Jazz: Marking Time in American Culture is designed to complement MUSI 212, the University of Virginia's introductory course in the history of jazz. Subdivided in chronological periods-- Jazz Roots, Swing Era, and Cool Jazz and Hard Bop--this website provides a social and cultural context for the development and production of jazz music from 1890 through the 1960s.
Throughout the twentieth century, jazz has both shaped and reflected the construction of national identity. Through jazz, American musicians and their audiences have continually navigated the boundaries of race and region and the divide between high and low culture. In the process, an ever-evolving definition of American identity has emerged within the creation of a nationally distinct cultural expression and cultural product. This website explores the intersection of jazz music and American culture by tracing the influence of jazz in American visual art, literature and film. Additionally, this site examines how the experience and communication of jazz has changed over time, with evolutions in technology and theatrical style.
The "birth" of jazz music occured roughly in the period from 1890 to 1935, a time when disparate musical sources unified in a distinct form that marked the transformation of local black folk expression to the commerical product of the national music industry. Well before the first jazz recording of 1917, the syncopated, march cadence of ragtime and the bent, blues notes of the folk spiritual and work song flourished in the vibrant urban black community of New Orleans. As the number of black Southerners joining the Great Migration rose, the uptown style of the Delta was urbanized in the dance halls, theaters, and caberets of Chicago and New York City. From New Orleans to New York, early jazz instrumentalists furthered the fusion of classical style and folk improvisation that came to distinguish the jazz sound.
With Swing during the 1930s and 1940s, jazz became America's mainstream popular music. As Swing became an increasingly commercialized and omnipresent force in American popular culture, it made increasingly common appearances in American discourse and popular culture outside of the music industry. These examinations of Swing in painting, literature, and film questioned whether such a commercialized form of music could truly be considered "art." Unlike earlier cultural examinations of Swing, these riffs on jazz during the Swing Era responded to jazz as a commodified product. A layering of analysis concerning swing, performed by artists, writers, and film directors, came to replace artistic or cultural analysis occurring within the music itself. This shift was part of the "whitening" of jazz during the Swing Era. Jazz traditions created by African-Americans were no longer viewed as rich art; analysis of jazz was where true creation was seen to lie.
From 1945-1960, jazz exited the realm of popular music and entered the realm of art. Resistance to the Swing Era's white "interpretation" of jazz can be seen through the work of the jazz artists themselves. Beginning with bebop in the late 1940's and carrying into cool jazz and hard bop in the 1950's, jazz artists began a discourse with one another through their music. Bebop, cool jazz, and hard bop gradually broke from the Swing Era's idea of jazz as entertainment for the masses. The period 1945-1960 was musically experimental and lost popular favor as entertainment in an era of radio-friendly rock n' roll. Similarly to the Swing Era, jazz faced the aestheticizing and possibly condescending eye of critical analysis. When jazz escaped popular attention, it subsequently gained favor as a true "modernist" art form.