Copland, Gershwin and Jazz

Some have complained that [Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto] had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?  — Music critic (1927)

[George Gershwin is] the man who made an honest woman out of jazz. — Publicity statement (1930s)

Why did public and critical reception of the “jazzy” 1920s works of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin differ so profoundly, despite the seeming similarities between the two? Where Copland was excoriated for his appropriations of rhythmic syncopation and bluesy melodies, Gershwin was lionized for doing the same thing. What gives?

This teasing question in reception history provides the underlying structure to Ch.11. In this way – framing a perplexing question then parsing it out one historical argument and musical work at a time – RT writes this moment in American musical history almost in the form of a whodunit. This sort of structure generates its own telos: “sociostylistic” cues accumulate until the mystery busts open and the answer to our question is revealed…

Critics placed Copland and Gershwin on different points in the racially-tinged spectrum of high vs low art. Where Copland was seen to sully the good name of concert music by contaminating it with the lowly, “animalistic” sounds of jazz, Gershwin – in his elegant treatments of Tin Pan Alley forms that never strayed too far from their original – was perceived as the great redeemer of jazz by elevating it to the level of concert music. (A distinction also shared with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned Rhapsody and Blue.) The messy “sociostylistic” problems of Jewish composers appropriating African-American forms for the consumption of predominantly WASP audiences was, indeed, a delicate dance that required extreme finesse to really “sell.” In this respect, Copland seemed to have had two left feet.

2 Comments

  1. But then it’s interesting how things developed – Copland never did jazz again, and
    African-American composers from Ellington to Monk to Miles and on to the present formed an African-American classical music every bit as sophisticated
    and expressive as European classical music.

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