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By John L. Jackson

Friday, 30 September 2011.

I’ve always wanted to start a piece of writing with that one provocation—maybe a bit of creative nonfiction, maybe a would-be short story.

My purposefully dismissive declaration is meant to mark a two-fold resentment. First, not being a musician myself, I privilege jazz’s vocalists over its virtuosic drummers, saxophonists, and trumpeters, and for many jazz purists, that is my initial mistake: I want to hear Louis Armstrong sing more than blow his horn. Nina Simone, Arthur Prysock, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday are towering figures, no doubt, with huge and loyal followings, but the Miles Davises and John Coltranes and Thelonius Monks undeniably define the music’s canonical core, especially for many would-be connoisseurs. And there begins my second complaint.

At its most pretentious, jazz music sometimes gets mobilized (by a few of those aforementioned connoisseurs) to justify pompous brands of social sifting, a snobby elitism that functions as the class-coded policing of authentic African American cultural production. No other music, the claim goes, can hold a candle to its essential (and even existential) distillation of African American angst and aspiration. If the blues demands respect for its straightforward and vernacular profundities, jazz adds a learned and well-heeled dose of proficiency to the mix. And neither one is hip-hop, still occasionally invoked as “the anti-jazz.”

In the not-so-distant past, musician Wynton Marsalis and cultural critic Stanley Crouch were the most vocal proponents of jazz’s qualitative difference from (and superiority over) hip-hop. Crouch, also an avid fan of the blues, has mused publicly about the “retarding effect” of hip-hop, a genre that, according to Crouch, takes relatively little talent and profits from the denigration of black culture. Marsalis has gone on record dismissing hip-hop as little more than “a safari for people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves, men dressing in gold, calling themselves stupid names like Ludacris or 50 Cent, spending money on expensive fluff.”

“Jazz vs. hip-hop” is just one instantiation of a slow-burning intra-racial class warfare played out on the boneless (and, therefore, flexible) back of popular culture, pivoting on the politics of respectability in mixed-raced company. Jazz is one black middle-class response to the threat of racial inauthenticity, its trump-card rejoinder to the equally problematic assumption that urban poverty is singularly constitutive of legitimate African-American subjectivity. And this is true even if the black middle class is deemed unable or unwilling to sustain jazz music, which leads to discussions (at least in Spike Lee joints) about the extent to which jazz has become “white music,” – that is -  supported by mostly white audiences.

John L. Jackson is an anthropologist, academic and filmmaker born in Brooklyn, New York. He is also the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The New Reality of Race in America: Racial Paranoia, The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. He Blogs at From The Annals of Anthroman.


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