Thoughts on Black American Music
When addressing the notion of so called jazz as Black American Music most of the arguments that I have heard from detractors are statements such as “What about Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Scott LaFaro, etc…, were they not essential to the development of jazz” or “How can u say it’s Black American Music when jazz uses instruments invented by white people or harmonies derived from Western European music?” or “Why is it necessary to inject race into it at all? That only implies ownership and music isn’t something that should be seen as being owned by anyone.” I’m going to answer these questions.
To answer the very first question simply and plainly: when we say Black American Music, we aren’t referring to the race of the musicians making the music, rather the culture that the musicians are representing. That is what artists and musicians are; representatives, spokespersons for a cultural experience. So even if the musicians are white, when they play so called jazz music they are indeed representing the Black American culture (assuming that they are true to it and approach it with the acknowledgement of what the music represents).
Music is not just about the music. It is an outgrowth and manifestation of a collective cultural experience. Since a lot of people like to use Western European music as a reference point when discussing these matters I’ll put it in that context. Whether you’re talking about Renaissance music, Baroque music, Romantic music, or Classical music, each of those musical styles are the byproduct of a unique cultural experience of a group or generation of people. This experience is influenced by many factors socially and politically. I took music history in college and each chapter, before they even began talking about specifics of the music, they talk about what was happening within that culture so that you may have a point of reference as to what the energy was like and what experiences may have shaped the people and thus better understand how the music relates to that experience.
You cannot begin to have an intelligent discussion on so called Jazz without first acknowledging it’s origins. It didn’t just fall out the sky as a developed musical style, it was cultivated over centuries. I wasn’t born an adolescent, I was born a baby. So in order to talk about the origins of the music you have to understand the origins of the culture that the music represents. Spirituals and work songs are the Blackest of the forms of Black music in this country. It is from them everything else emerges.
Up until the abolition of slavery there were only 2 different circumstances under which Black people existed in this country: free or enslaved. And if you were enslaved you were either in the house or in the field. However, whether you were free or not, you were still Black and were still not considered full humans much less citizens of the country. Because those circumstances of existence were so limited, so were the options for musical expression. We had to get it in where we could fit it in. Also, because of our circumstances of existence, our proximity to White American people was very limited and thus was the ability of certain Western European musical elements to influence our musical expression, during slavery especially. After slavery ended the possibilities for our experiences multiplied. Just as were exposed to, encountered and learned different methods for assimilation and survival in this country, so did we encounter different devices for our music to take shape.
Now, just because so called jazz music has elements attributed to Western European music (i.e. certain harmonic devices) does not make it any less Black. In America having elements of White culture is part of what defines what it means to be Black in America. My blood has White American elements, but I am a Black man. We had to adopt elements of language and behavior, we had to develop an understanding of the way White people thought because without doing so survival would be impossible. The first Africans came–no, we were brought over to this country–with nothing beyond the memory of Africa. There was no consistent language among the enslaved, and thus; no way to communicate among themselves in most cases. However music is the universal language, and it was through music that a cohesive relationship to one another was able to be formed in bondage. We didn’t bring drums to this country. So from the very beginning in order to express ourselves we had to adapt to the environment. So the first musical sounds that Black people made in this country were from within a White American framework.
Not trying to give a history lesson, but I said that much to illustrate the point that the music developed in tandem with the experiences that are unique to Black people in this country. Music expresses culture.
Now, I really only grazed the surface of the whole “music as it relates to the Black American experience” subject matter. But how many discussions or classes of so called jazz delve even that deep into a cultural analysis and not just remain on the surface of musical analysis, let alone a full out discussion and investigation? Never in any part of a class I’ve taken or heard of that dealt with the history of so called jazz have the social conditions been talked about thoroughly. The same goes for Black history in this country. I once read a note on Facebook from a man in his early 20s comparing the horrors of slavery to a “bad middle school play”. Granted, by now his view might’ve changed (hopefully), but that kind of gross trivialization only speaks to the neglect by our country’s educational system to teach an honest history.
The choice to ignore the cultural significance of so called jazz music is the choice to remain ignorant and amounts to a disregard of the people who created it as a whole. It dismisses their overall experience as irrelevant. This approach is nothing new, in fact it is mirrored in the overall culture of America.
In no way am I trying to draw a line in the sand or dictate or differentiate between who can or can’t play the music. That’s clearly not what I’m doing. It may come across like that to some because I keep using terms like Black American and White American. What I am doing is acknowledging the fact as far as we’ve come there are still at least two very different Americas. There are at least two very different American experiences. One only has to visit the North, West and South sides of Chicago to comprehend that much. And I’m for unity and harmony, but never at the expense of one culture’s history and heritage. We will not achieve a Resolution in unity in life or through the music until we all commit ourselves to Acknowledgement and Pursuit of the truth. It’s not about claiming ownership, it’s about acknowledging origin. There is a tremendous difference.
Now with all of the being said, there is still much more to address on this vast subject. Like how for some, for many, by not owning up to the origins of this music, by treating it with such ambiguity, perhaps for marketing purposes it gives them a false license to claim the title and yet completely disregard the most fundamental aspects of the black music tradition: the rhythm, the groove, the SWING….