Why Is Jazz Called America’s Classical Music?

Why Is Jazz Called America's Classical Music
Why Is Jazz Called America’s Classical Music

If you are interested in charting the history and development of Western Classical music then it is not difficult to travel back over a thousand years. You could reasonably go further and there is plenty of scholarly research and recordings of early music in Europe to fuel your interest. This historical timeline is remarkable and covers music from the early Medieval through to the present day.

When considering the music of America, discounting any indigenous music for the time being, then that millennium span is not available. Instead, American musical history only steps back around two-hundred and fifty years into colonial America. The ‘First New England School’ is thought to be one of the first examples of a classical style of music emerging from America.

Among the composers were William Billings, Francis Hopkinson, and Justin Morgan, all of whom were active in the mid to late part of the 18th Century. Their music was closely modeled on the work of the European composers that admired and often orientated around well-established hymn tunes that over time were developed into more sophisticated pieces of music.

Why Is Jazz Called America’s Classical Music

Very little of this music is heard today of even the work that followed in the 2nd New England School. What we more often associate America with is the music that began to take hold of the northern hemisphere in the mid to late 19th Century: Blues and Jazz. In many ways, the Blues can be regarded as American Folk music but its influence and effect on Western Classical music were dramatic and lasting. It is this influence that I would suggest creates the idea that Jazz is essentially the Classical music of America.

There is more to the story than just the advent of Blues and Jazz. By the mid-1800s, travel was becoming both popular and more affordable amongst the wealthier members of European society. Composers, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs were among the many creative individuals who became fascinated by the culture of other countries. The ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851 that was opened in England by Queen Victoria was a marvel of the age. Amongst the vast array of exhibits were pianos, organs and all things that exemplified the achievements of the day and the extensive reach of the British Empire.

At the time that the Blues began to filter into white cultural circles, segregation was commonplace. This meant that white and black musicians did not under usual circumstances, play together and that the music they played and sung was very different. Over time, and in no small part due to the innovation of Scot Joplin, the music of the black musicians became of interest and inspiration. Joplin combined both the syncopated rhythms of blues with the straight march rhythms that originated in white music. The result was music called ‘Ragtime‘ that has proved to be immensely popular ever since. Besides, this fusion paved the way to the establishment of an entire musical culture that had its roots firmly in the folk music of black America.

By the early 20th Century Jazz and Blues were dominant features on the American musical map and set the tone for the cultural revolution that followed. This is remarkable in so many ways as it gradually led to the collaboration between white and black musicians that gave rise to some of the most extraordinary music the world has ever heard. To an extent, it also allowed for music to branch away from the classical traditions into a genre in its own right. What then flowed out of this revolution became the multiple other genres of popular music from Rock ’n’ Roll in the 1950s through to Hip-Hop and Rap.

Jazz made such a deep impact on the music of the 20th Century that it is understandable why it can be thought of as the classical music of the USA. In Europe, the French composer Maurice Ravel drew significant inspiration from Jazz to a point where I do not believe his music would sound remotely as it does if he’d never heard it. Darius Milhaud also based many of his compositions on harmonies he heard in jazz including the remarkable ‘Creation du Monde’ that incorporates many elements of the genre.

Likewise, many American composers of the 20th and 21st Century have embedded jazz into their work. Perhaps one of the most commonly associated names is that of composer George Gershwin whose work embodies the fusion of classical and jazz genres. Whether you are listening to ‘The Rhapsody In Blue’, ‘The Cuban Overture’, or ‘Porgy and Bess’, jazz carves a channel through Gershwin’s music in a wholly unique way.

‘The Rhapsody In Blue’

‘The Cuban Overture’

‘Porgy and Bess’

In the work of American composers Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives, jazz permeates their music. Copland even composed a Concerto for the Band Leader Benny Goodman that seamlessly bends Copland’s own lyrical and rhythmic voice with jazz. A more recent example of jazz fusing with classical music would be the outstanding piece by American composer, Steve Reich called ‘New York Counterpoint’ (1985). This composition mixes minimalism with jazz in the unusual scoring of nine clarinets plus three bass clarinets.

Such is the influence and success of Jazz as a genre of music that associating it with the classical music of America makes considerable sense. It is challenging to think of an American composer who has not in some way been moved to incorporate some element of jazz into their music. Jazz brought about a broad range of new creative possibilities that took the world by storm. Perhaps the power of the combination of two diverse cultures back in the early part of the 20th Century created such a wave of options that was unavoidably compelling.

Jazz has not stopped evolving or making an attractive addition to the composer’s palate in the 21st Century. It has its fingers in music from film to classical to pop. The wealth of exceptional jazz music that has come from the USA is almost unparalleled in any other culture. Its power is unique and possibly without limit. If Jazz can rightly be credited as the classical music of America it is an accolade to be immensely proud of.


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