(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re not in Europe.
You live in a specific place that has had and is currently having its own history—a history characterized by immigration, extinction, culture clash, and immediacy. Exploration and risk-taking is something inherent to human history in the New World; tribes stomped across the dry Bering Strait in pursuit of mammoth herds the same way Europeans would sail across the Atlantic in pursuit of more ephemeral things millennia later. A new government was founded on lofty ideals, the execution of which is still flawed, over the course of a short rebellion.
In the same way that Europe is characterized by length of history, America is characterized by distance and space—our history is closer to us, our cities farther away. In the same way that Europe is characterized by division, America is characterized by the blending of cultures.
America isn’t Europe. So why do we sometimes try to be?
Why do we have to have a jazz canon—why do we judge ensembles on their performances of Duke and Count Basie, and why do we judge players on their resemblance to Parker and Miles? That music is wonderful, but imitation or the desire to replicate is not why those works were written. The classical canon is an objective fact in Europe, but we don’t need to imitate Europe to be legitimate.
Why do we use forms and ensembles invented in Europe to describe European experiences? Can we honestly get our ideas out with structures invented by people who don’t know what it’s like to be us? Is it possible to shed the connotations of those ensembles for long enough to get an experience that represents what we are across? (Maybe--ask Aaron Copland.)
Why don’t American conservatories teach every one of their students how to swing? Why don’t we make knowing how to play a blues—or at least who to listen to to understand what that is—absolutely mandatory? Why are educators more able to direct and conduct essentially European ensembles, when they’ll have no idea what to tell a drummer in a high school jazz band?
European art music is great, but it’s also not where we’re coming from as a country, and it’s wrong to pretend so. What needs to happen is that we take their composers’ reasons for doing what they did, and apply it to our situation and our contexts to really truly make art like they did.
The heritage of art isn't imitation, but assimilation.
And if you are American, write and play to that.
Maybe write about how, if you're around the age of 20, your country has been in a state of military activity for over half your life. Write about how you just saw the long arc of the moral universe bend toward justice on the 26th. Write about Tuskegee Airmen and Tuskegee Test Subjects, write about kids playing pretend in a Baptist Church parking lot, write about the Great Depression, write about hymns, write about laws made in fear, write about West Coast permaculture, write about road trips, write about people who were born an ocean away naturalizing here and finding a home, write about whistleblowers, write about Ferguson, write about landing on the moon 60 years ago, write about no longer being able to land on the moon because there's no more military use for it, write about falling for someone who doesn't look like you who grew up next to you and talks like you do, write about Bird, write about ANYTHING so long as it's something that you can and should write about because you're the only person who sees it like you who can express it like you will.
Write now, right now, because nobody will do it for you.
Happy Fourth of July.