The Power of Music

Posted in Feature

An Interview with Prof. Maurice Jackson on his new book: DC Jazz

DC Jazz Book Cover

Maurice Jackson, Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies and Affiliated Professor of Music (Jazz), has recently published a co-edited volume titled DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, which traces the development and impact of the jazz scene in Washington DC and the musical links between society, culture, and the spread of ideas.

The first stirrings of the project emerged when Jackson was approached about doing a piece on the history of jazz music in Baltimore. Jackson countered, suggesting that exploring jazz’s roots in Washington might be more illuminating, but was rebuffed; the response came back: “I don’t think anyone would be interested in that.”

Jackson persisted, however. He met the book’s co-editor, Blair A. Ruble, at the Wilson Center and they soon bonded over their appreciation of jazz music. They reached out to the Historical Society of Washington, DC about doing a journal on the jazz history of the city; this time, the idea was received favorably, but the money just wasn’t there. The journal did get published, however, thanks to the intervention of Maria ‘Mica’ Ertegun, the wife of late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who had a well-known love for DC’s jazz scene. That journal, with some additions on Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia and women in jazz, formed the nucleus of DC Jazz, which is currently on a whirlwind publicity tour across the city, with events at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, several universities and independent bookstores in the city, and also here on campus with GU Distinguished Artist in Residence Jason Moran, who provided the foreword for the book.

The foundation of DC Jazz lies in understanding the connection between music and the larger social changes and conversations that were taking place in Washington and across the country – a connection that can be seen, for example, in Louis Armstrong’s influence on President Eisenhower’s response to the continued segregation of the Little Rock Nine in 1957. Reflecting on the project and on the history of jazz in the city, Jackson explains that “the musicians who were forming this music were thinking so deeply about societal problems.” In this way, DC Jazz, according to Jackson, is really an attempt to break out of rigid structures of traditional historiography: it lies at the intersection of history and anthropology, the local and the global, and the influencers and the influenced.

Ultimately, Jackson says, he hopes that people get an appreciation of jazz music outside of its aesthetic qualities – for its unique role in shaping the ideas of both a city and a nation. It played a highly important and unique role in Washington’s history – “a great a role as anything in desegregating this city,” in Jackson’s words – and, as the nation’s capital continues to undergo gentrification and increasing rates of neighborhood segregation, it’s important that that history be kept alive. At the same time, as part of what Jackson calls “Great Black Music” (the compilation of the music of the African-American diaspora), jazz is inherently global, speaking to people all around the world; it is, as Jackson puts it, “perhaps America’s greatest gift to the world.”