This Week in the Archive: The Jazz Piano

By Aisling Gorman

“Defining jazz is a notoriously difficult proposition, but the task is easier if one bypasses the usual inventory of musical qualities or techniques, like improvisation or swing . . . ethnicity provides a core, a center or gravity for the narrative of jazz, and its one element that unites the several kinds of narratives in use today.”—DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition”

Jazz music originated amongst African Americans in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jazz music developed from the blues genre. This musical form recognized the pain of lost love and injustice and gave expression to facing adversity (PBS.org).

In the beginnings of jazz music, there were no music sheets, instructions or arrangements (The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017). Jazz music was primarily self-taught, and drew upon the African tradition of passing on culture such as music, dance, stories through listening, watching, and recreating (The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017). Due to this, the role models for future jazz musicians were generally of African American descent. Jazz music became a form of expression for African American artists who cultivated and helped spread it. Jazz was music that honored the African cultural traditions of transmission, and yet provided present day African Americans with an outlet from white dominance and oppression.

As jazz music was different, and “raw” in comparison to music genres such as classical music, it was not uncommon in the early 1900s for jazz music to be banned in schools – or just not taught by music teachers. As jazz music was not recognized as “proper” (or sometimes not at all), it was often absent from college campuses (The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017). In the University of Richmond’s literary magazine, The Messenger, there is a piece from 1932 that discusses strange rules at southern college campuses. One of these strange rules is that at the University of Richmond, jazz music was banned from being played on the Grand Piano in the Westhampton Drawing Room. Although the piece does not delve deeper into why jazz music was banned from the piano, this University of Richmond policy is intriguing, as it calls for many questions to be answered. Why was jazz not allowed on the Drawing Room piano? Was it allowed in other places on campus? As jazz music has its roots in African American culture, and many of its prominent figures of the time were of African American descent, this policy also raises the question of whether the ban was driven by racism.

Although mention of the ban on jazz music in The Messenger raises many questions that are difficult to answer, it is possible to try and answer at least some. An article in The Collegian describes the dedication of the Margaret E. James Memorial Music Room. Margaret’s father, Dr. James, donated a fully furnished music room to Westhampton College in 1933. Dr. James donated the room on one condition – that only classical music be allowed on there. However, the Grand Piano was not yet moved into the new room, and was still being kept in the Drawing Room. Although there were many pianos on the University campus, the restriction on the type of music allowed to be played on this specific piano causes us to wonder if this is the same piano as the one that The Messenger refers to? And if so, how did only classical music transform into no jazz music, leaving room for other genres? Another interesting answer to consider is the possibility of the regulation as a means of the university’s efforts to control students’ options regarding what African American music they could perform. By only banning students from playing jazz, a genre that emerged from resistance, the university could have been working to perpetuate white dominance through the policy and restrictions surrounding music.

While many of these questions cannot be answered due to the lack of documents surrounding the policy of the Westhampton Drawing Room Grand Piano, it is still important to question such policy, and to consider the possible reasons for implementing something like this given the background of jazz music and the racial tensions at the time.

Works Cited

DeVeaux, Scott. “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography.” JSTOR, 1991. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. “Jazz Education.” Jazz in America. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017. Web. 12 Apr. 2017

 

Aisling Gorman is a senior from Hamilton Parish, Bermuda, pursuing a major in Rhetoric & Communications Studies, with a double minor in Anthropology and Sociology. Her biggest takeaway from working on this project, and specifically on past policy at the University of Richmond, is the need to pay closer attention to unquestioned policy, as its implications might reach further than initially apparent. She wrote this post as part of her work on a Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387)Read more about University of Richmond Performance & Policy at the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project.

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