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Until recently jazz has occupied a curiously marginal position in the official culture of its native country, and even within the black community. The public for it has been tiny: far smaller than the public for classical music. Record producers, who probably contain a much higher proportion of jazz buffs than the American people at large, can hardly be expected to invest much in music that nowadays sells less than 4 percent of discs and tapes.
The jazz public is enormously serious, even a public of connoisseurs. Since the 1930s it has certainly contained a considerable number of intellectuals with wide cultural interests. And yet official high culture in the US was extraordinarily slow to take note of what is probably the most serious home-grown American contribution to the twentieth-century arts. Hayden Carruth, poet, professor, and, since the early Thirties, an informed and thoughtful jazz enthusiast, observes that
as a poet I never met another poet older than I who understood jazz as music…. Among poets of my own age I have met one or two who love and understand jazz, but none who has written intelligently about it. Most of my contemporaries have only a kind of nostalgic feeling for the “swing era.”…Only when I come to poets whose musical education began after 1945, do I find any number, though still comparatively few, who write about jazz with understanding…. For some in the baby-boom generation the beginning of jazz is the work of Charlie Parker. For most it is the work of Miles Davis.
Not that jazz was hard to find for twentieth-century urban or, through radio, any, Americans. Its sound was familiar and not difficult of access, at any rate for those who first heard it in their teens. The problem was exactly the opposite. Jazz, or more generally the music of North American Negroes, was and is so deeply embedded in popular entertainment in the cities of the US that it was almost impossible to separate it out as a special kind of art.
Even in the black ghettos it had no separate existence, except for the communities of professional players who, like all professionals, whether physicists, economists, or musicians, live by and for peer judgment, even when they are being paid by people who cannot tell the difference between trumpet and trombone, or who think Kenneth Arrow makes shirts. As Carruth observes, even the late Malcolm X, who was a champion ballroom dancer in Boston and New York in the late 1930s, does not in his autobiography speak of the jazz to which he danced as music. He treats it as “a cultural adjunct.”
A striking example of the impossibility of recognizing the jazz threads within American popular culture is Kitty Kelley’s scandal-mongering biography of Frank Sinatra, who was in his day undeniably an excellent jazz singer. This is not surprising, since he learned his craft in the big-band “swing” era, when jazz briefly became the mainstream of youthful pop music, and …
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All That Jazz March 26, 1987