There have been a lot of jazz notes played at our house lately as our daughter Natalie practices Samuel Barber’s Excursions for an upcoming piano competition. Okay, so it’s not Jelly Roll Morton but it counts for jazz in our white, middle-class family. Here’s a recording of the piece I found on YouTube:
As part of my ongoing quest to expand my cultural horizons, I’ve discovered I really like female vocalists Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Nikki Yanofsky. Their delicious fusions of jazz and pop/rock go together like bread pudding and whiskey sauce and are just as sweet. And the new Stacey Kent album is to die for, even though I can’t understand a word of it. (It’s in French.) Much of today’s jazz, including the kind I like best, is so tame it’s hard to imagine how controversial it was in the past.
In its youth, jazz got the reputation of being a wild child. It was considered dangerous music that undermined cultural norms and threatened to topple governments. Although it was the favorite genre of the sexually permissive and carefree 1920s—the Jazz Age; in the 1930s the Nazis banned jazz, because they saw it as degenerate, racially inferior “nigger music.” Its themes of liberation also threatened Nazi ideals of an orderly, controlled society. American fundamentalists preachers (many of whom were also racists) considered jazz the devil’s music—a bastard born in the bars and brothels on Bourbon Street. (Forgive the alliteration; it’s the Baptist preacher in me coming out.) But it wasn’t just fascists and fundamentalists who opposed jazz. Professor Henry Van Dyck of Princeton University called it “not music at all. It’s merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion.” Thus, Jazz was seen by many as culturally corrupt and corrupting.
Deeply rooted in the African-American experience, jazz, like other like other kinds folk music, was a form of cultural expression that could not be controlled by whites. Jazz is subversive. It’s the music of the anti-establishment underground. That’s why I think Jesus would approve. Though no libertine, Jesus was a rebel. He hung out with sinners and prostitutes, even racially inferior Samaritans. He broke the Sabbath, tweaked the authorities, preached themes of liberation, and became an of object of revolutionaries’ hopes for political emancipation.
Like jazz, Jesus has been domesticated so much that we forget just how controversial he was in his day. I think I’m gonna listen to some Miles Davis and ruminate on that for a while. Join me?