African American musics have long found themselves straddling diaspora and nation. Musical hybrids like spirituals or jazz have often been explained as cultural forms that could have arisen only in the United States. In this view, black music becomes a sonic figure for the American creed, a metonymy for America’s distinctive racial-ethnic composition and self-image. On the other hand, American musicians and composers at least since Duke Ellington have explored the cultural continuities and ruptures between Africa and America. These artists have very consciously looked for the Old World in the New, or moving aside for the New. Even a film like Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which has little to do with what most of us mean by “jazz” even as it helped shape the early image of the music, was a thoroughly diasporic story—Jewish rather than African. One of the more illuminating ways of conceiving the history of jazz is to understand it as an ongoing effort to comprehend and articulate the relationship between African and American.
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