“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?

Aaron Copland at his Piano
(Rock Hill, 1978)
BY King Wehrle
Library of Congress

One of the more telling connections between basketball and music is heard and seen during the opening montage of Spike Lee’s film He Got Game. With images of basketball spanning the landscape of the United States, from fields of golden wheat in the Midwest to the urban playgrounds of New York City to courts along the Pacific Ocean, the accompanying music is Aaron Copland’s “John Henry.” The composition itself takes the story of John Henry, the mythic figure of American folklore, a man born a slave yet who acquires transcendent appeal in his labor against the steam engine. At the heart of this folktale is the belief in the pastoral America before the machine (industrialism) enters the garden, America is a utopian commonwealth. Copland’s composition carries with it a nostalgia for an America that no longer is, and as the composition unfolds, the music contrasts with the images presented on screen — quick and improvisational moves — alley-oops, slam dunks, shake-and-bake maneuvers, and sleight-of-hand tricks and theatrics.

This conflict between the “formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games,” as the great Fitzgerald[7] wrote, the cadence of which we see in the jump-cut juxtapositions of basketball, and the nostalgic, fluid sounds of Copland’s score, offers us a broad range of views on American society. The nation that offered the world its Declaration of Independence, full of rhetorical flourishes and high-sounding phrases of liberty and equality, has also produced writers famed for novels exploring crime and vice — a nation’s ideals and ideas in conflict with itself. America, too, like any nation, also has past and present in conflict. While Barzun claimed that to know America is to know baseball, that vision of the nation, of the preindustrial utopia, is well in the rear view mirror of the current machine, one of clocks and quick decisions, a world where we must improvise with those around us to create something of meaning that, no matter how we draw it up, is subject to revision, or as the poet Carl Sandburg put it, “Building, breaking, rebuilding.”

In the early 1990s, when jazz, in all its varied frequencies, was becoming transformed into the music of the conservatories, brought to us by Movado, a black man with dreadlocks and driving voice performed a poem that captured the cadence of basketball as I heard it. The poem chronicled, with Homeric heroism, the infinite conquests of Earvin Johnson, rightly nicknamed “Magic” — the legendary point guard for those dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s — a man of endless creativity, a muse for any poet with the ear to transform motion into sound.

Missouri-born poet Quincy Troupe, it should come as no surprise then, has written poems on basketball as well as autobiographies on recording giants, including jazz legend Miles Davis. Troupe’s performance that day over two decades ago in the colonial village of northern New Jersey captured the jazz cadence of basketball, where set plays open up into improvisational moments that display creative genius. He writes in “A Poem for Magic,”

you double-pump through human trees
hang in place
slip the ball into your left hand
then deal it like a las vegas card dealer off squared glass
into nets, living up to your singular nickname
so “bad” you cartwheel the crowd toward frenzy
wearing now your electric smile, neon as your name[8]

These few lines capture part of the magic of Magic Johnson because it unfolds in time and space, suggesting the fluid openness of basketball. It is a poetry driven by verbs, by movement, by constellations of images in an unbroken narrative sequence without a full stop to be found. Troupe’s achievement is both formless and full of grace, and the true challenge lies in the oral performance of the poem itself, making it a vibrant piece never read, heard, or performed the same way twice — similar to any basketball game, no matter how it’s drawn up on a coach’s clipboard.

The great basketball player, like the great jazz musician, anticipates what others around him or her will do. Both events — jazz and basketball — thrive on moments of spontaneity and creativity, and while jazz musicians possess the ear necessary to anticipate the notes around them, basketball players possess the eye necessary to anticipate, innovate, and create.

Night Hoops and Swoops
(Riverbank State Park, New York City)
BY Delano Greenidge-Copprue

Arthur Jafa invented a term for this phenomenon — “polyventiality,” which he has defined as “multiple tones, multiple rhythms, multiple perspectives, multiple meanings, multiplicity.”[9] Jafa’s brings his point home very well, and his idea builds upon W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness. Because African Americans have at times experienced exile in their native land, they share the unique perspective of being both insiders and outsiders. Jazz artists, like basketball players, aim to reconcile seemingly divergent points of view. In art, we call it “creative tension”; in sport, “antagonistic cooperation.”[10] Any way we look at it, it all comes down to the same concept — whether trading twelves or playing hoops one-on-one, those we go up against help us hone our skills, and teach us important lessons about ourselves. And the great players inspire others.

Even poets adhering to more standard forms often find metaphors of flight in describing the nature of basketball. John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player” is the classic story of the high school sports star trapped in small town America, yet in moments of nostalgia, transcendence occurs:

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.[11]

A poem of full stops, much like the life of Flick, which has, after basketball, come to a full stop. While Updike’s poem isn’t as dynamic as Troupe’s, his plodding cadence captures the Hoosier-style basketball of the American 1940s. Even so, the simile at the close of the stanza offers a semblance of possibility — hands like “wild birds,” yet the verb, like all of the verbs, are past, and in this case, no longer active.

Magic Johnson, in the words of Quincy Troupe, creates his own space to fly through, changing the dimensions of the court through his angle of vision and his ability to elevate his game. The language here, of course, brings to mind Michael Jordan, one of the greatest poets from Brooklyn, New York, descendant of the great bard of Brooklyn, and of America, Walt Whitman, and a contemporary of Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G., some of Brooklyn’s finest.

In his informative essay on Michael Jordan, American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson[12] has noted, “His body is still the symbolic carrier of racial and cultural desires to fly beyond limits and obstacles, a fluid metaphor of mobility and ascent to heights of excellence secured by genius and industry” (379). The ideas here of flying beyond and of mobility both capture the virtuosity we hear in supremely skilled jazz musicians, the ability to create and innovate at seemingly a moment’s notice. The paradox of improvisation, however, is that it emerges only after hours dedicated to honing one’s craft. No one is naturally born performing cross-over dribbles or stringing together “sheets of sound” on a saxophone. The naturalness of any artistic endeavor comes through those unseen moments of sacrifice, what Joyce refers to the artist refining himself out of existence. We see this when Michael Jordan becomes known as Air Jordan, or his “Airness,” where the man and the act become one, or when a Louis Armstrong becomes known for his sound, where the growl of his trumpet, and that of his voice, are aligned, and he is transformed in Satchmo.

Nor are these observations meant to suggest that jazz musicians and basketball players are solo artists, for if anything, their greatness is the result of their work with groups. Magic Johnson remains a supreme example, for in his game, he elevated the level of play of his entire team. The same can be said of all great artists — they are defined with and against groups, but they are distinguished by excelling.

“Athletes,” Paul Weiss once said, “are excellence in the guise of men.”[13] While the media reveals some of our multimillion athletes as less than stellar in their personal lives, it is tough to deny that, within their arena, professional athletes represent sacrifice, dedication, talent, and, above all else, excellence. A friend of mine once observed that basketball players are almost an exception to the laws that govern moving bodies in that they are big men who move like small men; they are the redwoods of the human species who move with the agility and grace of men with lower centers of gravity.

And they are the improvisers of modern life, who teach us how to lead lives of grace, calm, and unmistakable style.

“I am the Mike Jordan of recording.”

— Jay-Z

In terms of impeccable style, recording artist Jay-Z and hoops legend Michael Jordan may just be Brooklyn’s finest — for they extend, each in his own way, what Whitman called “brag;” brag has become swag in the hip hop nation. While Whitman proclaimed himself a “rough” and “one of the cosmos,” Jay-Z and Michael Jordan have established for themselves global identities built upon grace under pressure. Jordan hits game-winning shots and saves the day with Bugs Bunny, and Jay-Z pens rhymes that shimmer with sparkling metaphors bristling with ferocity and inventiveness. While some critics of hip hop music frown upon the monotony of the beats, the oral performance remains one of world-class creativity, where language becomes a field of lyrical improvisation — or flow. Much like jazz musicians, rap artists and hip hop poets create a sense of spontaneity and fluidity, when in fact long hours of writing, rehearsal, and studio work culminate in a piece that seems completely organic. Even in Jay-Z’s song “Show Me What You Got,” where he draws a direct link between himself and Michael Jordan,[14] the instrumentation behind his voice is that of jazz music, complete with saxophone riffs. And while the beat is looped, the constant inventiveness of Jay-Z’s words remains present, and the beat itself becomes the canvas for his voice, similar to the ways in which basketball players transform the hardwood with its lines into the background for their endless improvisations.

While some critics of hip hop music frown upon the monotony of the beats, the oral performance remains one of world-class creativity, where language becomes a field of lyrical improvisation — or flow.

In terms of endless improvisations, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (of whom Sean Coombs said “I am the Great Gatsby”) is one of our nation’s cultural orphans whose life as a self-made man is “so peculiarly American.” In a pivotal scene from Fitzgerald’s novel, we are told that Gatsby “was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American — that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games.” With an eye on wealth and the leisure class, Fitzgerald found himself both inside and outside, and this sentence foresees the America of today, a landscape literally dominated by the culture of sport. Sport in the United States garners billions of dollars annually, and some of the major global corporations of the land are connected with athletics. In his one sentence, Fitzgerald observes that sport has taken the place of work. After all, the 1920s witnessed the emergence of the sports superstar in popular culture — think Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, along with sports typically associated with leisure, such as golf and tennis, beginning to create its own class of professionals. This America that was beginning to emerge during the Jazz Age is now in full bloom; visit any American suburb, and while some high school students will flip burgers for summer coin, many more will be engaged in summer camps geared towards honing skills in a particular sport.
Summer camps exist for nearly any sport under the sun.

And all of this, really, is to suggest one idea — that the link between the popular music of a nation and its games is inextricable. They form the vernacular underpinnings for the United States of America, and of any nation under the sun; while nations will boast of supporting human rights, of advocating social equality, and the sort, the real national passions reside in sport and music, when the body and the mind are at play, endlessly inventing, recalling those days of recess, when sunlight and laughter, a ball and our boundless imaginations, were all we needed to face the road ahead, and to put our own spin on the world around us.

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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.
  1. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.
  1. Troupe, Quincy. Avalanche: Poems by Quincy Troupe. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996.
  1. Jafa, Arthur. “Improvisation in Jazz,” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, edited by Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  1. The phrase comes from Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.
  1. Updike, John. “Ex-Basketball Player” from Collected Poems 1953-1993. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  1. Dyson’s essay “Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire” can be found in Robert G. O’Meally’s foundational anthology of jazz studies, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  1. This wonderfully evocative idea is explored by long-time Columbia University professor George Stade in, among other places, his essay titled “Desportment” from The Hudson Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1969-1970). 732-736.
  1. This idea emerged from an impromptu conversation with Gilbert Nunez, a good friend and student at Columbia University, as we sat together in the cafe of Butler Library, summer 2010.

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