The global acceptance of African American music from classical music to popular music represents a historical journey full of challenges, adversity and political influence. Despite the impressive number of European composers that embraced Afro-American materials, many people still felt that Afro-American music, like its creators, was inferior, imitative and hardly a starting point for any art-music work.
The history of adverse race relations and hostility towards black music and black culture represents a journey that can be traced back to the beginning of the United States of America. The American founding father who was called the “Apostle of Americanism” wrote these persuasive words:
“[Negroes] astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears fortune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ostium of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.(Thomas Jefferson: “On Negro Ability.” In The Writings of Thomas Jefferson [ed. H. A. Washington]. Washington, D.C., 1854, pp. 380-87.)
It is important to note that while Jefferson was in France, he would witness black achievement in the arts that the American slavery institution could not produce. Jefferson witnessed the superstar black violinist, composer and conductor, Chevalier de Saint Georges, who was the musical director of the leading concert orchestra in Paris and he also attended the Paris, debut concert of the young black violin virtuoso, George Bridgetower. Jefferson would later amend his thoughts on black achievement in the arts with thoughts about the mix raced nature of the Negro genius he witnessed in France.”
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
In his 1782 book, Notes on Virginia, Jefferson made numerous observations about differences he saw or suspected in the Negro race, to the extent they were less endowed than the white race. He isn’t retracting that position now 27 years later, but he is open to that possibility. He states:
1. More than anyone else, he would be pleased to be proven wrong.
2. His observations were limited to his personal experience and only in his native state.
3. Blacks’ opportunities for education and expression in Virginia “were not favorable.”
4. He expressed those 1782 views “with great hesitation.”
5. They still possessed their measure of human rights regardless of their human talents.
6. Other nations were growing in their awareness of those rights.
7. Blacks were making “hopeful advances” toward “equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”
8. Gratitude to this letter’s recipient for:
a. the many opportunities given Jefferson to reconsider his earlier, limited opinions.
b. “hastening the day of their [blacks’] relief.”
Jefferson was always a product of the 18th century South. You can pluck some statements from his writings to make him look completely racist. Others could portray him as a near abolitionist. The issue is complicated, and the truth is between those extremes. In his autobiography, Colin Powell called Jefferson “an uneasy slaveholder.” I think that’s the best and most succinct description I’ve heard.
Are you eager to be proven wrong?
Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to the Negroes by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them, therefore, with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you, therefore, to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief.
Thomas Jefferson was indeed an “Apostle of Americanism” and his ideas represented a prevailing inferiority consensus about the true nature and value of black people so that before 1900 only a very few American composers sought to use any black American music sources. The most notable composer to do so was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who successfully used Negro folk music almost fifty years before Antonin Dvorák issued his manifesto about the central importance of Negro melodies for classical music.
It was not until after the turn of the century that significant ideas to incorporate Black American folk materials into art music would resurface. This idea again became acceptable for respectable composers in the United States only after its legitimization by the European taste and acceptance of Black American music and culture.
During the 1920’s & despite all opposition, European composers continued their enduring love affair with Black American music from negro melodies and negro spirituals to the blues and jazz and a more sophisticated, symphonic jazz style began to emerge—
The emergence of the “symphonic jazz” movement celebrated American composers such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and George Gershwin and reflected the enduring love affair between European classical music and American Jazz. In Europe, this style of composition became known as a “symphonic jazz” and the European Composers embracing this new sound were called “Jazz Symphonists.”
The Symphonic jazz movement was a continuation of the “New World Symphonists” use of black music and seemed to point to a bright new future of jazz influenced classical music… but people had different views on the matter: There were influential tastemakers who were horrified by the mixture of jazz and symphonic concert music and for them, this new jazz mixture represented a fatal blow to taste and high culture.
There were differences of opinion regarding the true jazz or the symphonic crossover. The polished trend of symphonic jazz, established a degree of esteem and respect for black music yet some, preferred the original sound of the authentic jazz. Many resented the dismissive stance that the symphonic style held for the original African-American features which were the roots of jazz. At the same time, many European composers recognized the only jazz music of technical importance in that small African American section of it that was genuinely negro music.
Many European composers felt that Americans were too “Jeffersonian” in their views about black culture and felt that Americans took their own true American music for granted. By being foreigners, these composers felt that Europe gave them the necessary aesthetic distance to embrace Black American music. The book “New World Symphonies” by Jack Sullivan on page 225 states a European composers view that…”The Americans seem to live too near Tin Pan Alley & they suffer from the immense disadvantage of being on the spot.”
Many European composers were not fully satisfied with Gershwin’s American use of black music and considered it “sophisticated trappings” …. and described it as “the hybrid child of a hybrid…ashamed of its parents and/while boasting of its French lessons.”
The book New World Symphonies states that some European “Jazz Symphonist” composers felt that “the hot negro records still have a genuine and not merely galvanic energy, while the blues have a certain austerity that places them far above the sweet nothings of George Gershwin.” Even though many composers allied themselves with the anti-Gershwin crowd, many Europeans including such unlikely composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, celebrated Gershwin’s genius.
While debates continued over the variety of contributions in the symphonic jazz movement –
The European composer Kurt Weill was happily obsessed with the darker, sexy and more dangerous aspects of jazz. He utilized sultry saxophone and percussion and slinky seductiveness in his compositions such as “The Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya-Johnny.” He composed a sexually provocative “commercial love” duet in “Mahagonny.”
Despite racial difficulties and differences of opinions, composers such as Ravel and Lambert insisted that jazz and symphonic jazz was destined to be an important wave of the future, that would endure the collapse of music into noise theories— the formula driven theories of serialism and backwards looking antique thinking of neoclassicism. For them, jazz held a bold future with rich and divergent sources of emotional resonance much broader than the rigid rules that regulated serialism or the antique romanticism of neoclassicism.
Jazz with its new rhythmic sophistication provided a new basis for the creative explorations of concert composers more so than any other folk music since the dances that inspired Bach, Mozart and Dvorak. Jazz represented an internationally comprehensible language that captured the spirit of the age and Ellington and other black artists surpassed the commercialized Tin Pan Alley jazz caricatures and became the main international inspirations
Black music and culture has outlived American slavery and racism & surpassed the low expectations of Thomas Jefferson, to become a national light house & source of inspiration, that guides a global audience to the sound of America.
In my next blog, I will continue (part 2 of my last 4 blogs) wrapping up my Classical music & Black History series.