Hear What is Jazz?: Leonard Bernstein’s Introduction to the Great American Art Form (1956)

By 1956, jazz was enter­ing its hard bop phase, far from its New Orleans birth­place. At the same time, it was frac­tur­ing into sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al gen­res, with the influ­ence of Latin rhythms and the south sea breezes of lounge.

Rock and Roll was just about to dis­place this music as a pub­lic men­ace du jour (or a pass­ing fad as some thought). This fas­ci­nat­ing Colum­bia release from 1956 finds the com­pos­er and con­duc­tor Leonard Bern­stein set­ting down his thoughts on the art form of jazz. A spo­ken word record with sam­ples from rag­time to Miles Davis, Bern­stein’s defense-as-lec­ture is a win­dow on the cul­ture wars at the time.

He’s here to defend jazz against its crit­ics, and argues against their opin­ions: jazz has low-class ori­gins, it’s loud, and it’s not art — the same cri­tiques to be lev­eled decades lat­er against hip hop.

In 1956, Bern­stein was already known to the gen­er­al pub­lic as an edu­ca­tor on clas­si­cal music. He gave lec­tures on CBS’ Omnibus TV pro­gram on the great sym­phonies, while he had already dab­bled in the instru­men­ta­tion and tex­tures of jazz in his score to On the Water­front, and was busy work­ing on West Side Sto­ry. So he was in a per­fect posi­tion to intro­duce a con­ser­v­a­tive mind to jazz. “I love it because it’s an orig­i­nal kind of emo­tion­al expres­sion, in that it is nev­er whol­ly sad or whol­ly hap­py,” he says.

Appear­ing on the album is Buck Clay­ton, Louis Arm­strong, Buster Bai­ley, Bessie Smith, Teo Macero, and Miles Davis. Davis, who had just been signed by Columbia’s George Avakian, plays “Sweet Sue,” mak­ing this track his first record­ing for the label. Bern­stein illus­trates jazz music the­o­ry, “blue notes,” dis­so­nance, rhythm and explores the African ori­gins of the music for 42 fas­ci­nat­ing min­utes. Did this LP turn a lot of clas­si­cal musos on to jazz? Did this influ­ence the chil­dren whose par­ents had this in their col­lec­tion? Was it all for­got­ten sev­er­al years lat­er with Beat­le­ma­nia? What­ev­er the answer, it’s an intrigu­ing rem­nant of a tran­si­tion­al time.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Leonard Bernstein’s First “Young People’s Con­cert” at Carnegie Hall Asks, “What Does Music Mean?”

Leonard Bern­stein Demys­ti­fies the Rock Rev­o­lu­tion for Curi­ous (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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