Who owns jazz?

Saturday 22 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Conservatory Culture Wars


In Association With:

Listen to this session at the bottom of this page.

Jazz is a musical genre with a global following, taking a variety of forms in many different parts of the world. Musically, it is characterised by a forceful rhythm, improvisation and a degree of syncopation, but culturally it is also heavily associated with black America, and has an important relationship to the African diaspora. So does this mean a particular ethnic group has ‘ownership’ of this genre? The black American experience and its relationship to jazz is well documented - what is sometimes overlooked is the universal appeal and history of major white contributions to jazz. Since its inception in the early years of the 20th century, jazz music and jazz clubs have been racially contested spaces, with mixed ensembles clashing against segregation, but also with black venues and subcultures emerging as sites of African American pride, as in the Harlem Renaissance.

So it comes as no surprise that questions of black creativity, authenticity and authorship are resurfacing today at a time of heightened sensitivity to ‘cultural appropriation’. Jazz is a testament to the cultural achievements of black Americans, and many are keen to ensure that is not forgotten. On the other hand, nobody claims when listening to Mozart, Brahms or Beethoven that they are listening to ‘white’ music. Some critics of the idea that jazz belongs to any group insist that jazz music has no real colour. For them, jazz is just American, and colourless – and were it not for industrialisation, modernity and democracy, jazz would not exist.

Questions about the ownership of jazz raise further questions, from whether music is any more than a product to be bought and sold, to whether black and white Americans can ever transcend their history. Should we look to the jazz that inspires millions globally to educate us about the social terrain from which it arose? Or is jazz more than its own history, and could it inspire new forms of free creativity from Harlem to Hong Kong?