Chuck Berg on Jazz.

Beth and Chuck Berg


Jazz is among America’s quintessential gifts to global culture. A rich simmering gumbo brimming with savory accents from all corners of Mother Earth—animated by African rhythms and anchored with European harmonies—the story of jazz is also the story of our national quest to form a more perfect and inclusive union. Paralleling the bold aspirations of our state motto, jazz’s journey aims for the stars regardless of the challenges posed by race, class, gender or age. 

Jazz is a product and exemplar of democracy itself. Where else does one find such a perfect means of personal expression, a laboratory to take chances in pursuit of the new and novel? Where else does one find such an empathic supporting community in the form of a rhythm section or big band aiding and abetting and indeed urging the soloing improviser to ever greater heights of individual, risk-taking ‘artistic entrepreneurship?’ With its dynamic interplay and mutual social-artistic contract between ‘individual’ and ‘society,’ it’s no wonder that the jazz combo and big band have been among America’s most beloved, respected and influential political-cultural exports.

The inherently interdisciplinary nature of jazz intersects beautifully with a rainbow coalition of academic colors listed in the burgeoning indexes of arts and humanities. Jazz also throbs in the social sciences, e.g., in the crucial role that jazz (and jazz icons ranging from Louis Armstrong to Paul Winter) played in the State Departments of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and in people-to-people initiatives including the Voice of America. As for science, we see cognitive explorers investigating the role of musical play (i.e., improvisation) on child development, while astrophysicists riff on themes set out with Ptolemy’s music of the spheres.

Like jazz fans everywhere, I am heartened to have been able to witness the significant ripples set in motion as jazz continues to radiate. Jazz, though born in the U.S.A., is an international phenomenon. Woven into the soundtracks of our lives, jazz has helped bring down more than the Berlin Wall. Its democratizing power has collapsed former and false distinctions between popular and elite culture as well as art and entertainment. Today, jazz reaches everyone: women and men, girls and boys, youngsters and oldsters, Japanese and African-Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, rich and poor and middle-class, et al. Along with popular arts such as the movies, jazz studies—its history as well its performance—now enjoys a thriving home in the academy. 

It’s wonderful to see how jazz has grown at KU. As an undergraduate at KU in the mid-1960s, jazz was forbidden to be played at Murphy Hall. Now those same halls are alive with jazzy sounds-of-surprise thanks to Director of Jazz Studies Dan Gailey and Dean of Music Bob Walzel. Happily, due to the pioneering work of Dick Wright, jazz is also in the libraries of Murphy and Watson in the form of recordings, jazz films and jazz scores; its literature similarly flourishes in books and periodicals.

Inspired by Dick Wright’s gift of his extensive collection of jazz recordings to KU, my wife Beth and son Nathan agreed with me that KU Libraries would provide a genial home for my own jazz collection. The Berg Family has not been disappointed. Thanks to KU Dean of Libraries Lorraine Haricombe and KU Music Librarian George Gibbs, we are grateful to know that these treasures collected during a lifetime of jazz are now available to KU students and faculty as well as to visiting scholars and the public at large.

Like Dick Wright, I look forward to a time when our collection might help form the basis of a KU Jazz Studies Center, a mecca for jazz worthy of its status as “America’s Classical Music!” 

Chuck Berg, February 14th, 2013