A ragtime tune, an opera overture, all at the same time

Madison Avenue (How To Adapt A Sound) ©MAIERMOUL
Madison Avenue (How To Adapt A Sound) ©MAIERMOUL

If jazz is a metaphor for American life, what is it saying? Something about intelligence, improvisation, prepared intelligence and improvisation as invention, and the way they can be put together and continually generate something new and beautiful out of deeply improbable materials and seemingly impossible circumstances.

What is it about America that allowed jazz to happen? Why did jazz happen here? Yes. It’s this clash and confluence of cultural, musical, social traditions, sometimes coming together deliberately, in some musical setting, but sometimes, you know, it’s happening just as various little folk-loric communities are springing up.

You have America is a self-made and self-taught culture, and it’s even making up its proper high culture. Before, as ragtime, and then jazz are coming along. So you have, you know, band instructors, figuring out ways to teach, you know, instruments to this wild range of kids in public schools.

Earlier than that, you have people figuring out first how to adapt a sound they know from the old country, where, whatever the old country was, whether you were brought there or immigrated from it, to a new instrument. Or you have an instrument like the banjo, let’s say, trying to, taking the place of what old instruments and what other instruments, let’s say, in Africa did.

You have people doing things wrong and coming up with new sounds. You have also, because of the nature of our, of our entertainment, these big spectacles, and these jumbled theatrical things, you have orchestras that will play a ragtime tune, an opera overture, all at the same time. You have singers who will be doing a blues number, but will also feel they need to do an aria from “La Traviata.”

Every time someone does something like that, even if it’s preposterous, the possibilities for technical changes for rhythmic, melodic inventions get changed.

Margo Jefferson, interview PBS