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America's Music: "Jazz and the American Character"

Sep 26, 2002

Raymond F. Burghardt, Ambassador
As presented before the Hanoi International Women's Club

It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to address your monthly meeting, especially since you've given me an opportunity to address something other than the usual subjects which diplomats speak about such as U.S. policy toward Vietnam. I would like to introduce some fine musicians who have agreed to accompany me in the lecture, "The Red River Band."

Jazz music is a topic especially near to my heart. I've played clarinet in a couple of jazz bands. My love for jazz started when I was a teenager living near New York City. As soon as I was old enough, I began to go to New York jazz clubs to hear jazz greats such as Dave Brubeck and Thelonius Monk. I remember when I was in college at Columbia University, I saw Duke Ellington perform at a church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Today, I will talk about how jazz, as a unique expression of American culture, provides us a window into American culture and values. I recall it was Thelonius Monk who once said, "Jazz and freedom go hand in hand. That explains it. If I do add to it, it gets complicated. That's something for you to think about." Today, I am going to go beyond Mr. Monk's simplicity, and get a bit more complicated; I'm going to add some history, sociology, and American studies to the explanation.

Since my time here is limited, I will provide a simple, brief history of American jazz, touching on what I see as four important themes in jazz music -- and by extension, American society -- these are multiculturalism, improvisation, integration, and globalization.


First, a comment about American multiculturalism. It is well known that America is a land of immigrants, but the real American story is how immigrants from vastly different cultures came together to create a new culture. No where is this creation more manifest than in jazz.

Step back with me for a moment to the southern port city of New Orleans. We must go back to the second half of the nineteenth century -- the 1860s -- when Confederate sailors discharged after the long and brutal American Civil War left their ships and straggled back to their homes all over the south. Among those sailors were members of military bands, eager to sell, trade, or even give away, their trombones, trumpets and other instruments. These instruments eventually found their way to the streets of New Orleans. There, African American street musicians, most of them former slaves, began to incorporate them into their performances. These street musicians had little or no training in Western music; instead they drew on a strong musical culture from black life, including strong blues, folk and gospel traditions. So, by the turn of the twentieth century, when people began paying attention to this music and noting its originality, this new phenomenon had taken root. The tradition of African Americans using European instruments to play music from Africa and the southern U.S. evolved into the complex, varied music that we know today as "jazz."

As jazz grew in popularity, it absorbed influences from the folk and classical traditions of Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Asia and other parts of the world, becoming America's first and foremost multicultural musical form. Today, of course, jazz has gone global, and many of the best jazz composers and performers mix jazz with musical traditions from places as far away as Brazil, France, Sweden and South Africa, to name only a few. In fact, some American jazz critics now consider the jazz scene in Europe more creative and dynamic than in the U.S. In other words, these days, jazz is not only multicultural; it's also multi-national. To illustrate, our band will play one of Mr. Quyen van Minh's compositions, which was inspired by traditional Vietnamese musical themes.


The second of my themes is improvisation. The concept of "improvisation" can mean different things to different people. Webster's Dictionary says the verb "improvise" means "to compose, recite, or sing extemporaneously," or "to fabricate out of what is conveniently at hand." This skill is the distinguishing characteristic of the genuine jazz musician -- making jazz music unique among the musical forms in the world. Improvisation raises the role of the soloist from that of just a performer and reproducer of others' ideas -- to that of a composer as well. It gives jazz a fresh excitement at each performance. Playing jazz music well takes a special ability to think quickly, "on one's feet" -- to improvise in a way that will make an audience take notice. This may sound simple, but it really isn't. An unusual combination of experience, skill and creativity is necessary to improvise well. These are the traits that allowed New Orleans jazz musicians in the early twentieth century to flourish. Louis Armstrong, one of America's most well known and well-loved jazz greats, along with the incomparable King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton (the man who claimed to have "invented" jazz), caught America's ear and extended the jazz sound out side of New Orleans and the South. Prompted by both black and white musicians in other cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and New York who follow suit, the Jazz Age of the 1920s greatly expanded the musical repertoire of America.

So what's the connection between improvisation in jazz music and how Americans see themselves? To put it another way, why do Americans find this aspect of jazz music - improvisation - so appealing? First, because the inventiveness, spontaneity and "thinking on one's feet" which characterized the best of early jazz music were traits much valued in the free-wheeling, democratic, and optimistic society of the so-called "roaring 20s."

Second and perhaps more important, is the fact that supporting this innovation and creativity in jazz is a foundation of well-defined rules. The best jazz musicians today have a strong background in traditional music. They can play Mozart well, following classical form and structure, and at the same time, when they riff on jazz compositions, improvisation creates a new musical space within those rules. The best American jazz musicians performing today, such as Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, are classically trained musicians who have added that element of creativity so loved by Americans. Even back in the 1940's, Benny Goodman was a clarinetist who could perform Mozart and Bartok as well as the music of Jelly Roll Morton. These jazz stars follow rules -- there is still a harmonic and rhythmic base to their improvisation -- but within those rules the individual expresses himself. This, I believe, is what makes jazz a metaphor for the ideal American character: on-the-spot creativity within well-defined rules, which allows the individual to flourish after having mastered the basics.

Now I would like to ask our band to give us an example of how a jazz band makes the performance of a familiar song a creative process through improvisation.


My third theme is racial integration. Everyone is aware of America's troubled history of race relations. Over the few hundred years of our existence as a nation, U.S. society has made various efforts to come to grips with the frictions inherent in the world's first multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy.

It has often been in the less obvious corners of American society - for example in the maturation of the jazz culture -- that racial integration has begun. There are more famous examples of integration -- in sports, for example, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball, or the painful integration of the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s.

But twenty years before those famous events occurred, integration was happening in jazz. White musicians in Chicago began to take notice of the new music coming from New Orleans. They heard it on the radio, on the streets and in the clubs as people migrating north searching for work in the large factories of the North established neighborhoods and influenced urban society. These Chicago musicians combined a higher level of technical expertise with the inventive forms of syncopation and improvisation inherited from the earlier jazz pioneers. They created what came to be known as "Chicago style" jazz. Trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, drummer Gene Krupa, and clarinetists Pee Wee Russell, Mezz Mezzrow and Benny Goodman were among the most influential players of "Chicago style" jazz.

Then "Chicago jazz" moved beyond being a jazz style exclusively played by whites. Perhaps the best known of these musicians, the exceptionally talented Benny Goodman, in the 1930s was at the forefront of the movement to integrate jazz bands traveling throughout the United States. This may sound like minor anecdote today, but during the pre-Civil Rights era of segregation in the southern United States, integrated music was groundbreaking. At the time, mixed-race musical groups were barred by law from performing together in many areas, including throughout the South. Despite this restriction, Benny Goodman and his friends put together a group of the best musicians available -- regardless of race. Goodman brought the talented black pianist Teddy Wilson and the vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton (who passed away earlier this month), into his group, and together they traveled and performed throughout the U.S. Their band was barred from many clubs in the South, but continued on -- well received by audiences -- in northern cities, to create one of the most creative teams in jazz history. Many other multi-racial groups followed. By the early 1960s, before Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement began to have an impact in other arenas of American life, Miles Davis, a black man, and Gil Evans, a white man, were experimenting together with modern jazz, and integration in jazz music was a matter of fact. One of the most famous jazz albums of the modern era, "Sketches of Spain," was the brilliant product of Miles and Evans' collaboration in 1958.


Jazz music was a force for globalization before anyone used the term. As with integration, jazz was well ahead of other aspects of American culture. From its roots as a particularly American music in the early 20th Century, jazz by the end of the Second World War was truly an international form of expression. Musicians and composers from Brazil to Cape Verde, from Japan to France, have all made a powerful mark on jazz music, and have caused it to become truly global. For example, a young American jazz musician these days is just as likely to draw on influences from, say, Cuba, as he is to draw on influences from his American forerunners.

Just to take one example: arranger and trumpeter Chico O'Farrill, who died last year, was a perfect example of the internationalization of jazz music. Born in Havana, Cuba to an Irish father and German mother, he arrived in New York in 1948, where he began to fuse jazz with Afro-Cuban music. He was soon working with jazz greats Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker. Composers such as Chico O'Farrill helped expand jazz music's scope to include all sorts of musical influences. As he put it himself, Chico O'Farrill did not want to play music that merely sounded like "Glenn Miller with maracas, or Benny Goodman with congas." He thus developed a new form of music, which came to be called "Cubop."

Before Mr. O'Farrill arrived on the scene, though -- as early as the 1920s -- jazz music had moved offshore from America and had begun taking new paths, for example in Europe. France has produced some of the world's most famous jazz musicians, including violinist Stephan Grapelli and the groundbreaking guitarist Django Reinhardt, originally a Belgian gypsy. I should also add that during the 1950s, many American jazz musicians found a welcome home in Paris. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon, for example, did some of his best work while living in Paris. Many others before and after him went to Paris to find a tolerant society and appreciative audience. In the early 1990s, an excellent movies called "Round Midnight" described Dexter Gordon's experience in Paris. Today, jazz is finding new popularity throughout the world as part of the "World Music" movement, in which artists in Africa, South America, Asia and elsewhere are combining jazz elements with their indigenous music to create something new.

And now I would ask The Red River Band to play some examples of the jazz I have been talking about. First, an example of traditional Dixieland music of early years of the 20th Century, as it might have been performed then in New Orleans or Chicago.

Next, an example of "swing music," which was popular in the 1930s and 40s.'

Moving along in the history of jazz, an example of the modern bebop of the 1950s created by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as heard in the great song "Night in Tunisia." - 26 September 2002

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