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Representation of African Americans in Jazz Music

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Table of contents

  1. The Perils of Jazz Musicians in America
  2. Literature Review
  3. Conclusion

One hundred and three years ago, on February 26, 1917, the first recording of jazz ‘Livery Stable Blues’ performed by the original Dixieland Jazz Band was released in the United States. But it was a problematic ‘first’ as these young musicians claimed to have ‘invented’ jazz. But it was published at an interesting moment in American history, when the emerging African American blues and jazz genres broke into American consciousness and spread throughout the country and the world. African American composers and performers opposed efforts to isolate music in the United States in various ways in order to spread their music to a wide audience. Despite prejudice on the part of record producers at the time, certain African American performers were able to cross over and become popular with white audiences. Ma Rainey was one of the most successful performers whose recordings became wildly popular. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle created an impact with their suit and tie performances. At the conclusion of the minstrel show era, they aimed to aid in the transition to a more respectable reception of African American performers. Instead, they became the exception rather than the rule. They did record some of their own performances, which were in high demand.

The United States as a whole was fed a racist narrative, and while there were extreme abolitionists in the North, they were outweighed by others who believed that the end of slavery would result in a massive influx of free blacks. These elements help to explain why blackface minstrelsy became the most popular type of popular entertainment in the nineteenth century. Despite the evident racist implications of blackface minstrelsy, the mimicking and parody process itself reveals a lot about how American culture evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Minstrelsy mocked southern plantation slaves and reinforced existing white supremacist beliefs, but it also bears witness to how white performers acknowledged the black presence in the United States at a very early stage in American history. In many cultural genres, there existed an unspoken racial interchange that, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, began to take on distinctively American traits.

The Perils of Jazz Musicians in America

The jazz genre originated in the United States, but it was soon condemned by the dominant group owing to its carriers, the so-called 'negroes'. The fact that the genre has lasted to this day is rather truly remarkable. Jazz arose from New Orleans' traditions of expressive culture and improvisation, which may be traced back to slave gatherings at Congo Square in the early 1800s. By the late nineteenth century, John Robichaux had one of the most well-known jazz orchestras. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American artists performed in minstrel shows and theatre productions such as Darkydom; these demeaning settings were highly popular, and they contributed to the expectations of both white and black audiences. In order for the project to succeed, the cast had to be 'genuine negro'. Around the turn of the century, jazz was viewed as the embodiment of vulgarity and the antithesis of the dominant group's aspirations of national identity. The classification of jazz as 'lowbrow' music reduced the genre and its practitioners to insignificance. Jazz was perceived as a fleeting phase in ‘popular’ culture, rather than a musical contribution worthy of serious aesthetic consideration. Popular music was regarded to be to be of little worth aesthetically, for that became the chief criterion: the cultural categories that became fixed around the turn of the century were aesthetic and judgmental rather than descriptive terms. The notion of culture was lifted out of the surrounding world into the universe of gentility. For Americans, jazz became the ‘antithesis’ of culture in this manner. Culture, was thought to be harmonious and rational, but Jazz was thought to be noisy. Jazz was seen to be 'spontaneous', whereas culture was said to come from hard study and training; and, not least, the audience participated in jazz, so erasing the invisible boundary between the performer and the listener.

Literature Review

Over the last thirty years, the issues surrounding race and America's cultural identity have gotten a lot of scholarly attention, and they continue to be a useful resource for cultural historians. When trying to make sense of a country where historical segregation has been constantly countered by the frequently unconscious interaction between black and white people, blackface minstrelsy might be seen as a metaphor. African Americans became increasingly active in blackface entertainment in the decades following the Civil War. The reasons for this were mainly economic, with racism ensuring that black American entertainers were unable to find meaningful work other than self-mockery. Houston A. Baker's ‘Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance’ (1984), written as an African American scholar, discusses the concept of 'form and mask' in African American minstrelsy and how entertainers like Bert Williams were actually reclaiming an identity that had been appropriated and distorted by whites. ‘America's Musical Life’ by Richard Crawford is a rigorous and detailed study of American music from the colonial period to the twentieth century that provides unique insights into Negro spirituals, minstrelsy, and the influence of artists like Stephen Foster. Ann Douglas' ‘Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s’ (1995), which explores the racial interaction of blacks and whites while emphasizing on how African Americans affected New York modernism during the Harlem Renaissance, is far more culturally specific but equally informative.

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The emergence of African American jazz musicians in Germany has many discussion points. The role of Jews in the blackface tradition is an area of study that is still ripe with possibilities. During the time when Eugenics gained popularity, the concept that blacks and Jews were working together to infiltrate German culture through jazz grew in popularity. Germans began to associate Jews with blacks, which coincided with the widespread Eugenicist ideals that had spread across the country after the end of World War I. The so-called 'sexual hunger' of jazz musicians was a recurring topic, and because many Jews were prominent figures in the performing arts at the time, they were easy targets. Both groups were judged racially inferior, and Eugenicist propaganda operations targeted them. The status of African American jazz musicians in Germany was complicated by ambivalence: despite the appearance of liberal social conditions, people of African heritage were publicly ridiculed and often ignored. Racist attitudes toward black people in Germany were driven by their disastrous colonial efforts in Africa in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and not by anything related to African Americans. Jazz was despised as 'nigger music' and accused for bringing undesirable customs to Germany. Outrageous statements were made about the perils of black male libido, which, if allowed to flourish, would reportedly weaken white people's reasoning ability.

Masquerading or masking for dramatic effect predates the popularization of blackface minstrelsy in nineteenth-century America, and it can be found in European, Asian, and African traditions. The use of disguise allows the performer to take a different identity than their own, which allows for more drama, parody, and humor. Blackface has many of the characteristics of a clown, but adds a racial dimension. In the United States, a form of blackface existed in the pre-revolutionary period, with the 'documented roots' of the minstrelsy tradition visible in early versions of the American theatre, such as when English actor Lewis Hallam smeared himself with burnt cork to portray the black servant Mungo in Charles Dibdin's comic opera ‘The Padlock’, which was performed in New York in 1769. Burnt cork was outlawed in several southern cities as a result. Blackface didn't gain popularity in the South until the Reconstruction period, when whites began to pine for a simpler time when slavery held ultimate racial power. Indeed, as Vaudeville's variety performances faded in the North, the travelling minstrel show thrived in the South, and remained a part of southern culture at least until the civil rights era in the early 1960s. To return to the cultural aspects of blackface in relation to a broader sense of American identity, minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the nineteenth century. Although these nineteenth-century images can now rightfully be considered as racist and humiliating, they at least demonstrated that black people were beginning - although indirectly - to influence America's cultural output through minstrelsy.

The work songs and spirituals of emancipated blacks in the southern interior, as well as the novelty songs of minstrelsy, were all absorbed into a musical mix that was unique to New Orleans, a cosmopolitan city that was not precisely typical of the American South, by the post-bellum period. With ragtime and blues overtones, jazz, as it was becoming called by the turn of the century was a music played entirely in New Orleans, with its best exponents being either African European Creole or black slave ancestors. Buddy Bolden, an African American musician who was never recorded and whose prowess is only known via the memory of succeeding black artists, was the first great cornet player. Jelly Roll Morton, a Creole pianist, and Louis Armstrong, a trumpeter, recorded some of the most important American music of the twentieth century during the 1920s, though they, like other great black or Creole musicians of the time, suffered commercially due to racial categorization within the music industry. The first ever jazz recording to achieve global success exemplifies the racial dimensions of commercial jazz.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), a group of white New Orleans musicians directed by Nick La Rocca, the son of an Italian immigrant, produced ‘Livery Stable BluesTiger Rag’ in 1917. His own bigotry convinced him that jazz was an exclusively white invention While black musicians contributed creativity and, despite La Rocca's denial, inspiration for many of their white contemporaries, it was white musicians who would promote jazz to a white audience. Jazz in the 1920s influenced America's fledgling white youth culture in a variety of ways, including terminology. During the years leading up to World War II, terms derived from African American slang were linguistically subversive tools that entered the vernacular lexicon of tens of thousands of white teens. Certainly, La Rocca's prejudice was not shared by all white jazz musicians, and some did openly appreciate the contributions of African Americans. Jazz represented the shifting times of a postwar world in which America and its symbols moved away from the log cabin and toward the age of automobiles, skyscrapers, and mass production. Conservatives may have viewed jazz as fouling their own ideas about what American music should be, but by the 1920s, jazz had established itself as America's most unique contribution to global culture. Despite discrimination within the entertainment business, jazz was an American music genre that incorporated elements from European and African origins and was performed by black and white musicians.


At the end of the 1920s, the majority of successful jazz artists were white, and recordings of white performers were expressly marketed at a white audience in America's racially divided society. As jazz became America's national music, the media attempted to minimize African American participation by praising white band leaders such as Paul Whiteman, the self-proclaimed 'King of Jazz'. Because white performers produced a gentler version of the music, jazz had evolved as a commercial style, ensuring a considerably bigger consumer market for the budding recording industry. African American entertainers were often disregarded by the wider white public during the 1920s. Whatever progress African Americans made throughout the 1920s, they continued to face mockery, prejudice, and brutality on a daily basis in a country where most whites assumed the Nordic European type's intellectual superiority. Despite all of these polarizing characteristics that pervaded political thinking and social attitudes, American popular music as a means of cultural expression was integrated, and while white artists received the financial benefits, black America's influence was apparent. The development of technology, as well as the mass production that it generated, considerably contributed to the distinctiveness of American popular music in that the modern preserved the ancient, and folk and popular cultures merged and entwined. At the same time, the blackface idiom's parody, borrowing, masking, and cultural theft all coalesced to reflect the complex and contradictory structure of America's cultural identity.

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Representation of African Americans in Jazz Music. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Representation of African Americans in Jazz Music.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
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