Digging collects essays written over a twenty-year period in which Amiri Baraka explores jazz not only as the distinctively American art form but also as the United States’ version of classical music. To make this argument, he must successfully position the jazz tradition alongside the classical traditions of other countries, such as Germany, France, and Russia, that have recognized classical lineages. Generations of gifted classical composers in Europe expanded on earlier musical conventions in order to create new musical works that made use of existing musical traditions.
German classical music, for example, developed from the highly intellectual and finely wrought fugues and suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) into the romantic and emotionally powerful symphonies of Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827). Beethoven found inspiration in the sung cantatas and masses when he introduced the words from the “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. The recurring musical themes in Beethoven’s last five symphonies inspired Richard Wagner (1813-1883) to use highly evocative leitmotifs in order to describe the unique traits of the major characters in his operas. Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner created their music in Germany, where different styles of classical music were appreciated and where composers frequently wrote creative musical imitations and variations on well-known classical works.
Improvisation often played an integral part in performances and interpretations as early as the first half of the eighteenth century. Many people who attended the Lutheran church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, where Bach played the organ for Sunday services, stated that Bach played well-known Lutheran hymns in highly imaginative ways, and many parishioners were not pleased with his creative improvisations. Pianists and violinists who played concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Beethoven felt comfortable including their own codas, which they added near the end of their performances.
Such improvisations and creative changes to the original score extended well into the twentieth century. The eminent Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who performed regularly in New York City during the first four decades of the twentieth century before moving there permanently at the outbreak of World War II, surprised concertgoers by adding his own codas to extremely well-known violin concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Kreisler even performed his own reinterpretation of the famous African American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” His was a highly intellectual Austrian variation on this famous American hymn.
Were one to compare Kreisler’s rendition of the spiritual with the very earthy and better-known 1962 interpretation by Louis Armstrong, one could conclude that Kreisler does not understand the African American origin of this hymn. While it is totally Eurocentric, however, Kreisler’s rendition of the spiritual does reveal his sincere attempt to understand the music of the country where he spent the last two decades of his life. New York City concertgoers could appreciate creative improvisations of famous works not just by classical European composers but also by twentieth century jazz composers.
While Americans may appreciate the rich complexity of classical music from distant European countries, they understand that a love of classical music is a taste acquired by those who are interested in certain foreign cultures. European classical music is aesthetically very pleasing, but it is not American music. Baraka argues persuasively in Digging that jazz is the only music created and developed in the United States by Americans. He also points out that it is a historical fact that early jazz musicians and composers were almost exclusively...
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