Jazz created from cultural free will

Elton Wong

In my sociology class last Tuesday, we talked about some theories concerning the assimilation of different people into American culture. Assimilation is the process by which an immigrant ethnic group slowly adjusts its culture to fit in with the dominant one. Assimilation is contrasted with pluralism, whereby each immigrant group retains its own culture, but still contributes meaningfully to the larger society. These concepts are useful when examining aspects of American history, such as the relative ease with which immigrants from different countries have entered the mainstream of American society. Interesting as the ideas of assimilation and pluralism are, I have always found them to be sort of coldly deterministic. Under these theories, people are defined primarily as mere members of groups. For the purposes of those discussions, “culture” is really defined as “traditional culture.” For example, I suppose I could be classified as “Chinese American.” However, because I don’t speak Chinese, and because most of my friends aren’t Chinese, some sociologists would say that I am “assimilated” into American culture. But I don’t see it this way at all.In these times, in this country, I believe that culture is something you make for yourself. If you were a serf in the Dark Ages, you probably didn’t have much leeway as far as determining your own culture. Your religion, patterns of social interaction, religious beliefs and life goals were pretty much decided by the church and whoever owned the land you worked on. In that kind of situation, culture was a script, an inflexible set of instructions and constraints. Modern America is a diverse, free place, and is thus very different. Additionally, I’ve never believed that being born with a certain genetic makeup somehow obligates you to accept certain cultural values. For instance, just because I have straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes doesn’t mean that I somehow have to learn kung fu or drink tea all the time. Sartre said that “existence precedes essence,” which basically means that each person has to make their own meaning, no one has such meaning pre-given. If you decide to accept any lifestyle, belief system, or culture, you have to accept responsibility for choosing it. Saying things like “I’m the way I am because of my cultural background” is nothing more than a cop-out, because you are always free to do otherwise. I am especially reminded of this theme of creating culture lately, because this January, PBS is airing Ken Burns’ ten-part documentary on jazz. I’m not a terribly experienced musician, and I’m no sociologist, but I think that jazz is the most uniquely American of all cultural creations. Jazz was invented by African Americans, and it draws from African rhythms, but it is not African music. Jazz uses many of the same instruments and the same basic musical system as classical music, but jazz is nothing like traditional European music. Jazz is partly an assimilation of its influences, but it is undeniably something greater. It’s not enough to say that Louis Armstrong played beautifully. The essential point is that he played and popularized a form of music that no one had ever heard before. He almost single-handedly created the idea of what a jazz improviser was. Years later, Charlie Parker decided that he didn’t want to play the way the older guys did, and so invented what is now called bebop, which was so radical and unheard of that the older generation of musicians hated it, until they came to understand it. In terms of harmony, phrasing, tone, and tempo, bebop is years away from swing. Bandleader Cab Calloway even described these new sounds as “Chinese music.” As Armstrong and Parker illustrate, individuality and inventiveness have always been the hallmarks of great jazz musicians. My own experience with this music started my freshman year of Iowa State. I met an amazing piano player on my dorm floor named Bryan Nichols. He let me borrow a few CDs, and some books on jazz music theory. Previous to that, my experience as a musician had consisted of plunking out pieces on the piano and bashing out rock songs with my high school garage band. I quickly found out that jazz has a kind of sophistication and musical substance lacking in rock music. And unlike my piano experience (required of all Asian-American children), jazz music is about improvising —making the music yourself the moment you play it instead of reading it off a page. Most importantly, I learned to appreciate the music, to really like it. I joined the ISU Jazz Ensemble the next year even though I hardly knew how to play the music. From that experience, I learned that the best way to improve at something is to surround yourself with people who do it much better. Last year, I played in a sextet called Cornbread with Bryan and a bunch of other guys from Jazz ensemble; we won the Veishea Battle of the Bands and got to open for the Black Eyed Peas at Hilton Coliseum. The American music industry would love for the public to forget about real music and keep buying albums by Kid Rock and Ricky Martin every year. Fans of this kind of music tend to fall into neat demographic groups that can be led to consume products in very predictable ways. I think that buying your culture from corporations is the worst kind of self-abandonment. Ken Burns’ documentary and the excitement surrounding it are wonderful excuses for you to acquaint yourself with the greatest art form America has ever produced. Even if you set aesthetic considerations aside, Jazz is a perfect example of what can happen when culture is invented and improvised by individuals, instead of read like a script by the masses.

Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.