Recognizing the True American Identity


Nationalistic music is very common and valuable to countries all around the world. For many, this type of music brings about pride, joy, memories and a sense of belonging. Composers have been writing in the style of their country for many years, establishing particular sounds, rhythms and tonality.  In the “New World”, America seemed to be struggling with a musical identity. This struggle lead to a probing question: “What makes American music, American?” If you asked Leonard Bernstein, he would have easily told you that America’s music identity is the style of jazz. Bernstein uses some big American composers for this statement such as Ives, Gershwin and, most importantly, Aaron Copland. Ironically enough, all the composers mentioned are White males, who, although were influenced and involved with African American folk songs, were not African American. It seems that we have not given credit to the people who truly gave America its musical identity.

Even though many American composers’ wrote jazz or incorporated it into their compositions, the style had been around long before.  African American traditional and spiritual songs were used as a source of communication during the slave trade and were continually sung throughout time. With big name composers such as Dvorák, Damrosch and Gershwin, African American music was able to be seen in a different light and, possibly, reached out to Americans who otherwise would have nothing to do with it. Gershwin, already a composer known to use African American music elements in his works, portrays African American music through the opera Porgy and Bess. Critics then began to see jazz as influential and innovated and “when pruned from its corruptions” has “wonderful opportunities.”  But why does it take  a White male composers to write jazz or even in an African American style for it to be noticed as “American”?

Although I do agree with Bernstein about jazz being America’s musical identity, I believe he fell short of recognizing the true source from which it came about. Not once in his Senior Thesis, “The Roots of a Lifelong Search to Discover an American Identity”,  does Bernstein mention an African American composer or musician. Sure, he talks about the African rhythms, the blues scale, the blues notes and other musical elements, but associates them to White American composers. Don’t get me wrong, these American composers are huge assets in developing an American identity, especially Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, but are not the ones who created the style in which we are giving credit to. When writing Porgy and Bess, Gershwin went down to Charleston, South Carolina to study the life and musical ways of the people that lived there. It is through this observation that he was able to compose the music for the opera and convey the African American music style. Maybe, without these composers highlighting and putting forth this style of music, jazz would have never been as successful. It is one thing though, to credit them in highlighting jazz then to claim they developed it.

African Americans developed a sense of what American music sounds and feels like. It’s composers like Samuel-Coleridge Taylor, Harry Lawerence Freeman, Scott Joplin, William Grant Still and James P. Johnson that deserve credit. Not only were these composers African American, but some of them wrote classical music that would go unrecognized just as their efforts did in creating the “American Identity.” I believe Bernstein is spot on when stating jazz as America’s identity but failed to correctly identify African Americans as the core and source.

Caitlyn Collette


Block, Geoffrey. “Bernstein’s Senior Thesis At Harvard: The Roots of a Lifelong Search to Discover an American Identity.” College Music Symposium 48 (2008): 52-68.

Monson, Ingrid. “The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 48, no. 3 (1995): 396-422.

Thomas, Lorenzo. “”Classical Jazz” and the Black Arts Movement.” African American Review 29, no. 2 (1995): 237-40. doi:10.2307/3042299.

William “Billy” Taylor. “Jazz: America’s Classical Music.” The Black Perspective in Music 14, no. 1 (1986): 21-25.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. aoolonade says:

    Hello Caitlyn,
    This is an amazing write up.
    I do agree with the fact that music critics do not give credit to the African-American composers. In my opinion, the early compositional style of the established American composers such as Gershwin and Copland were still under the influence of the European style and in search of American musical identity, they began to delve into African-American style of music which is Jazz. Music critics and publication companies address the already established composers whenever they change their compositional style and restrained from talking about the origin of the new style and the people that came up with the style.


  2. susiesmith1991 says:

    Caitlyn, you make a critical point: Bernstein ignores African American composers when discussing classical music infused with African American musical influences, and references fusion works by white American composers only. It begs the question if Bernstein and his contemporaries would have paid any mind to jazz had it not received the stamp of approval from Europe, or if white American music (country, Western, prairie and Appalachian music) had achieved the same level of mass popularity .

    Liked by 1 person

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