White roots, grey flowers? Multiple conceptions of early Australian 'jazz' and pre-'jazz' history

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Jazz history has largely been documented by individuals with deep respect and affection for the tradition, or a particular aspect of it. Their perspective has therefore often been aesthetic, qualitative and retrospective—who played the most ‘authentic’, virtuosic or innovative jazz and what were the black musical roots of the self-aware (if aesthetically divided) jazz movement that was manifest throughout the western world by the late 1930s? Consequently, the narrative of early jazz, in particular, is often reduced to a rigid pantheon of (mostly) male (mostly) African-American ‘Greats’, as epitomized in the controversial 2001 Ken Burns mega-documentary, Jazz. This article explores the different ways in which early Australian jazz-related history has been constructed by examining the perspectives or frames of reference adopted by Australian amateur and professional scholars, including collector-discographers, who have contributed to research into the ‘roots’ of what was perceived to be ‘jazz’ in Jazz Age (1918–1928) Australia. In examining the outcomes of their research, the article demonstrates that, far from being mysteriously transplanted from black New Orleans culture around 1918 like some exotic plant in a pot, so-called ‘jazz' and ‘jazzing’ in Jazz-Age Australia was largely the product of African-American-inflected white American and British popular entertainment, dancing and dance music trends, grafted onto a colonial history of blackface minstrelsy and the 1910s craze for Irving-Berlin-style ragtime song and dance music.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)234-250
Number of pages17
JournalMusicology Australia
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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