attitude of cool and modern has influenced literature, including the production of the so-called jazz-novel and jazz-poetry, as well as art, speech, dress and anti-bourgeois habits of indulgence, such as the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana and heroin. Even interracial sex, considered rebellious by some and deviant by others, was associated with the demi-monde of jazz.

Each dimension of jazz described above is the subject of academic and critical study in a variety of fields, including English, history, American studies, musicology, African American studies, Americas studies, and cultural studies. In fact, jazz studies as an interdisciplinary field of research and pedagogy formally exist and have their own magazine, Jazz Perspectives. Regardless of how much jazz has lost today in terms of audience size compared to popular music forms with higher market shares, it has gained in high esteem in business and art as a sophisticated artistic expression (it is often used as background music in business luxury establishments, museums and galleries). It has also been institutionalized as a formal course of study in many colleges and universities.

In fact, if it weren't for colleges, universities, and high school jazz bands — as well as institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center and SF Jazz — it's quite possible that few young people in the United States would be playing or listening to jazz today. Jazz is a type of music in which improvisation is usually an important part. In most jazz performances, musicians play solos they form on the spot — which requires considerable skill — while creating a huge variety in sound. Jazz is very rhythmic; it has a forward drive called swing; it uses folded or blue notes; you can often hear call-and-answer patterns; and you can hear Ella Fitzgerald and Roy Eldridge make calls and answer in Ella's Singing Class.

In jazz you may hear the sounds of freedom because music has been a powerful voice for people who suffer unfair treatment because of skin color or because they lived in a country led by a cruel dictator. One of the greatest contributions of American culture to the world is jazz music; it captures a variety of emotions while embracing diverse European and African influences to create a form of music that is both an art form and an expression of the soul. The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a flourishing of socially engaged artistic expressions in jazz (Breathless by Terence Blanchard), popular music (Beyoncé's Lemonade) and hip hop (To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar) that models itself after the artistic vision of jazz. Jazz musicians like to play their songs in their own different styles so you can listen to a dozen different jazz recordings of the same song but each one will sound different. What's all this about anyway? And why should those who have no interest in jazz worry about all this? As we move towards answering these questions, we can see why — in its many forms — jazz remains important.

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