Jazz and Disability

Essay by George McKay

from Nicholas Gebhardt, Nicole Rustin-Paschal Tony Whyton, eds. The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 173-184

What is jazz? Is it art, a disease, a manner, or a dance?

Bandleader Paul Whiteman, New York Times, 1927

Art or disease? This chapter both draws on and seeks to extend recent interdisciplinary scholarship in music and disability studies (DS) by looking at the case of jazz. Consider here a definition of the musical instruction alla zoppa, which is usually employed in western classical music to signal a physically impaired character: zoppa in Italian is ‘lame’, ‘limping’, and so it has been applied to music. But it can also mean ‘syncopated’— and so the rhythmic feature at the heart of much jazz has a musical connection with a physical disability, a disability which is about moving differently.