COMMENTARY: Jazz and the African American Literary Tradition

Prof. Gerald Early says it all in this teaching outline. Based upon this research and information, I have found my audience among those who already formed their musical preference for the complexities in the jazz music I prefer, during their adolescent years. Interesting.

Here’s an excerpt: 

# # #

Guiding Student Discussion

Students will be unfamiliar with jazz. The most difficult aspect of teaching students about the impact of jazz on African American literature is the fact that most young people have heard very little jazz and have little interest in it. Most of them think of it as old people’s music, as some sort of muzak or some sort of highly dissonant music that seems overly elitist and intellectual. Do not think that African American students will have some greater sympathy for or cultural identification with this music because of the number of African American artists who have made it. They are no more likely to respond favorably to Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, or John Coltrane than any other student. One major problem is that jazz is largely an instrumental music that prides itself on strenuous virtuosity, which means that it will seem dense and abstract to casual listeners and especially to students who listen to nothing but the current popular music, which is largely vocal and usually simpler and more accessible in its technical execution. You must, of course, play jazz for your students if you are to succeed in teaching them about the relationship between jazz and African American literature. But you cannot play it for them without providing them with some aid in how to listen to it; otherwise they will simply feel bewildered and helpless in confronting it. Part of the aid you should provide in teaching students how to listen to it is to explain to them what the music is and what the musicians are trying to achieve by playing it and what devoted audiences get out of listening it. You should remind students that nearly all jazz musicians started out very young as professional musicians and most made their marks while they were still in their twenties and most continued to play the same style of music for their entire careers. You might also emphasize that this is true in other fields of popular music and is true of hip-hop and rap today. When the current artists are fifty or sixty years old, they will very likely be making music that is similar to what they made while in their 20s and 30s. (Think about the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and other older popular artists to prove this point,) Also, during its heyday, jazz had an enormous appeal to teenagers and young adults. Perhaps you might ask them if fifty years from now if the music that is popular today be considered old people’s music. You might point out to them that research has shown that people form their musical taste in adolescence and that by early adulthood the taste one has in music is, by and large, complete and will remain the same for the rest of your life with very little change and very little openness to new music. 


# # #

Comments or Thoughts? Cb