Over the next three weeks, you have the opportunity to think creatively about music, to put yourself in a musician’s shoes. For this assignment, read the post below to learn about a group of American musicians from the first half of the 20th century. Use their stories and careers to inspire your piece of creative writing (poetry/song, dialogue, or journal entry) using the prompt and rubric available here: Online creative writing project – Spring 2018

Assignment requirements and non-requirements:

  1. Use the blog forum to bounce ideas off each other and test out your writing. Support each other by offering suggestions. You are not required to make any comments on this post, but, as always, particularly particularly insightful comments or exchanges will earn extra credit (up to +10 on this assignment).
  2. You do not have to submit a first draft for this assignment, although you may choose to do so if you would like feedback:
    • H2: due via email by 11:59pm on April 3
    • H3/L3: due via email by 11:59pm on April 4
  3. Your final draft is due via email by 11:59pm on:
    • H2: April 17
    • H3/L3: April 18

The post will be live March 26-April 15. Our final online discussion begins April 16.

All submission instructions and the specific prompts are included in the assignment prompt (linked above).

Your grade will be determined by the vividness of your writing, your attention to evocative detail, the inventiveness of your approach and ideas, and your demonstrated awareness of musical realities and history based on our course content.

So far this semester, we’ve talked almost exclusively about classical music that originated in Europe. By the end of the 19th century, however, the United States had become home to not only excellent but also innovative music making (remember the establishment of professional music schools in the US from Online discussion #2?)

There are a couple kinds of noteworthy music that originate in America in the period from around 1890 to 1930: ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, the blues, and jazz. They’re all quite closely related because many musicians worked simultaneously in multiple styles of music and together they help define a musical sound that we can call “American.”

One thing to think about as you keep reading is how musical sounds allow a musician, an audience, and a community to proclaim/assert their identity or reveal their position within a society. Different music sounds different because of the group of people who make it and consume it (i.e., listen to it, purchase it, applaud it, write reviews of it), their shared cultural and musical experiences, and their place in the world.

Scott Joplin

Let’s start by listening to something that’s totally not ragtime: a march by the “March King,” John Philip Sousa (1854-1932). This is his work The Stars and Stripes Forever (1897), performed by the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89).

It does what marches are supposed to do: march along steadily and squarely in a duple meter (one-two, one-two, one-two, just like marching feet).

But then let’s listen to Scott Joplin‘s Maple Leaf Rag (1899), another piece from the exact same time period and that moves along in a duple meter, but that’s just a bit more funky or playful in its rhythms:


Joplin’s work sounds more jumpy when we listen to it in comparison to something “straight” like Sousa’s work. That rhythmic vitality, liveliness, or interest is one of the biggest as defining features that distinguishes the solo music played by (mostly) Black Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century from other solo piano music of the same time period, say music by John Feld, Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, or Joplin’s favorite: Frédéric François Chopin.

That lively rhythmic style comes from a musical tradition found in Western Africa that was well-known to black musicians (members of the African diaspora) but not European musicians—it was something they carried with them in the journey across the Atlantic as slaves and passed down across generations. Here’s an example:

(You might also notice aspects of this drumming that have crept into other music of the Americas: cumbia, tango, mambo, bossa nova, reggaeton… These are all styles of music made by descendants of African slaves in the Americas, and their different uses of syncopation reflect the different ways musical ideas were passed down in the places those slaves and their music landed in the “New World.”)

Joplin’s music, and that of other ragtime composers, blends the kinds of rhythms they’d grown up hearing in their communities with knowledge of European music, excellent piano skills, as well as a desire to be not only heard but also respected. Joplin (1868-1917) was the child of freed slaves, and he studied piano and European music with a German immigrant. And while his music was popular (the sheet music for Maple Leaf Rag sold over a million copies), he wanted to have the kind of fame and respect that the European musicians whose music he’d grown up practicing had, especially Chopin. He had skills and ideas that extended beyond the one genre he was known for.

He wrote piano solos that were more touching, music inspired by Latin America, and two operas, A Guest of Honor in 1903 and Treemonisha in 1911. Some of the symbolism in Treemonisha was partly inspired by an opera by Richard Wagner (there he is again!). Here’s an excerpt from its finale, performed in Houston in 1976:

The work was never fully performed in his lifetime (it was premiered in 1972): Joplin couldn’t get (white) investors interested in it, and black audiences weren’t ready to embrace concert music that made them feel self-consciously black—that would have to wait until the Harlem Renaissance.

Duke Ellington

This ragged time (how this group of musicians referred to our textbook term syncopation) is a defining feature of another kind of American music: jazz.

Some of the earliest jazz recordings are of bands in New Orleans playing popular ragtime tunes, like the Friars Society Orchestra (later known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings), who recorded Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag in the 1920s:

This combination of syncopation plus a variety of instruments (clarinet, trumpet, trombone, bass, piano, and drums) instead of just piano forms the backbone of jazz. One other important distinguishing feature of jazz is improvisation, or inventing a melody on the spot. Here’s an example of “hot jazz” from New Orleans in Louis Armstrong‘s ensemble—it’s called “hot” because all the musicians are playing in an active, jumpy manner, and you get to hear each of them asserting their individual personalities:

Duke Ellington 1959

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was a pianist, bandleader, and prolific composer (he wrote around 2,000 pieces) who brought this style of music north to New York City. He had a regular gig at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1932, a club that only allowed white patrons but whose service staff and musicians were all black. Ellington’s piece Cotton Club Stomp (1929) was written for this venue:

You can hear the distinctiveness of each player’s sound and style in this recording. In contrast, here’s another jazz ensemble from the same time led by Paul Whiteman (1890–1967), who was known as the “King of Jazz” in the 1920s. In this piece, Dardanella (1928), he and his ensemble take a different approach to texture and style of playing, and they emphasize the blend of their instruments together over individuality. And, Whiteman was a violinist, and he brings that instrument group into his ensemble:

Whiteman and Ellington approached music in very different ways: Whiteman chose to orchestrate (write down) everything ahead of time, and Ellington left his pieces open to improvisation. Whiteman appeared much more regularly on national radio and TV than Ellington, who was entertaining Jazz Age and Prohibition Era dancers more locally. The differences of taste and expectations of different parts of society are reflected in the differences between Ellington and Whiteman’s musical styles.

If you want to read more about jazz, here’s a textbook excerpt: yudkin-261-277

William Grant Still

william grant still - piano

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was trained at one of the best music schools in the United States, Oberlin Conservatory (and this school is in the news again recently). He moved to New York City and worked during the day as a popular song composer on Tin Pan Alley, performed in the orchestra pits of musicals at night, and composed classical music in the remaining hours of the day.

Like many black Americans, Still left the South and settled in Harlem, the one neighborhood in New York City that would rent apartments or rooms to black tenants. He was surrounded by other black intellectuals, politicians, musicians, artists, and writers—all people looking for a community to support them, and they found it.

This community created paintings, poetry, novels, speeches, and music that self-consciously celebrated its identity, a movement that we now refer to as the Harlem Renaissance. Here is a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-67) from 1926 that speaks to the core of this movement:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Hughes’s frustration, pride, and hope are inextricably linked in his poem—conflicting emotions that define the American black perspective of the early 20th century.

Still approached this same idea from a musical perspective. He loved jazz music, and, despite its popularity among the hip young crown in New York City, jazz was considered a low, unskilled, and often sinful kind of music by influential musicians, politicians, and teachers. Here’s an excerpt from a 1921 article condemning jazz by Anne Shaw Faulkner (1877-1948), published in The Ladies Home Journal, a magazine with national circulation still being printed today:

“Syncopation, this curious rhythmic accent on the short beat, is found in its most highly developed forms in the music of the folk who have been held for years in political subjection… It is found in its most intense forms among the folk of all the Slavic countries, especially in certain districts of Poland and Russia, and also among the Hungarian gypsies.

“For the same reason it was the natural expression of the American Negroes and was used by them as the accompaniment for their bizarre dances and cakewalks. Negro ragtime, it must be frankly acknowledged, is one of the most important and distinctively characteristic American expressions to be found in our native music… [M]any of the greatest compositions by past and present American composers have been influenced by ragtime. Like all other phases of syncopation, ragtime quickens the pulse, it excites, it stimulates; but it does not destroy.

“What of jazz? … Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order [of rhythm, harmony, and instrumentation]; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.

“Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.

“A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain of even a violent patient, the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong.

“Such music has become an influence for evil.”

In light of this kind of sentiment, Still wanted to elevate jazz and make it as respectable as classical music—sharing the music he loved was a source of pride. In a way, he’s reliving, resurrecting, and repeating the same goals Joplin had with ragtime (a kind of music Ms. Faulkner finds acceptable in 1921 but probably would not have in 1899, it’s worth noting).

“I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”

—William Grant Still

Here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, “Afro-American” (1930):

Still wrote many kinds of music: chamber music, solos, ballets, and popular songs. Given that he could write anything, the fact that he chose to compose a symphony, a genre of music designed for the concert hall, is important. As we saw with Richard Wagner (again, this guy!), the concert hall is a place of prestige and seriousness. By putting his music in the same place as works heard by not only Wagner but also Beethoven and Brahms, Still is asserting that his music (and the jazz music he’s incorporating into his piece) have the same value and worth as music by those “serious” musicians.

Another issue that Still’s symphony tackles is visibility. Because symphonies are played in large halls for thousands of people, composing one is a financial challenge (paying a hundred musicians for several hours of rehearsal, marketing, renting a concert hall) that presents great potential upside: being heard by thousands of people, getting written about in newspapers, being a genre that is taken seriously by other musicians. Composing the work would have been not only an outlet of artistic expression for Still and an opportunity to celebrate jazz, but also a strategic move for a savvy composer.

If you want to learn more about the Harlem Renaissance and composer William Grant Still, here’s a textbook excerpt: Forney 328-330

Even though Still’s work accomplishes all he intended, he’s not typically the composer that most people think of as the one to combine jazz and the classical concert hall. That position is most often occupied in popular memory by George Gershwin.

George Gershwin

Much more well-known is the music of George Gershwin (1898-1937) another composer who did the same thing Still was doing: blending jazz and classical together. You’ve probably already heard his Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano and jazz band (1924).

This piece appears in commercials…

…and cartoons (e.g., Fantasia 2000)…

George Gershwin

…and has been widely played in concert halls since its premiere. The piece was commissioned by Paul Whiteman (see above in the Duke Ellington section) and audiences loved it (even if the New York Times critic, Olin Downes, did not).

Gershwin’s music has occupied a central place in American popular consciousness for much of the 20th century:

Gershwin’s blending of jazz and classical styles has been more widely and more consistently written about than Still’s (although scholars have “rediscovered” Still’s music in the recent decades):

Leonard Bernstein

Gershwin’s not alone—Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) incorporated jazz into his works, too, building up his fame using a popular, non-classical style of music. (Remember him? He was the conductor in that 1950s Beethoven video from Online Discussion #6.)

Here is is work Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949), which he wrote purposely to blend jazz and serious classical music into a distinctly American sound:

  • Prelude – A short, introductory piece of music that can take any form. Preludes are found before longer movements, before acts of an opera, or in plays/theater. In the Baroque era (1600-1750), preludes were usually improvised.
  • Fugue – A compositional technique in which a composer creates a piece of music built upon a theme (short melody called the “subject”) with two or more voices (meaning, lines of music) that are imitative. It was a common technique in the Baroque era and is used in modern music education as a way to develop the technique of counterpoint. An example of a prelude and fugue is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Well-Tempered Clavier, Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor
  • Riff – A musical nickname for a short, repeated melodic gesture that’s fun to play, usually a little challenging to play, is catchy, and inspires the rest of a piece. It’s a term usually found in jazz, rock, or funk. Another nickname is “lick.”

You probably also already know other music by Bernstein, such as West Side Story (1957) which combines non-classical music (mambo, cha-cha) with idioms and techniques found in European classical music (fugue, polyphony, scherzo).

Bernstein’s career has been more far-reaching than any other musician on this list: he was a composer and conductor, in addition to being a TV personality (as we’ve seen in Online Discussion #6), an author (an excerpt from one if his books is available to you as extra credit), and he founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. He’s also been a public humanitarian figure, one who used music to unite the public in times of crisis or healing—he conducted an ensemble of musicians from Soviet and Western nations at the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and his reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has been a rallying cry for musicians in times of crisis since: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Time to write!

Hopefully this brief introduction to American musicians of the early 20th century gives you some ideas to think about: how musicians get inspired or are motivated, how musicians build on the work of others, and how different styles of music get jumbled together. As you prepare to write, you can think about these particular musicians or any musicians you like, whether real, imagined, or yourself!

A copy of the writing prompt is available here. Remember, you can use this blog forum to bounce ideas off each other, but your final draft is due via email on April 17 (H2) or April 18 (H3/L3).

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