How fitting that a festival exploring a theme as vast as "America" should be playing stages across Chicago next month.
For no art form reflects the fundamentals of the American experiment more urgently than jazz, and no city has contributed more to the music than Chicago, which roughly a century ago transformed a New Orleans sound into a global phenomenon — and has been reinventing it ever since.
So although the 23rd annual Chicago Humanities Festival will, as always, present a broad array of cultural attractions, its jazz offerings uniquely address the meaning of "America."
When aficionados call jazz "the only original American art form," they're not referring to chronology. All manner of music and letters, most of it imported from Europe, flourished on this continent long before Buddy Bolden picked up his horn in New Orleans in the late 19th century. But unlike the Lutheran hymns that rang out in our churches and the Anglo-Saxon drinking songs that enlivened our saloons, jazz emerged as a radical, distinctly American new way of creating music.
Rather than reading from an already written score or delivering a melody as written in the European manner, jazz players at the turn of the previous century created the music on the spot and freely improvised on it en masse. They weren't even called jazz musicians yet — the early artists titled their work simply "New Orleans music" — but they were the ones who hit upon a fresh, fiercely democratic way of expressing ideas in sound.
They did so not out of whimsy but necessity, the cheek-by-jowl living conditions of old New Orleans forcing formally trained Creole artists such as Jelly Roll Morton to collaborate with self-taught, play-it-by-ear black counterparts such as the young Louis Armstrong (though Morton and Armstrong didn't swap ideas until they both were in Chicago).
Various social classes and African-American bloodlines converged when musicians played the street parades, social halls and brothels of the Crescent City and mingled there. To make music together, they had to concoct a new way of forging sound, a rough-and-ready, loosely improvised music that would welcome all comers.
This was a Declaration of Independence from the European symphonic and operatic models, and jazz explosively developed along its own revolutionary path, just like America itself.
No longer would an authoritarian figure in white tie and tails stand above the musicians on a podium, baton in hand, instructing his charges to follow his beat, his tempo, his pauses — his will. No longer would musicians bury their noses in the score, playing what was written for them, down to the 32nd note.
Instead, each musician would have a say. Though a basic set of chord changes or a particular melody would be shared by all, each player would riff freely, each getting a chance to solo, much like citizens rising up to be heard in an all-American town hall meeting.
Here was freewheeling democracy in sound, rooted in African cultural ritual and conceivable only in an egalitarian young country not beholden to aristocratic tradition. Even its central rhythmic concepts, ragtime and nascent swing, were looser, more airborne than their four-square European counterparts, the early jazz musicians liberating themselves from its earthbound downbeats.
Morton arrived in Chicago around 1910, Armstrong in 1922, and they and their New Orleans expat brethren launched the music for all the world to hear through their breakout recordings. If Armstrong raised the art of improvisation to unprecedented (and still unmatched) heights with his Hot Five and Hot Seven releases, Morton made a comparably huge leap forward, proving with his Red Hot Peppers records that the elusive, outspoken new art form indeed could be written down, while maintaining the free spirit of New Orleans music (and leaving plenty room for improv).
But the seismic effects of the emergence of jazz, which by the 1930s had become a popular phenomenon in the U.S., Europe and beyond, rumbled far outside the music itself. Considering the democratic essence of jazz, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the music stood at the forefront of integration in America.
Chicago clarinetist Benny Goodman dared to feature the black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in a mixed-race band in the late 1930s, shattering racial barriers before throngs of screaming fans. Bandleader Artie Shaw similarly confronted racism head-on by touring the South with Billie Holiday as his featured singer in the same era, in outright defiance of Jim Crow laws and customs.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy to "make a beginning" toward desegregation by encouraging a black band to be formed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, near Waukegan, in 1942, its future stars including saxophonist Von Freeman, trumpeter Clark Terry, composer Gerald Wilson and others. Though it's true that black musicians were segregated on the naval station, their very presence, previously not allowed, began opening up the Navy through jazz.
When the U.S. wanted to sell democracy around the globe in the Cold War 1950s, whom did it turn to? Jazz trumpeters Armstrong, who famously toured West Africa and Europe, and Dizzy Gillespie, who stormed the Middle East and Europe, both under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.
Yet if jazz is so deeply rooted in the meaning and history of American democracy, one might ask, why is it marginalized in our popular culture, relegated to small clubs and concerts halls, all but banished from commercial radio and TV? Why is it seemingly loved more abroad than here at home?
Those questions are open to debate, but I believe this state of affairs says more about the nature of today's popular culture than it does about jazz itself or its position in the national psyche. In an era when commercially driven, mass appeal entertainment aims at an ever-larger market, a music as sophisticated and intricate as jazz clearly will not reach a broad, uninitiated audience. That's the case, too, of course, with classical music, PBS documentaries, high-toned novels and other intellectually demanding fare.
Even so, jazz, as ever, thrives at the cutting edge of our culture, which is why you'll see young fans (and old), black and white and every other shade of listener crowding jazz clubs such as the Green Mill and Jazz Showcase in Chicago, the Village Vanguard and Blue Note in New York and elsewhere. Why every decent high school or better has a robust jazz band. Why it's virtually impossible to count all the colleges and universities with a jazz curriculum. The music long ago became integrally bound up with education and, therefore, with youth in America.
That jazz continues to flourish in these settings despite its absence from commercial TV, where American culture occupies its biggest stage, says a great deal about the vitality of the music and its importance to the intellectual identity of this country. Thus jazz always has been a central pillar of the Chicago Humanities Festival, the event this year exploring the origins of the music in "A Musical Tour of New Orleans With Victor Goines" (4 p.m. Nov. 10 at Francis Parker School).
That audiences around the globe celebrate jazz even more than we do — with festivals, clubs, concerts, broadcasts, record labels and whatnot — reflects the world's fascination not only with jazz but also with the American life it signifies.
It's not difficult, in other words, for foreign audiences to see the connection between jazz and freedom. That's why during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, millions behind the Iron Curtain tuned in to Willis Conover's "Voice of America" jazz broadcasts, many taking great risks to smuggle illicit jazz records into their homes. The "decadent music," as the Soviet Union called it, represented everything the Eastern bloc citizens yearned for but were denied under the weight of Moscow's anti-Americanism.
Jazz always has appealed to "foreigners" and immigrants, and that helps explain why some of the most dramatic and exciting forms of the music being created today originate with global artists, such as Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, Puerto Rican saxophonists Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez, Indian-heritage American musicians Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, and others. They've woven the music of their cultures into American jazz, just as immigrants long have brought their customs and dreams here with them, redefining this country in the process.
So the next time you attend a jazz show or hear the music pulsing in the background of a chic restaurant or an elegant radio spot, realize that you're not merely being entertained.
You're hearing America's original art form, but also something more: American democracy, expressed in rhythm and tone.
Twitter @howardreichCopyright © 2015, RedEye