Jazz, African American Nationality, and the Myth of the Nation-State

By John H. McClendon III, Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 23, no.3, December 2006

Contemporary interest in Rap and Hip-Hop music has once again turned the cultural spotlight on African American music and especially on its locus within the institutional and cultural framework of the United States. Today it is not unusual to find television commercials employing Rap lyrics and rhythms to sell various commodities, or to observe suburban white youth listening to the latest Hip-Hop hits. We can even watch on TV how the old Colonel of KFC is now infected with the Hip-Hop bug. Such attention to African American music is not new in this country. At an earlier time, Blues and Jazz were the centerpieces of popular cultural attraction, commercial activity, and political economic exploitation (of music) in this country. The recording industry found Blues artists (especially African American female vocalists) a source for a sizeable commercial market, and at the same time the African American community as consumers and listeners related to the strong messages about the life of the working masses of Black people. And the initial widespread interest in Jazz led certain pundits even to label the post-World War I period none other than the ‘Jazz Age.’(1)

This essay is a philosophical inquiry into Jazz as an artistic expression of African American national culture and its subsequent unfolding within the context of capitalism in the United States. The dialectical relationship between the African American origins of Jazz and the context of its development, namely that of taking place in the United States, has often led commentators to erroneously describe Jazz as a uniquely ‘American’ contribution to the arts, if not the only original ‘American’ art form. However, such judgments are predicated on a cultural philosophy that presumes the United States to be a singular national entity with a corresponding state apparatus, i.e., a nation-state. The nation-state thesis, in conjunction with the chauvinistic presumption that the United States has sole title to the name ‘America,’ becomes the foundation and context for the claim that Jazz is ‘American.’ Since Jazz originated and developed in the United States, so the argument goes, it is an ‘American’ cultural product in terms of both content and form. Stanley Crouch, the Black cultural critic, argues:

I think the thing about jazz that makes it important is that it has all of the ingredients that could make for the sort of charisma that we associate with America at large. I mean, you have the frontiersmen, you have the battles through the bush, you have the development of new territories, you have people who have problems in one place, so go to another place and when they get in that place, they're able to realize themselves. Like a guy like Lester Young. He was a great talent, but he had to move around and finally when he clicked in to Kansas City, he was like the guy who, that was the place for him.(2) Foundational to Crouch's conception of Jazz is a theory of Black identity wherein Black people in the United States are said to be quintessentially ‘American.’ Thus, he argues, “Negro Americans pretend that they are Africans…and other minorities smitten by the trickle downs from the Black Power projection of false differences pretend that their essential identities, regardless to how long they have been in this country, are lodged in cultures at some geographical distance from the United States.#8221;(3)

My conception of the United States as a multinational state does not deny that African Americans and other oppressed nationalities are in the United States, but it affirms that they are not of it. The contradiction of being in it but not of it characterizes any notion of social identity based on nationality. Concretely, Jazz is the cultural product of an African American nationality, specifically an oppressed nationality, within the United States. Hence, the contours for the creation and emergence of Jazz do not emerge from the “charisma that we associate with America at large” but rather from the contradictory and defining experience of African Americans. This experience is the upshot of social relations—institutions and practices grounded in white supremacy—which assume the forms of racism and nationalism and are structured by class exploitation under capitalism. The great majority of African Americans are working people and they are the foremost contributors in forging cultural traditions and innovations. The overwhelming substance of African American culture is proletarian, though not exclusively so.

Therefore, race, nationality, and class are elemental conditions in any evaluation of Jazz, especially with respect to its social import. The cultural philosophy implicit in any discussion of Jazz as ‘American’ must be carefully dissected to uncover the complex ways in which racism, national oppression, and class exploitation interact to form its material basis, as a creative expression of the African American experience in the United States.

The key here is not to ignore the U.S. context of Jazz, but rather to concretize it. This requires that we explore the actual social relations, institutions and practices that form the objective conditions and subjective responses of African American life and culture. For example, the ethos guiding Jazz composition and performance has a specificity, which is rooted in the African American working class experience. The creative impulse, aesthetic forms, and performative manner and mode of Jazz (such as improvisation, polyrhythmic cadence, and syncopation) are at root African/African American and not European or Euro-American. Furthermore, the African American working-class experience requires creativity, innovation and improvisation as a matter of survival. Rigid formalism and mechanistic approaches to life can only spell doom. The need for creative responses is especially acute for the African American working poor because of the dual burden of racism and national oppression. The unique experiences of slavery and segregation gave rise to the spirituals, work songs and blues.

With migration into the cities, the African American worker was proletarianized. As a newly established urban working class, African Americans were denied equal access to jobs, housing, schooling and other matters of civil society and the state. They responded to the urban capitalist environment with new forms of cultural/musical expression. Jazz, with its secular themes, syncopation, improvisation, and call and response ethos, not only continues traditions from earlier African American musical forms but also fashions a unique genre of music. In fact, the African American working-class grounding of Jazz led Langston Hughes, among others, to adopt this new form of music within the structure of his poetry.

Responding to the material relations of urban life, the Jazz working-class ethos widened the gap between secular and sacred music, especially as urban secular life became predominant in African American culture. Jazz was incubated and inspired by the new city experience, with its pull into capitalist production and commerce. The Saturday night dance was a cultural space for relief; it encouraged improvisational modes of expression, which offset the drudgery and monotony of hard menial work. Jazz syncopation is an upbeat response to the downbeat situation of being at the bottom of the social order. The rhythm and cadence of Jazz is a cultural challenge to the repetitive downbeat of measured time over work and life. It is in this sense that the urban working-class experience is the root and foundation for the creative musical traditions we call Jazz.


The cultural philosophy of ‘Americanism’ and the myth of the nation-state function in the interests of the ruling class and its imperialist aims. Americanism translates politically into blind patriotism and lock-step conformity to the dominant policies of the state. To unravel this cultural philosophy and its ancillary theory of identity, I will briefly provide a materialist philosophical overview the ‘American’ notion.

From the inception of the ‘American Revolution’ and the subsequent formation of the bourgeois state under the U.S. Constitution, the myth that the United States is a nation-state has had an overriding ideological influence. The pledge of allegiance with its phrase about ‘one nation’ is a popular expression of this influence. The sociological notion of the United States as a ‘melting pot,’ where diverse groups are assimilated into this one nation, is the academic version of this same coin.

In contrast, I presume that the United States is de facto (if not de jure) a multinational state. My use of scare quotes around the word America or American is to acknowledge that where America or American is used as a reference to the United States, this effectively ignores the existence of the Americas and thus upholds a chauvinistic conception vis-à-vis the North, South, and Central American countries and nations. Moreover, the term ‘America’ also represents the oppressor (Euro-American) nation as the only existing nation within the United States, into which at best all other groups must assimilate. Malcolm X's statement that “we are not Americans but victims of Americanism” adequately summarizes this point.

The prima facie neglect of the reality of the multinational state is not an oversight of imprecision; rather it follows the nation-state's putative ideological objective of assimilation as the guiding principle of social integration. As de la Garza, Kruszewski, and Arciniega state, “For centuries, Anglo Americans have felt it necessary to rationalize the relationship between America's native peoples and the Anglo majority…. The way to resolve the Mexican and Indian ‘problem’ was to make them ‘Americans.’”(4)

The idea that the United States was one nation, with privileged ontological status under God's purview, effectively ignores the de facto condition that many nations and nationalities were present and actively functioning during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Howard Zinn reports, “In the Revolutionary War, almost every important Indian nation [my italics] fought on the side of the British. The British signed for peace and went home; the Indians were already home, and so they continued fighting the Americans on the frontier, in a set of desperate holding operations.”(5) Even as early as the 16th century, Africans and Native Americans joined together to develop a democratic community in the territory that later became South Carolina. There, according to William Loren Katz, “two and half centuries before the Declaration of Independence, two dark-skinned people exalted the principles of freedom. As the first to establish a settlement of any permanence in North America that included people from overseas, they qualify as our true ancestors.”(6) The fact that Native Americans had their own nations and that African slaves formed themselves into a distinct nationality is proof that more than one nation took shape during this period.

Nonetheless, the myth of one nation as a ruling ideology reflects Euro-American national chauvinism, and this has both political and cultural implications of immense significance today. While this ruling ideology assumes the form of great-nation chauvinism, its content is thoroughly bourgeois in class character and facilitates the advance of imperialist interests. Along with the notion of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ the historical account of the United States as a nation ever expanding westward (the Turner Thesis) and its adjoining hemispheric destination of ‘Pax Americana’ or ‘Pan-Americanism’ via the Monroe Doctrine has decidedly buttressed and legitimated the bourgeois political economy of hegemonic rule.(7) National democracy is a higher form than the liberal democracy of individual rights. Where national oppression exists, national democratic tasks become essential to any prospective socialist agenda. Individuals from oppressed nationalities who move into petty bourgeois or bourgeois positions do not signal the end of national oppression and hence do not represent progress.


Of particular importance to the substance and scope of this paper is the question of how we ought to view Jazz—given its vast social and political implications. Is it something that emerges from African American culture with the imprint of that particular national experience or is it more akin to an ‘American’ cultural legacy that is rooted in the one-nation paradigm? Claims about Jazz as ‘American’ require a careful examination of the meanings attached to ‘American.’ Black people in the United States have long acknowledged that being African American marks a national identity that is distinct from some kind of ‘American’ identity resting on a singular nation-state.

For example, Du Bois's notion of Black people as a determinate group or ‘folk’ is ultimately aligned with the idea of nation. In The Souls of Black Folk, as in his earlier American Negro Academy occasional paper “The Conservation of Races” (1897), he puts forth “the idea of a racial nation.”(8) Furthermore, in Souls, he stresses the distinction between being ‘Negro’ and being ‘American,’ and points to the contradictory existential issues affixed to questions of racial/national identity for Black people in the United States. Clearly, being an ‘American’ did not possess the same interiority and ground that ‘Negro’ ostensibly implied.(9) In the 1897 Occasional Paper, he had already made this point most explicit:

Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit. No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: what, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetrating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? Does my black blood place upon me any more obligation to assert my nationality than German, or Irish or Italian blood would?(10)

Du Bois's penetrating interrogations clearly offer us a starting point for developing a concrete theory of identity. When confronting the Negro/American antithesis, Du Bois recognizes that there are obvious differences in culture, and he designates these as matters of race, which becomes a category similar to nationality—‘black blood’ being equated with ‘my nationality.’ However, in this conflation of race with nationality, there is the danger of reducing nationality to the status of race. Often what follows from this reduction is a kind of historiography of racial contributionism, where each racial group is cited for its contributions to the general good and welfare of the ‘American Nation.’ This differentiates Black people from whites only on the basis of race rather than recognizing their distinctive nationality.(11)

Gunnar Myrdal's observation that Black people were only white ‘Americans’ in Black skin is a clear example of this assumption. Indeed, Myrdal conceives Black culture as essentially pathological in character.(12) Such an analysis has to grossly ignore the profound cultural implications of the forging of an African American national community in the initial context of slavery.(13) If we follow the research of John Blassingame, Mary Frances Berry, Joseph Holloway, Margaret Washington Creel, and Beverly J. Robinson on slavery and the slave community, along with the insights of Paul Robeson, Sterling Stuckey, Samuel Floyd, and Portia Maultsby on African American arts—and specifically music as an outgrowth of African American culture—then we have a scenario that rejects the portrait of Black people as merely white Americans in Black skin. What each offers is a conception of a distinct community and culture that is particularly attached to African culture as adapted through the slavery and the post-slavery experience of African Americans.(14)

Jazz drummer and critic Max Roach directly links Jazz to the cultural and historical context elaborated by these scholars. I should note that Roach offers his definition of Jazz in response to a definition presented in the Encyclopedia Britannica Dictionary. The dictionary definition was simply “A kind of music, generally improvised sometimes arranged, achieving its effects by syncopation, heavily accented rhythms, dissonance, melodic variation, and particular tonal qualities of the saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, and other instruments. It was originated by New Orleans Negro musicians.” Roach responds by saying, “This interpretation… is, at best, only a surface explanation of this many spectrumed terminology.”(15) Roach then observes, ‘Jazz’ is an extension on the African chants and songs. It is an extension of the pain and suffering of those long, and too often, destinationless trips across the Atlantic Ocean, deep in the holes of those dark, damp, filthy, human slave ships, endured by chained, innocent, Black men, women and children. ‘Jazz’ is an extension of the humiliation suffered by the same human beings while being sold as cattle or produce…. ‘Jazz’ is an extension of the Black man, ‘freed,’ who found himself still shackled to the same chain, all shined up, when he unwittingly ventured out into ‘Their’ free world of opportunity and wealth, only to be assaulted, whipped, murdered, and raped some more. The ‘Spiritual,’ ‘Race music,’ ‘Rhythm and Blues,’ ‘Dixieland,’ ‘Jazz’ (and never, yet, any of the music named by its creators, but by the disdainful, master observer). ‘Jazz’ is an extension of the Black artist being relegated to practice his or her craft, even today, under these intolerable, too similar, conditions.(16)

Max Roach's definition of Jazz is noteworthy on several counts. First, he elects to begin by using scare quotes around the word Jazz. Second, he chooses to emphasize the historical, political and cultural context for the origins of Jazz, rather than a technical description in musical terms. Lastly, he views all African American music, including Jazz, as an extension of the African American experience with its basis in African music and culture. The scare quotes amplify the fact that the very name does not emerge from African Americans but is instead imposed from outside their cultural and social moorings. The self-determining character of the music is called into question by the name itself. Moreover, Roach employs scare quotes around key words such as ‘freed’ and ‘their’ free world. This makes transparent that the line of demarcation between African American slavery and freedom was not as decisive as would be the attainment of full freedom.

In fact, the post-slavery world was not under the control of former slaves; ‘their’ world and the world of former slaves were not the same. The distinction about being worlds apart is not only a matter of the past but continues to the present. Sterling Stuckey makes the stronger point that the Civil Rights leadership lacked vision regarding “interest in the history and culture of black people,” and “did not appear to understand that freedom meant internal moorings—not a mere absence of racism.”(17)

Indeed, the former slave lived in a world apart, possessing a different set of social, political, and hence cultural circumstances that I have identified as a distinct nationality, one born of national oppression. It is in this world of national oppression that Jazz and more generally Black music is grounded. The idea of an African American nationality brings to the fore profound questions about the semantics of the word ‘American.’ The African American nationality thesis holds that ‘American’ denotes the oppressive context in which Jazz is created—rather than the idea that, as an African American, one belongs to the oppressor (Euro-American) nation. This is a conceptual distinction of major import. Thus, Du Bois's differentiation between ‘Negro’ and ‘American’ is continued by Roach in his demarcation between ‘theirs’ and ‘ours,’ where ‘theirs’ is a place of “free world of opportunity and wealth” and ‘ours’ is one of being “assaulted, whipped, murdered, and raped some more.”

Since Roach's examination centers on the material conditions that give rise to the creative impulse to Jazz, the technical issues about musical performance are of only superficial interest. The formal mode of defining Jazz is restricted to appearances and overlooks the essence of the matter. The content and essence of Jazz derives from the multitude of experiences that Roach describes attendant with the chains¾which continue to bind African Americans¾and with what I have designated as national oppression. The ethos and pathos of Jazz is the centerpiece of any legitimate definition. Roach goes on to point out that “‘Jazz is the indigenous music of the indigent Black man and woman. The musical instruments and theories on harmony preceded the Black man in this country, but it was, and is, the Black man's hell on earth, which he sublimated and is sublimating into music, that makes for the aesthetic contribution, ‘Jazz.’”(18)

Therefore, we cannot overlook the fact that the African American musical artist is part and parcel of the experiences and conditions faced by the Black community as a whole, and herein lies the basis for creativity and aesthetic contributions. We see in Roach's definition of Jazz a clear indicator that the analyses of Black political, social and economic conditions are foundational to one's conception of culture and music. Although Roach allows for “those white musicians who come to the music respectfully and sympathetically, and elaborate, within the bounds of their emotional ability to identify with their Black brothers and humanity, on the music…,” he nevertheless argues “To me, a contribution is a creation, and two mothers cannot give birth to the same child…”(19)

Almost 40 years before Roach set out to give a definition of Jazz, the historian and anthropologist J.A. Rogers acknowledged the difficulty involved. Discarding simplistic definitions, Rogers penned an article in Alain Locke's 1925 anthology, The New Negro. This article is of particular importance because it consciously tries to link Jazz to the New Negro Movement in arts, the Harlem Renaissance.

Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home. And yet jazz in spite of all is one part American and three parts American Negro, and was originally the nobody's child of the levee and the city slum… What after all is this taking a new thing, that, condemned in certain quarters, and enthusiastically welcomed in others, has nonchalantly gone on until it ranks with the movie and the dollar as a foremost exponent of modern Americanism? Jazz isn't music merely, it is a spirit that can express itself in almost anything. The true spirit of Jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, more room, and even sorrow …(20)

The observation “Jazz is a marvel of paradox” speaks to the contradictory context of its existence, an existence that occupies three fundamental dimensions: internationalism, nationality, and class. First, there is the universality of humanity as expressed in internationalism within the particularity of the Negro (read African American) nationality. The import of this observation is that African Americans and their creation (Jazz) participate in a basic human practice of cultural creation and artistic innovation. Rogers is well aware of the dehumanization of African Americans in the United States, and he sees that Jazz speaks to the hypocrisy of white supremacy under bourgeois democracy. When he claims that Jazz is not simply ‘American’ (read Euro-American), he accents the nationality principle. Yet, it is just as American (read intractably implanted in Euro-American bourgeois/mass culture) as the movie and the dollar bill.

Here, we see the contradiction between Jazz as artistic creation and the material context of its commodification under capitalism. This commodification of Jazz is not an aberration but instead is what logically and universally happens to art under capitalism. The movie and dollar are manifestations of this reality, and to the extent that Jazz is no longer confined to being a folk art form, it too, like other forms of art, necessarily becomes a commodity. Hence, Jazz performers sell their labor power, record companies manufacture records, consumers buy records, club owners hire musicians, people pay to see performances, and composers write music and then sell it on the market.

It is precisely because Jazz grows out of the mass and represents the mass orientation of the urban African American working class that Rogers finds that its roots are in “the nobody's child of the levee and the city slum.” He then also says that it is “condemned in certain quarters, and enthusiastically welcomed in others.” The conflict between condemnation and welcome expresses the contradictory ideological and cultural orientation of certain members of the Black bourgeoisie toward the African American proletariat. Where respectability is manifested in the adoption of bourgeois cultural values and social mores, the mimetic cultural orientation of the African American bourgeoisie holds sway. Yet not all of the class would condemn Jazz. Some, especially those that sought to profit from Jazz, saw the opportunity to own record companies and clubs, and to manage the business affairs of Jazz bands and individual performers. In the record company known as Black Swan Records, the contradictory impulses for condemnation and welcome are both embodied. Ted Vincent remarks, “The board of directors was dominated by academicians, society matrons, and other musical snobs who influenced the workers at the company's recording studios to favour polite-sounding soft blues, and swing rather than ‘hot’ jazz, and to emphasise the company's ‘high-class’ music offering.”(21)

Furthermore, Rogers links Jazz to a certain political viewpoint, one of revolt. He sees Jazz both as a revolt against white supremacy and as collective defiance of the rigid conventionalism of bourgeois culture. Jazz is “the revolt of the emotions against repression,” and it offers a democratic alternative and new possibilities of personal action and more broadly conceived social relations. Jazz is bound to the complex social relations of the United States. Yet, unlike Crouch, Rogers discloses an African element to Jazz:

The direct predecessor of jazz is ragtime. That both are atavistically African there is little doubt, but to what extent it is difficult to determine. In its barbaric rhythm and exuberance there is something of the bamboula, a wild, abandoned dance of the West African and the Haytian Negro… But jazz time is faster and more complex than African music. With its cowbells, of auto horns, calliopes, rattles, dinner gongs, kitchen utensils, symbols, screams, crashes, clankings and monotonous rhythm, it bears all the mark of a nerve-strung, strident, mechanized civilization. It is a thing of the jungles¾modern man-made jungles.(22)

Rogers' astute observation about the presence of African culture being “difficult to determine” shifts his analysis from a qualitative to a significant quantitative dimension: how does one measure the extent of African cultural influences? Moreover, we must ask, what significance does the quantitative measure of Africanisms have for the argument that Jazz derives from African culture?

Portia Maultsby, in her essay “Africanisms in African-American Music,&” draws a fundamental conceptual distinction between a qualitative and quantitative description of Africanism. She astutely argues,

The first scholars to examine customs and practices among blacks in the New World described the existence of African retentions in quantitative terms. Although this practice of trait listing is valid, it does not account for changes that took place within the American context. Over the centuries specific African elements either have been altered or have disappeared from the cultures of New World blacks altogether. Yet the concepts that embody and identified the cultural heritage of black Americans have never been lost. The African dimensions of African-American music [are] far-reaching and can be understood best when examined within this conceptual framework.(23)

Maultsby clarifies Rogers' rather amorphous concept of “atavistically African” with an analysis that conceptually transforms our method of investigation. Rather than perceiving no African retentions in Jazz, we now see that they are transformed and qualitatively change in the historical course of African American cultural development. The validity of listing African traits is heuristic; it provides the empirical basis for beginning the conceptual reconstruction of African American culture. However, starting such a process is not identical with completing it; in fact the conceptual reconstruction of African American culture assumes that the African component, while decisive, is neither solitary nor static. Herein is the theoretical basis for the answer to Rogers' concerns about providing a description of Jazz. At the same time, we have a response to Crouch's assumption of the ‘American’ nature of Jazz. Maultsby's formulation on the one hand includes the Euro-American material context, and on the other, conserves the dialectical movement of Africanisms. Consequently, African American nationality serves as both the context and content of Jazz. As context it takes into account the materiality of the U.S. experience and, as content, the cultural dialectic of Africanisms among African Americans.

In musical terms, the very evolution of African American music into Jazz initiates from the ring shout, and this began in Africa and culminated in Jazz at funeral parades. Samuel Floyd offers the following analysis of the evolution of Jazz:

[T]he impetus for [Jazz] was ritual, the ring ritual of transplanted Africans extended and elaborated through spirituals and folk rags. They converged in the ring—these spirituals and this ragtime—and awaited the blues, which joined them directly. In these early jazz funerals were found the tropes of the ring, including the heterogeneous sound ideal, which was creatively extended in the form of two rhythmic groups: the front line of cornet, clarinet and trombone and a rhythm section of drums and tuba (which would include piano and banjo when bands moved indoors).(24)

The transformation of Jazz from its early funeral ritual form to the more urban-based big band emerged in part due to the expansive dance halls that became the fashion during the 1920s. Following the principle of qualitative changes in musical expression, Floyd demonstrates that the African American cultural content of Jazz during the 1920s is aptly illustrated in Fletcher Henderson's big band sound. Henderson teamed up with arranger Don Redman to produce Jazz that would on the one hand “exploit the instrumental resources of the big band” and, on the other, “retain the flexibility and spontaneity of the small jazz ensemble. They accomplished this by placing the winds and brasses in contrast to each other, by employing composed riffs to create continuity and generate propulsive force, and by setting occasional solos against all of this. This process started a new line of development that was to become and remain the standard in big-band jazz.”(25)

Moreover, in terms of European context, Floyd points out that “The section-playing that Henderson employed was based on European principles…but the riffs and improvisations and the characterof the rhythmic propulsion were African-American. The process of riffing had long been prominent in ring and ring-derived music, emanating from the call-and-response figures and motivic interjections.”(26) Clearly Maultsby's notion of the qualitative character of Africanisms in African American music boldly stands out in Floyd's description of Henderson's innovations.


Given the integral part that Africanisms play in Jazz (as an artistic expression of African American national culture), it is no surprise that political activists under the sway of various forms of Pan-Africanism promoted Jazz and found in it a kind of cultural rejuvenation. From organizations such as Cyril Briggs's African Blood Brotherhood to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, these political activists were intimately engaged in the promotion of Jazz. The sentiment of African American national consciousness was not confined to political activists. Some musicians of this early period, like Max Roach at a later time, valued the fact that creative origins of Jazz were a matter of self-determination.(27) James Reese Europe, one of the pioneers of Jazz, anticipated Roach when he said (in 1919):

I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that negroes should write negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies. I notice that the Morocco negro bands played music which had an affinity to ours. One piece, ‘In Zanzibar’, I took for my band, and though white audiences seem to find it too discordant, I found it most sympathetic. We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines. Our musicians do their best work when using Negro material. Will Marion Cook, William Tires, even Harry Burleigh and Coleridge-Taylor are not truly themselves [except] in the music which expresses their race.(28)

The substance of the ‘Negro material’ that Europe speaks so eloquently of is none other than the working class experience of African Americans under U.S. capitalism. The migration of great numbers of African Americans to the cities and their subsequent proletarianization ushered in a new musical form and a politically progressive challenge to white supremacy and, for some, even a challenge to capitalism itself.(29)

While I have not ventured to discuss the post-World War II advent of Be Bop or more recent forms of Jazz expression, nevertheless, the dialectic of national oppression, class exploitation and racism remains the context for Jazz as well as other types of African American music. Perhaps this is why some of the younger generation of Rap artists wanted to join with the late Miles Davis to produce the album Doo Bop—Easy Mo Bee and Miles Davis coming together in 1991 to continue the tradition that James Reese Europe talked about in 1919. (30)


  1. Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 152. On Black women as Jazz singers, see Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, Singing Jazz (San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1997); Ted Vincent, Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age (London: Pluto Press, 1995); John H. McClendon III, “African or American: A Dialectical Analysis of Jazz Music” in Jacob U. Gordon, ed., The African Presence in Black America (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2004), 85-114.

  2. Stanley Crouch, Location: Small's Club (July 1, 1997), in Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns [edited from transcript].

  3. Stanley Crouch, Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), p. 15.

  4. Rudolph O. de la Garza, Z. Anthony Kruszewski, and Tomás Arciniega, eds., Chicanos and Native Americans: The Territorial Minorities (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973), p. 7.

  5. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990), p. 124.

  6. William Loren Katz, “Black/Indian Origins of the Fight for Democracy” (1984), in Esther Cooper Jackson, Freedomways Reader (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), p. 283. Before Roanoke Island, Jamestown, and Plymouth Rock, Spaniards established the colony of San Miguel de Guadalupe, utilizing African slaves to build the settlement. The Africans organized a revolt and then escaped to join the Native Americans. When the winter of 1526 came around, the Spaniards left for Santo Domingo and the Africans and Native Americans established their joint community.

  7. Some commentators on Frederick Jackson Turner view him more as a regional historian, concerned primarily with the western sections of the United States. However, his thesis about westward expansion and the western frontier was predicated on his commitment to ‘American’ nationalism. See Michael Kraus and Davis D. Joyce, The Writing of American History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 242f. For a critique of Pan-Americanism, see Alonso Aguilar, Pan-Americanism: From Monroe to the Present (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968). And for the political economy of capitalism in the United States from a historical perspective, see Douglas F. Dowd, The Twisted Dream: Capitalist Development in the United States Since 1776 (Cambridge: Winthrop Publishers, 1974). See also Melvyn Dubofsky and Athan Theoharis, Imperial Democracy: The United States Since 1945 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988).

  8. Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 459. Also consult Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 74.

  9. Ernest Allen, Jr., “On the Reading of Riddles: Rethinking Du Boisian ‘Double Consciousness,’” in Lewis Gordon, ed., Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997).

  10. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races,” in The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers (New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969), p. 11.

  11. Even with some of the progressive multicultural texts on the United States, there is a lack of appreciation of the multi-national character of this country, as they often take the view of one nation composed of many races. Takaki argues, “America has been racially diverse since our very beginning on the Virginia shore, and this reality is increasingly becoming visible and ubiquitous.” See Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), p. 2.

  12. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, vol. 2(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 927.

  13. Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990); Eileen Jackson Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971); Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991); Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, We Who Believe in Freedom (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1993).

  14. John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Mary Frances Berry and John Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Sterling Stuckey, Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Joseph Holloway, ed., Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), esp. chapters by Joseph Holloway (“The Origins of African American Culture”), Margaret Washington Creel (“Gullah Attitudes Toward Life and Death”), Beverly J. Robinson (“Africanisms in the Study of Folklore”), and Portia Maultsby (“Africanisms in African American Music”); Paul Robeson, “The Culture of the Negro,” London Spectator (June 15, 1934), 916-17. For a materialist analysis of African American folk music, see Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (New York: Othello Publishers, 1958), Appendix C “A Universal Body of Folk Music—A Technical Treatment by the Author.”.

  15. Max Roach, “Jazz” (1962), in Esther Cooper Jackson, ed., Freedomways Reader (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000) p. 360.

  16. Ibid., p. 360f.

  17. Stuckey, Going Through the Storm (n. 14),p. 257.

  18. Roach, “Jazz,” p. 361.

  19. Ibid.

  20. J.A. Rogers, “Jazz at Home,” in Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro (New York: Atheneum, 1992), p. 216.

  21. Vincent, Keep Cool (n. 1), p. 93.

  22. Rogers, “Jazz at Home,” p. 217f. Also see Thomas Riis, Just Before Jazz (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

  23. Maultsby, “Africanisms in African American Music” (n. 14), p. 186f. Dr. M.M. Fisher, for his classic study of slave songs, consulted the papers of Kwame Nkrumah on African culture. See Fisher, Negro Slave Songs (n. 13), p. 210.

  24. Floyd, The Power of Black Music (n. 14), p. 84.

  25. Ibid., p. 113

  26. Ibid., p. 113f.

  27. Vincent, Keep Cool (n. 1), pp. 108-160.

  28. James Reese Europe, “A Negro Explains Jazz,” in Robert Walser, ed., Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (Oxford University Press, 1999).

  29. Barry Singer, Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992) pp. 48-53; Vincent, Keep Cool, pp. 106-144.

  30. Ian Carr, Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 1998), pp. 529-31. For a dialectical materialist account of Jazz from 1950-1970 and its social import, see Thomas J. Porter, “The Social Roots of Afro-American Music,” Freedomways vol. 11, no. 3 (Third Quarter, 1971), 264-271.