Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life

Jazz and the Emory Experience

Gary Motley, Lecturer in Music and Director of the Jazz Studies Program


Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


In 1987, the U.S. House of Representatives declared jazz a national treasure. This was an important step in ensuring that jazz retains its rightful place in our cultural history. Jazz is America’s classical music. Its breadth and depth reveal the essence of the blues and the artistry of the baroque. With such a broad range of influences, it is no wonder that jazz is a unique product of the American experience. Pianist Thelonious Monk said, “Jazz is freedom.” Indeed, this art form is characterized by the very principle upon which this country was founded: the quest for freedom of expression.

Performance and education stand in equal importance in preserving the future of jazz. Artists and educators need tools and resources to share the rich history of jazz with our communities and to promote greater understanding of the social and moral values of various
cultures and how those values are expressed artistically. Such needs were behind the establishment of Emory’s jazz studies program in 2004.

It is a little-told story that jazz has been a part of the Emory experience since the early 1970s. The university has hosted performances and residencies by artists ranging from Dave Brubeck to Wynton Marsalis. The first Emory jazz ensemble was organized in 1974 by a pre-med student who, along with some friends, expressed an interest in the genre. They organized themselves, found practice venues, even purchased their own music. This ensemble existed as a novice group throughout the 1980s.

As interest increased, formal classes in jazz history and improvisation were added. The first jazz combo was formed in the mid 1990s and served as the foundation for small ensemble development. Classes and ensemble rehearsals were held in the Performing Arts Studio of the Burlington Road Building. Given this development, the jazz studies program was a natural addition to the music department curriculum.

Today, the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts is the home of the Emory jazz studies program, providing a world-class venue for concert performances as well as state-of-the-art facilities for instruction and rehearsal. While many of our students are music majors with a jazz focus, there are others who are pre-med, law, and business. These students often have musical backgrounds and simply want to maintain their artistic interests while pursuing degrees. The jazz ensembles are an excellent way to have fun while being intellectually challenged and stimulated. Students may participate in a large ensemble (the Emory Big Band) or smaller groups (the Emory Combos). The smaller groups allow for more playing and improvising time. Students who wish to improve their improvising skills may also take beginning and advanced classes in jazz improvisation or private instruction. Those interested in the evolution and development of jazz may take courses in jazz history.

But more broadly, and perhaps more significantly, it has been said that jazz is the ideal model of a democracy. Everyone in an ensemble has an equal voice and an opportunity to lead. Jazz provides an excellent platform for personal, social, and intellectual growth. What better way to develop leadership skills than to be an integral part of such a creative environment? What better way to develop problem-solving skills than to tackle the challenge of improvising over a set of chord progressions? These life-enhancing skills are necessary regardless of one’s chosen profession. As Art Blakey said, “Jazz sweeps away the dust of everyday life.”

What is jazz?

I tell my students that jazz is more than music; it is a socio-cultural phenomenon. It is at the foundation of the African-American experience and is primarily viewed as the music of African Americans. It emerged from the struggles and challenges of an enslaved people and represents the sheer will to survive against insurmountable odds. It also represents the joy and celebration of life despite existing conditions—the acknowledgement of an existing condition and hope for a better day.

With this in mind, we raise the question, “Who owns jazz?” The obvious answer would be that jazz is all about the black experience in America. But is it only about that experience? If this were true, the music would contain only those qualities and characteristics
found in native African music. Instead, jazz possesses the best qualities from many genres—the rich rhythmic and tonal qualities found in the traditional and ceremonial music of Africa, the harmonic and melodic symmetry and form of western European music. The combination became the foundation for the blues, jazz, and gospel. Jazz therefore represents the intersection of cultural ideals in a less than ideal situation.

Let’s face it: jazz did not have a pretty beginning. It represents people who are not at their best, given the circumstances. Ownership of another human being is just as appalling as enslavement itself. Both are in bondage. Neither is truly free, yet both are on a quest for survival. So they adapt—like harmony and melody, they are bound to each other. Further, rhythm is the single unifying factor in a cohesive ensemble performance. Without it, neither the orchestra, dance band, combo, nor the duo would be possible.

Who owns jazz? We own jazz. Who are we? We are those who have chosen to liberate ourselves from the consequences of the bondage of an earlier existence. We are those who have chosen to celebrate life in the midst of adversity. We are those who have indeed learned to improvise when the solution isn’t readily apparent. We are those who view jazz not only as artistic expression but as an imitation and celebration of life. Jazz allows us to take ourselves seriously while still affording us the opportunity to forgive, embrace, and even laugh.

Music or art?

With a sense of the history of jazz, a jazz educator is better equipped to speculate on the future of jazz—and perhaps make a profound impact on it. Early in its history, jazz was entertainment, dance music, a cause for celebration. With its roots in the New Orleans tradition, jazz was born out of Dixieland, fused with the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and eventually merged with the harmonic intricacies of Western European classical music as it made its way to Chicago and New York. As the genre grew more sophisticated, it began to move away from its roots. At the turn of the century, musicians became more educated, and jazz became more of a profession than an avocation. The music underwent a rapid transformation and found its ways in to the dance halls and high society of New York, eventually becoming the popular music of the day.

With the advent of broadcasting and commercialism, jazz would remain at the forefront of American popular music until the late 1930s. True to form, jazz during the twenties expressed the sentiments of a world at war. In the thirties, it was the voice of the Depression. The heyday of the big band drew to a close, however, due in part to the economic difficulty of maintaining large ensembles. Artistic unrest and the need for a new means of expression loomed on the horizon. Those who would later be considered the pioneers of modern jazz and bebop—including Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins—already were foretelling the future of jazz in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Bebop represented the epitome of virtuosity for the jazz musician. Consequently there was a shift in focus from the people who made the music to the music itself. Now it became increasingly important to listen to the artist for what he had to say rather than reacting to how the music, as pure entertainment, made you feel. In short, jazz had become art. Although this was a significant step in the evolution and development of jazz, it would eventually be viewed as its point
of departure from popular music.

Today jazz is influenced by cultures from all around the world, from Hip Hop to World Music. Note, however, that these influences are also born out of the struggles and challenges of those who create it. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not: maybe jazz is just taking on a new identity for a new age.

Emory’s jazz studies program is preparing students for their roles as the torchbearers of jazz, ensuring that our national treasure will, in fact, be treasured for years to come. They become immersed in that history, but they also come to understand that jazz is a language. Instruction in music theory, improvisation, and the development of technique helps artists communicate their ideas clearly and effectively—that is, become proficient in a language. Students learn how to express thoughts and ideas through a medium that is often more expressive than words. Improvisation gives students the opportunity to take the listener on a journey—to tell the story in their own words