Year of Jazz

Introduction – The Year of Jazz

Louis Armstrong famously said, “if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” But in fact, most of us have an instinctive understanding of jazz, musically and metaphorically.

In the first (musical) sense, jazz is derived from ragtime and blues, and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate play with pitch and timbre. Broader definitions of jazz point to a mix of “similar but unspecified things, as in ‘all that jazz’” and “to make something more interesting, lively, or exciting, as in ‘jazz it up.’”

All these elements share key aspects that are also fundamental aspects of culture more broadly, including the idea of transformation (building and altering from an original source), invention, collage, and, through invention, creating something new.

In the 1920s (often called “The Jazz Age”), the exuberant, youthful, experimental qualities of jazz came to embody some of the best aspects of America and Americans. As Duke Ellington said, “Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom... In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

This larger sense of jazz also informs many American writers, including essayists (Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Margo Jefferson, John Dos Passos, among many others), the Beat poets (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs), novelists (Scott Fitzgerald) – as well as photographers (Carl Van Vechten), painters (Archibald Motley), and more. And yet, jazz—music and metaphor—is in no sense exclusively American: there are deep roots to Europe, Africa, and elsewhere.

In 2020-21, The Provost’s Academic Theme Year of Jazz will examine the topic in its broadest sense. The topic has very strong resonance with Penn’s arts departments and centers (including the new Sachs initiative), as well as cultural history and urban studies. But the larger definitions of jazz open possibilities for other Penn departments, programs, and centers.

Penn Reading Project 2020

Supporting the Year of Jazz, the Penn Reading Project text for 2020 will be August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

This work, part of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, universally recognized as among the pinnacles of 20th Century American drama, includes a number of references to jazz—and indeed, Wilson’s own writing, an extraordinary language that mixes poetry and prose, is itself a kind of jazz. Ma Rainey, written in 1982, is a particularly good fit for a Year of Jazz, as it specifically focuses on the greatest blues singer of her time, while contextualizing her life and her work with musicians, as part of a larger historic and cultural tableau. Ma Rainey received the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play of 1985, and was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Wilson himself is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes for drama.

For more information, on the Year of Jazz and the Penn Reading Project, please contact:

David Fox

Director, New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives

dfox@upenn.edu / 215.573.5636