All about Django Reinhardt

Liberating modernism, degenerate art, or subversive re-education? - The impact of jazz on European culture
© Berndt Ostendorf., Amerika Institut, Munich


The introduction of jazz to Europe occurred in two waves after the First and Second World Wars. Both times the mood was divided between profound hostility and intense appreciation. The excessiveness of the reaction had to do with the shock of the new that set the tradition-bound establishment against innovators, upper against lower classes, parents against children and students against teachers. Jazz served to radicalise the feeling of a crisis of modernization at this millennial threshold; for of all American cultural imports jazz represented a musical language markedly different from the well-tempered European grammar. And this musical novelty arrived at the very moment when that classical grammar was called into question by cultural self-doubt raised by secessions and avant-gardes in the major metropolitan centers of Europe who, though often unaware of jazz, helped to open the doors to let it in and, by demolishing the old, prepared the ground for it to flourish. 1)
Yet as we look closely at the public debates during the first encounter with American novelty music a warning is in order. From the teens of the century to well into the thirties, audiences tended to attach the term jazz to whatever rhythms they found exotic, fascinating and typically American, the latter particularly so when played by Blacks. With the benefit of hindsight we may dismiss a major part of this novelty music; for it had little to do with what audiences after World War II would, with far greater discrimination and on the basis of recorded evidence, recognize as "real American jazz." Until then the label jazz (or jass) was used both as a positive and negative stereotype to mark a rhythmic revolution and as shorthand for the larger threat of modernization or westernization through Americanisation. But what triggered this excess of hostility or appreciation at these two crucial times and who were the agents and agencies in this story? And what explains the wide range of its impact which extended from vernacular dance to avant-garde agendas?

1). Alan P. Merriam & Fradley H. Garner, “Jazz-The Word,” in: Robert O'Meally, ed., The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press 1998); Paul Oliver. “Jazz is Where you Find it: the European experience of jazz.” In Chris Bigsby, ed. Superculture. (Bowling Green: University Popular Press 1975.) For a fine overview of the aesthetics and meaning of jazz see Stefan Richter. Zu einer Ästhetik des Jazz. (Frankfurt: Peter Lang) 1995. Eric Hobsbawm explains how “Jazz Comes to Europe,” in Uncommon People. (New York: New Press 1998) 265-273. Among classical critics Henry Pleasants and William Austin deserve credit for calling attention to the leading role of jazz as a modernist avantgarde. Henry Pleasants Serious Music – and All That Jazz. New York: Simon & Schuster 1969 and William Austin Music in the 20th Century New York: Norton, 1966.

Jazz entered Europe in two waves after the First and Second World Wars. Both times the mood was divided between profound hostility and intense appreciation. This paper will argue that the introduction of jazz involved a radical break concerning the rules of performance and habits of reception in Western musical culture. It was not just another case of selective borrowing; it had more to do with a paradigm change in music as described in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a confrontation of antithetical musical cultures that would continue to have far-reaching repercussions. Although a child of the gutter jazz satisfied more of the high cultural prophecies of Futurism and more of the avantgarde and transgressive desires of modernism than any single one of the traditional arts. The new music spoke to the agendas of surrealism, primitivism, radical democracy, multiculturalism, post-colonialism and urban cosmopolitanism. It promised to modernize, to liberate, to innovate and ushered in a new way of being in the world-- all at once. But it gave to these high cultural, modernist desires a decidedly vernacular spin, a cultural camouflage which allowed it to subvert European cultural habits "from below." ________________________________________ •^•

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