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By M. ROBERT ROGERS
AMERICA, during the exciting decade of the nineteen-twenties, became suddenly aware that in her popular music she had produced an idiom not only in keeping with the tempo of her life, but capable of being looked upon as an original artistic contribution from a country often regarded as excessively eclectic in cultural fields.
True, the baby among musical nations needed the prompting of her European elders before she realized that the developments she took more or less as a matter of course could be definite contributions towards the growth of an art-music. A Bohemian composer, come to teach in Brooklyn, New York, was the first to recognize in the folk-music of the southern Negroes a rich store of inspiration for serious composers. The spirituals which proved so stimulating to Dvorak were destined to develop into the blues, which subsequently became one of the main elements of jazz.
Still, American composers were slow to avail themselves of the elements of their native folk-music, even when rag-time and jazz were harder to silence than to hear. As early as 1896, Johannes Brahms was thinking of introducing the novel rhythmic effects of American rag-time, which he had just heard for the first time, into one of his compositions,1 and Debussy, Stravinsky, and Auric, had already used rag-time and jazz in their compositions before an American, John Alden Carpenter, wrote Krazy Kate', a jazz-ballet, in 1922.
Wherein lies the explanation of the potent influence of jazz? First we must determine what jazz is, if that be possible. Many have attempted to define rag-time, blues, and jazz, but most have fallen into the error of trying to make too definite distinctions among them. Even a superficial examination should indicate that rag-time and jazz are really the same thing in different stages of development. Carl Engel has rightly observed that "jazz is rag-time, plus 'blues,' plus orchestral polyphony."2
1 See Boston Evening Transcript, Music Section, March 22, 1930.
2 Discords Mingled, 1931, p. 147. Paul Fritz Laubenstein, in Jazz—Debit and Credit, The MUSICAL QUARTERLY, October, 1929, particularly stresses the contributions to orchestration made by jazz, in his discussion of the "credit" side.
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54 The Musical Quarterly
The day when rag-time first reared its head3 can be placed only generally in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The first appearance of the word "rag-time" in connection with a printed song occurred on the cover of Bert Williams' Oh, I don't know, you're not so warm, in 1896. America sang and danced to rag-time until before she entered the World War. In the five years preceding the War, the term "jazz" gradually came to replace "rag-time" in general use. Change in the style of the music came gradually too. One cannot say when rag-time stopped and jazz began. One should not try to, for, as already stated, they are the same thing in different phases. "Jazz completed a process that rag-time began."4
In defining jazz, the authorities have ended in confusion and disagreement, and have generally failed in their purpose. Irving Schwerké points out that the "ordinary American . . . could not define jazz any better than the ordinary European; but where the American has the advantage is that his ear knows when jazz is and when it is not."5 Henry Osgood expresses a kindred thought: "It is the spirit of the music, not the mechanics of its frame or the characteristics of the superstructure built upon that frame, that determines whether or not it is jazz."6 In contrast to this opinion is Aaron Copland's belief that jazz can be defined if its structure is analyzed. But his conclusions are not very startling; he says: "The peculiar excitement [jazz] produces by clashing two definitely and regularly marked rhythms is unprecedented in occidental music. Its polyrhythm is the real contribution of jazz."7
Actually all these men are right, but none accomplishes his purpose: to define jazz. The reason is simple: "jazz," applied to music, is indefinable, for "no word used to describe a school of music can be defined."8 Jazz is correctly a style, not a form, and styles can be only described, not defined. Paul Whiteman, who has had perhaps more practical experience with jazz than any other person, has arrived at a similar conclusion: "Jazz is not as yet the thing said, it is the manner of saying it."9
3I cannot undertake here to give an adequate historical sketch. See Isaac Goldberg's, Tin Pan Alley, 1930.
4Ibid., p. 130.
5Kings David and Jazz, 1927, p. 33.
6So This Is Jazz, 1926, p. 26.
7Modern Music, January 1927.
8 A. V. Frankenstein, Syncopating Saxophones, 1925, p. 39.
9Jazz, 1926, p. 117.