This page is part of Activate Good’s Triangle Cause Wiki, a collaborative online knowledge base about Triangle area issues that can be tackled by locals through volunteer action.
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About Jazz Music in Our Community
Overview of Issue Impacts
Jazz music is a complex and uniquely American style of music, having been influenced by the musical traditions of numerous diverse cultures. The roots of the genre can be traced to the music of West Africa, which was introduced to America through the slave trade. In the New World, cross-cultural interactions meant that these West African musical styles began to blend with European folk music traditions, planting the seeds for what would one day develop into jazz music. The early 20th century marked the true beginnings of jazz music in the city of New Orleans, which was known for its unique culture and diverse population (1). Initially, jazz instruments in an ensemble tended to have roles that they were typically associated with; however, over time, the changes made to the art form and the contributions of many jazz legends led to the development of many varieties, like orchestral jazz, swing, bop, and free jazz.
Modern-day jazz music is heavily dependent on improvisations and solos, which requires the musician to have an intimate understanding of music theory and a great deal of practice. Because of this emphasis on improvisation over replication, jazz musicians tend to develop their own distinctive musical style; at the same time, this means that even jazz standards can come to sound very different depending on the musician playing. Other common aspects of jazz performances include the utilization of swing rhythms, which emphasize the off-beats in the music, and the use of call-and-response patterns, where one part of an ensemble will play in response to another part of the ensemble, creating the feeling of a dialogue among the different instruments in the band (2).
Jazz has also tied closely into racial issues like segregation and appropriation through much of its history, even at the very beginnings of the genre. For example, “Lively Stable Blues”, widely regarded as the first jazz recording made, was the subject of much controversy for several reasons. It was a recording by a white band of an African American genre; the musicians who played for the record went as far as to assert that they were the ones who had “invented” jazz, failing to give any credit to the African American community that was instrumental in the creation of jazz music. This tied into the broader reality of a segregated music industry that prevented many African American musicians from receiving the recognition they deserved. Even today, many people believe that the impacts created by this situation have yet to be fully rectified (3).
Populations Affected by Issue
Although jazz music is a genre that has gained a widespread following around the world, many organizations work within the Triangle in order to increase public awareness and interest in jazz music, particularly among younger individuals. Due to the importance of this genre in the musical history of North Carolina, the work of these organizations is quite important. The Triangle has always been home to a thriving musical community thanks to a variety of factors; at the same time, recent years have seen many changes to the local jazz scene, specifically in Durham. Even as places that have long been important to the jazz community have closed or switched to other programming, new arts spaces have opened up and have begun to develop series aimed at showcasing local jazz musicians (4). Hopefully, the work of arts preservation organizations will keep on affirming the importance of jazz, allowing future generations of music enthusiasts to continue enjoying this unique genre.
Famous jazz musicians associated with North Carolina include John Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams, and Nina Simone (5).
Outside of the common jazz instruments like saxophone or piano, a lot of more obscure instruments have also been featured in jazz compositions, like conch shells, bagpipes, or didgeridoos (6).
A survey of ticket purchases through major jazz venues in 2009 found that only 17% of buyers were younger than 45; also, they found that 80% of buyers were white (7).
Connected Community Issues
- Jazz, Brittanica
- What is Jazz? Smithsonian Museum of American History
- The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz, Folklife Today (2017)
- Downtown Durham Gets a Jazz Boon from a New Series at the Fruit, Indy Week (2019)
- Jazz, NCpedia (2006)
- What The Heck Is That? Odd Instruments in Jazz, NPR (2010)
- Actually Useful Research about Younger Jazz Audiences, NPR (2011)
Interested in learning more about this issue? Check out some of these books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and more.
Thank you to the following contributors:
- Summer 2020:
- Andy Q.
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Last updated April 2021
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