Keynote 1 – “Jazz as Classical Music”


My question is: in what sense is jazz an art music? My suggestion is that jazz shares some of the features of Western art music – that apparently unique, autonomous art music which contrasts with traditional art musics such as gagaku, courtly gamelan and Indian classical music. I have been influenced by James Parakilas’s article “Classical Music as Popular Music”, which argues that classical music can be described as a popular music ((1984), The Journal of Musicology, 3:1). It is a suggestion, not a prescription however.

The claim that jazz is a classical music commonly means:

  1. Jazz is a serious art form in its own right, despite long association with the entertainment industry – in Adorno’s language, it is an autonomous art.
  2. It has arrived at an era of common practice, which is codified and taught in the academy.
  3. It has a universality, and constitutes an international language which transcends national and ethnic boundaries.

I attempt to refute the objections that to regard jazz as a classical music is elitist, has connotations of respectability, and involves a static common practice. I attempt to convince sceptics that the description “classical” is benign, and that the process of classicisation has been a largely beneficial one.

Jazz as art music

Jazz is commonly recognised not just as an art with a small “a”, but as art music – that’s Art a with a capital “A”.

Jazz historian Scott DeVeaux writes: “in the discourse of jazz, the point at which jazz becomes ‘Art’ is thought to be in the move from swing to bebop. For a lot of people that’s the moment at which jazz becomes itself, because it sheds what is conventionally seen as this exterior husk of commercialism. It becomes ‘what it is'” (

The “discourse of jazz” seems to me right in saying that jazz became an art, and one with a fairly capital “A” – a practice involving skill, with an aesthetic end, that richly rewards aesthetic attention. These are necessary conditions for art.

The idea that jazz is art music has led some people to describe it as a classical music.

As someone brought up in West London in the 60s and 70s, jazz would have been inaccessible to me, if it had been ephemeral. We do now hear a wide variety of popular musics, but dating back only within living memory (back to the 50s at the moment, perhaps).

Jazz as America’s classical music

Grover Sales, Jazz: America’s Classical Music (1984)

One commentator wrote: “Sales not only transformed jazz from a cultural product rooted in the African American experience to [one] rooted in the American experience, but he also reclassified jazz (an urban folk music) as a national classical music”. In 1987 the US Congress echoed the sentiment in a resolution designating jazz as a national treasure which deserves attention and support. That is, jazz is (1) a quintessentially American artform;  (2) a kind of classical music; (3) the unique American classical music.

(3) can be dismissed. There was an American classical music before jazz, although it relied on European models almost exclusively up to Ives, and indeed after (Copland and Carter, but not Cage and Partch). The view that jazz is an American classical music is defensible, I believe. The “American” aspect of this claim is not my main concern, but it is relevant. Those who practise a “folk” or collective art, including African-American forms such as the blues or early jazz, may come to aspire to the creation of a more autonomous art. We need to separate (1) and (2):

Is jazz a classical music?

The claim commonly means:

  1. Jazz is a serious art form in its own right, despite long association with the entertainment industry – in Adorno’s language, it is an autonomous art.
  2. It has arrived at an era of common practice, which is codified, studied and taught in the institutions of higher education.
  3. It has a universality, and now constitutes an international language which transcends national and ethnic boundaries.

2. Classical mainstream – Bach to Bartok. In jazz, there is a post-bop mainstream

Features that support this idea

  • Billy Taylor: “jazz is very serious music…it has developed steadily from a single expression of the consciousness of black people into a national music that expresses American ideals and attitudes…its influence is international in scope…Americans of African descent, in producing music which expressed themselves, not only developed a new musical vocabulary, they created a classical music – an authentic American music which articulated uniquely American feelings and thoughts”. Taylor offers a synthesis of the African-American narrative – here at least, he omits the input into early jazz from musicians trained in Western art music – and the “melting pot” view of American culture.
  • Wynton Marsalis, the most powerful patron in jazz as director of Lincoln Centre’s jazz programme, has been described as a “neo-classicist” – trying to codify the music, undermining its alleged “revolutionary impulses”.
  • Jazz as academic discipline: music programmes like that at Berklee encourage the idea of jazz improvisation as a craft that can be taught academically. What David Liebman calls the “apprenticeship system” of going on the road with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and other leaders has been replaced by an academic one.[1] 
  • The canon. The ready availability on CD of the complete history of jazz from the earliest recordings. During the 20th century, jazz won the universal status that was previously the claim solely of classical tradition. Like classical music, jazz has also seemingly reached the limits of radicalism. Jazz’s development toward that point was rapid; within Duke Ellington’s lifetime, an avant-garde surfaced; it was as if Pierre Boulez had overlapped with Bach.
  • * The role of critics in creating and sustaining a canon. Krin Gabbard: “The jazz history we have now really wouldn’t exist without the critics… would we have Ornette Coleman without Martin Williams? There were certain artists who fit the aesthetic and the predetermined historical notions of critics so perfectly that they were written into the jazz canon by the critics.” A key criterion of the distinction between art and entertainment is the test of time and place. The test may apply to entertainment – to “entertainment classics” such as Laurel and Hardy shorts. But an entertainer cannot say “I am not worried about my lack of an audience. I am entertaining for posterity”. Entertainment is essentially ephemeral – though not the work of artist-entertainers such as Dickens, Armstrong, Holiday.

Defining popular and classical music

“Classical music” now exists as one half of a polarity, inter-defined with popular music – each concept depends on the other, though they did not quite originate together. The terms “classic” or “classical” were first applied to music around 1800. A.L. Millin’s Dictionnaire des beaux-arts from 1806 defines classic (“classique”) as “a term that is applied to composers who are generally admired and who are regarded as authoritative”.[2] Oxford English Dictionary: the English word “classical” was first applied to music in 1836. “Classical music” now means:

(i) music that possesses a standard of excellence and formal discipline, belonging to the accumulation of art, literature and humane reflection that has stood the test of time and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion.

(ii) Western art music in general. This sense appeared only as the contrast with popular music developed, and is the definition understood by the ordinary listener, for whom “classical music” denotes a range of music from Baroque or earlier to the contemporary avantgarde.

(iii) music conforming to a style-period within Western art music, viz. the first Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – music in which inheres ideals of balance and proportion, in contrast to Baroque garishness and disproportion.

It is sense (i) I am concerned with; (ii) and (iii) are restricted to Western art music.

Jazz parallels Western art music in having three approaches:

1. “Early music” – authentic performance of works before Bach using period instruments.

This parallels repertory jazz and other “curatorial” projects: orchestras dedicated to recreating Ellington’s music; Loren Schoenberg revives Benny Goodman; Gunther Schuller recreates early jazz, for example ragtime orchestras; Branford Marsalis records Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Rollins’s Freedom Suite.

2. Classical mainstream – Bach to Bartok. In jazz, there is a post-bop mainstream

3. avantgarde/”new music”

The critique of “jazz as classical music”

At least three reasons are cited for regarding the tendency as undesirable.

(1) Elitism. Bourdieu and others have analysed autonomous artworks as cultural capital and expression of social status. Clearly they are right to insist that knowledge is power, and that knowledge of the arts can both impress and oppress. However, one cannot infer from these sociological truths that the classics are inherently a bourgeois category, and that, for instance, an alternative “people’s art” is required. For by the same token, “street credible” knowledge of popular music is power also – intimate knowledge of hiphop is cultural capital too. The classics are not a merely a bourgeois category, and it is not elitist to deny that they are.

I take elitism and populism as inter-defined; the latter, which denies the inter-subjectivity of aesthetic judgment, is the true elitism. Giving people what they want means giving them what makes money for the Murdochs, Bezos’s and Gates’s of this world. There are no unconditioned expressions of popular taste.

But in fact three positions should be distinguished: elitism, meritocracy and populism. Populism rejects the idea of critical standards, and says “The people’s decision is decisive”. Populists allow that neuro-surgeons, physicists and professional sportsmen should be selected on the basis of skill or expertise – no one objects to elitism in brain surgery, or in selection of the Olympic team. Both elitism and meritocracy are committed to a canon, and to the place of argument – Hume’s standard of taste – in aesthetic judgment. But meritocracy has a distinctive notion of authority, and is concerned with the classic as opposed to high culture – hence its more positive response to popular culture, which it regards as having its own classics. Finally, meritocracy unlike elitism holds that appreciation of the classics is found in any section of the population.

The common and mistaken view that classical music – Western art music – is “elitist”, may also incline some to deny that jazz is a classical music. This is mistaken. Classics in all artforms are not “the preferences of the elite”, they are the common heritage of humankind. Like Jonathan Rose in The Intellectual Life of the English Working Classes, I prefer the term “the classics” to “high culture”. The classic is the accumulation of art, literature and humane reflection that has stood the test of time and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion. It demands, and best rewards, seriousness and intensity of attention; but it is not the preserve of the socially and economically dominant classes. The concept of the classic is backward-looking in making essential reference to the test of time, but contemporary high culture is that which critical opinion predicts will become classic.

Over the course of history, the classics come to appeal to a larger number than the local preferences of popular culture. In crude commercial terms, this year, Celine Dion sells more than Beethoven, Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, and over 50 years Cliff Richard sells more than any of these, but over 200 years Beethoven, Parker or Hendrix will sell the most. [This is a key claim of Parakilas]

(2) Connotations of respectability. A Village Voice writer comments: “…jazz is ever more officially referred to as ‘America’s classical music’….what is that supposed to do for jazz? Legitimize it, make it blandly respectable and therefore ignorable?”[3] Such critics may suspect that describing “jazz as classical music” is an attempt to legitimate it by association with Western art music. But is classical music bland? Outside the annals of Socialist Realism, is it a criticism of an artwork that it is not politically radical? Are King Lear or Monteverdi’s Vespers “blandly respectable and therefore ignorable”? 

(3) Allegedly static common practice. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Western art music entered an era of common practice based on functional harmony and the tonal system of major and minor keys. This era came to an end with the “emancipation of the dissonance” by Schoenberg et al. Arguably, there is a corresponding period in jazz that still persists. Conrad Cork argues that the evolution of jazz practice was rapid for about five decades, and became much reduced since the 1970s: “This could be because the music has atrophied [or] because it has arrived at a period of common practice, where it can function on its own terms” (Cork, Harmony with Lego-Bricks).   

Cf. Emmett Price: “Classical implies static, non-changing; a relic frozen in time. Jazz has never been static, non-changing or frozen”. Alex Ross: the “pernicious” implication that jazz “has become ‘classical’ in the pejorative sense: complete, finished, historical”.[4] 

But classical music is not the curatorial exercise that the authenticity movement is sometimes lampooned for being. The idea that classical musics are “static, non-changing, frozen” is misguided. Rather than resuscitating corpses, Parakilas argues, the classical repertory keeps “certain old works…ever-popular, ever-present, ever-new. It is an idea founded on reverence for the past, but not necessarily on a modern scholarly conception of history….[It may not take] notice of historical differences between one work and another within it”, as proponents of early music do.


It is mistaken to contrast “classical arts” and “living arts”. The question is the continuity between classical and new. Parakilas’s assumption is that classical and new music are separate approaches, but if there is a continuum, the contrast between classical and living arts is undermined. Jazz common practice, like that of Western art music, aspires to exist in a “common present” with so-called living arts. Classical exemplars should be are regarded as inspiration rather than rigid template. A key concept here is that of tradition – is it a burden or a strength? Jazz players work “in the tradition”….

ANDY HAMILTON Philosophy Dept, Durham University


[1] Interview in Jazz Review, April/May 2008

[2] Trans. Peter le Huray and James Day in Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, Cambridge, [1981], p. 293.

[3] Village Voice 01/09/01.

[4] Emmett Price,, November 8, 2003; Classical View; Talking Some Good, Hard Truths About Music by Alex Ross, 12 Nov. 1995,

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