"The Jazz Problem": How U.S. Composers Grappled with the Sounds of Blackness, 1917-1925

Doktor, Stephanie, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hagstrom Miller, Karl, Department of Music, University of Virginia

My dissertation tracks the development of jazz-based classical music from 1917, when jazz began to circulate as a term, to 1925, when U.S. modernism was in full swing and jazz had become synonymous with America. I examine the music of four composers who used black popular music regularly: Edmund Jenkins, John Powell, William Grant Still, and Georgia Antheil. For each composer, whose collections I consulted, I analyze at least one of their jazz-based compositions, consider its reception, and put it in dialogue with writings about U.S. concert music after World War I. Taken together, these compositions contributed to what I call the Symphonic Jazz Era, and this music was integral to the formation of American modernism.

I examine how these four composers grappled with the sounds of blackness during this time period, and I use “the Jazz Problem” as an analytic to do so. This phrase began to circulate in periodicals around 1923, and it captured anxieties about both the rise of mass entertainment and its rootedness in black cultural sounds in the Jim Crow era. For some U.S. modernist composers, jazz offered a compositional ingredient—unique, native, and modern—that could articulate a distinct national style. Yet, the music’s associations with dancing, sex, commercialism, and working-class blackness made it controversial to bring into the concert hall. It is this conflict that fueled “the Jazz Problem” among composers: that jazz was modern but also commercial, that it was uniquely American but also black music.

“The Jazz Problem” for the composers studied in this dissertation was not about if jazz belonged in the concert hall but how. I argue that these four composers used a series of mutually constitutive dichotomies to negotiate exactly how to depict blackness in their compositions. These composers held different and sometimes contradictory definitions of modernism and jazz, but they articulated them through a common language which contrasted representations of highbrow with lowbrow, black with white, and the past with the present. These were not the only discursive formations at play but they were the most prominent. They gave meaning and form to concert jazz.

How composers negotiated the intersection of these dichotomies changed radically between 1917 and 1925. Jenkins and Powell wrote compositions in 1917 and 1918 respectively well before the most widely known piece of concert jazz premiered at Paul Whiteman’s 1924 Aeolian Hall concert: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Jenkins and Powell placed jazz idioms alongside other common modes of depicting blackness: the Spirituals and Stephen Foster tunes. In 1925, Still and Antheil wrote pieces at the height of the symphonic jazz vogue when the language of representing blackness in the concert hall had changed to jazz. They used jazz as a bold challenge to concert hall norms. A comparison between the early compositions of Jenkins and Powell and later compositions by Still and Antheil shows changes in approaches to concert jazz. These changes reveal a crucial link between the commercial explosion of jazz and the institutionalization of U.S. modernism after the war.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: