“Jass, not Jazz”: Music, Heteronormativity, and International Relations

By: Advika Pandey, Anushka Jain and Sharan Kaur Hunjan

The discipline of international relations is heavily influenced by norms of heteronormativity, which are co-opted differently by various cultures to garner acceptability in the international diaspora. Our showcase titled “Jass, Not Jazz” comes from the initial spelling of jazz ‘jass’ which Ward and Burns suggest was derived from the jasmine perfume that prostitutes wore in the red-light district of New Orleans in the late 19th century (Ward & Burns, 2000). We used the musical medium of Jazz to discuss how such aesthetic mediums serve as sites for practicing both acceptance and resistance, within multicultural societies. Jazz is especially pertinent here, due to its ability to promulgate emotions predominantly held in the private realm. It is then through this process that Jazz creates a diverse space for the reinterpretations of its conventional form and ceases to be associated with any one specific community.

Historically, Jazz originated in the African American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime, as interpretations of American and European classical music entwined with the Slave tradition in America. In the slave tradition, such music was associated with annual festivals, when the year’s crop was harvested and several days were set aside for celebration. As late as 1861, a traveler in North Carolina saw dancers dressed in costumes that included horned headdresses and cow tails and heard music provided by a sheepskin-covered “gumbo box”, apparently a frame drum; triangles and jawbones furnished the auxiliary percussion.”  Another sphere of influence on this music came from the Church. Black slaves had included the harmonic style of hymns of the church into their own music as spirituals and the blues can be seen as the secular counterpart of the spirituals since the origins of the blues are undocumented.

However, Jazz has always been a space infested with heterosexual/normative beliefs. Its language, narratives and discourses all attest to this fact. As Trine Annfelt writes, the discourses of jazz structure our understanding of what jazz is (Annfelt, 2003). Many, but as previously shown not all, narratives about jazz structure our understanding of what is important and less important in this tradition by means of a language with distinct connotations to heterosexual masculinity. Jazz tells us something both about masculinity and about something which both in our culture in general and in jazz culture is recognized as ‘attractive’, ‘necessary’, ‘best’, etc.  Also, for female jazz musicians the ‘will to risk’ is available as an explanation for their own or others’ success, or, in an opposite situation, as an explanation for their handicap in relation to improvisation due to their ‘being’ security-seekers. Moreover, because the will to risk is discursively so closely connected to masculinity, this is an offered self-identification especially available to men. The connection with masculinity also makes the surroundings more likely to interpret the will to risk as characteristic of men, and this, in turn, constitutes a form of support in integrating it into their self-identification.

The 1920s witnessed the advent of radio broadcasting which coincided with the “Jazz Age” also known as the “Roaring Twenties” in the United States (Barlow, 1995, p.325). Commercial radio popularized jazz music among young white middle-class Americans who were rebelling against old-fashioned Victorian moral codes that were the fundamental basis of “their parents’ puritanical culture” (Barlow 1995, p. 325). By the 1930s, Jazz was adopted by the ‘high culture’ societies in America through a process of selective expropriation and soon came to be referred to as “America’s classical music” (Taylor, 1986, p. 21).  Through this cultural interaction, the original art form of jazz became susceptible to commercial misuse by white businessmen and entertainers seeking to appeal to a white audience. (Barlow, 1995).

Yet, the growing acceptance of jazz by the larger population prompted its co-optation by different cultural groups around the United States to legitimise their presence and resist the white adoption of jazz (Zenni, 2016).  This, further, rendered the creation of diverse adaptations of jazz such as Latin jazz and Gypsy jazz. The emergence of Latin jazz in the 20th century was a blend of rhythms and percussion instruments of Cuba and the Spanish Caribbean with jazz and its fusion of European and African musical elements (Rodriguez & Stavans, 2013). In 1940, the Machito and the Afro-Cubans orchestra was established in New York City which became responsible for popularising Latin jazz in America (Rodriguez & Stavans, 2013). While in Europe, Romani guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt, in collaboration with the French swing violinist Stéphane Grappelli drove inspiration from American jazz to adapt its standards to their own style in the 1930s.  This style came to be known by the French name “jazz manouche”, or more popularly recognized as Gypsy jazz since it was a fusion of gypsy melodies and jazz (Lie, 2020). Thereafter, Gypsy jazz gained popularity in several European countries, and also, in cities across the United States  (see Appendix ).

However, these diverse adaptations still fall trap to the hyper-masculine, heteronormative elements of Jazz. This essay argues that different communities co-opt jazz to render their own versions of it, without challenging its heteronormative subjectivity. Hence, norms such as heteronormativity become the site of interaction during the reinterpretation of a certain musical culture. Norms also carry a profound influence on the acceptability of a certain reinterpretation. A marked departure from the set norm provides lesser space for the acceptability of reinterpreted forms of music by other traditions.

The narrative of Jazz, as a form of resistance music, developed through an emphasis on its uniqueness and departure from discourses surrounding dominant forms of white music. Thus, it could offer incentives to several cultural groups in involving themselves with the resistance tradition. Still, the adaptations that fit such a resistance tradition, continue to hold up the heteronormative aspects of Jazz. This implies that even expressions of resistance are not without the performance and persistence of heteronormativity. Resistance and music, hence, become a site for perpetuating the heteronormative nature of the politics of adaptation