The Omni-american

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I’ve called the blues idiom “part of the existential equipment that we Americans inherited from our captive ancestors.” Who has suffered the greatest foul play of the people who came to America? The Negro, right? There’s a richness in the Negro response to adversify. There is resilience, inventiveness, humor, and enviable elegance. We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need. And when I say “our captive ancestors,” I’m talking to all Americans. The blues is white Americans’ heritage too. That’s why they can identify with something that is so idiomatically down-home brownskin as jazz.

• Does blues music reflect the feeling called the blues?

The blues as such is depression, melancholia, despair, disintegration, sadness. Blues as music is a way of making an aesthetic statement with sound. It swings! Its insouciance and elegance are the best antidote for the blues as such. The conventional American thinks blues music is sad. That’s hillbilly music; hillbilly music is crying music. Conventional Americans think Negroes are crying when they’re singing the blues. They’re not; they’re getting ready to have a good time!

• What does your term omni-Americans mean?

It reflects my basic assumption that the United States is a mulatto culture. First, let’s put things in a world context. Go back to what [the French poet] Paul Valéry called Homo europaeus , a composite of Greek logic, Roman administration, and Judeo-Christian morality. That’s what makes a European different from somebody in India, Japan, or Africa. Now send him across the Atlantic. You get what [the American author] Constance Rourke identified in American Humor —a book, by the way, that has the status of a bible with me—as a new composite: of the ingenious Yankee, the frontiersman, who’s part Indian, and the Negro. All Americans, I don’t care if it’s a neo-Nazi, are part Yankee, part backwoodsman, part Negro.

 

So that’s the definition of American culture: Homo europaeus with an overlay of this new composite. American culture is the cutting edge of European culture, and the most effective, most sophisticated stylization of the American spirit is found in jazz.

• So we are all omni-Americans?

All of us. The omni-Americans are the Americans. My conception makes Americans identify with all their ancestors. It lets me identify with John Jay, you with Frederick Douglass.

Incidentally, once you start looking for examples of mulatto culture, you find some fascinating ones. Will Marion Cook, for instance, was a student of Dvořák in the 1890s, who put Dvořák in touch with Negro spirituals and later became one of Duke Ellington’s mentors. That’s a perfect example of omni-Americanism. You can trace a line from Dvořák, the epitome of the classical European composer, through Will Marion Cook to Duke Ellington.

• Doesn’t this bring us to the late John Kouwenhoven, whose The Beer Can by the Highway and Made in America are two more of your bibles?

Yes, it does. Kouwenhoven’s concept is that American culture comes from the interaction of vernacular or folk tradition with learned or academic tradition. For instance, Ellington realized that to create an arrangement that showcased a soloist like, say, Armstrong, was to make an American concerto.

• I’d never thought of it in those terms—the jazz solo as the American concerto.

Of course! What is a concerto? A showcase for a solo instrument. And isn’t the cocktail lounge, the after-hours joint, the gin mill the obvious source of American chamber music?

Anyway, what few of any of Kouwenhoven’s readers seem to have understood is that this interaction occurs within the context of free enterprise. Don’t reduce it to economics; I’m talking about free endeavor: an experimental attitude, an open- ness to improvisation. The disposition to approach life as a frontiersman, you see, so piety does not hold you back. You can’t be overrespectful of established forms; you’re trying to get through the wilderness to Kentucky. I’m not talking about a royal road to Rome; I’m going to Kentucky, and I’ve got all these goddamned redskins to mess with! Do you see what I mean? It’s open-minded experimentation, and you don’t have it anywhere else; you only have it in America. The interaction of French, Italian, German, and English music with African music by itself doesn’t add up to jazz. The synthesis needs our context of free enterprise.

Underlying everything else in jazz is the concept “All men are created equal.” The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people; it’s the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people. Jazz is only possible in a climate of freedom.

• Wait a minute. Slavery? Racism? That’s a climate of freedom?

Nowhere in the world that I know about but America is everybody born saying, “Anybody up there in the government is there through the consent of the governed. We can kick the rascals out at any time.” O. K., you had a side issue: “Well, these people have a different color skin.” But Negroes were not less American than anybody else. They expected the same thing.