What a Wonderful World

Design by Creative Director Kemper Rodi

Article by Ryne Hisada

When the musical traditions of West African rhythm and European harmonies fused with the blues of the American South, “jazz” was born. It emerged among Black communities in New Orleans in the 1800s and became a nation-defining musical genre by the mid-20th century. Today, its influences persist in much of the global music scene. 

But how, exactly, did American jazz spread from the United States to the rest of the world?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to answering this question. Sometimes, the answer depends on a particular historical relationship: African American soldiers introduced jazz to the French during the First World War. Sometimes, the popularity of jazz comes in waves: Japanese jazz was, at first, a consequence of exposure from gig-seeking Filipino musicians in the 1910s—when the Philippines was an American colony—but became, after WWII, a response to high demand by American soldiers stationed in Japan. 

And very often, when jazz is thrusted, by the engines of globalization, into the musical realm of a non-western locale, it fuses with the region’s traditional music to create a new musical genre: ethno jazz. 

The United Nations recognizes jazz’s penchant for cultural connection. In 2011, with the help of legendary jazzist Herbie Hancock, UNESCO established the annual International Jazz Day to celebrate the “power of Jazz as a force for peace, dialogue, and mutual understanding.” According to UNESCO, there are five additional characteristics of jazz that make it a suitable cross-cultural genre of music. Still, one is particularly striking—that “jazz is a vector of freedom of expression.”

One aim of this blog series is to explore the consistency of this characterization. Does jazz have an inextricable propensity toward freedom of expression and a parallel aversion to autocracy? Or is this an Americanized narrative that conveniently associates an American cultural export with free speech? 

It is undeniable that jazz has had a significant impact on global music culture, in part as a consequence of politics. But whether this impact has shaped, in turn, the very politics that popularized jazz, is a topic that demands serious research. This is Jazz and Globalization.

Ryne is a first-year in Davenport College. You can contact him at ryne.hisada@yale.edu.