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An essay studying the origin and development of the Jazz State of Mind by Kenneth Moore

"The music of my race is something that is going to live, something which posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of music of the ballroom.” (Duke Ellington)



Asked if there’s a point where Jazz is too intellectual for the culture or the ritual, writer and music critic, Albert Murray, answered in part by explaining that Jazz is on the most ephemeral level of appreciation. He explained further that the average person only thinks of music on the level of what's popular at the moment.

Murray’s right. As a form of pop entertainment, Jazz music is meant to satisfy our momentary desires and the so-called need to pass time in a pleasurable manner. As entertainment, Jazz must always be cool enough to lay in the cut of life; in the background like wallpaper. But it's important to remember that time is the master, not the servant of our desires and so-called needs.  

Jazz is, like all music, controlled by time. Music is, therefore, like time, capable of moving. Even the Jazzy sounds we cultivate in the field of entertainment and commerce must move.  When these Jazzy sounds rise, the root also rises. The Jazz roots moves to that  point of concern; the point where where our emotions stir the intellect and the fundamental culture and ritual of the music comes, mysteriously, to mind.

The restless spirit, the essence of the culture and the ritual, takes over and moves the mind back and forth in time. A shadow is cast over the American Dream because the unresolved  matter of slavery's reign in "the land of the free" is still alive. The matter comes to light through the music demanding that the descendants of both the enslaved and those who enslaved them face the truth of the matter. An inexplicable nightmare is at the heart of the American Dream and Jazz, when it rises above the field of entertainment, can bring it to mind.  

Time is the restless spirit and everything including music is subject to it. Indeed, there's no point where music is too intellectual for its particular culture or the ritual. “So, let’s not confuse what the real problem is," Murray said. "It depends on how seriously you take it.” 



Distinguished pianist and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor called Jazz “America’s classical music.” However, used in conjunction with Jazz, the term “classical music,” usually ensures that lively and sometimes nasty debate because the term "classical music" has mainly been reserved for a European musical tradition that canonizes the exact execution of the compositions of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven and other European musicians.

Why debate? Is it necessary for the music of Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and others to be called "classical music" for it to be canonized?  Isn't it just a matter of finding and using appropriate terminology? Why can't an American musical tradition and a European musical tradition art form be separate but equal?


The 1960's work of Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and a number of other Jazz artists did expand the parameters of their music with respect to form, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture. He said, “They broke down traditional techniques and incorporated previously unheard scales, harmonic progressions, and compositional structures. They also brought improvisation to new levels of intensity and complexity, taking greater liberties with respect to the duration, content, and structure of solos, and delving into an unprecedented amount of group improvisation.”

The term avant-garde, a term that means “advance guard,” is used by some people use as a label for the strain of Jazz music described above. They think of Avant-garde Jazz as music that’s ahead of its time. One source describes Avant-garde Jazz as a style of music that departs from traditional harmony, but retains a predetermined structure over which improvisation may take place. Avant-garde Jazz is sometimes described also as a branch of art music because, like a similar variety of innovative visual art, it too requires significant work for full appreciation.  

Jazz as an Avant-garde or as art music, by definition, use “advanced structural and theoretical considerations” and must be considered to be very close cousins of the European classical music tradition. According to one source, “most western art music has been written down using the standard forms of music notation that evolved in Europe beginning prior to the Renaissance period and reaching its maturity in the Romantic period. The identity of a ‘work’ or ‘piece’ of art music is usually defined by the notated version, rather than a particular performance of it (as for example with classical music).”

Experimental music is one or two steps beyond Avant-garde Jazz and art music. It is sometimes described as “genre blind” music, music that blindfolds Jazz and takes it to the boundaries of music and up to a precipice, an unacceptable musical extreme that includes computer-controlled music.





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