“So Peculiarly American”: Basketball and American Popular Music

Was philosopher and historian Jacques Barzun[1] right when he famously proclaimed, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game”? Even Walt Whitman, one of the most profound chroniclers of life in the United States, observed that baseball “belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”[2] In exploring the relationship between Americans and their games, what are we to make of basketball?

(Sheet Music, 1911)
BY James Scott
Library of Congress

On or about December 1891 the American character changed. As the annals of history show us, Dr. James Naismith, a young teacher from Canada, seeking an activity to keep his athletes in shape during snowy New England winters, hung peach baskets on opposite ends of an indoor gymnasium, bringing forth basketball, a game of humble birth that has become a multibillion dollar global event producing some of the largest and most lucrative athletes in sports history. The 1890s, a decade of radical transformation, with the United States loosening the corset of Victorianism, of Puritanism, and the nation beginning its love affair with sports. With this revolution, the soundtrack could be no other than ragtime urging possibility and infinite play. The world had sped up. With ragtime, the seeds of the Jazz Age were planted, bringing forth the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation in less than three decades.

Basketball, born in December of 1891 at the YMCA of Springfield, Massachusetts; ragtime, a new music form featured at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; ragtime, hailed as one of the marvels of the modern world, a music that, with its ragged syncopation, matched the pace of modern life; basketball, with its blend of set form and fluid spontaneity, offering the physical equivalent of ragtime. Basketball, like ragtime, offered its participants a structured sport of infinite possibilities, much like the skyscraper, the first one erected in Chicago in 1885. The “formless grace” (the phrase is Fitzgerald’s from his description of his iconic Jay Gatsby) of ragtime offered musicians space within music for improvisation that Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong transformed into world-class art. Within two decades of the advent of ragtime, James Weldon Johnson, one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance noted, “No one who has traveled can think it would be an exaggeration to say that in Europe the United States is popularly known better by ragtime than by anything else it has produced in a generated. In Paris they call it American music.”[3] Ultimately, what was beginning to emerge from the cadences of this new music was an approach to life, one that embraced discord and chaos, yet still made the fragmentation of modern life work in harmony. The great poet and long-time Howard University professor Sterling A. Brown noted that jazz provided optimism, and the lion-hearted scholar and historian Albert Murray, alive during America’s Jazz Age and still vamping at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, has claimed that jazz provided “existential equipment for living” for a war-torn Europe;[4] the notes from Armstrong’s clarion trumpet, he points out, reached France around 1917 and the sound, bursting with musicality and vibrancy, provided hope and form to the lives of many displaced people. And many believed this music to be tunes for the dancehall.

…ragtime, hailed as one of the marvels of the modern world, a music that, with its ragged syncopation, matched the pace of modern life…

For the most part, scholars, critics, and casual observers alike hear in jazz the improvisational quality (however studied that quality truly is);[5] that they see in the idea of America, the open society, both real and imagined. Without African-Americans, Ralph Ellison wrote in 1970, “our jokes, tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, the shocks, the swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing.”[6] It’s this quality of “swing” that we hear in the pages of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as well as the open-endedness of basketball, where eyes are glued to the court to bear witness to the creations of LeBron and Kobe, practitioners of the game so famous that first names carry cultural capital. But the deeper question still remains — how does basketball capture the jazz cadence of American culture?

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  1. Barzun, Jacques. God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.
  1. Schmidgall, Gary. ed. Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s conversations with Horace Traubel, 1888-1892. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.
  1. Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Boston: Sherman, French & Co., 1912. This American classic thrives in print in a number of modern editions.
  1. Murray, Albert. The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.
  1. Spending my nights in a Manhattan music conservatory with classical and jazz musicians, we often find ourselves discussing the classical nature of Duke Ellington and the improvisational qualities of Johann Sebastian Bach. These late night sessions have led me to believe that improvisation and virtuosity are deeply linked, for it takes a highly-skilled artist (whether playing bop or basketball) to make something so very difficult look so very easy. And when we think of “cool,” the image of the jazz artist in Wayfarers remains an evocative ideal because that artist has mastered the cruel ways of the world and has transformed the “breaks” and “ragged edges” of life into lyrics of profound creativity and opportunity.
  1. Ellison, Ralph. “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan. New York: Modern, 1995.

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